Murder and mayhem may only be 10% of what Antifa and BLM protesters do, but perhaps they’re starting to be held accountable for some of it. Michael Reinoehl, the Antifa terrorist who murdered a Trump supporter in Portland was shot to death by federal marshals last week–finally doing the job Portland police wouldn’t do.
Oh, I’m sorry… Did I say “Antifa terrorist”? I meant to say he “provided security” for a “loose collection of activists who have mobilized to oppose groups they see as fascist or racist.”
At least that’s how the NYT described Reinoehl and Antifa in a recent article. They go on to say:
As part of the protesters’ security team during the demonstrations, Mr. Reinoehl’s role included intercepting potential agitators and helping calm conflicts, fellow protesters said.
“Nightly, he would break up fights,” said Randal McCorkle, a regular at the demonstrations who said he became close friends with Mr. Reinoehl as they wore on.
“He wanted change so badly,” he said. His death, he said, would likely inspire others to continue the movement for police reform. “I was going to say radicalize, but galvanize is a better word,” he said. “Honestly, I’m going to try to step into his shoes.”
Reese Monson, a leader in the local protest movement who also helps organize security, said all the people who helped with security in Portland, including Mr. Reinoehl, were trained on de-escalation.
“He was excellent at that,” Mr. Monson said.
Mr. Monson said the security designees have been trained to approach potential agitators and politely ask them to leave. They have also been trained on how to conduct physical removals but are cautioned to try to avoid such measures because they can cause situations to escalate. Mr. Monson said Mr. Reinoehl would often come over to discuss how to handle potential agitators appropriately.
“He was literally a guardian angel,” said Teal Lindseth, one of the main organizers of the Portland protests. “He would protect you no matter what.”
Pretty glowing praise for a terrorist, but then, it’s the NYT.
That’s why the point here is not “Look how ridiculous the leftist media is!” Everybody already knows that. The only purpose of reading these things is to understand how progressives are thinking at the moment, and that’s where I want to direct your attention.
Consider how the murderer is being described. He’s part of a security team. He intercepts agitators, calms conflicts, and breaks up fights every night. The team is well-trained in de-escalation. They know how to physically restrain wrong-doers, but prefer to politely send them on their way. And, of course, it’s all wrapped up with a neat bow–they’re literal guardian angels who will protect you no matter what. Once you manage to set aside the irony of all that for a moment, it becomes rather revealing.
The big question that’s always surrounded the current calls to de-fund/disband the police has been “What will you replace them with?” I think the NYT is essentially answering that question here. After all, these glowing accolades are very similar to what one would want from law enforcement.
I suspect the end goal of all this is to replace police with something akin to Antifa. Instead of police who restrain wicked deeds, they want police who will restrain what they see as the wicked thoughts which cause wicked deeds. Instead of police who uphold abstract laws, they want police who will be agile enough to root out what they see as concrete evil without being inhibited by laws. In short, they want to officially authorize the mob and replace the rule of law with the rule of narrative.
Unlike God, Satan cannot actually create. Rather, the devil must always depend on the very One against whom he rebels even for his rebellion. His every scheme rests on taking a good thing that God created and then removing it from the context for which it was designed. Then, absent from the place it would accomplish good, he injects it wherever it might do the most harm in a decrepit parody of God’s original work.
It’s the same old pattern for anything from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden, to simple bread. In a way, it’s the only trick the devil actually knows. But I wanted to highlight one specific place where you can see this dynamic at work today: In Marx’s famous dictum, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” The idea is so compelling to people that hundreds of millions of lives have been sacrificed in its pursuit. And despite it’s blatantly obvious track record, there are still hordes of Social Justice Warriors actively burning down civilization just for another chance to spectacularly fail.
That’s some powerful appeal. But its source cannot be found in anything invented by man or demon, but something created by God. And it is a particularly ironic source at that. The idea draws its natural appeal from the family, for it precisely there that Marx’s dictum actually makes sense. In a household bound together in the love for which it was ordained by God, each individual indeed gives to the rest of the family whatever he can, while he himself is cared for by them according to his own needs.
The infant is fully and urgently provided with food, clothing, comfort in distress, and whatever else he may need. Nothing at all is expected in return because infants are fundamentally helpless, but parents and siblings nevertheless rejoice when the baby smiles at toys he did not buy and snuggles contentedly into a blanket he did not weave with a belly full of food he did not earn.
As children mature and acquire ever greater ability, more is expected of them. Parents still provide what children cannot gain for themselves, but they continually take on additional household chores of greater difficulty that require more diverse skills. At each step, as the child learns and grows, the whole family once again rejoices together. The children and parents alike are aglow with loving pride at what has been accomplished. The parents are both happy to provide and happy to see their children beginning to flex their ability. The children likewise are both grateful to receive what they need and proud at becoming providers like mom and dad.
When those children become adults themselves, their abilities will have finally become sufficient not only for providing their own needs, but also the needs of others. Accordingly, they will do unto others as their parents did for them and begin to form families of their own. As their own children are born, they will be able to participate in the same kind of joy their parents experienced–providing for their little ones and helping them to mature just as they themselves did. And the joy of the new grandparents will mature along alongside the new parents, as the work they performed through all those years of raising children finally comes to fruition.
And last of all, as the grandparents themselves grow older, the children they raised will have the opportunity to repay a portion of the love they received. Though death was never part of God’s design, its approach is nevertheless redeemed by providing a new opportunity for grown children: It will be their turn to give from their own ability according to their parents’ needs. And despite the shadow of death, that loving kindness will persist through the generations. As the older generation learns humility amidst their accomplishments, the middle generation will explore the depths of gratitude, and the youngest will see their example of action as something to which they should aspire.
This is all an idealized description, of course. In a fallen world, sinful children never mature quite so smoothly, nor do sinful parents provide quite so selflessly. Gratitude can run cold, and authority can be abused. Nevertheless, virtually every family at least catches glimpses of this kind of love, most dwell in it sufficiently for their families to continue through the generations, and some absolutely thrive by embracing it. From beginning to end, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” is a reasonable summary of how familial love ought to be expressed in the household economy.
But what holds true in one context may not in another.
Familial love persists even in a fallen world not because the idea is so compelling to us, but because God’s creative work is too powerful to simply destroy itself at a whim. It continues to work in the household economy precisely because of that familial context ordained by God. Within the family, the interests of each member are aligned with those of the others because they all share the same flesh and blood. Parents naturally love their children and want them to mature and to succeed because they are a part of themselves. Children naturally look up to their parents and want to be like them for the same reason. Authority and responsibility align with this design, as parents recognize their responsibility for their offspring and therefore exercise authority for their benefit. Children likewise recognize this and understand on a visceral level that they ought to obey mom and dad, even if they do run astray to some extent, because mom and dad take care of them.
So within the family, Marx’s dictum has a telos: the growth and maturity of generations of children. That is a truly compelling blessing. But outside such a context, that purpose is stripped away. Upon departing the household economy for a local, national, or global economy made up of relative strangers who share no familial bond, the dictum becomes an end unto itself. The goal of “to each according to his need” is no longer to reach greater heights of maturity, provision, and accomplishment, but simply to be taken care of without cost like a zoo animal. Likewise, the goal of “from each according to his ability” ceases to be a loving kindness expressed through responsibility and authority for those in one’s care and instead becomes a matter slavery on behalf of those who cannot or will not produce. Without love, the dictum becomes wholly stagnant in both its clauses. It’s not a matter of bad luck that Marxism has always spectacularly failed; it’s an inevitable consequence of deliberately expelling the fundamental structures that would have made the idea work in another context.
