A pastor friend told me last week that he had church members enraged with him when he suggested from the pulpit that we ought to pray for the salvation of Islamic State terrorists. The people in his church told him that he ought to be calling for justice against them, given their brutal murder of Christians, not for mercy.
I thought about my friend a few days ago when these murderous fiends beheaded 21 of our brothers and sisters in Christ because they refused to renounce the name of Jesus. I was not just angry; I was furious. Can such fury co-exist, though, with the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7)? When we pray about such evil, how should we pray?
The complexity of the Christian calling in the world was seen even in social media. One friend of mine posted that the slaughter of Christians overseas calls for the world’s only remaining superpower to take action. Another said, quoting singer Toby Keith, that it was time to “light up their world like the Fourth of July.” To that, I say, “Amen.” Another friend, a former student of mine posted, “Oh, that there might be an ISIS Saul standing there now, holding the cloaks, whose salvation might turn the Arab world upside down with the gospel!” To that I say “Amen,” too.
These are not contradictory prayers.
Jesus says to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Mat. 5:44). The Spirit of Jesus in the prophets and in the apostles also tells us that those who turn a blind eye to the killing of others are wrong. The fact that we feel contradictory praying both for justice against the Islamic State and for salvation for Islamic State terrorists is partly because we fail to distinguish between the mission of the state in the use of the temporal sword against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) and the mission of the church in the use of the sword of the Spirit against sin and death and the devil (Eph. 6). But that’s not, I think, the main problem.
The main problem is that we sometimes forget that we are called to be a people of both justice and justification, and that these two are not contradictory.
It sounds awfully spiritual, at first blush, to say that we should not pray for the defeat of our enemies on the field of battle. But that’s only the case if these enemies are not actually doing anything. This terrorist group is raping, enslaving, beheading, crucifying our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as other innocent people. To not pray for swift action against them is to not care about what Jesus said we should seek, what we should hunger and thirst for, for justice. A world in which murderous gangs commit genocide without penalty is not a “merciful” world but an unjust horror show.
As Christians, we ought to be, above all people, concerned with such justice. We not only have the common grace standing of caring about stopping murder and injustice, rooted in the image of God and the law written on the heart. We also have the personal implication here. It’s our household being wiped out in the Middle East, the very place where our church started. For us, this isn’t a matter of “they;” it’s a matter of “us.”
At the same time, praying for the salvation of our enemies, even those committing the most horrific of crimes, is not a call to stop praying for justice against them. The cross, after all, is not forgiveness in a contemporary therapeutic sense—in which one is merely absolved of wrongdoing as though it were all a misunderstanding. No, that’s precisely the Apostle Paul’s point in the Book of Romans.
The gospel does not say, “Don’t’ worry about it; it’s okay.” The gospel points us to the cross where sin is absorbed in a substitute. God’s righteous condemnation of sin is there. He does not, and cannot, enable wickedness. And God’s mercy is there in that he is the One who sends his Son as the propitiation for sin. He is both “just and the justifier of the One who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The gospel doesn’t leave sin unpunished. Every sin is punished, either a the Place of the Skull, in Christ, or in the judgment of hell, on one’s own.
The thief on the cross—a Middle Eastern terrorist by Rome’s standards—in his act of faith did not believe that his salvation exempted him from justice. He confessed that his sentence was justice, and that he was receiving “the due reward for our deeds” (Lk. 23:41) even as he cried out to Jesus for merciful entrance into the kingdom of Christ (Lk. 23:42).
We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness. At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness. Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesn’t mean turning an eye away from justice. We can pray for gospel rootedness in the Middle East, and we can pray to light up their world like the Fourth of July, at the same time.
We are, after all, the people of the cross.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
Visit his website: RussellMoore.com
The Supreme Court announced today that they are taking cases on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Effectively, this means that the highest court in the land will decide, this year, whether marriage, as defined for thousands of years, will exist in our country any longer. Here’s what we should keep in mind.
First of all, this is not something we should shrug off. Marriage isn’t merely a matter of personal import or private behavior. States recognize marriage for a reason, and that reason is that sexuality between a man and a woman can, and often does, result in children. The state has an interest in seeing to it that, wherever possible, every child has both a mother and a father. The state doesn’t create this reality. It merely recognizes it, and attempts to hold husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, accountable to their vows and to their responsibilities. In every aspect of the Sexual Revolution, from the divorce culture to cohabitation to casual sex to the abortion revolution, children have borne the burden.
If the Court finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, we will have a generation of confusion about what marriage is, and why it matters. Beyond that, we have already seen that the Sexual Revolution isn’t content to move forward into bedrooms and dinner tables. The Sexual Revolution wants to silence dissent. The religious liberty concerns we are grappling with already will only accelerate.
