Ferguson and the Path to Peace

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The mood in Ferguson, Missouri, is tense, after a grand jury decided against indicting a police officer for the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. The tension ought to remind us, as the church, that we are living in a time in which racial division is hardly behind us. That reality ought to motivate us as citizens to work for justice, but also as the church to seek to embody the kingdom of Christ.

We haven’t as of yet sorted through all the evidence the grand jury saw and we don’t know precisely what happened in this nightmarish incident. What we do know is that the Ferguson situation is one of several in just the past couple of years where white and black Americans have viewed a situation in starkly different terms. White Americans tend, in public polling, to view the presenting situations as though they exist in isolation, dealing only with the known facts of the case at hand, of whether there is evidence of murder. Black Americans, polls show, tend to view these crises through a wider lens, the question of whether African-American youth are too often profiled and killed in America. Whatever the particulars of this case, this divergence ought to show us that we have a ways to go toward racial reconciliation.

One of the things I’ve learned over the past year is that nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America. Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago. That’s just mail, with no real harm. I cannot imagine what it would be to worry about the physical safety of my sons. We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn’t be deceived. The old zombie of Jim Crow still moves about.

So what should we do? In the public arena, we ought to recognize that it is empirically true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers. We cannot shrug that off with apathy. Working toward justice in this arena will mean consciences that are sensitive to the problem. But how can we get there when white people do not face the same experiences as do black people?

The answer for the Body of Christ starts with a robust doctrine of the church lived out in local congregations under the lordship of Christ. The reason white and black Americans often view things so differently is because white and black Americans often live and move in different places, with different cultural lenses. In the church, however, we belong to one another. We are part of one Body.

The reason African-Americans tend to speak out against racial profiling and disparate sentencing is because often they can imagine their own sons or brothers or nephews in that place. As those in Christ, we have the same family dynamic at work, regardless of whether we are black or white, Jew or Gentile. In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters. We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts.

Consciences are not simply shaped by ideas. They are shaped by affections. As sociologist Robert Nisbet pointed out last century, soldiers aren’t motivated to fight chiefly by the patriotic speeches of their commanders but by their sense of unity and camaraderie with their fellow fighters. They are a band of brothers. The same should be true, except infinitely more so, within the church. That’s why the early church saw to it that they listened to the Greek widows who felt ignored in the distribution of food (Acts 6), and why the largely Gentile churches were included in an offering for the relief of the church in Jerusalem.

In order to get there, we will need churches that are not divided up along carnal patterns of division—by skin color or ethnicity or economic status. We will need churches that reflect the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) in the joining together of those who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, the blood of Christ, and the unity of the Spirit. When we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to stand up and speak up for one another.

That doesn’t mean that every situation will have an immediate resolution. We will still live in a fallen world, in which the justice system will sometimes discover wrongdoing and sometimes won’t. But it will mean that we will go a long way toward reflecting in our churches the united kingdom of Christ more than divided states of America.

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I disagree with President Barack Obama’s decision to act unilaterally on immigration policy. I am for immigration reform, for all sorts of reasons that I have outlined elsewhere. The system we have is incoherent and unjust. I have worked hard to try to see the system changed, and will continue to do so. It’s because of my support for immigrants and for immigration reform that I think President Obama’s executive actions are the wrong way to go.

Read the entire article at Time Ideas

Recently, a question came to me from a listener who wrote, “Dr. Moore, we are planning our wedding, and we were planning to write our own vows, but after watching the livestream of the ERLC National Conference, we noticed that you said that you don’t let couples write their own vows. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and should we rethink this?”

Okay, well, when I say this, what I am not saying is that there is some inspired, inerrant set of wedding vows. I normally use the Book of Common Prayer wedding ceremony. There is nothing that is handed down by God on golden tablets in the Book of Common Prayer. I certainly, as a Baptist, wouldn’t think that.

But what I do think the issue is, is what is the wedding. And this is the reason why I don’t let couples write their own vows when I am doing the marrying—because I think we are in a culture right now where many people assume that the wedding is the celebration of the love of the couple. Now, of course it is that to some degree, but it is so much more than that, and the main point of the wedding is about more than highlighting the individuality of the couple.

In a biblical understanding of marriage the couple is being given to one another, and there is an accountability, a public accountability for the marriage, for the wedding. That’s the reason why Jesus is present as part of the community at a wedding at Cana, and in the epistles of the New Testament the writings about marriage are not simply to the couples themselves but to the entire body of Christ. We are members of one another, and we are responsible for one another.

And so, when we are gathering together for a wedding, we have a gathering of witnesses. That’s why in the traditional Anglican wedding ceremony we gather “in the sight of God and these witnesses to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” The people there aren’t just guests at the party. They are people who are witnessing the vows that are being made with the implicit message there—we are representing the body of Christ to hold you accountable to these vows, to help you through these vows, to support you as you seek to keep these vows.

And when a couple writes his or her own vows, or when a couple together writes their own vows, what’s happening is that couple is suggesting somehow that their vows are unique. The

vows are not unique; as a matter of fact, as a friend of mine who is a pastor puts it often, what makes the wedding, any particular wedding, significant is not what makes it different from every other wedding but what makes it the same.

A couple starting out a wedding frankly don’t know the vows that they need to make without the rest of the body of Christ, with those who’ve gone before them. A twenty-five-year-old couple, they are not thinking about Alzheimer’s disease. They are not thinking about what happens when we find out that our small child is dying with cancer. They don’t think about what happens if one of us commits adultery and we have to work through the aftermath of that. The rest of the body of Christ is speaking of the fact that the vows you are making to one another aren’t simply when things are in conditions as they are right now, and it’s not simply when things are in conditions that you can imagine right now, but it’s in sickness and in health; for richer, for poorer; till death do us part. Those are the sorts of vows that ought to be made.