This is also why Marxism inevitably leads to dictatorship. Every entitlement creates a responsibility, and every responsibility requires sufficient authority to carry it out. In a family, the father’s authority is anchored by the responsibility to care for his own children whom he loves. He knows they are entitled to his provision because he sired them in the first place. But without familial love, entitlements become annoyances and responsibilities become burdens. Accordingly, the authority that was meant to fulfill those entitlements becomes abusive. The more it is repelled by those under its purview, the less it tends to them and the more it tends to itself.
But as with all demonic inversions, the story doesn’t end there–with a broken adaptation which consistently fails to achieve what it promises. No, Satan does not rest until his inversion devours that which inspired it in the first place: the family. Marxists’ well-established abhorrence for the family is ironic, but not accidental.
To be sure, on a pragmatic level, it must destroy the family because in most cases, family already provides what Marxism merely advertises. Our families are our natural economic safety net, our means of education, and our social support structure. The stronger our families, the less anybody wants a sterile bureaucracy to provide a parody of loving kindness to those in need.
Even on a theoretical level, however, it must destroy the family because it hinges on everybody treating strangers as though they were family. Jesus recognized that it would be wrong to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs. Marxism, in contrast, depends on everybody being willing to do precisely that. Rather than working hard to provide for the needs of your own flesh and blood, you must work hard to provide for the needs of strangers and trust that every other stranger is going to do the same for your own children.
This need for destruction is only heightened when false notions of a grim and mechanical human equality enter the fray. After all, the family is organic and will therefore naturally create variation. You can plant the same kind of seed in the same kind of soil, but each plant will nevertheless differ from each other. One will be taller. Another will have more leaves. Another will bear more fruit. Another will bear sweeter fruit. Families are no different–some will have more children, others brighter children, others more educated children, others more skilled children, others wealthier children, and so forth. What’s “worse,” many of those variations will persist as they are passed down from generation to generation. Equality requires the encapsulation of human variation, and this can only be accomplished by eradicating the family distinctions through which we naturally, faithfully, and lovingly care for some people more than others–skimming off love’s excess before it can benefit a son or daughter.
But in that eradication is also the eventual collapse of Marxism itself. After all, one cannot treat a stranger like family without knowing what it means to treat someone like family–something one is only equipped to do by a family. Followed to its conclusion, Marxism creates a collection of strangers with no responsibility to one another rather than a universal familial responsibility to one another. Inasmuch as it is implemented, it creates people whose needs were never met and who were never equipped to meet the needs of others or even themselves. It creates men without chests who cannot survive. It is designed to fail. Marxism imitates family love and attempts to replace it, but it also dies without it.
But that perpetual failure–the ever-present embarrassment of human Marxists for which they must invent excuse after excuse–is actually success for the Devil. His end is not an ideological one, but a murderous one. As Jesus says, he was a murderer from the beginning. For men, the mass murders, starvation, and degeneracy that accompany Marxism are a matter of foolishness, incompetence, and good intentions paving the way to Hell. But for Satan, they’re the whole point.
This should give us pause not only as Americans, but also as Christians. It is true that God does not prescribe any particular political ideology to us. His kingdom is not of this world. Nevertheless, God does stand in judgment over all political ideologies, and only some of them can be appropriately labeled as demonic. Marxism is unquestionably one of these. Opposing it is therefore a responsibility for both kingdoms–civil government and the Church. The form of that resistance must differ between them according to the vocations of each, but resist we must.
As the latest crop of Marxists burn our communities, we must know that the cost of Christians bending their knees is more than just an error in political judgment. As Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and others dangle the coveted worldly label of “not-racist” before our eyes, too many Christians think submitting to attain it is merely an earthly matter. We must beware, for such friendship with this world and it’s Prince is also enmity with God.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
It’s truly a fearsome thing, watching Romans 1 unfold in real-time. There is, unfortunately, no lack of minds in the West becoming rabid in this way–devolving into terror and delusion as they attack anything that approaches them. As Paul details in that first chapter of his epistle, it all begins with the deliberate denial of the most basic and essential truths–knowledge of God and of right & wrong.
We’re all becoming accustomed to these kinds of denials, surrounded as we are by people claiming that burning down cities isn’t violent, that men are actually women, and so forth. Those of us who confront such errors in writing have naturally alluded to the climax of George Orwell’s 1984–when the thought police torture Winston until he not only confesses but believes that 2 + 2 = 5. It is, after all, a profoundly true demonstration of what’s at stake in the denial of simple truths–one that I’ve used myself.
But it seems that the rabid-minded among us are getting sick of the allusion. James Lindasy recently threw some chum in the water with a meme poking fun at the woke–calling 2+2=4 a “perspective in white Western mathematics that marginalizes other values.” As I result, I’ve been subjected toseeing collections of unironic contentions that Orwell’s equation is not nearly so certain as we once thought. “Ackchually, 2 + 2 can equal 5 for very large values of 2.” “Ackchually, 2 + 2 can equal 5 when ‘2’ is a variable.” “Ackchually 2 + 2 can equal 5 when it’s useful.”
I doubt I’m the only one who’s had “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” moments after reading some of these. But the fact is, we have no alternative planet at present, so we have to deal with the mess on our own.
I have, of course, seen people dealing with it by argument–trying to convince the rabid that 2 + 2 really does equal 4. It’s gone about as well as you can expect. To be sure, I’m all about argument in certain contexts. Nevertheless, there are limits to its usefulness when it comes to the deliberate denial of matters of self-evidence. I’ve already seen people claim that only people with PhD’s in mathematics can truly understand the deeper nuances of 2 + 2 = 4. Good luck arguing math with someone who thinks like that.
The key limitation of argument is this: one can only argue with a rational mind. One cannot, say, argue with his car until it agrees to do what he wants. Unless you’re dealing with an Autobot, a car has no rational mind. But you can no more argue with the rabid-minded than you can with a car because rabid minds are no longer rational. These people are not genuinely confused about the value of 2, 4, or 5. They are, rather, deliberately lying to themselves and others about it.
They lie about this for the same reason anyone lies to anyone about anything: they believe they have something to gain by doing so and lack any respect for themselves or their victim. And if they will not hesitate to lie even to themselves, neither will they hesitate to lie to anyone else. This makes argument a useless endeavor with the rabid-minded. There’s little incentive to argue when one believes he can simply lie any argument away–a small feat indeed for people who actually think they can lie reality away.
So the solution is not to argue with them–it’s to treat them as liars.
Now there is a vocational divergence here because how you treat a liar depends on your relationship with them. In your personal vocations–as father or brother or friend–you may have a certain responsibility to at least try and lead them out of their lies. In some cases that means you have a responsibility to discipline them–train them to restrain their worst impulses, as parents do for their little children. In other cases, the best you can do is to slowly learn their motivations and mechanisms for lying and look for ways to undermine them. But in all cases, you’ll want to make sure you never bend the knee to their lies. To humor a liar is simply to enable him.
In your public vocations, however–as a citizen, employer, officer, and so forth–treating a liar as a liar requires nothing more than utter contempt. You remove them from any position of trust because they cannot be trusted. You disregard what they have to say because it cannot be trusted. You avoid them whenever possible and help others to do the same because they cannot be trusted. You don’t hesitate to openly express your contempt when the need arises. And when institutions prop up those liars, you treat them with the same manner of contempt (more on this one in another post.) Most importantly, you respect yourself enough that you never allow anyone to guilt you into pretending the contemptible are anything other than contemptible–as with personal vocations, you must never bend your knee to the lies.
