As the twentieth century began to darken toward its sunset, Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer warned of what he called two “horrible values” overshadowing hearts in the West. The tenderhearted, sagacious cultural critic said that popular Western culture was increasingly ruled by its desire for “personal peace and affluence.” In other words, prosperous people essentially said in their hearts, “Leave me alone so I can live in material comfort.” In this mentality, the world is there for our consumption, and other people exist for our convenience. As the twenty-first century continues to rise, the skies currently soaked in eerie shades of apocalypse, it seems the soul-level darkness of these self-seeking values is overshadowing Christian responses to the traumas of our times.
In the midst of massive, perennial, big-picture social issues bearing down upon our day with particular heaviness, Christian focus shifts quickly to sub-discussions about good causes being co-opted by bad ideologies. Among conservative Christians especially, warnings are multiplying “not to get caught up in ….” particular sociological ideologies. These thought systems are considered so radically unbiblical that they not only corrupt ostensibly good causes, they apparently justify wholesale Christian cancellation of words and phrases associated with them - even when the controversial verbiage predates its politicization and is in itself a statement of first-order, first-page biblical anthropology. (Al Mohler - President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and prolific writer and political commentator – presents thoughts along these lines here ).
In this blog entry, taking my cue from Schaeffer, I want to warn against an ideology that corrupts everything - including the warnings about corrupting influences! This corrupter is so insidious that before it pollutes our well-meaning, Bible-based warnings about bad ideologies, it corrupts our view of Scripture itself. When we have a dimmed view of the “lamp unto our feet” we’ll have a hard time focusing on the primary issues of our day, and we’ll overlook the hurting people the Lord puts in our path of influence. Darkness deepens to blindness when we’re just fine keeping off that path for the sake of our (unexposed) desire for personal peace and affluence.
As you might have guessed, the corrupter I’m referring to is sin, but not sin simplistically considered. Ironically and instructively, calling something a “sin issue” has become a means of minimizing the issue, or at least minimizing and sometimes canceling discussion about it. But behind the biblical word “sin” is what we might call sin’s ideology: in a word, autonomy.
In I John 3, the Apostle defines sin as “lawlessness,” literally “without law” – in context, without divine law. To sin is to live without regard for God’s law. To disregard God’s law is to displace and replace the lawgiver, most essentially with the law-breaking self. Thus, we have autonomy – literally, self-law.
Autonomy is and produces death. To walk away from the one who is eternal life, as did our first parents, is to die; it’s to court and be conquered by everlasting death. Autonomy always yields a bitter, necrophiliac harvest. The pernicious products of autonomy we’ll examine in this entry are aloofness and aloneness.
Undiagnosed autonomy is rotting some Christian responses to hard pressing social and sociological pressures. Of all believers, Reformed Christians ought to be most on guard against this ancient malady. We eschew any humanistic corruption to our theology, seeking to live life soli deo gloria. We ought to be best equipped to diagnose autonomy when it presents itself in even the subtlest of symptoms. But as Reformed faith and life is practiced in a culture which prizes individualism, personal peace and affluence, our professed system of theological immunity may have been severely compromised.
Going the Distance
When autonomy has a hold on our hearts, warnings to “not get caught up in…” result not so much in discernment as in disengagement. Aloofness. Distancing ourselves from ideas can result in distance from the people who promote them, many of whom in our day are deeply hurting. We must remember that the ideologies we’re being warned against often originate and are meant as medicinal metanarratives. In general, they gain traction in places and among people who are in great pain. And yes, absolutely, bad philosophical diagnosis and prescription can sometimes allure the attention and affirmation of well-meaning but theologically inattentive would-be helpers of the oppressed; we might unwittingly endorse and embrace a system guilty of gross theological malpractice, accidentally promoting ideologies which not only fail to mitigate social ills but which actually cause them to metastasize. I get it. Thus, I am very grateful for highly educated academic specialists who draw our attention to such ideologies (in some cases telling us that the oft-applied terms might not really mean what we think they mean).
I’m not claiming to be a specialist, but much of my work does involve reading, studying, evaluating and critiquing ideologies that are unfaithful to God’s word. Yet there is always the danger of letting such studies devolve into a (perhaps desired) distraction from the greater, perennial offenses to which many of the false ideologies under scrutiny are responding. For example, do we honestly believe that critical race theory is a greater threat than racism itself? This question in no way minimizes the importance of the former; it does imply that collectively, we Christians have historically, continually, by and large in our culture, overlooked the pernicious, perennial presence of the latter.
For some reason, we still don’t seem to want to focus directly on racism. More specifically, there is still widespread skepticism at the idea that racism in America is systemic and still quite severe; this incredulity despite the fact that some expositions and repudiations of critical race theory, intersectionality, cultural Marxism, etc. actually affirm the reality of systemic racism. Such affirmations seem to go unnoticed in the midst of the critical examinations of the issues in which we’re most interested. (See this very thoughtful analysis offered up in a recent Gentle Reformation post, and see Jemar Tisby’s provocative, probative book, The Color of Compromise.) It seems any acknowledgment of systemic racism is only allowed as an aside in a discussion of the philosophical ills we’re really interested in. This aversion is strange, especially coming from Reformed Christians.