And also because what’s happening in that wedding ceremony ought to be something that is the same sort of thing that ought to happen when we baptize. The people who are gathered there who are married ought to be seeing a reenactment, in as much as possible, of what it is that they themselves have vowed to do. They are participating in this not only by witnessing these vows but also in memory of remembering and recommitting to their own vows.

So, when a couple comes to me and says we want to write our own vows, I usually say well then I’m the wrong guy to officiate at this wedding because I really think we need to think of the wedding as about much much more than that.

What’s your question? Send it to me at [email protected]. Maybe there is a moral dilemma that you are facing at your work or maybe something going on in your family or maybe something you have come across in the Bible, and you are just asking how should I think this through as a Christian? Send it to us, [email protected], and I will be glad to take it up when we come back next time for Questions and Ethics.

 

Why Not Just Hand the Sermons Over?

The controversy in Houston rages on, after City Hall subpoenaed sermons from pastors and churches on issues of sexuality and gender identity. The obvious violation of basic American principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state here have united even those who are opposed to one another on all sorts of other issues, including sexuality and gender. But there are some who wonder why not simply comply with the subpoenas and hand the sermons over?

These questions come really in two or three different forms. The first is based on Romans 13, the Apostle Paul’s teaching that the government has God-given authority. We submit to government, the argument goes, even when we don’t agree with specific government policies. So why not just send in the subpoenaed sermons, even if we don’t like it, since we have nothing to hide.

The problem with this view is that Romans 13 is not an unlimited authority. Paul clearly bounds in the power of Caesar’s sword to the punishing of “wrongdoers” (Rom. 13:4). That’s why the Apostle says that taxes are to be paid, along with honor and respect, to those to whom such things are due (Rom. 13:7). On the opposite side of the spectrum from Romans 13 is Revelation 13, which demonstrates what happens when a government oversteps its bounds, as was the case eventually in the Roman Empire’s attempt to regulate worship.

Every authority, under God, is limited. Daniel is obedient to King Nebuchadnezzar, until the king decreed the way prayers should be offered. Peter and John are obedient to the authorities, until they are told how to preach, in which case they defy this authority (Acts 4:19-20).

Moreover, the issue is even clearer when we recognize that the City of Houston, and beyond that the broader American governing system, is, unlike in the case of Caesar, not the rule of one man (or one woman). There were all sorts of governing officials up and down the chain in the Roman Empire, but the ultimate accountability was Caesar himself. In our system of government, the ultimate “king” is the people. As citizens, we bear responsibility for electing officials, for speaking to laws that are made in our name, and for setting precedents by our actions. Shrugging this off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands, so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set.

When the government acts, legal precedents are set. By complying with this unjust decree, Christians would be binding future people and institutions, including those who are the most powerless to stand against such things. If the government can scrutinize the preaching of Christian churches on sexual matters in Houston, the same government could do the reverse in, say, Amarillo. It would be just as wrong for the mayor to demand to see sermons from the Episcopal Church calling for LGBT anti-discrimination laws as it is to do this. As citizens, we bear responsibility. This is analogous to the tax collectors and soldiers coming to John and to Jesus asking how they are to function as Christians in the world of Caesar. They were not to use their power to defraud people or to go beyond their delegated authority (Lk. 312-14; 19:8).

It sounds spiritual and pious to say that we are just going to “give up our rights” and “surrender our place at the table.” We should indeed do that. When we are stricken on the cheek, we turn the other one. When someone takes our tunic, we give up our cloak as well (Matt. 5:40-41). That’s quite different though from those who have been given police authority ignoring assaults; such is injustice decried by Scripture. And it’s quite different from a soldier forcibly collecting cloaks because “you ought to be giving those up anyway.”

That’s why the Apostle Paul, quite eager to give up his personal rights (1 Cor. 11:7-11), appealed to his Roman citizenship repeatedly in the Book of Acts, litigating for liberty. And that’s why he, like John and Peter, refused to comply with a decree that was unjust (Acts 16:35-39).

But, some would ask, aren’t these sermons public anyway? Why would we not want the mayor and the city attorney to hear them? Of course, and of course. The question, though, is who has the authority to demand such things. The subpoena is not a request but rather a use of coercive state power. The compliance with this sets in motion a potential continuation of such unjust power that will harm those, again, with the least power to counteract such things. Imagine such subpoena power being used against impoverished recent immigrants to America, with little knowledge of the language and with few social and political connections?

The issue here is not the end-result of listening to sermons, any more than the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were about the end result of eating bread and ruling the world. The question is how does one get there, and who is doing the giving. That’s why my Baptist forebears refused to pay the licensing fee to preach the gospel, even though they could have taken up an offering to do so. The issue wasn’t how much money, but rather who was claiming the authority to demand it. That’s not a question of politics, but of lordship.

Yes, the mayor and the city attorney should see sermons. And that’s why I think all of those not subpoenaed should freely send their sermons in, in solidarity with those who are under this subpoena. And that’s also why I think those under the subpoena should refuse to do so. The Apostle Paul left Philippi, just as the magistrates wanted him to do, but he didn’t move an inch until the magistrates’ command to do so was revoked (Acts 16:37-39). Peter and John didn’t stay, all the time, in the temple court preaching Jesus. But they didn’t cease while they were under orders to do so (Acts 4:21-23).

Religious liberty isn’t ours to give away to Caesar, and soul freedom isn’t subject to subpoena from City Hall.

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