“But wait,” one might interject (as I recently observed on Facebook.) “That sounds dangerously like cancel culture!” Yes; yes it does. Likewise, when somebody is shooting at you, returning fire sounds dangerously like a gunfight, but war is sometimes our vocation. What conservatives have blatantly failed to understand is that we have been dragged into an existential struggle. When someone attacks you and yours like that, your responsibility as a citizen of civilization is to strike back in kind in order to protect what you’ve been entrusted with.
“But we cannot do evil simply because evil was done to us!” True. But civility is a social contract–not a moral absolute. Keeping up your end of a contract which the other party has broken has nothing to do with honor, with morality, with principle, or with being the bigger man. It’s merely a matter of being timid. You don’t want to experience the discomfort of conflict, and so you pretend true conflict doesn’t exist. In other words, you join in on the Lie. Oh, you may not pretend that 2 + 2 = 5 the way those people do, but you do pretend that there is a nuanced conversation to be had on the subject in which men of good character may disagree. This does nothing but enable the lie–it is aiding and abetting the Enemy.
To be sure, arguments can be useful even on a point like this to bolster timid people who acknowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 but have been unbalanced by the brazen assertions of falsehood and have become too afraid to speak up. But far more valuable is the willingness to stand up and to not only assert the truth, but also to call out the liars as what they are.
Conservatives have spent far too long treating the rabid-minded with courtesy, as though they were having a gentlemen’s disagreement. It is nothing of the kind. “Two plus two equals 5” is not a disagreement, but a lie–the goal of which is to recruit others to embrace the Lie little by little. After all, if Satan can make you believe that 2+2 may not always be 4, he can make you believe anything he wants.
This is not a debate. This is an assault on civilization. Treat it as such.
As American cities burn amid riots and communist activists carve out micro-states for themselves in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we’ve also borne witness to a vast army of conservatives rising up to affirm the one core principle that truly matters in such uncertain times: Racism is bad, mmm’kay.
But that’s pretty much business as usual. Conservatives have a long-standing tradition of trying to prove our not-racism to progressives whom we all know to be the real racists. It’s become a wholly irrelevant song-and-dance number for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, every significant cultural institution we possess already believes, teaches, and confesses that race-based enmity and prejudice are wrong. “Preaching to the choir” is an understatement. Most people in America already recognize that George Floyd’s death was an injustice. The situation might be more nuanced than the stark narratives painted by media and rioters–which is why judgement should be reserved for the courtrooms–but the reality is grim enough. Even so, I haven’t seen any people arguing that he simply got what he deserved–certainly not that he got what he deserved because he’s black.
For another thing, conservatives’ brand of abstract denunciations aren’t terribly meaningful to blacks for whom racism is part of their experience, heritage, and identity. Communication tends to break down when abstraction confronts visceral reality. It’s like telling a man who has lost 5 family members in different plane crashes that such crashes are definitely bad, but planes are safer now than they used to be, and flying is statistically still the safest way to travel. It’s not exactly wrong, but neither is it particularly relevant.
(That factor is probably worth its own blog post at some point because for some readers, I’m doing exactly the same thing here. I absolutely critique myself with my own observation. I deal with racism philosophically–I don’t grasp it in my heart the way victims do, and dealing with it is not part of my identity. That said… for now, I’m putting that on the back burner as a matter of intended audience. This post will be dealing with racism philosophically, and so I suspect it’s not going to be too compelling for many of those whose experience is more concrete. But frankly, I’m writing this primarily in response to what I see white people telling me about racism lately, and that conversation has to happen too. I just want to pause and point out that it’s not the only conversation that has to happen.)
Racism: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.
But there is a different factor I’m going to focus on in this post–one which makes our dutiful affirmations harmful rather than simply irrelevant: The very concept of “racism” has been transformed into a political bludgeon that’s only tangentially related to the enmity and prejudice we all already outwardly condemn.
I wrote a piece for The Federalist about that transformation five years ago, and very little has changed since then. However, I’m revisiting it now because so many are telling churches that God has commanded them to start doing the conservative song-and-dance as well. We must condemn racism, and for the Church that means proclaiming it a sin. But what exactly are we saying when we make such an assertion? What exactly does it mean to say that racism–in it’s contemporary sense–is a sin?
The word “racism” began it’s life as an umbrella term for all manner of genuine wrongdoing that proceeded from racial prejudice, enmity, and partiality in America. But as subsequent generations were raised from childhood to believe that racism is the ultimate wrongdoing, the word began to take on a different significance. It became something akin to a curse–a convenient label we can apply to people to make them social pariahs.
For the sake of political pragmatism, the term was deliberately transformed so that it could be applied more expediently. Even 20 years ago, I was already being taught in college that racism was a matter of being born white in a historically white culture–one in which social structures were designed by whites for their self-interest. “Privilege” language wasn’t yet in vogue, but that’s essentially what they were talking about. And nowadays, that’s how the younger generations fundamentally understand the word. Even the dictionaries are finally following suit on the academic trend. (And note from the article that it’s being changed specifically because white people had been successfully demonstrating that they weren’t racist and that was simply unacceptable. Ironically, “racist” has effectively become a racial slur.)
But it’s not a sin to be born white in a historically white country. It’s not a sin for a society to build structures that privilege its members–on the contrary, that’s the very purpose of society. It’s not a sin for parents to privilege their children–again, that’s the very purpose of parents. Neither is it a sin to actually benefit from such privilege–rather, we should be grateful for it.
To be sure, this can and has been done in sinful ways. Say, for example, your culture kidnapped thousands upon thousands of people and sailed them across an ocean to be used as beasts of burden for the sake of privileging your posterity. That would be altogether unconscionable. We cannot treat other peoples as resources to be consumed for the sake of our own. And for the last century and a half, America has been reckoning with the fact that we did exactly that rather than picking our own cotton. But we cannot reckon with it through condemnations of privilege as such as though it were the privilege that’s the sinful part of the situation.
Neither are we going to reckon with it by burying our noses in the concept of microaggressions. It’s certainly not a sin to engage in the ever-growing list of trivial activities which are deemed racist by our society–things like asking someone where they’re from, singing Baa Baa black Sheep, asserting that all lives matter, preferring white meat chicken to dark meat (as absurd as that preference may be), and so forth. This nonsense has been going on for a long time now, and the label of racism has been inextricably linked to it.
For most of us–especially those of us who understand racism abstractly–these two things, privilege and microaggression, are the lion’s share of the weight carried by the word “racist” in 2020, and they’re not sinful. So why are our churches all rushing to say that racism is?
Oh, but you didn’t mean it that way? You meant it according to it’s older and “truer” definition? Then why are you shouting it to the heavens alongside those who are quite explicitly using the present culturally accepted definition? How exactly did you think people were going to understand what you meant?
We all have our reasons for overlooking that reality: concern for the oppressed, a desire for peace in our nation, an attempt to show solidarity, and, of course, virtue-signalling. But today, charges of racism do nothing but muddy the waters with the term’s philosophical and political baggage.
Like it or not, every time you apply the word racism to a person (or a race) you’re bringing all that nonsense into the conversation alongside anything important you’re trying to address. If you want to address the truly sinful aspects of our present circumstances, you can surely do so without using a word that’s been redesigned specifically to shut down conversation. And if you can’t avoid that word in your condemnation… then maybe what you’re talking about isn’t really a sin after all.