We Reformed types think our theology in systems. We typically prize systematic theology as the ruler of theological study. So why would we who so deeply (and rightly) value systematic theology shun or fail to give sustained attention to the suggestion that particular sins are systematic in nature? The study of sin, hamartiology, is a necessary subset of systematic theology (often occurring in conjunction with anthropology or soteriology). Does not our affirmation that God’s truth is united and self-referentially consistent at least suggest that the sin which it systematically redresses is itself systematically present in society? Since when did sin become a one-off entity? Does Scripture not present sin as a hellish whole whose constituent parts and collective totality exalt themselves against God and his law? Does Scripture not often use the term “world” to connote an entire system of godlessness? Shouldn’t we then expect particular expressions of worldliness to possess systemic properties - to metastasize and manifest in societal structures and underpinnings? There are telling inconsistencies here.
For example, if we label abortion as a systemic social ill, which of course we should despite the myriad of complexities involved, why would we not consider racism to be such? Abortion is often used as a conversation stopper when the black community asserts that the lives of its people matter. They are rebuked, “If you really cared about all black lives, you’d shut down Planned Parenthood.” People’s inability to focus on and put out multiple infernos simultaneously is levied against their pleas for help against an incendiary social sin. Yet if we conservative Christians believe that Planned Parenthood disproportionately and purposefully (i.e. systematically) preys upon minority communities, how can we not say that the organization’s abortion services are driven by racism – systemic racism? Another rebuke often issued to silence or temper claims of systemic racism is that things aren’t as bad as they used to be in our country on that issue. And yet, given the abortion statistics and the combined total of every single life lost in that act over the past four decades, so many of those children minorities, aren’t things from that angle actually worse than ever? To be properly concerned about abortion is to be urgently concerned about racism.
Autonomy tempts us to keep our distance from the primary topic of racism and thus, while we focus myopically on sub-discussions of errant ideologies, we lose focus even on the people we claim as our primary concern. Autonomy fools Christians into believing that such avoidance of primary issues is doctrinal purity.
If autonomy is that pervasive among us, it should show up in our view of Scripture, not so much our affirmation of what Scripture is – the word of God – but in our interpretation and application of its sacred words. It seems that autonomy is indeed active in our understanding and use of a passage which has suddenly become very popular in the wake of allegations of systemic racism, white privilege, and complicit guilt. Let’s focus on the last of these, as it most directly connects to this increasingly famous passage.
Ezekiel 18 is cited frequently as the primary and perhaps most obvious go-to passage to establish biblically the idea that we as individuals are responsible for our own personal sin and only for our own personal sin. The idea of complicit guilt, at play in concepts like white privilege and in calls for corporate repentance for past sin, is considered biblically unjustifiable. The problem with such an interpretation of Ezekiel 18 is that it militates against principles pervasive in Scripture and constitutive of its teaching on God, humanity, sin, and salvation in the God-man, Jesus Christ who is making heaven and earth anew (Isaiah 48; Revelation 21).
The passage opens with the Lord addressing the prophet, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” This condemning question does not imply that Ezekiel was personally promoting that proverbial wisdom. In Hebrew, the “you’ is plural. The Lord is confronting the people through their prophet.
The Lord rebukes that proverbial wisdom because the people were using it to deny their individual culpability in sin; he did not rebuke it in order to stipulate their individual autonomy. Such a passage could easily, and ironically, be abused to avoid accountability where Scripture calls us to account. Perhaps in our hard revolt against “complicit guilt,” we’ve done exactly that.
The Lord’s declaration and explication of the statement “the soul that sins shall die” (verse 4) builds upon and is contextually conditioned by his rebuke of the pernicious proverb employed against his divine justice and its righteous ascription of personal culpability among the people. This passage is directed against those seeking to avoid accountability, not those seeking to clear their name from false charges of sin. Thus, Ezekiel 18 turns on us, quick and frightening, not to expose the falsity of claims made against us, but to emphasize our accountability to the judgments we seek to avoid.
Protestant Reformer John Calvin comments on this passage, “…this is the testimony of a corrupt nature, because we desire to throw off the blame as far from ourselves as we possibly can. Hence we begin to strive with God, and to rebel against his judgments. And hence this instruction is the more useful to us, since it is proposed as a remedy for a disease far too common.” The disease of denial and the related malady of blame-shifting are themselves symptoms of the autonomy which led to our and our first parents’ fall (Genesis 3), the autonomy which has the gall to seek refuge in the very Scriptures written to expose and rebuke it. Calvin says that the proverb-pushing people in Ezekiel’s day were “…perverse interpreters of the best teaching.”
Scripture does provide ample comfort and catharsis for those unjustly accused (Psalm 7, for example). Concern to protect the legally, circumstantially innocent pervades Old Testament civic law as it served as “case law” for the moral law (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 17:6, for example). Provisions against the unjust punishment of people were stipulated and inscripturated long before Ezekiel’s life and ministry. Nor is Ezekiel 18’s principle of accountability meant to mitigate God’s self-declaration in relationship to sin and its generational consequences.
