6/17/2020 at 2:15 pm

Dignified and Depraved

This is the third post in a series responding to the death of George Floyd. The first post, entitled I Am Derek Chauvin, gave two broad encouragements. The first encouragement was to develop a compassionate and empathetic posture towards the black community. The second was to recognize in ourselves the seed of what we saw in Derek Chauvin. The second post, entitled Systemic Indifference, expanded on the first encouragement to empathize. This current post touches on the second encouragement of self-reflection and then explores guiding principles for practical solutions.

When I wrote of both empathy and humility in my first post, I was really just drawing from the two sides of a Christian understanding of human nature. On one hand, we have all been created in the image of God. This should cause us to place a very high value on human dignity, and to defend human dignity whenever it is attacked. Therefore, if the dignity of African Americans is being challenged in this country, whether in explicit or implicit ways, we should be moved to take corrective action.

On the other hand, we have all become corrupted through sin. Recognizing our depravity is not only a prerequisite for salvation, but it’s also an important guiding principle as we engage in issues such as the one we are engaging in now. Typically, a moral movement is an attempt to elevate human dignity in some way, which is usually a very good thing. I believe, though, that the principle of human depravity supplies necessary ballast to direct our efforts to elevate human dignity. Human depravity provides sideboards for our efforts.

As we talk about sideboards, however, it gets dicey. We are talking about how wide this movement can be. What can it include and what can it not? What kind of compromises can we make, if any? Who do we partner with? These are the kinds of “sideboard” questions I’m talking about. If we are to support the current movement, we should critically examine what is associated with that movement, and then make decisions about how to proceed.

With that in mind, I’m going to take us through what I think is a helpful rubric. I’ll talk about placing different features of this movement under the categories of reject, redeem and receive. As Christians, there are some features of culture that we outright reject because they are clearly contrary to biblical truth. There are some features that we redeem, attempting to promote certain aspects of those features while transforming the rest. Finally, there are some features of culture that we see as very good and noble, and we confidently receive them. It’s not always easy to know what belongs in each category, but it’s a helpful place to start.

Depravity and Dialogue

Before we get there, though, let me quickly recap why an acknowledgement of our own depravity is critical to even enter into the conversation. In a sweeping moral movement like this one, it’s very easy to claim a patch of the moral high ground, and to elevate ourselves above those who haven’t seen the light. We then make sharp divisions between ourselves and those morally degenerate people, so much so that we’re unwilling to even talk to people in another camp. Travis mentioned in his sermon this past Sunday that there are many people who are making declarations over social media to defriend any who don’t perfectly toe the moral line. It’s simply the way today’s cancel culture plays out.

Paul’s letter to Titus, however, offers us a different perspective. After encouraging submission to authorities and courtesy towards all people, this is what Paul says:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Titus 3:3-6

The point is this. We treat people respectfully when we understand that any moral achievement was not merely gained through personal insight and compassion. We were all once foolish and hateful until our eyes were opened. In other words, when I acknowledge my own depravity and my inability to change by myself, I treat everybody else with great respect.

So before we start talking about what ideas to reject and what to receive, let’s again own the reality of our natural depravity, and thereby enter into the conversation on a level playing field.

Depravity and Discernment

After that reminder, let’s now take a look at some of the specific issues that we’re all struggling with. After all, as I alluded to above, the recognition of human depravity not only helps us to approach a contentious issue with the kind of humility that leads to fruitful discussion, it also helps us to evaluate approaches to addressing human dignity issues.

Many Christians are struggling right now because they desire to support the black community, but are hesitant because it feels like that support requires aligning themselves with organizations or causes that do not share other biblical values. Let me give two examples.

First, there’s the Black Lives Matter organization. While we would all acknowledge the legitimacy of the idea that black lives matter, many of us struggle with the entirety of what the official Black Lives Matter organization represents. There are several reasons for this. First, a quick look at the stated vision of Black Lives Matter demonstrates a strong emphasis on promoting the acceptance of the full spectrum of sexual and gender identities, while downplaying the value of the traditional nuclear family. Additionally, it has been noted that the organization has Marxist roots. And not only in classical Marxism, but also in a kind of neo-Marxism or what’s known as Cultural Marxism, Critical Theory, or Identity Politics. For reasons that I will describe below, this kind of philosophy can be problematic for Christians.

Another dubious cause is the #DefundThePolice movement. There is disagreement about the actual goals of this movement. Some would say those goals are modest, not to completely eliminate the police force, but instead to significantly redistribute funding and redefine the scope of an officer’s job. Others would desire it to go much further. Regardless, many Christians recognize the importance of God-ordained authorities that maintain order and punish wrongdoers (see Romans 13:1-7), and see any reduction of an already strained police force as extremely dangerous.

So with these examples in mind, let’s try to get underneath them. We could evaluate these ideas from several different angles, but I want to say that beneath them all, we struggle because they fail to take into account human depravity. Gender ideology places too much trust in personal definitions of identity. Marxism trusts human diligence apart from commensurate incentive. Identity Politics can use group classifications to distinguish between the righteous and sinners, rather than recognizing the sin that flows through every human heart. The proposal to defund the police assumes that human nature is such that humanity will thrive apart from authority. In each case, there is an overestimation of human trustworthiness. If human depravity is recognized, it is usually done so in a limited number of people.

Looking at it from that angle, many of our reservations are certainly valid. Even if we wouldn’t immediately describe it this way, many of us hesitate because we sense that a human dignity issue is charging ahead without taking into account the universality of human depravity, and the extreme ramifications of dismissing it. What’s more, this division between those who are eager to address the human dignity issues, and those who are concerned about misguided philosophies, is amplified by what I see as a large generational divide. Here’s what I mean.