Other Sins of Heart and Tongue
But I’ll go a step further than saying racism–in it’s 2020 sense–is not a sin: More often than not, it’s a sin for us to throw that label around as freely as we do. I would not have said that even a year ago–I merely would have said it’s foolish. But I’ve spent that time going through Luther’s Large Catechism for a class I teach, and I now cannot help but come to that conclusion.
If you consider racism according to the prevailing definitions rooted in privilege, accusations of racism are clear violations of the 9th & 10th commandments–the entire concept is inherently covetous. As Luther writes:
No one should consider or intend to get what belongs to another, such as his wife, servants, house and estate, land, meadows, cattle. He should not take them even with a show of right, by a trick, or to his neighbor’s harm. For above, in the Seventh Commandment, the vice is forbidden where one takes for himself the possessions of others or withholds them from his neighbor. A person cannot rightly do these things. But here it is also forbidden for you to alienate anything from your neighbor, even though you could do so with honor in the eyes of the world, so that no one could accuse or blame you as though you had gotten it wrongfully.
According to Luther, the 9th & 10th Commandments concern deliberately alienating your neighbor from his household and possessions so that you may ultimately acquire them for yourself. In 2020, the word racism is used almost exclusively for that purpose: to create guilt over one’s possessions, social standing, culture, and heritage so that these may be carved up and reapportioned to others who are deemed more deserving of them. More than ever before, that word is compelling people to tear down monuments, loot stores, destroy property, deprive others of their livelihood, and exile any dissenters from civil society–depriving them of their good name and reputation along with everything else. And all of it is being done with honor and accolades from the world.
How, then, could I dare to join myself to that chorus of denunciation–knowing what it means?
And even if you’re one of those whose commitment to the obsolete meaning of the word blinds them to the reality of its current meaning, you still must reckon with the 8th Commandment. Indeed, the broader sins of prejudice, partiality, and superficial enmity remain sinful when they have to do with race. But how exactly can you apply that judgement to people today? Going back to the Large Catechism, Luther teaches us that false witness is whatever cannot be “properly proved.” “Proved,” of course, refers to what we actually know from evidence rather than our speculations or gossip. And “properly” refers to our vocations–for most of the time, the sins of others are none of our business.
It’s virtually impossible to properly prove a charge of racism today. A century ago, people would be quite open about their prejudice and enmity–willingly making it a matter of public record and therefore a legitimate topic of conversation and accusation. In America in 2020, virtually no one is going to publicly announce their enmity for any race other than whites (a subject most people whose piety supposedly forces them to denounce racism by its old meaning remain curiously silent about.) You are left with no recourse but to guess at motivations and attitudes. You infer them from actions that may very well be innocuous simply because they fit a narrative–a prejudice–that you’re familiar with. And based on that alone, you presume to pass judgement on people–to punish them. After all, applying the label of “racist” is undoubtedly a punishment today. It deprives your neighbor of their good name and reputation–and often their livelihood as well once the SJW’s get involved.
Now, some readers will no doubt call this whole thing an excuse. “Matt, I’m no progressive. Like yourself, I hate Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and grievance studies in general. But there are travesties of justice happening to blacks every day in this country, and compassion compels me to act. I suspect your fixation on critiquing progressive errors is ultimately just a way of avoiding engaging against those very real problems–maybe even because of your own unconscious prejudice.”
To this all-to-common objection, I have three things to say. First, though you may claim to reject the progressive mindset, you just engaged in it. Your judgment is exclusively against what you presume to be hidden in my heart based on my race, heritage, and the structures of privilege I enjoy. Maybe you’re even correct, for who can understand the desperately wicked hearts of men? But its entirely presumption–a presumption you have lifted wholesale from philosophies you claim to find repugnant in any other context. So how sure are you of your own heart? How sure are you that there’s no plank in your own eye obstructing your vision of mine? Do you truly believe that you can resolve partiality by trying to balance one form against an other?
Second, it is yet another example of the fallacy of desperation. “We have to do something!” But what you want to do is wicked and counter-productive. “At least it’s something!” Make no mistake: when we knowingly do evil out of desperation, it is never an attempt to help our neighbor–it is only an attempt to make ourselves look or feel better. It’s like smacking your television when the picture gets fuzzy. It has more to do with working out your own frustration and impotence than it does with fixing the TV. When you remember your deep and abiding concern for the plight of blacks only when the world tells you to, it’s probably not as deep and abiding as you’d like to believe.
Lastly, it’s ultimately nothing more than ad hominem. It’s a judgment against me, but even if true, it has no bearing on my argument. You can believe what you want about me–I can only find my righteousness in Christ anyway. It doesn’t wipe away my argument.
So what then are we to do about those very real problems? Well, there are two ways of approaching this–both necessary. One is to address discrete issues, and the other is to address relations between whites and blacks in America. Charges of racism, unfortunately, hinder both of those endeavors.
On the matter of discrete issues, it should be quite possible to work together. Let’s take the issue of police malfeasance as an example. This is a very real problem that’s due in part to the increasingly militarized role we expect police to play in society. It’s made worse by the increasingly tribal mindset of police in which they protect their own at the expense of the rest of us and often cover up for one another when they should be investigating. (Both of these are ridiculously exacerbated rather than solved by the current unrest, by the way.)
This is, of course, a concern for blacks at the moment for obvious reasons. They want to fix this because their lives matter and they don’t think everybody else truly believes that–completely reasonable. But it’s an issue that affects many others–potentially all of us, for we all encounter the police at some point or another. Some will want the issue addressed because they have a different personal stake. I, for example, am father to an autistic son, and those of us on the spectrum have documented difficulties interacting with police–often with dangerous consequences. Others will want the issue addressed because they believe all lives matter–in other words, simply for the sake of justice in the abstract. And there could be any number of other reasons to get on board with rectifying the issue.
Except that anytime anyone says “all lives matter,” they’re called racist now.
Now, I get that that slogan isn’t compelling to many blacks. It takes black lives for granted when many believe they’re specifically being devalued. But different motivations can still lead to cooperation towards common goals–as long as you don’t immediately jettison anyone who disagrees. That’s the problem with tribalism: It makes people incapable of cooperating unless they’ve already made the proper commitment to the one true group. But today’s anti-racism fanaticism demands exactly that. If you don’t confess to only “right” rationales and priorities, you’re placed into exile. It forces division where cooperation and positive change would otherwise be possible.
And that leads us to the last issue I’m going to raise here: relations between black Americans and other Americans. You may or may not have noticed, but I’ve written this entire blog post in us/them terms. I honestly have no idea whether I should have been doing that or not.
On one hand, American blacks seem a nation unto themselves. I see “nation” primarily in terms of heritage and identity–race plays a real role in both of those things, but it’s not the definitive factor. But in terms of heritage, their experience of American history is radically different than mine. “Freedom” has an entirely different flavor when your ancestors were slaves. The Constitution has a different meaning when it failed to protect your people. Our legal institutions are experienced differently when they would have considered you 3/5 of a person not all that long ago. The Malcolm X line that “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us” isn’t an entirely unreasonable sentiment. And the common call for reparations from blacks follows this same kind of thinking, for a single nation doesn’t pay reparations to itself.