Part of the third commandment is God’s self-identification as the one who visits “…the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” God does not here specify any particular manifestations of hatred toward him; he highlights the posture of heart and its devastating consequences for future generations. This principle is complex, but the least we can affirm in this focused discussion is that the proverb condemned in Ezekiel 18 meant something very different from, and was not at all rooted in, the third commandment. The positive principle from Ezekiel 18 does not contradict God’s self-declaration in the ten commandments, nor does it establish a pretense for claims of autonomy; it does not establish our disconnectedness from the sins of the past and the systemic sins of the present.
Any of us who’d seek refuge in Ezekiel 18 from false attribution of sinfulness would do well to first study the Lord’s detailed description of the righteousness he requires. Ironically, and instructively, those arguing on the basis of Ezekiel 18 against confessions of complicity are put in the awkward position of needing to maintain their personal, individual righteousness as God details it verses 5-9. And wouldn’t you know it? Listed among those requirements of righteousness are the very sins which so many pained voices are crying out against in our day, the very sins of commission and omission which comprise the particular expressions of pervasive societal patterns – such as systemic racism - about which we might feel no need to personally repent. It is always a temptation to insert our personal situations into biblical categories not meant for them, and usually when we do, we end up in the opposite position of the exoneration we were hoping that passage would provide.
Combined with the collective testimony of Scripture as to the interconnectedness of humanity and therefore our connectedness in sin (Psalm 14; Romans 3,5; 1 Corinthians 15:33), Ezekiel 18 exposes and rebukes our tendency to hide or ignore personal sin, or to resist holy interrogation because we’re so utterly convinced of the impossibility of our culpability in a certain crime, or kind of crime. Autonomy immediately, aggressively protests innocence against the interrogation of God’s law. When we see broad-based crises and cries against injustice, should our fundamental reaction as Christians be, “Well, don’t blame me!” or “My God, am I in any way culpable here?” (Psalm 7). “Are my personal sins in any way contributing to this pandemic problem?” Scripture encourages such self-examination. Further, the Holy Spirit included in the canon several prayers of complicity in corporate sin, uttered by individuals whose lives seemed utterly, innocently, disconnected form the sin they confess and the personal culpability they claim.
Dare to Be an Ezra
In a culture which has long prized “rugged individualism” on both a personal and national level, it would be easy to take offense at some of the great prayers of corporate repentance in the Bible. Note especially Ezra 9 and Daniel 9.
In Ezra, the titular Hebrew prophet hears of the Israelites’ deep immersion in the “abominations” of the surrounding peoples; their spiritual infidelity was symbolized and sealed by their entering God’s holy covenant of marriage with those who worshiped other gods. Ezra was appalled, and those who “trembled at the words of the God of Israel” (cf. Isaiah 66:1-2) gathered around him to sit in fasting and mournful silence. Ezra broke the silence after the evening sacrifice, crying out, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt…”
Note what Ezra does not say: “God, don’t blame ME for these crimes! I’ve never done the things other people are doing…” Jesus mentioned a Pharisaical prayer very similar to that one – “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers …” (Luke 19). The Lord was not pleased with that prayer. He was very pleased with the prayer of the humble man who, like Ezra, had profound difficulty even lifting his face to address the righteous God above and who cried out “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Lord honors prayers offered by people painfully convinced of personal sin, seeking him for forgiveness and restoration. The Lord justifies those who do not seek to justify themselves.
Though we have no reason to believe that Ezra was personally committing any of the particular abominations whose presence among the people so pained him, he nonetheless identified these atrocities as “our iniquities” which together constitute “our guilt.” If Ezekiel 18 teaches personal independence from the sins of others, then we have the prayer of a minor prophet running afoul of the prayer of a major prophet – canonical chaos! But Ezra didn’t stop there. Not content to identify himself as co-conspirator in the sins of the present, he looks and links himself to the past, lamenting the sins of “our fathers” which typified a pattern of perennial sins for which “we have been in great guilt.” Ezra calls past and present sin in which he did not personally, directly, intentionally participate “our sin” and in doing so, implicitly but clearly calls it my sin. This prayer complements, it does not contradict, the principles of Ezekiel 18.
It might be objected that Ezra cites the people’s past only because they were presently committing the same historical sins; thus, and only thus, Ezra laments in the present a past full of the same sinful stuff. The objection could be raised against contemporary prayers confessing complicity in past instances of systemic racism, such as slavery. But this objection begs the question by assuming that systemic racism is not in fact occurring today. To decide that question, we must evaluate present phenomena in light of past sin and potential connections via principle if not specific practice. Even more fundamentally, we must scrutinize present phenomena in light of Scripture. (Hold that thought!)
Further, the objection seems more fundamentally predicated upon the oft-expressed idea that it is unjust to confess complicity in the sins of other people if we did not personally and willingly do the same things. But that objection is utterly inconsistent with the prophet’s prayerful words of personal complicity in the people’s sins. If the objection holds, we must either assume without any biblical evidence that Ezra was in fact personally, actively, and intentionally participating in the crimes which he calls “our iniquities.” Or, we must conclude that Ezra’s prayer is unrighteous. Yikes! Neither option is biblically justifiable. Nor is Ezra’s example by any means unique in Scripture. Daniel dared to pray the same way.