We should pray that the Supreme Court does not take upon itself a power it doesn’t have: to redefine an institution that wasn’t created by government in the first place. But we shouldn’t wring our hands in fear, or clench our fists in outrage.
The worst-case scenario is that the Court hands down a Roe v. Wade style redefinition of marriage. Marriage in the minds of the public will change, but marriage as a creation reality won’t change at all. Jesus has taught us that marriage is essentially male and female, and that such is grounded not in government fiat but in God’s creation (Matt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6).
The Sexual Revolution, with or without the Supreme Court, cannot keep its promises. People will be disappointed, and, ultimately, in search of something more permanent, more ancient. We must be the people who can preserve the light to the old paths.
This will mean articulating a Christian vision of marriage. We will be forced to spell out things we could previously assume. That’s not a new situation. The New Testament epistles had to do the same thing, for the people of God within a sexually-lost Roman Empire. In the past, we’ve assumed that most people aspire to the same sorts of marriages and families we aspire to. We can no longer assume that. We must spell out why marriage matters, in light of who we are as men and women and in light of the gospel mystery of Christ and his church (Eph. 5).
Moreover, we must embody a Christian vision of marriage and sexuality. This will mean churches that reclaim marriage from the ambient culture in the seriousness with which we perform weddings and in the accountability local churches expect from couples to keep their vows. The undisciplined churches of the past generation acted as though the culture could keep marriages together, with just some preaching and encouragement from us. This led to the chaos we too often see in our own pews, with marital abandonment, unbiblical divorce, and more. Outsourcing marital expectations to the culture will now mean that our marriages preach a different gospel, one that upends the cosmic mystery of Christ. We cannot afford to dispense with the gospel.
Marriage is resilient. God created it to be so. The Supreme Court could make a decision that hurts a lot of people. I pray not. But if they do, let’s be a church that can carry the gospel to hurting people. Let’s articulate and embody a Christian vision of marriage. If we’re out of step with the culture, we should ask why we haven’t been so all along.
The Supreme Court may or may not do their job. We must make sure, no matter what, that we do ours.
Sometimes I learn a lot from conversations I was never intended to hear. This happened once as I was stopping by my local community bookstore. It’s a small, quiet store, so it was impossible not to eavesdrop as I heard a young man tell his friend how much he hated Christmas. And, you know what, the more he talked, the more I understood his point.
This man wasn’t talking about the hustle and bustle of the holidays, or about the stresses of family meals or all the things people tend to complain about. What he hated was the music.
This guy started by lampooning Sting’s Christmas album, and I found myself smiling as I browsed because he is so right; it’s awful. But then he went on to say that he hated Christmas music across the board. That’s when I started to feel as though I might be in the presence of the Grinch. You know, when every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing; they’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Who’s would start singing. The sour old green villain didn’t like that.
But then this man explained why he found the music so bad. It wasn’t just that it was cloying. It’s that it was boring.
“Christmas is boring because there’s no narrative tension,” he said. “It’s like reading a book with no conflict.”
Now he had my attention.
I’m sure this man had thought this for a long time, but maybe he felt freer to say it because we were only hours out from hearing the horrifying news of a massacre of innocent children in Connecticut. For him, the tranquil lyrics of our Christmas songs couldn’t encompass such terror. Maybe we should think about that.
Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.
Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).
In a time of obvious tragedy, the unbearable lightness of Christmas seems absurd to the watching world. But, even in the best of times, we all know that we live in a groaning universe, a world of divorce courts and cancer cells and concentration camps. Just as we sing with joy about the coming of the Promised One, we ought also to sing with groaning that he is not back yet (Rom. 8:23), sometimes with groanings too deep for lyrics.
The man in the bookstore knew that reality is complicated. There’s grit, and there’s tension. Without it, Christmas didn’t seem real to life. It’s hard to get more tense than being born under a king’s death sentence (Matt. 2:16), and with an ancient dragon crouching at the birth canal to devour you (Rev. 12:4). But this man didn’t hear any of that in Christmas. I’m glad I overheard him.
We have a rich and complicated and often appropriately dark Christmas hymnody. We can sing of blessings flowing “far as the curse is found,” of the one who came to “free us all from Satan’s power.”
Let’s sing that, every now and then, where we can be overheard.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective(Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). For more information, visit his website at RussellMoore.com.
[Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of "Questions & Ethics" with Russell Moore. To listen to this broadcast, click here.]
Phillip Bethancourt: Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program I'm Philip Bethancourt, joined here with Russell Moore. Today, Dr. Moore, I want to have you help us think some more about issues related to racial reconciliation. In the past week or two the country has been captivated by the issues that have unfolded in Ferguson when there was no indictment made there. And just today we found out that the police officer who killed Eric Garner by chokehold in New York City was also not indicted for what took place there.