But that’s not the whole of the story either, because we have a distinctly American heritage in common as well. Black history in America obviously involves slavery and it’s continuing fallout, but it’s not exclusive to those experiences either. Not all blacks have been slaves. blacks have voluntarily shed their blood in all American wars. Blacks have held offices both high and low in American institutions. They have lived in American communities for centuries. However they got here, they’ve been here and part of America since the beginning. Blacks are inheritors of the American legacy just as the rest of us are. There have been various “back to Africa” ideas over the years, but I suspect they’ve never really caught on precisely because blacks’ experiences in America tend to be more tangible and important than earlier African roots (which is not to say that those African roots don’t matter at all.)
But are we two peoples or are we one? That’s the question I struggle with. If we’re two, the historical fact that multi-ethnic societies tend to end in a division that is bloody more often than peaceful gives me a great deal of pause. If that’s the case, we’re better off dividing the inheritance by offering a handful of States as reparations and peacefully seeking our separate destinies. If not, then we need to find ways to live together peacefully by sharing the inheritance.
I’d much rather the answer be that we’re one people rather than two–I want the answer to be more like this:
Why do I like this video (which I first saw in the excellent Hoaxed) of Black Lives Matter leader Hawk Newsome standing up and addressing a Trump rally? First, because listening actually occurred–the organizers offered the mic for two minutes when they didn’t have to and the BLM activists accepted it when they didn’t have to. Second, because Mr. Newsome started out affirming some common identities–“I’m an American! I’m a Christian!” Third, because after stating his grievance, he acknowledged counter-points and clarified: All lives matter, but he’s concerned first about the black lives he sees being lost every day without retribution. He’s not anti-cop, but wants bad cops punished and removed from service. And fourth, because two opposing sides had a little conversation without losing their identities, without ceding any ground they valued, and without fighting, but walking away with a better understanding of one another, at least some measure of camaraderie they didn’t expect to find, and some hope that their respective concerns can both be addressed. That’s what I want. I have no illusion that I wouldn’t have major political differences with the man, and his comments about “undocumented” residents suggest that we’d view what “American” means rather differently. Nevertheless, it seems like there’s room for genuine conversation and possibly cooperation.
That’s what I want. But it’s not about my wants, my hopes, or even about how I see blacks. It’s about how blacks see themselves, and that’s why I can’t answer the question of whether we are two peoples or one people. Black identity isn’t going away regardless, but I don’t know if the greater weight in “black American” falls on “black” or “American.” I don’t even know whether blacks generally think about it in those terms. I’m ignorant because I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects. I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects because doing so risks receiving the very dangerous charge of racism. (Note that I’m not pointing this out to measure my risk against others’. I’m merely pointing out a practical barrier to understanding.)
Both discovering what the answer is and dealing with it appropriately requires conversation–and negotiation as well. This, in turn, depends on having things like good-faith, clear intentions, self-respect, and all parties honestly contending for their respective interests. Most contemporary charges of racism completely undermine all of those things. When I see white people bowing down to blacks and shaving their heads in a desperate attempt to be declared not-racist, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. When I see blacks looting and burning using racism as an excuse, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. There’s no listening going on in either of those things. I see a lot of people tacitly defending rioting as “speech”, but I’d much rather see adult conversations like this one in which two people can find both agreement and disagreement without a Sword of Damocles hanging over anybody’s head.
But my preferences don’t matter. Reality matters.
I don’t know the solutions to our current problems; I don’t know if solutions even exist; and I don’t know how this all ends. I do know that I’m absolutely not going to make things worse by jumping on the anti-racism bandwagon. In 2020, charges of racism do far more harm than good, and the contemporary philosophy of anti-racism makes things worse, not better. And so I pray for peace. I pray for unity. I pray for justice. I encourage you all to do the same. Call that “doing nothing” if you like. Christians know better.
Dead or not, Theological Liberalism is already being rebranded under a variety of names. Now that we’ve studied where Theological Liberalism came from and how the Church confronted it in the past, we’re taking a look at how we must confront it today.
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc
Theological Liberalism – Part 4: https://youtu.be/T7sGav0PbJA
Theological Liberalism – Part 5: https://youtu.be/bVmr7QVuQhg
Just Stay Ahead of the Wind: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1075
Christianity for People Who Hate the Gospel: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=751
No Need to Choose Between Doctrine and Love: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=511
You can find more of my material at…
The 96th Thesis: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/
The Federalist: http://thefederalist.com/author/matthewcochran/
Certainly, there is nothing for us to do when it comes to our Justification. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone–not through any of our works. Unfortunately, Radical Lutherans and their sympathizers–in their zeal to extinguish works-righteousness–try to make this the totality of the Christian’s story and expunge any kind of activity from his new identity in Christ. In other words, they seek to remove works from Sanctification as well as from Justification. Within such false teaching, nothing we do actually matters to God beyond simply hearing the Gospel and receiving the Sacraments as we wait for death to finally release us from this faux-Lutheran Nihilism.
Sanctification, they often say, is just a matter of getting used to Justification. Anything we try to “do” either gets in God’s way or at least takes our eyes off of Christ. As for the Law–all those things God has explicitly told Christians to do? Well… they say it reminds us that we’re still sinners and therefore that we still need the Gospel, but that’s it. In short, these Fake Lutherans deny the Third Use of the Law–that it’s a guide to instruct Christians on how God wants us to live.
After all, as they will quickly point out, the Old Man–our old sinful nature–cannot be reformed or improved. It can only die along with us before we are raised to life again without it in the New Creation. In contrast, the New Man–our new nature in Christ–is perfect and blameless before God already. It does good works naturally and spontaneously without being compelled by the Law. From this, they erroneously conclude that any Christian who is actually learning, struggling, or trying to do good works can only be wallowing in self-righteousness.
Now that more Lutherans are waking up to the dangers of these false teachers, I thought it would be appropriate to write a followup to a decade-old blog post of mine called Sanctification is not the Think System that I’ve seen passed around social media recently. In it, I addressed the misappropriation of the Formula of Concord’s confession that a Christian’s good works are spontaneous in order to teach that the Christian is actually inert with respect to works. As I explained then:
“Spontaneously” does not mean “without effort” for a creature whose God-given nature is to work. “Naturally” does not mean “without instruction” for a creature whose God-given nature is to learn. The sanctified life is not a semi-human life that excludes all sorts of basic steps of living…
Sanctification does end up involving my own real effort–not because my efforts are achieving sanctification, but because my efforts (along with the rest of the real me) are what is being sanctified by God. Humans are creatures that try. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our trying, and so we try to do good. Humans are creatures that learn. When Christ sanctifies us, he sanctifies our learning, and so we learn to do good. Humans are creatures that want. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our wanting, and so we want to do good. Humans are self-disciplined creatures. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our self-discipline as well, and so we discipline ourselves to do good. We do these things because we already are being sanctified.
Because of this, the Law does play a role in the life of the New Man–an instructive one. It carries no threat because the New Man is free from the threat of the Law. It provides no motivation because the New Man is already fully oriented towards loving God and neighbor. It does not redirect our will because the New Man’s will is already perfectly aligned with God’s. It does, however, give form and shape to the already good movements of that will. In short, it helps train us to be skilled in doing good. It shows us the practical details of what loving God and neighbor actually mean from day to day. And as we grow and assimilate what God has to tell us about goodness through his Law, even the New Man struggles and expends effort in order to put it into practice.
In a sense, this struggle to do good even entails the possibility of failure. For example, had Adam and Eve not sinned, I greatly suspect that their babies would have still tried to roll over a few times before they finally made it all the way–and that their parents would have found that just as endearing as we do today as they encouraged their babes. I suspect their toddlers would have stumbled at their first steps rather than walking perfectly right out of the gate, and that their parents would still have held their arms out and said “come here.” I suspect that when they imitated mom and dad by making breakfast for the first time, they might have overcooked the fruit–its taste and presentation would have not lived up to what they had seen mom and dad do before.