Newly mindful that seventy years must pass before the Babylonian captivity would come to an end, the courageous prophet confesses the sin which incited that divine judgment (Daniel 9). Just like Ezra, Daniel does not protest personal innocence concerning these sins, nor does he tout his life-risking personal faithfulness (Daniel 6) in wicked Babylon as reason for God to exempt him from suffering the consequences of the sins of the people. Daniel confesses complicity in, and he accepts the consequences for, behavior for which an individualist ethic would judge him completely innocent. Like Ezra, he cries to God, “…we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly …” and “we have not listened to your servants the prophets…” and “…to you, O Lord, belongs righteousness . . . To us, O Lord, belongs open shame …” Also like Ezra, Daniel references the past in view of present judgment, acknowledging God’s goodness, righteousness, and mercy, and seeking his face for forgiveness and a restoration that would run deeper than a return from exile. “For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord hear; O Lord, forgive …”
These humble prophets were not professing pious platitudes; they were not virtue-signaling by way of insincere self-deprecation. Nor were they simply confessing complicity merely as prophets, merely as representatives of sinful people. Surely these two prophets were not the only individuals among the Israelites whose life pattern largely and fundamentally opposed the sins for which the entire people were judged (1 John 3:6,9). Through even the most devastatingly thorough judgments, the Lord has always preserved a faithful remnant among the sinful people (Ezra 9:13; Isaiah 10 and 11; Romans 9). Their status as prophets did not separate them from the sins of the general populace; if anything, it positioned them uncomfortably close to the searing scrutiny of God’s relentlessly righteous law, as they were burdened with its proclamation to a collectively, comprehensively rebellious people. That close to God’s law, to God’s heart, their souls simply could not contain their genuinely godly sorrow. It came bursting out of them in symbolic acts of outraged contrition; in mournful, appalled silence (Ezra 9:3-4; Psalm 119:36); and in painful, prayerful confessions of personal complicity in corporate, systemic sin. We in our day would do well to follow their noble, humble, God-glorifying example.
God does indeed comfort Christians by reminding us that he does not forget the faithful obedience of his people (Hebrews 6:10), and the Lord provides means and words to protest personal innocence from particular crimes. In tandem with these principles and promises, the Spirit everywhere in his word emphasizes the legitimacy of the concept of complicit guilt in systemic sin. Reformed theology emphasizes this explicitly, and so Reformed Christians must own it personally.
Though much could and should be written expounding each of the following emphases, the following is a mere snapshot of how and why Scripture directs us in our understanding and confession of sin.
Scripture commands us to sing the Psalms in praise of God (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3). So many of these Psalms are confessions of sin. These songs come into their own most powerfully and essentially when sung in the gathered worshiping assembly, yet throughout the Psalms we see, and we sing, the pervasive presence of the first-person pronoun. Together, we sing “God be merciful to me …” (Psalm 51). This individualizing is not individualism. Such wording allows us to be mindful of our songful confession’s application to particular sins in our lives while simultaneously confessing our shared sinfulness as a corporate body that is essentially one in the Lord. Together as one, we commiserate daily in sinful word, thought, and deed; together as one, we are inevitably connected to systemic sin that finds particular expression in our individual lives.
Note as well that the Psalms often recall afresh the sinful past which is our legacy as the historic people of God (Psalm 78; I Corinthians 10). The Psalms are not stuck in the past, but they do insist that we own it and that we continually confess it as we endeavor after new obedience. If God was offended at the idea of complicit guilt; if we should bring up the past if and only if we are presently committing precisely the same sins as our forebears; if it is morally wrong to confess complicity in something we did not personally, intentionally, and actively do – then why would the Holy Spirit pen painful corporate confession as praise and command everyone in the new covenant church to confess it in song?
With Spirit-inspired words, the Apostle commands the singing of these songs, so we can conclude that the painful remembrance they bring and the past they call us to confess must not contradict the full forgiveness we have in Christ (Psalm 32, 103; Romans 4). Such confession, which literally means to “say with,” agrees with God in his judgment of the past. Nor does corporate confession which acknowledges our inseverable connection to the past contradict Paul’s deeply personal, Spirit-inspired admonition in Philippians 3 for believers to forget what things lie behind us. Scripture forbids morbid fixation on the past because such produces paralysis, not progress, in holiness. At the same time, and for the same reason – progress in holiness - Scripture calls us to remember and own up to our sinful past (1 Corinthians 15:9). So if we praise God in the way he’s commanded, we will be confessing our present complicity in systemic sins, seeking his forgiveness for such, and confessing also his mercy and grace to enable our striving onward and ahead in faithful obedience toward our high calling in Christ Jesus. The individualism, the autonomy and the aloofness it incites, that finds complicit guilt repulsive as an ethical concept, is utterly unbiblical.
Corporate, complicit guilt is a function of original sin (Romans 5). Popularly put, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Or, “We’re not sinful because we sin; we sin because we’re sinful” (Psalm 51). This Christian doctrine attributes actual guilt to the natural posterity of Adam, though not a single one of us was present in the Garden to follow the tempter’s lead away from God and life and peace. The only exception to the corruption of original sin and the ongoing sins which rise from it is the second Adam, Jesus Christ. And as always, Christ the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12), provides the perfect, pristine personification and actuation of those Christian truths he calls his disciples to believe and put into practice in their particular callings and contexts. Jesus was and is the only human being who could ever rightly protest about every singular and all systemic sin, “Not my fault!” Yet he was willing to bear our sin, to be counted among sinners, to wear in public humiliation our guilt and our shame. How, then, can we who are actually sinful shy away from, much less balk at, scrutinizing our souls for ways in which we are complicit in systemic sin?