I think it raises a lot of questions for a lot of people about how should we be thinking about these issues and what it means about the justice system in America. How do we help our churches navigate the types of controversy that's going on around us. What thoughts would you have for us in the wake of this about what it means for racial reconciliation in our culture and our churches in particular.
Russell Moore: Well, I've said quite a few times that when it comes to the Ferguson decision you have a lot of white people, particularly, who look at it only in terms of Ferguson itself. And they're saying, and they're right, that we don't know exactly what happened between Michael Brown and this police officer. We don't know exactly what happened between Michael Brown ant this police officer. We don't know exactly what this altercation was about.
But we have our African-American brothers and sisters who are saying to the rest of the community that we're looking at this through a bigger picture of a situation in which there is often unjust and unequal treatment happening, especially for black males in this culture. I think that's an important point to make. Now with this Eric Garner thing . . . I just found out about this within the last hour—we're here recording in our studio—and I am shocked and grieved. I'm sitting here wondering what could possibly be the explanation for this.
I mean, there is no excuse that I can think of for choking a man to death for selling illegal cigarettes. This is about cigarettes. This isn't a violent confrontation. This isn't a threat that anybody has reported, a threat of someone being killed. This is someone being choked to death. We have it on video with the man pleading for his life. There is no excuse for that I can even contemplate or imagine right now. And so we've heard a lot in recent days about rule of law, and that's exactly right. We need to be emphasizing rule of law. And a rule of law that is Biblically just is a rule of law that carries out justice equally.
Romans 13 says that the sword of justice is to be wielded against evildoers. Now, what we too often see still is a situation where our African-American brothers and sisters, especially brothers, are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be executed, more likely to be killed. And this is a situation in which we have to say, I wonder what the defenders of this would possibly say. I just don't know. But I think we have to acknowledge that something is wrong with the system at this point and that something has to be done.
Frankly, nothing is more controversial in American life than this issue of whether or not we are going to be reconciled across racial lines. I have seen some responses coming after simply saying in light of Ferguson that we need to talk about why it is that white people and black people see things differently. And I said what we need to do is to have churches that come together and know one another and are knitted together across these racial lines. And I have gotten responses and seen responses that are right out of the White Citizen's Council material from 1964. In my home state of Mississippi, seeing people saying there is no gospel issue involved in racial reconciliation.
Are you kidding me? There is nothing that is clearer in the New Testament that the gospel breaks down the dividing walls that we have between one another. The gospel is what turns us away from hating our brother so much so that John says in 1 John 3 that the one who hates his brother is not of the spirit of Christ, but is of the spirit of the evil one, of the spirit of the devil. If that is not a gospel issue then I don't know what is.
So we do have some real problems in society around us. We have some real problems in our own hearts and in our own churches. We have a group of people—a small group of people, not a lot of people—some unreconstructed racists in American society and we have some who continue to come and to sit in pews of churches and pretend as though they are disciples of Jesus Christ. And we have some other people who are willing to speak to any possible issue, from the framework of Scripture that goes on in the world until it comes to the question of whether or not we maybe do have some legitimate problems being faced by our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, and then at that point they become completely silent and say the gospel doesn't speak to this. I think that's wrong.
Some of these issues are going to be complicated, and some of these particular. . . when it comes to Ferguson we're going to have different understandings of what the grand jury should have done and how they should have handled it. There are going to be some differing interpretations. But folks, when we've got police officers killing a man on video with a chokehold, can we not say there are still some problems in American society when it comes to race?
And if the church of Jesus Christ cannot say that . . . we don't have all the answers to fix the systemic structure. But what we do know is that we in our churches ought to be grieving over the fact that we are siloed away from one another into white churches and black churches and Latino churches far too often. And that one of the ways that we ought to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ is by congregations that love one another and that go beyond carnal divisions and instead signal what Paul says to the church in Ephesus at Ephesians chapter 3 is the manifold wisdom of God in breaking down the division between Jew and gentile, breaking down the division between Scythian and Jew. All of these divisions broken down so that our identity is in Christ, so that we love one another and know one another.
The situation that we have right now is not the book of Acts. It would be easy in Acts chapter 6 for the disciples to simply say, "Well, the Greek widows are having problems—that's the Greeks problem. Let the Greek church handle that." No, it's Jewish apostles setting aside deacons, Jewish deacons in many cases, to minister to the Greek widows. Why? Because the Greeks weren't some other part of the body of Christ. They are part of one body. And if we can't start to model that in our churches and start to show that in our churches to the outside society, then I'm not sure what we have to say.
Phillip Bethancourt: Thanks for listening to this special edition of the Questions and Ethics program. We want to encourage you to pray for our country and our churches in light of these recent things that have unfolded on racial reconciliation. We'll be back again with you soon to talk about how to apply the gospel to the pressing issue of the day.