But none of that would entail any sin. Any failure at the particular tasks in which their goodness was temporally enfleshed would be utterly blameless.
I also believe that we’ll experience failure of this sort in heaven as well–just without the embarrassment, shame, and disappointment that usually accompany failure in this life. We will still enjoy the thrill of overcoming a challenge after putting in a lot of practice and effort while we learn from our mistakes. And all the while, we will get to see the smiles of our heavenly Father as he enjoys watching us learn, grow, and succeed.
But we need not merely speculate based on an Eden and a New Creation about which we know little. We can actually see this dynamic in the life of Christ. As Luke tells us, Jesus grew not only in stature, but also in wisdom and favor with God and man. In other words, the already perfect and sinless Son of God nevertheless learned and grew more accomplished in doing good according to his perfect human nature.
You can also see him learning in the story that immediately precedes Luke’s summary: when Jesus stays behind at the Temple unbeknownst to his parents. There are two key items that Luke reveals when they finally find him three days later. First, Jesus seems genuinely surprised that he had caused a fuss, saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Second, Jesus submitted to his parents and left with them instead of remaining at his Father’s house. He never broke the Fourth Commandment, but he did learn more about the details of keeping it and adjusted his behavior accordingly. He was instructed and trained in doing good.
It’s somewhat different for Christians in this life, of course. We have not only our new nature in Christ, but our old sinful nature as well. We can never perfectly delineate our blameless failures from our sinful failures. The old nature does no good, and the new nature does no evil, but the single person in whom those two natures are united does some measure of both in everything. And in that same person, even as the Law restrains his wickedness and condemns him, the same Law also teaches him the details of doing good. Like our perfect Savior, the New Man grows and is instructed in the nature of the good which he naturally and spontaneously tries to do. That reality is part of what we experience when the Holy Spirit Sanctifies us.
If Sanctification necessarily entails our efforts, what then does that mean for divine monergism therein? It really depends on how you use the term. If you mean it in the subject/object sense (i.e. that God alone is the one who sanctifies us), then this view of Sanctification remains monergistic. Our growth and efforts are the fruits of God’s work in us, not our means of helping God accomplish His work. But if you mean divine monergism in the sense that God alone is taking action, then it’s clearly not, for both God and Man are acting in Sanctification–even though God alone is the one accomplishing the Sanctifying.
We must also ask what it means for those false teachers who reject the Third Use of the Law and contend that it only accuses us. It is most certainly not the New Man who rejects it. On the contrary, he loves the Law and rejoices in the loving instruction of his Heavenly Father. He always wants to learn more and more about doing good–not because of any threat or desire for self-righteousness, but simply because he loves his Father. It is, rather, the old man–our sinful nature–which sees God’s Law as only accusatory. It is no coincidence that those Radical Lutherans who reject Third Use also tend to reject anything inherently or eternally Good about the Law. In the end, that rejection is nothing more than the old man trying to Nerf God’s righteous statutes in order to avoid their accusation, for they have no real trust in the Gospel to relieve the guilt they experience.
To be sure, each one of us still carries that sinful nature in this life. The Law will always accuse us for we always violate it to some extent. But we also have a living and active perfect nature which ensures that the Law will not only accuse the Christian. For those who steadfastly insist that accusation is the entirety of the matter, there are really only two options: Either they’re actively suppressing every natural God-given response in their minds and souls besides accusation, or there is no perfect nature in them to receive anything else. And I greatly fear for how many people fall into the latter by stubbornly insisting on the former.
It’s a good thing when our theology informs our opinions on what makes positive social change. It’s not so good when our opinions on social change inform our theology. Case in point: A few months ago, Sheila Gregoire put up a blog post arguing that abuse (very broadly defined) should not only be immediate warrant for Biblical divorce, but should be considered equal to or worse than adultery–one of the actual Biblical warrants for divorce.
The post contains the usual difficulties with this particular conversation, starting with the ever-expanding definition of abuse. Like rape, the term abuse gets a very real moral urgency from a particularly heinous act–a husband using his superior size and strength to leave his wife bruised, bloody, and battered. Also like rape, feminists like to borrow that moral urgency for a very wide range of tangentially related behaviors and attitudes they would like to extinguish. And so now, “abuse” can mean anything from broken bones to raised voices or joint finances. Indeed, many even contend that it’s not even objective behavior that’s definitive of abuse, but rather how the victim feels–that is, if a wife feels intimidated or controlled, the husband is ipso facto guilty of abuse.
As long as it’s so nebulous and expansive, the bare label “abuse” shouldn’t be treated as a warrant for anything so serious as divorce. And as long as ubiquitous conceptualizations of the label like the Duluth Model make biblical submission per se abusive, the bare label should never carry much weight in Biblical ethics in the first place.
Also present is the “we must protect women from abuse no matter what” attitude that tends to make dialog on this issue so difficult. It is, of course, not the goal that’s problematic, nor the fact that it naturally makes emotions run high–they should. Rather, the issue is the “no matter what” qualifier. It makes for successful activism because it gets stuff done. It’s also (ironically in this case) quite easy to abuse in the long run because it gets stuff done thoughtlessly. This is why the Duluth model ends up getting battered husbands arrested. It’s why people think it’s quite reasonable to divorce a faithful spouse over not putting their dishes in the sink–it’s basically like getting punched in the face, after all.
You can see this attitude on full display in Gregoire’s post as she condemns a theologian for being too slow to grant license to divorce. She even goes so far as to blame him for the deaths and beatings of those who did not immediately divorce as she highlights his lack of apology to them. And, of course, the same black brush tars everyone who hesitates to embrace her reasoning. Naturally, “If you don’t agree with me, you’re responsible for murder” isn’t exactly conducive to thoughtful discussion.
I agree that the case that you can divorce for adultery is clearer in the Bible than that you can divorce for abuse. However, I think that when you read all of Scripture, you see God’s concern for the oppressed. You see God’s passion for justice and concern for the downtrodden. I don’t see how you can read all of Scripture and still believe that God wants women–or men–to endure abuse. That’s just not the heart of God.
That is how the game is played. Upon learning that one’s position isn’t found in the text of Scripture, you must instead presume to search God’s heart for it apart from what He’s actually said. Then, having established his attitudes and feelings mainly by projecting your own onto Him, you ask how someone with such attitudes and feelings would weigh in on the subject at hand. Amazingly enough, this method always discovers that God would say exactly what you yourself would say.
The problem with this method is, of course, that we’re not actually God. Our Lord has this unnerving tendency to do and say things that we would never, in a million years, choose to say or do. Surely a loving God would never damn anybody! But He clearly says He does. God would never commit atrocities! But He annihilated almost every living thing on the planet in a flood. Jesus would always be as winsome as possible because of His heart for the lost! But He drove away most of His followers by being offensive in John 6. God would never point out his most devoted follower to Satan and then give him permission to devastate the man’s property, slaughter his family, and afflict him with horrific disease! But the Book of Job exists. And, of course, if you query anybody in a pre-Christian society, they’d tell you that God would certainly never lower himself to become a human being and to die. It’s a senseless method when, in the end, God’s thoughts are simply higher than our thoughts.