While we may be innocent of particular sinful actions or inactions (Job 31) we are guilty of original sin and actual sins; it’s all tied together in the pernicious knot of humanity’s sin. Only the redemptive work of the spotless sin-bearer can loose that knot and cut those cords. The Spirit’s application of Christ’s work binds us instead to him and therefore to one another in a righteousness, his righteousness, in which not one of us, in ourselves, actually and meritoriously participate (Romans 5,6). And yet it is a righteousness in which every Christian, by grace through faith, is counted by God as complicit (Psalm 32; Romans 3,4; 2 Corinthians 5).
The Law of the Lord, and the Lord of the Law
As Reformed Christians, we affirm the abiding validity of God’s moral law, all ten commandments and their clear details and inferred implications. Doing so positions us in absolute, diametric, detailed opposition to autonomy. We affirm not only God’s essential authority as God, but his absolute, abiding, and binding authority as expressed in his inscripturated law. Even further, as painfully and painstakingly detailed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, we affirm the far reaching, exhaustive, and exhausting demands of God’s righteous law. Theologically, the exposition of the law found in these confessional standards takes its cue from Jesus’s preaching of the law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Among other scorching revelations in his explication of God’s law and therefore his searing exposition of our profound sinfulness, Jesus tells us that unjust anger constitutes murder. Unrighteous indignation is murderous! Note, Jesus does not tell us that if we’re unjustly angry at someone, it’s as if we’ve murdered them in our hearts. He says we are guilty of murder, just to a different degree and perpetrated at a different location. Given our heart’s proclivity, and given our nation’s history, it would actually be shocking, and very difficult to prove in the presence of the righteous judge, that our hearts are free from unholy hate, and that such never finds race-based focus in our own souls or systemic expression in our culture and our country’s societal structures. At the very (very) least, we should in the midst of so many cries for racial justice humbly scrutinize our souls for the root of racism. Here, the blazing heat of God’s law withers our protests of general virtue and particular innocence.
Racism is not mere prejudice. Prejudice is a juridical term which in its most basic sense indicates a conclusion reached too quickly. It signals an uninformed but not necessarily malicious opinion – though the latter is so often associated with it. What is inherent in prejudice is prematurity, not hostility. Racism, however, isn’t a matter of hasty deliberation; it’s a matter of hateful disposition. (Nor is racism restricted to those outside the ethnicity targeted for contempt. One might hate one’s own people, loathing one’s unavoidable personal identification with them, and trying desperately in every way possible to be, or to act, like something other.) This is how Martin Luther King defined racism … “Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life … It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Inevitably, it descends to inflicting spiritual and physical homicide upon the out-group.” King’s phrase “spiritual homicide” unmistakably echoes Christ’s preaching.
If we boil it down to its biblical basics: Racism is unholy hate focused upon a particular people, or peoples. It’s enmity based on ethnicity. Certainly this was going on in biblical days. The Apostle John noted it with a brevity that subtly suggested its pervasiveness. “…for Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4). He notes this sad reality to highlight the staggering nature of Jesus’s socially scandalous conversation with a Samaritan woman, an image-bearer doubly disadvantaged by her sex and ethnicity in the presence of a Hebrew man. Racism was an extant reality in Jesus’s day, and it is sadly alive and well in our day.
Have there been people groups in our country’s past, and are there people groups in our nation’s present, who are disadvantaged and denigrated precisely because of their ethnicity? How can any serious observer of America’s past and present deny that? Denials of such are particularly telling when some of us who personally embody America’s majority ethnicity are talking more and more about a mounting “war against white people.” When it comes to racial bias, we’re evaluating individual instances; we’re looking for patterns; we’re forming theories; we’re expanding our examination to national proportions. In other words, we’re very suspicious of systemic bias that is racially motivated. This should sound familiar. Any interest in and credence attributed to such ideas should incite sympathy among the searchers for those making similar claims, and who’ve been doing such for centuries. We could forgive the latter if they tell people suddenly very interested in race-based bias to “get in line.”
While certain actions are overt and obvious in their racist intent, it can be difficult to establish motive regarding some crimes which contain racially-charged elements in their circumstantial context. But such should never stop conversation, much less quell concern, about racism. Motive is absolutely a legitimate category for investigation, and ought to be so especially among Christians whose code of conduct compels investigation and even condemnation of the motives of the heart before they ever materialize into the actions of our hands. The Lord who has exclusive jurisdiction over and exhaustive knowledge of the human heart and the secret stirrings of particular souls (John 2:25, 16:30, 21:17) has spoken on the subject; he has given us a knowable means by which to discern “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
All for One, and One for All
A further question must be asked based on the nature of God’s law: How can believers balk at complicit guilt when James tells us in 2:10 that to break one of God’s commandments is to break them all? While this logic of legality would produce injustice in civil courts - I shouldn’t be jailed for grand theft auto if jaywalking is my actual crime – it is both righteous and reasonable coming from the God who is simple, i.e. self-existent, absolute, unchanging. His moral character, for which he himself is the standard, is thus infinite and undivided. As I tell my students, God’s law is his heart expressed in the form of commands. A heart doesn't break by percentages. God’s property of absolute moral perfection cannot be transgressed without trespassing upon the whole lot of his attributes. A Reformed (and even further, a “classical,” theism) is dogmatic on these points.
