Thoughts on Race and Justice in America

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Grief. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Dismay. And struggling to see what good might come from this. These emotions and responses have been swinging back and forth in my heart and mind since witnessing the video of the gruesome killing of George Floyd. In the days since that horrible day on May 25, our nation has witnessed peaceful protests, violent rioting, additional murders and maimings, and now, as I write, the largest city in the Northwest is partly under the control of protesters. Seattle, WA has succumbed to an “occupying protest.” Neither Seattle’s Mayor Durkan, nor Governor Inslee, have revealed a plan as to how to deal with the occupation of six city blocks in the Capital Hill neighborhood, which includes a police precinct building. It’s an embarrassing display of lawlessness, fraught with danger, and filled with irony.

There are many concerns churning within each of us. My primary concern is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of truth and justice and love and hope and forgiveness that we proclaim and live as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit. About one third of the churches of the Northwest Baptist Convention are led by non-Anglo pastors. Most of these pastors and churches worship in a language other than English, but we do have African-American pastors, and other ethnic minority pastors, whose congregations worship in English.

When I think of our diversity, I primarily think of language since that’s the biggest barrier to communication and understanding each other. Beyond language there are cultural differences. And then we get to differences in appearance, personal experience, age, etc. Several of our pastors have survived wars, genocides and severe persecution. Nearly two dozen came to our country as refugees from Burma, Cambodia, Bhutan, Vietnam, El Salvador and other countries. Many of our pastors grew up in the southern part of the United States, and the older pastors among us grew up with forced segregation of blacks and whites. I grew up in a small Montana town and never met a black person until I was in college. My first experience with someone of a different skin color were two Vietnamese boys whose family came to Whitefish, MT when I was 14. I got to know these boys by helping them learn English. By the time we graduated from high school they not only knew English, they drove two of the coolest cars in school because their family started a highly successful restaurant and they worked very hard to achieve aspirations made possible by coming to America.

We all have our own unique experiences, but what I want each of our pastors to know is that I love you. Even as I write, I know I say it out of ignorance as to who many of you really are, and love is not generic; it’s personal. This week I spoke with a pastor on the phone whom I met seven years ago but haven’t seen since. That’s the nature of our work and of our relationship. And yet, I love you because I trust that you have a love for Jesus and His people, as do I. I love you if for no other reason than the God who is in you, and who has laid claim to your life, is also in me and owns me. Whatever our particular views on issues and the things that are part of our human distinctions, I trust that we make Jesus and His Kingdom our primary concern.
This doesn’t negate varied viewpoints on how to remedy the injustices and disparities that exist in our world, but I do believe that our unity in Jesus is primary. If this is true, what does it mean for our cooperative mission work? God’s Word is the truth that must guide our thinking and behavior. From His Word, I would offer a couple things that I trust will be helpful. I do not intend this to be comprehensive, but I do believe it identifies key biblical truths.

First, the most fundamental truth about every human being is that he or she is created in the image of God. The Bible states this in Genesis 1:27 and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The dignity and value of every individual is tied to this fact. From this comes the Christian belief that individuals are precious and valued, not simply groups of people or nations of people or people of a certain color, but every individual person has equal value and dignity and the God-given right to be treated justly. It is correct to say that while individuals and groups have certain physical characteristics, we are fundamentally one race, the human race, distinct from all other created beings. God breathed life into human beings. We are His image bearers in a way no other living thing is. Acts 17:26 says that every nationality throughout the whole earth has descended from one man. The genetic variations required to produce the beautiful diversity in the appearance of individual human beings were present in Adam.

One reason human beings sometimes devalue or despise people of a different skin color (though skin color is not the only, or even the greatest difference between individual human beings) is because most people do not believe every single human being is created in God’s image and that we are all descendants of one man. Most people believe in some form of biological evolution of the origin of life. Although hatred of the other “tribe” has existed for thousands of years, for the past 150 years evolution has been used to support theories of racial differences and racial superiority. For example, in the early 20th Century an African pygmy was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of evolution (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/).