That’s also why Gregoire’s utilitarian argument falls so flat. She points to a study indicating that the children of high conflict marriages have higher well-being scores after divorce. Even ignoring her failure to pass along the study’s definition of both “conflict” and “well-being,” what exactly does that prove? There are a myriad of circumstances in which God instructs people to do good despite the evil consequences that may result. God is by no means a utilitarian. There are many divorces that would be advantageous to someone in the household that are nevertheless prohibited.
To be sure, given the physical vulnerability of women and their tendency to undervalue chastity, it’s entirely understandable that many would rate abuse as worse than adultery. That doesn’t mean they get to project their opinion onto God. If you want to know God’s opinion on divorce, your only real option is to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instructions that Gregoire finds inadequate. If you want his opinion on adultery as compared to broadly-defined abuse, you’ll have to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instruction that Gregoire is dissatisfied with. You’ll find a whole lot about adultery. You’re not going to find much in support of the Duluth Model.
All that said, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed as well. What then for those women (and men) from whom Gregoire borrows her moral urgency–those who were murdered or beaten by their spouses? (Note that I’m not even using the term “abuse” here.) Well, they should most definitely get to safety first and then figure out the details of the long-term solution from that safe place.
Is it permissible for that long-term solution to include divorce? Yes. As it happens, I do think there’s merit in the argument that this kind of violence constitutes abandonment–I consider abandonment in terms of marriage’s primary responsibilities rather than in terms of mere physical proximity or of feeling abandoned. A husband is fundamentally responsible for protecting and providing for his wife’s bodily needs (1 Timothy 5:8), so actually assaulting her yourself is about as clear an abandonment of that responsibility as you can possibly get.
Of course, I suspect feminists aren’t going to like some of the other places that argument logically leads–I even hear them labeled as “abusive” sometimes. After all, sex is also a fundamental marital responsibility. Accordingly, perpetual refusal of physical intimacy would also be abandonment and make divorce permissible in some circumstances. Luther makes a similar case in The Estate of Marriage. (And whoo boy is that 2nd paragraph triggering. Note that I do disagree with Luther on civil government’s role in the matter, though not on the gravity of the sin.)
The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.” Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did [Esther 1:1 :17].
Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7 [:4-5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?
Could this same kind of reasoning extend to include violent assault as a dissolution of the marriage? Absolutely. That is why I’m not in any way inclined to condemn men and women who divorced because they were being assaulted or to dissuade those who are currently in peril from divorcing in self-defense.
Could this kind of reasoning extend to every other pattern of behavior that fits under the ever-expanding umbrella of “abuse”? By no means. Some might be covered, but most probably aren’t. Jesus was quite clear that divorce is typically a matter of hard-heartedness. Complaints like “he yelled at me”, “he doesn’t do enough housework,” “he’s too controlling,” or the myriad of others I routinely see described as “abuse” are merely excuses. Filing your marital grievances under “abuse” and then, as Gregoire recommends, avoiding any pastor, elder, or counselor who might actually challenge your conclusion is no blanket permission for divorce.
I get why women want that blanket permission. I get that there are times when one needs to act instead of overthinking the matter. I get that anybody would want to give battered women a clear and easy road to relief which no one is allowed to second-guess. I get that when people like Gregoire talk about “abuse,” they’re usually visualizing those women in particular. The routinely overlooked problem, unfortunately, is all the women who feel entitled to hitch a ride with them simply because they’re unhappy–and who consequently leave all manner of their own victims in their wake.
Our divorce culture is far more abusive than some of the things that are routinely labeled abuse these days. (“intimidation” and “control” certainly come to mind when a spouse has police enforce when you’re allowed to see you children, how your income is allotted, who your property belongs to, and so forth.) That’s why Christians can’t just accept “abuse” as an incantation that banishes all moral obstacles to divorce–not even if it’s super-effective at helping the one specific class of victims you want to focus on as you pretend all the others are merely hypothetical. Thoughtfulness is naturally a source of constant frustration for activists, but one can’t just expect the rest of us to abandon it.
It is truly a terrible thing to sever oneself from one’s spouse, just as it’s a terrible thing to sever one of your own limbs. But in each case, there are terrible times when it must be done. If our culture actually treated divorce according to that gravity rather than our habit of wallowing in our Eat, Pray, Love empowerment fantasies, this question wouldn’t be so hard to discuss in the first place.
So how did the Church respond to Theological Liberalism? Better to ask how *is* the Chruch responding, for the book isn’t closed on this heresy yet. We’ve spent a lot of time in retreat, but there have been Christians who expertly confronted the Spirit of the Age.
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc
Theological Liberalism – Part 4: https://youtu.be/T7sGav0PbJA
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It’s a lesson many Christians are becoming painfully aware of as their local congregations are caught up in the various shutdowns and quarantines. We deeply desire to return to our church, so naturally, pastors, elders, and local church councils everywhere are struggling with the question of when and how much to reopen their doors.
It’s an important question, but not simply because of the pandemic. As families sit at home, huddled around a laptop watching services streamed into our living room, there is a question that inevitably weighs heavily on our minds: Why do we go to church? What is important about gathering together each Sunday?
Whether deliberately or not, our congregations are answering that questions for us in this time of crisis by their reactions to it. The practical decision of how to respond to a pandemic is inevitably a cost/benefit analysis. Covid-19 represents a real risk factor–overblown by a frantic media, to be sure, but a risk nonetheless. How do we weigh that risk of illness–or even death for the elderly and those with certain preexisting conditions–against what we have to offer at church? More precisely, how does it weigh against what we are responsible for offering? It depends, of course, on what you believe your church offers. Why should people go to church? Everybody will know your answer to that question based on what you offer as an acceptable substitute.
The thing we’re liable to forget is that it’s the same question that was asked before the pandemic, and it will be the same question asked afterward. The very answers we hear now will also apply when Christians decide when–or whether–to return. What congregations and church bodies tell their parishioners now–both explicitly in our words and implicitly in our actions–will resonate long after Covid-19 either goes away or, more likely, becomes part of everyday life. Closing your doors until the media tells you it’s safe and maybe streaming your Sunday service in the meantime may be the safe route, but will doing that for months on end deliver what you’re responsible for offering?
You might think so if you believe church is fundamentally about hearing and receiving a particular message. You hear a sermon, you hear some hymns, you hear some prayers you can pray along with. It’s not really worth risking illness just to hear that message in person rather than via Facebook Live. Data-transfer works just fine over the internet, so those things are covered well.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, they’re covered a little too well. Data-transfer and communication are precisely what the internet excels at. If that’s why you go to church, online services aren’t just an acceptable substitute–they’re a superior replacement. I’ve written before that for my family, getting to church each Sunday is a struggle. It’s been MUCH easier to get everybody on the couch on time than in a pew on time. The little family tradition we’ve been building around our online services is much more comfortable and convenient than going to church in person was. If hearing a message is why we go to church, then why would we go back when this is over?
So many companies and employees who have been forced to experiment with remote work have discovered that it is much more practical in many circumstances. Accordingly, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more remote work going forward–it just makes sense. Congregations who believe they’re simply delivering a message are going to find exactly the same thing among their parishioners. And with distance being a non-issue online, they will eventually gravitate towards those few churches who deliver messages in a superior manner.