So, while we may protest in light of the headlines, “But I’ve never used a racial slur …” James would ask us, “but have you ever murdered someone?” Jesus would remind us, “Yes you have, if you’ve had unjust anger against anyone for any reason.” Our enmity may not have been based on someone’s ethnicity, but the root of unholy hate is the same, regardless of the circumstances by which it surfaces in our souls.
Yes, again, Scripture does allow for distinctions and differing degrees of severity among sins – some sins are more heinous than others. The weed is worse than the root by reason of its expansion, not by reason of its essence. God does not delight in the false witness which posits guilt where there is none. At the same time, even when the Psalmist or Job protest circumstantial innocence regarding particular sins, they are so horrified at the thought that they would commit such sin that they call down God’s curse upon themselves if in fact it proves true that they were guilty. In other words, their repulsion in the face of false accusation is not self-righteous. Part of how we know its innocence is their willingness to be subject to the most painful strictures should guilt be discovered, not in the corruptible courts of merely human law, but in the uncompromisable, holy jurisdiction of the incorruptible Judge.
The Lord certainly allows that his people might not be guilty of particular thoughts or actions, and he is our advocate as we plead circumstantial innocence (Psalm 43; Matthew 5:11; 1 Peter 2:15). At the same time, given the nature of God’s law, the subtlety of sin and the clear and ever-present danger of self-deceit (James 1:22), when humble believers who tremble at God’s word hear of systemic injustice, they ought to be aghast that even the seeds of such would be present in their souls. They ought to conduct an immediate, Spirit-led investigation of the internal affairs of their hearts. As believers, our response to allegations of systemic sin in society must not be knee-jerk defensiveness; instead, we must drop to our knees in humble self-examination before the law of our loving Savior.
Further, as the Scriptures scrutinize us, we must remember that the Spirit is not searching merely for our sinful activities, but for our sinful in-activities. Reformed believers confess that there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. James tells us that when we know that something is right to do but we fail to do it, we’ve sinned (4:17). Surely, as individuals and as a nation, we have overlooked opportunities to pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed. While some may recoil at the popular protest expression “Silence is Compliance,” does that declaration not have biblical merit? If we are not actively seeking in some way beyond mere speech (1 John 3:17) to redress (at least) obvious, egregious injustice – especially if we are personally benefitting from societal arrangements which unjustly exclude and marginalize others – how is this statement not a just and even biblically-based condemnation of our (in)action, our sins of omission? Passivity in the face of personal sin is evil; how much more heinous is passivity in the face of pandemic sin?
Instead of aggressively protesting our innocence in the face of systemic sin, we must assume the essential posture of the sinner forgiven in Christ – searching by the Word of the Spirit for ways in which our personal sin may be more closely tied than we realize to the systemic sin upon which the Lord is shining the scrutinizing light of Scripture (Psalm 139; Ephesians 5:11). At the very least, even if we come up relatively squeaky clean regarding particular systemic symptoms of original and ongoing sin, should we not as believers ask, “How can I tangibly help its victims and participate in practical ways in the gospel’s battle against that sin?” This is where autonomy produces another insidious irony. It incites an aloofness which, in the midst of current discussions, reduces the truth that the church must “preach the word” to a truism.
James prizes the teaching of the Word, and as such he reminds ministers of the higher standard by which they will be judged (James 3). Together with the rest of the Bible, James teaches that our exposure to Scripture is the means by which our sin is exposed to us. Faithful preaching props up the word as a mirror to our souls and a glass through which we look beyond ourselves to Christ’s righteousness covering us. We receive the latter by faith, which is itself the product of hearing the preached word (Romans 10). At the same time, the same word which exposes sin and calls us to repentance commands subsequent good works which demonstrate that, just like the word, the faith it has produced in us is living and active (James 1, Hebrews 4).
James’s lightning bolt of a letter bears striking resemblance to Jesus’s sermon on the mount in many ways, including his painful application of divine law to believers seeking to justify themselves apart from the works which demonstrate true and living faith (Matthew 7). As we combine James’ emphasis on the ministry of the word (1, 3) with his pervasive emphasis on ministry to the marginalized and oppressed (1, 2, 5), we must conclude that James would consider a ministry of mere speech, even if some of that speech was preaching, to be irreligious (1:26); it constitutes self-deceit in the ostensible hearers of the word if preaching is not followed by the works which demonstrate true faith.
Note that John’s command to love one another in deed, to move beyond mere speech, follows and flows from his condemnation of Cain. This father of generations characterized by similar, increasingly heinous sin (Genesis 4) physically murdered his brother and showed murderous indifference toward his deed. John's command to love also follows his definition of sin as lawlessness (1 John 3:4), whose ideology is autonomy. Have we unknowingly adopted a Cain-like attitude to cover spiritual homicides? Murderous thoughts hot with active hatred or cold with passive indifference? Contrary to the Cain-like aloofness which autonomy incites (Genesis 4:9), we are absolutely our brother’s keepers. We must take practical steps to prove it.
