SOME THEOLOGICAL WORDS FOR
OUR PRESENT CRISIS
By Dr. Riley B. Case
It is inappropriate for me, an old, white male privileged guy, to seek to give sociological or political or economic analysis for our nation’s present turmoil. But in light of what is going on in the nation, particularly in regard to racial justice and police reform, and what is going on in the church, I believe it is appropriate to make some theological affirmations. These are from the perspective of orthodox or traditional or evangelical theology.
There is a God who has created the world, who has ordained a moral universe, who reveals himself in history and who operates with an ultimate purpose.
This is not a uniquely Christian claim. A number of different cultures would subscribe to parts of this affirmation. It could be argued that this is natural theology, as presented in Romans 1. America’s founding fathers were strongly influenced by deism but they still believed in creation, in a moral universe and an ultimate purpose. In recent times, however, in a period of growing secularism, persons and groups are presenting a different narrative. They are not sure about God or creation or a moral universe or transcendent meaning or even truth itself. As a result, truth claims and justice claims are set by those with the loudest voices, often on behalf of those with personal or group agendas.
There is still plenty of good will and informed reasonableness in our land today. There is still an innate sense of good and evil that allows us to respond to charges of prejudice and injustice. Christians have an important role to play in being a part of the solution to our problems.
While created in the image of God, humanity is alienated from God and flawed because of Original Sin.
We presently are seeing some of the ugly side of sin in the accounts of racism, of police brutality, of economic injustice, of false narratives in politics, of corporate greed, and much else.
So why are we surprised? Has it not always been this way? One difference between Christians (at least orthodox Christians) and others is at the point of identifying the source of evil in the world. We hear from different perspectives about getting to the source of racism, or of poverty, or of injustice. But this talk goes in circles. Injustice is related to poverty which is related to white privilege which is related to lack of education which is related to lack of government funding which is related to corporate greed which is related to racism and so on.
Orthodox Christians operate with a different assumption. The Bible says: “There is none that is righteous, no, not one.” The source of evil is sin, or not living God-intended lives. Orthodox Christians are strongly criticized for this assumption. Christians are accused of being negative and judgmental and pessimistic. Are not Christians the people who tell everybody else they are going to hell? What’s loving about that?
Let’s tell the story another way. To say we are sinners does not mean we are not valuable or loved. We are created in the image of God but that image is presently marred. We fall short; we miss the mark, even as did people in the Bible. Someone once remarked the Bible must be the Word of God because if human beings were making up the religion of Christianity, they would portray the heroes of the faith as good and righteous and morally upright persons. In the Bible, even the heroes of the faith fall short. There aren’t too many people, it says in Genesis, whom we would memorialize with statues in the park.
An understanding of Original Sin allows us to be realistic in our understanding of the world. Those sensitive to the presence of sin are sensitive to their own weaknesses. They (we) know we are in need of repentance. We ourselves share in the sin. Are we prejudiced? Yes, guilty as charged. Have we done all we can do to bring about justice in the world? No, guilty as charged. Jesus says before we judge others we look at ourselves. We notice the speck in the neighbor’s eye but do not see the log in our own eye. We are flawed. This should give us some sensitivity and grace in how we treat others. However, while an understanding of Original Sin is important it is not the last word.
What is called in Christian circles “gospel” is basically the Truth of God’s grace that comes through the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins in order to reconcile the Father to us.
“Gospel” (forgiveness and grace) is not the same as justice. Justice suggests fairness. Gospel suggests grace that goes beyond fairness. Christians live in two worlds. In the kingdoms of this world we seek justice. We work to make this the most fair and equitable society possible. In this effort we cooperate with all persons of good will. But as believers we belong to another world, or kingdom, God’s kingdom. Here we proclaim grace that goes beyond justice, which is made possible because the consequences of sin are borne by God himself through the cross. As part of this grace we also speak of forgiveness and reconciliation. So we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we be forgiven even as we forgive others.
I once served a church where these things were being discussed in an adult Sunday school class. One man, Art, who was white, had been a car dealer in a big city. I did not know him during those years but I am assuming he was not living out the gospel fully. He came under conviction for the way he had treated minorities in the past and he approached another man in the class, Clarence, a black man, with whom he had developed a friendship. Under conviction, Art confessed his sins of prejudice and racism to Clarence and asked for forgiveness. This brought up all kinds of theological issues. Clarence, the black man said, “I cannot forgive; only God forgives.” My pastoral counsel was that Clarence, a representative black, though he could not forgive on behalf of others, could still communicate the assurance of God’s forgiveness (Luther’s Priesthood of All Believers). But there were more issues. How could Art be exonerated? There was no price paid for the wrongs which had been committed. Justice, at least human justice, would not be served. The answer: an appeal to the mystery of Christ’s atoning death, that is, “through the blood.” Art was exonerated in the same way the criminal on the cross who died with Jesus was exonerated.
Five years ago in Charleston, SC a white man, Dylann Roof, murdered nine members of Mother Emmanuel A.M.C. Church. If members of that church, or any other group, had sought to seek revenge it might well have triggered a race war. Instead they decided to forgive Dylann Roof. The act of forgiveness was so powerful that within two months the confederate flag was removed from the state house grounds in Columbia, SC. An unforgettable message of reconciliation was sent across the world. The gospel message of atonement and forgiveness sounds hopelessly idealistic and unworkable in the world today but it is far more powerful than revenge and hatred.
What does this have to do with the nation’s present concerns over equality and racial justice? As citizens of what we believe should be a just world, we seek laws, policies, programs that will make this a more equitable society. But we also seek to communicate a grace that goes beyond justice, a grace that brings true reconciliation both with God and with sisters and brothers in Christ.
Christian ethics is an ethic of means not ends.
All sorts of people in our day speak of a just society, a new day, in which racism is eradicated and persons live in harmony with one another. The dreams are good but the essence of our ethics is not idealistic dreams but how we live day by day. Religious progressives (called “modernists” at one time) were sure the 20
century would be a Christian Century (and thus the journal
was named). Was not the world getting better and better (they were in denial of Original sin, remember)? The goal was clear: the Kingdom of God under the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. We would fight a war to end wars (World War I). We might support the experiment of communism where everyone shared equally, even if persons have goods taken from them for the sake of a greater good. Whatever it took to bring in the Kingdom we would do it. We would mandate proper speech and proper behavior and proper education, regardless of whether persons agreed with us or not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It must be difficult to be a progressive and claim that things are better and more advanced when in fact they aren’t. A just society is a great goal but Jesus is more interested in how we live than in what we might accomplish. The Sermon on the Mount is sometimes called the ethic for the Kingdom. It is not a vision of ultimate victory and peace on the earth, but a manual calling for pure motives and walking through a narrow gate and a willingness to be blessed even when we are poor and meek and when we mourn.
Implications from these affirmations?
It is tempting to be cynical in these days, and sarcastic, and angry. We are dealing, after all, with much injustice and ugly behavior. Our task is to work for peace and equity, but to realize that laws and policies will not change hearts by themselves. We seek a better way which is, in the words of our United Methodist Discipline: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. (para. 120).