Now, you might say, “No, it’s not just about the message. It’s also about our community! You can’t have a real community online!” If that’s what you offer at church, then you’ll probably think it wise to keep your doors closed amid the pandemic. With social distancing being our current norm, Americans have already collectively decided that enjoying community isn’t worth the risk. After all, while it’s sad that we’ll be away from one another for so long, our reunion will be all the sweeter once we can safely reopen.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, the presumption that you can’t have a real community online is a highly generational one. Boomers don’t think you can have a real online community. Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, have already been forming online communities for decades that they often greatly prefer to the flesh-and-blood communities around them. If community is why you go to church in the first place, then you’ll have your boomers and maybe some gen-Xers return when it’s all over.
But why would anyone else? Why would the younger generation come back on Sunday for community–particularly after you shut them out despite less risk to them from Covid-19 than there is from the flu? And if your boomers return alone, then your congregation has no future. That’s not even a community anymore–that’s a social club. And if that’s why people will go to your church after the pandemic, then maybe a social club is all you really had before.
Still others might say that it’s more than a message and a community–we also offer a great tradition that reaches back into history. We have the liturgy. We have great hymns of the faith. We have these things which transcend the local church community and connect to Christians throughout the ages and around the world. By participating alongside them, we join in something greater than ourselves. Merely watching the traditions unfold is hardly the same thing. If this is your view, then temporarily suspending your traditions make sense. They’ve lasted for thousands of years, and will still be there when they come back.
Here we actually begin to get closer to the mark, but we have not yet stuck it. For one thing, it’s only a compelling answer if most of your parishioners actually recognize this kind of value in your traditions. Too few do. But even so, the answer is still insufficient because any tradition worth sharing through time and space must point to a reality beyond itself. Tradition for its own sake is nothing more than nostalgia. Too many churches were already finding nostalgia to be woefully insufficient to bring people back before Covid19. It’s not going to be any better afterward.
What then do our traditions point us to? It your tradition merely points to a message or a community, then you’re back to square one. After all, traditions change. In fact, you’re changing them right now due to the pandemic. And you *should* change your traditions in circumstances like this. Passing offering plates around the congregation at the moment is stupid. So is passing the peace. There are traditions that *should* go by the wayside, and there will inevitably be new traditions that grow into the spaces left by those we prune. That’s the thing about a living body of tradition–we’re always cultivating it, and it continues to grow and change organically. Those traditions will only retain Sunday services if they point to them in the first place.
But there’s more than even that, isn’t there? We also offer worship. On Sunday morning, we present an opportunity to join together to praise God, to recognize Him as our Lord, and confess our faith in him. If that’s what your church offers, then you may still think it’s wise to be online-only for the time-being. After all, God is omnipresent and can hear our praise from our living rooms without any issue. And if being in the same room is more ideal for confessing Christ before others, commenting “peace be with you” or “amen” on Facebook will do for now in the face of an epidemic.
But after the epidemic is either over or routine, God will still be omnipresent. We can still worship Him from home–and should be doing so throughout our daily lives. After all, worship is, at its root, worth-ship. We worship God by recognizing, appreciating, and proclaiming His great worth and praising Him for what He’s done.
And that’s precisely why so many people already think they can worship God from the golf course, their gardens, their dining rooms, their places of employment and so forth instead of coming to church. And they’re not exactly wrong. You praise the Creator when you appreciate nature. You praise Him when you thank Him for your food. You praise Him when you deliberately act according to His Law in your daily life. When it comes down to it, we can and should do all those things. We don’t need a church building simply to worship per se. At least, not unless you mean something more precise by “worship.”
The Body of Christ
And that is where we finally come to the real answer–or at least what should be the real answer–to our question of what we are responsible for offering as congregations. When we worship God on Sunday, we are recognizing his great worth for a specific reason–His amazing promises to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We confess our sins before one-another because he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But the Gospel is not simply an abstract message of forgiveness–it is embodied in the Sacraments. That’s why Lutherans use the phrase “Word and Sacrament Ministry.”
Christians aren’t simply those who have heard and believed a message, we are the Body of Christ–living stones being built into a spiritual house. We become part of that body through baptism. And throughout the rest of our lives, the apex of that embodiment is a specific divine promise for which we worship our Lord on Sundays: This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
When all is said and done, that is why we gather our embodied selves for worship in a physical place on Sunday morning. We recognize the great worth of what Christ has done on that Cross and receive in our mouths the fruits of that atoning sacrifice: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That is the core of Christian worship as distinct from every other religion that praises the divine.
And we can’t do that from our living room via Facebook. We call it “Communion” for a reason. We may or may not like each other, but we all believe and receive the same promise together from the same Lord at the altar. Our message, our community, our traditions, and our worship are all good, important things–things which we should be concerned about maintaining in times of crisis. But the Sacraments are the embodiment of our message. They’re the source of our community. They’re what our traditions point us to. They’re our highest form of worship. And they can’t be done online.
But what are we teaching our congregations about that through our reactions to the pandemic?
When, for example, our governors deem us non-essential, and we comply, what are we saying? Grocery stores stay open because they are essential–we need food to live. But Christ says is body is true food and his blood is true drink, and that we need it to live. To be sure, nobody is going to lose their faith because they missed a Sunday anymore than they’d starve because they missed one grocery run. Humans can go a fair amount of time without food. But even so, it’s still essential, which is why we keep grocery stores open–food needs to be made available. The same is true of the Sacrament.
But there’s more than just that. I’ve also heard all manner of nonsense about “fasting” from the Supper, and it isn’t going to fly. It’s already dubious for individual Christians, but it’s altogether senseless for the congregation itself. Delivering Word and Sacrament ministry to its members is the responsibility of the local congregation–its raison d’etre. We do not get to “fast” from responsibilities.
And, of course, there are other foolish statements. There’s the constant refrain that it’s better to be safe than to offer Word and Sacrament–a view that’s hard to find anywhere in the New Testament. I’ve even heard “sorry for the inconvenience,” as though the Lord’s Supper is was merely a convenience for us in the first place. I don’t think there’s any deliberate malice behind statements like these, but we cannot be so casual in our responses.
When all is said and done, the question so many churches have been asking, “how long should we close during the pandemic,” is only secondary. Our primary question should be this: How can we provide Word and Sacrament ministry during the pandemic? How can we fulfill our responsibility to offer it? There may be many answers to this question–many of them good, many acceptable, and many more bad. Reasonable Christians can disagree reasonably over which ways are best. And yes, maybe offering it in one giant service on Sunday morning isn’t the best way at the moment. And yes, maybe other options are logistically difficult to accomplish. But consider the cost of our excuses for failing to do carry out our responsibilities.
So think long and hard: What does your church offer? Why do your people go to church? If it’s any of those other things–message, community, tradition, or worship–then there’s not going to be much of a reason for anyone to come back the longer this goes on. Have you accepted your civil government’s determination that you aren’t essential? Then many will still believe you’re non-essential when this is all over. Have you gone out of your way to get the Supper to your parishioners during this time? If not, then many of them have learned that there’s no reason to go out of their way to receive it.
Times of crisis have a habit of revealing what we’re made of. Let’s be cognizant of that. And let’s make sure we tend to our spiritual health as well as our physical health.
Now that we’ve explored the roots of Theological Liberalism, it’s time to turn our attention to the fruits–and they are rotten indeed. As it turns out, the Spirit of the Age is anything but Holy, and the religion it creates is nothing like Christianity. In the end, Theological Liberalism denies both Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
The Father Is Not A Metaphor: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=420
Then We Can No Longer Refer To You As Christians: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1007
Just Stay Ahead Of The Wind: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1075
Previous Entries in the Series:
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc
You can find more of my material at…
The 96th Thesis: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/
The Federalist: http://thefederalist.com/author/matthewcochran/