Are the Times Really a’ Changing?
If we will only investigate systemic racism indirectly via the critical study of ideologies emerging to oppose it, then let’s at least start there. But let’s not stop there. Let the increasing popularity of the ideologies we oppose, especially among Christians, serve as a rebuke to the compliant silence of the church on the issues at stake. And digging deeper, let it grieve us toward fruit-bearing repentance when Bible-believing, Christ-loving, justice-seeking believers cannot find among us philosophical satiation and practical catharsis for their righteously restless hearts. We seem to be complicit here for continuing a terrible trend.
Al Mohler notes in "Ugly Stain, Beautiful Hope: My Response to Mika Edmondson" that “…Christians must be urgently concerned with anything that leads to the devaluing of the life of any human.” Mohler responds, not with rebuttal but with remorse, to the idea that seekers of justice have sought refuge in unbiblical ideology and organizations because they found in them what they couldn’t find in the church: activity. Socially consequential activity. In particular, Mohler notes that while a young Martin Luther King, Jr. could have attended theologically conservative institutions such as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary, “…neither was then a welcoming place for a young black minister. That truth is a savage judgment against our institutional honor.” Indeed, though King was invited to speak at SBTS in 1961, some in the student body staged a protest against it. They were concerned for the doctrinal and practical purity of the seminary; Mohler’s analysis suggests that their efforts revealed and resulted in the opposite at their beloved institution.
Until we have done what our Lord commands us to do on behalf of the oppressed, let us abandon the easy excuse that people are leaving our churches quite simply because they can’t handle our truth. It is quite possible that they are just fine with our truth, but they find us truly lacking in our practice (James 1 and 2). Let us, like the prophets, confess our complicity in failing to carry out our Savior’s clear commands concerning the poor and the oppressed; and let us, also like the prophets, humbly and personally accept the corporate consequences as we endeavor after new obedience.
Coming alongside the oppressed and suffering and maintaining wise vigilance about godless ideas is a both/and, not an either/or. Listening and discernment are key themes in James, as are doctrinal and personal moral purity (James 1). The same was true for Paul, who like James refused to countenance as genuine faith anything other than active faith (Philippians 2:12-13; James 2).
To Serve and Protect
The antidote to autonomy is the saving work of Jesus Christ. The antithesis of autonomy is the Christian liberty with which he blesses us as his siblings and servants (Psalm 116:16; 1 Corinthians 8:13; Galatians 5; 1 Peter 2:16).
Christ’s grace frees us to get to work(s) in his name! Christian liberty frees us to come close to the hurting with a calm, calming confidence in Christ; Christian liberty is ruled by the gospel imperative to go to others rather than to wait for them to come to us. Christian liberty compels us to reject the touting of the gospel a reason to keep our distance from people and politics which desperately need its principled wisdom and practical power. Jesus commands us to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:18-20), which involves going to them. When we reply by in essence telling him, “we’re quite happy to help those who come to us and support our way of life,” are we not living as a law unto ourselves?
When we American Christians reckon more fully with how radically, how profoundly post-Christian our society is, we’ll recognize that going to gospel-starved territories in the world means missions work right here in America. Missionary work here mandates our learning to speak the philosophical and practical language of the culture and learning how to speak to those for whom that language and the principles it expresses are the unquestioned ethos of their existence. Being content to preach the gospel to a well-churched crowd, fluent in Christian-ese, is not enough - especially considering that the Lord might in fact bless us by bringing people to our services who may not have the faintest idea what we’re talking about, even as we preach the Word in what most of the congregation might consider a fine sermon full of easily understandable terms and concepts. Conscientious preachers want to connect to those hearing them, and this increasingly requires learning the language and thought patterns of the surrounding culture (which always has a much greater influence on the regulars than we realize).
One vital means of forming those gospel connections both in and out of the worshiping assembly is actively engaging the issues of the day and the historical matters which have made us who we are in the world. Racism is, undeniably, one of those current issues still standing in hellish solidarity with the sins of our past; it is still an insidious, indelible, systemically pervasive aspect of American thought, life, and national identity. We who are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of heaven, longing for and working toward the new heavens and the new earth, have so much work yet to do in abolishing this utter affront to the law and gospel of the world’s Savior and true sovereign.
As Reformed Presbyterian Church (retired) teaching elder Kit Swartz so powerfully put it in a June 27, 2020 op-ed for his local newspaper, The Palladium Times, “…in many ways, white privilege has made whites blind to the reality of racism, insensitive to its excruciating pain, and, consequently, lacking in wisdom and power to overcome it.”
Kit continues, “…we Christians have often failed our Lord in this matter as in the blasphemous doctrine and immoral practice of racial slavery, segregation, discrimination, marginalization, and contempt by professing Christians, including our very selves if we know our hearts truly . . . It is time to repent of racism in our hearts, minds, churches and society, remembering that faith without works is dead.”