I’m speaking in generalities, but from my observations, there tends to be a large difference between those who experienced their formative years before or during the 1980s, and those who grew up afterwards. The key event was the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later in 1991. Prior to those years, the United States was involved in a four-decade-long Cold War. During those four decades, communism was the threat. Everything good and noble was jeopardized by a Godless, collectivist system of government that eliminated freedom and placed the blame for all of our issues on class distinctions rather than on human depravity. All over the world, we saw governments embrace communism, commit horrible human rights atrocities, and then eventually decline and collapse.

Because of this experience, many people in their 40s and older are very leery of anything with a Marxist flavor. The younger generation, however, did not grow up in that Cold War fog. So instead, they see our issues as being more related to discrimination and oppression.

Now, there is validity in each viewpoint. I would agree that much of the younger generation is naive to the issues that inevitably arise with socialism. I would also agree that many in the older generation, due to their legitimate concerns about socialism, have neglected to see other important human dignity issues as in need of serious attention. But because of these different emphases, it’s very easy for us to miss each other, especially in the current conversation.

Reject, Redeem and Receive

So with all of that background, let me return to our reject/redeem/receive grid and tell you where I land.

As I said earlier, there are some things that we should outright reject. I would put much of the #DefundthePolice movement in this category. As I mentioned above, there are different ideas about what defunding really means, but the general direction seems to me to be wildly misguided. It fails to recognize the difficulty of law enforcement. It fails to recognize the depravity that would run wild absent strong authority. It places too much confidence in the ability of “social programs” to take the place of a police force. I can understand the need for reform, but I believe that much of what is being proposed would have very negative consequences.

But next comes the most difficult category of redeem. What is redeemable? Is anything redeemable if it doesn’t flow directly from a biblical worldview? Well, I do believe in common grace, meaning that as God blesses humanity in general, there can be ideas that come out of the world that are good and honorable. With that in mind, I believe that it is legitimate in some cases to partner with organizations or causes that do not perfectly share my values. In our complex world, it may even be inevitable. We do it when we pay taxes. We do it to some extent when we make purchases from most businesses. And we do it when we join with others in promoting certain social causes. For example, in some situations I am willing to work with Mormons in pro-life causes, even though I would reject their theology.

Coincidentally, or I might say providentially, this is much of the issue that we are discussing during our current Exiles sermon series. As we cover the period of the Jewish exile, we are trying to gain insight into what it looks like to live in and even bless a culture that is at best a mixed bag of values. Daniel and his friends encountered this dilemma. They were charged to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), meaning they would “partner” with a pagan society for its good. This obviously required discernment, and there were clearly times they rejected parts of that pagan society, but there was a willingness to work within the constraints of that society. Our challenge is to do the same.

In our current case, my leaning is to strive to work with others to promote the welfare of the black community, even if I see some of their ideologies as imbalanced. Of course, there are limits, but my general posture is openness to building bridges, and by doing so have the opportunity to positively influence those groups of people. In regard to using the phraseology of the movement, I am slow to correct the use of the phrase “black lives matter.” After all, it is my belief that the vast majority of people do not associate the full agenda of the organization with the phrase. Besides, to me the greater danger in this moment is to miss an opportunity to love and embrace the black community. White Christians have done that before, and now we’re struggling to transform the culture (e.g. in the abortion issue) because of ethnic disunity.

Now, I definitely think we should be very aware of potential baggage that comes along with partnerships. In fact, I would urge everyone to develop an understanding of critical theory and the pitfalls of socialism (maybe I’ll discuss those in a future post). But right now, I just believe the more urgent issue is to address the human dignity problem. As we go, we should make adjustments and steer clear of destructive paths, but sometimes you have to start riding a bike before you can make course corrections.

And finally, I believe the church can receive a charge here. I want to see the church initiate efforts to demonstrate that black lives do indeed matter. Although I’m open to partnerships as described above, ideally the church would be active in developing tangible ways to cross barriers and extend compassion, without the confusing baggage that can come along with certain partnerships. Surely this is an opportunity for the church to creatively brainstorm concrete ways to pursue racial reconciliation. I am still wrestling with what that means practically, but my hope is that we can move in that direction. I would invite you to join me in prayer, and I would love to discuss any ideas that you have.

Hope for the Future

Admittedly, this has been a discouraging time and it’s easy to be pessimistic about the future. But I do have hope, and I don’t believe that the foundation of our country is irreparably broken. Although there are strong voices calling for a wholesale change in our economic, political and law enforcement systems, I believe that we as a country already have the resources to move in the right direction. I appreciated Marco Rubio’s speech on the Senate Floor last week (which I would encourage you to take 11 minutes and watch). In it, he shares this:

“The foundations of our country are not irredeemably racist. Abolition, women’s suffrage, desegregation, the Civil Rights movement—these were not appeals to overthrow our values, these were demands that we fulfill them. And the Constitution that once considered slaves three-fifths of a human being was ultimately the vehicle used to free them and, eventually, to secure their most basic rights.”

Marco Rubio

Our founders did design into the fabric of our country an emphasis on both human dignity (…all men are created equal…) and human depravity (recognized in our system of checks and balances). We have not always consistently applied those principles (e.g. slavery), but the pieces are there if we pick them up and use them. My hope is that we can, and that the church can lead the way.

-Aaron, on behalf of the Summitview Pastors