As the prophets teach us, judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Repentance involves acknowledging and turning from sins of commission and omission, systemic sin in which we are at the very least complicit as a people, historically and in the present, and more than likely personally guilty of promoting on some level of activity or passivity. And praise God, as it always is with our Lord, joyous blessing follows the merciful misery of seeing our sin for what it is and repenting accordingly.
Give Peace a Chance
The ugly reality of complicit guilt signals the greater, gorgeous reality of our corporate humanity. As the aforementioned doctrine of original sin teaches us, we are all connected to and complicit in the sin and sins of the world. Even the planet itself suffers from human sin.
How many of us have seen the death and decay of the natural world and felt responsible, complicit in the deleterious condition of the planet? Isn’t it common rather to scoff at the idea that humans contribute toxically to planetary ills? Politics aside, how strange for people who affirm from Romans 8 that the planet is cursed because of human sin to scoff at the idea that nature’s catastrophes are not in some very real sense man made!
The Old Testament prophet Hosea puts this connection between people and the planet poignantly, and in the form of an indictment: “…the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land. ‘There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds …Therefore the land mourns …and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying' …” (Hosea 4:1ff).
Confessing our corporate guilt, our complicity in systemic sin, is a grace-driven step in the direction of the wholeness in and for which God designed his creation, a wholeness shattered by the fall but restored and renewed in Jesus Christ (Isaiah 65; Psalm 96; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 5; 2 Peter 3). Sin fractured and further fragments the fundamental unity of creation, the unity which resulted from all things having been made through the second person of the Trinity (John 1). In the first Adam, the world fell apart. In the second Adam, the world comes together. The brokenness, fragmentation and polarizations of the world are more symptoms of autonomy, summed up in the primeval ache of the human heart: aloneness. Autonomy yields the bitter fruit of aloneness.
Our first parents’ seizing of autonomy separated them from a right relationship to God and therefore from a right relationship to one another and to all of the created order. Ours has been called the “Age of the Lonely Self,” and it’s no coincidence that aloneness has reached pandemic proportions in a culture which craves autonomy above all else. Even our efforts to achieve community and peace tend to devolve into fragmentation and factionalism.
It’s true: there cannot be peace without justice. “No justice; no peace.” And it is also true that there cannot be true justice outside of Jesus Christ, the only thoroughly righteous human being to ever live, the one who ever lives to make intercession for us (Isaiah 53; Hebrews 7; 1 John 2). As Christians, we believe that human wholeness, belonging, community and active love for every image-bearer can only come from and be sustained in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2). So we of all people ought to be the most active in addressing and redressing any and all affronts to that shalom among people and in the world.
We’d all prefer to do what’s comfortable, to continue “steady on” with what we’re doing already (which may include very good things). And it’s sorely tempting to aggrandize unbothered continuance by calling it uncompromising doctrinal fidelity. By changing nothing, we feel that we really are doing something. And if we add an additional call to double down on the basic requirements of what church (services) ought to feature anyway (preaching the gospel, rightly participating in the sacraments) it’s easy to feel we’ve done our Christian duty in the messy complex of matters before us and have managed to emerge unstained by the world.
When we respond to crises merely by publicly redoubling our commitments against this or that element at play in them, what tends to be truly strengthened is not our doctrinal rectitude, but the stiff arm by which we maintain distance from those caught up and crying out from within the complex crises before us. Ironically, a hyperextended concern about gospel compromise can actually catalyze that very thing. It proclaims that the pure, unadulterated gospel of Jesus is disinterested in matters beyond private and corporate ecclesiastical piety; it signals that beyond the church, the good news of the Savior of the world is societally and politically inconsequential. Scripture tells us the opposite.
Scripture calls the rulers of the earth (and everything over which they rule) to bow to the King of Kings (Psalm 2; Psalm 150). Scripture compels us to gospel-driven, socially consequential action in the name of the one through whom all things were created, and in whom all things are being summed up (John 1, Ephesians 1). Being in Christ, and being one in Christ, compels us to confess complicity in sin and to labor toward the cosmic wholeness to come at his return (Psalm 96, 98; 2 Peter 3; Revelation 21).
A fascinating character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima, puts it this way, with tenderhearted sagacity - “Everyone is responsible for everyone and everything.” Zosima is using “responsible” here not so much negatively to indicate complicity in guilt, but positively to promote a sense of loving protectiveness – personal investment in and personal accountability for the well-being of all and everyone around us. This is the anti-Cain approach to life, whereas autonomy is the anti-Christ approach to life. Let us embrace the former, and flee for our lives in the opposite direction of the latter.
Shalom is peace that is not merely the absence of conflict – which can theoretically happen if we all just leave one another alone – but the pervasive, unifying presence of mutual love, the desire and the practical pursuit of one another’s good. Individuality? That's great. Individualism? That's hellish. The triune God is very good (Genesis 1) at maintaining individuality within fundamental unity, and making it all a matter of love and peace. To whatever extent we fight for autonomy, we war against shalom - and ultimately against the Prince of Peace.
Let us, as our relatively new century continues to rise, shine the light of God’s law upon our own hearts and courageously confess what falls short of his glory. And let us step forward out of the darkness of our day and the darkness of our hearts; let us love not only in word but in deed, ministering the word and the tangible, warming touch of the risen Christ, the Light of the World (John 8:12).