This was horrific, and clearly racist, but many historical examples and arguments have used the theory of evolution to argue that some humans are more advanced than others. About 75 million people died in WWII, three percent of the world’s population, because Hitler believed some humans had no value and weren’t fully human. The Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, all happening within the past century, were predicated on the idea that some humans have more worth than others. Soviet and Chinese Communism led to the death of at least 60 million people because atheistic communism denies the image of God in each human being, and thus the worth of an individual. These cannot all be necessarily be linked directly to evolutionary theory. Scholars have specifically argued that Hitler did not believe Germanic peoples descended from apes, for example. But any theory of humanity that falls short of what the Scripture teaches, which includes all forms of racism and racist theories, ultimately leads to devaluing human beings. Christians must argue from Scripture the fundamental truths that there is one humanity, descended from one man, and each person is created in God’s image with equal value and worth.
Second, while every person has descended from the first Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, has made peace between humanity and God, and between individual humans, through His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is our peace. God sent His son to reconcile humanity to Himself and to each other (Ephesians 2). Peace in the human heart, love in the human heart, love of neighbor and love of enemy is only possible in Jesus Christ. He is the only cure for hatred and bigotry because sin produces wrong and wicked thinking that only Christ can heal. Racism and all other sin will only be put to death when we are crucified with Christ and He comes to live in us. Even then, we are subject to acting in sinful ways. Solomon wrote, “The hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). But as Christians we have the objective truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, and the indwelling of God Himself, which gives us the ability to resist and overcome sin.

I want to briefly add that Christians have sometimes used the Bible to promote racism, slavery, and various forms of bigotry. Whenever and wherever that occurs it is to our shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. The biblical truth I have shared above should guide our exegesis of Scripture whenever we are tempted to think certain Bible texts support any form of bias against others for characteristics intrinsic to them.
So, what should Christians do in the aftermath of the brutal, public killing of George Floyd and all that has happened since? We should advocate that justice be done. We should work for justice, knowing that we are moving toward the Day when God will render judgement and right all wrongs. The biblical perspective on justice is that we can’t achieve it perfectly here, but God can and He will. We should love God and love our neighbor. We should do acts of love for people who look similar to us and different than us. This requires intentionality in crossing barriers of color and economics and education and language, among others. And don’t forget our law enforcement personnel. These men and women come from peoples of every color and are serving under incredible pressure, even as they wrestle with their own deep emotions and pain.

Do we have a vital role to play in the politics of our nation? Yes. We must select leaders who believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, and we must hold them accountable, regardless of whether they’re in our favored political party. Regarding the election of leaders, Christians need to get more involved in local elections and primary elections because that’s where we have the greatest opportunity to choose leaders who adhere to the biblical truth of the worth and dignity of each person, and who lead with the conviction that they will one day stand before God to be judged by Him. Most of the political issues that affect our daily lives concern school boards, city councils, and state government. Do you know your local representatives? Do they know you? That’s where a pastor and church can have the greatest influence on things affecting daily life in our communities. By the time we get to national, general elections we mostly have a choice between two candidates. Often neither provide a satisfying choice, though one will typically represent biblical concerns better than the other. That said, quality candidates are best sorted out earlier in the process.

The bottom line for the believer is that we must make disciples of Jesus Christ and teach those disciples to think biblically about all of life. It begins with loving God. It continues with loving our neighbor. It’s easy to say. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do. I, for one, am still learning, and I want to be an eager learner. I want to learn by listening to others, with the heart and mind of a missionary, but mostly I need to hear from God, and learn from Him, how best I can love others and share Christ in meaningful ways.

How to Talk to a “None” About Jesus

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Perhaps you know that the Northwest is home to many nones. Nones are those who say they have no religion, which includes more than 30 percent of those living in the Northwest. Forty-two percent in Portland and 37 percent in Seattle say that have “no religion.”

What does this mean for those sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the Northwest? First, it means that many of our neighbors have no faith system that they must “leave” to come to Christ. Leaving Islam or Buddhism presents multiple difficulties that do not exist for the nones. Coming to Christ from Islam means breaking with family and community, as well as Islamic teachings. It can even put one’s life in jeopardy. By contrast, those with no religion are not “leaving” a faith system as much as they are filling a void, i.e. the God-shaped hole in every human heart. Many of those coming to Christ are coming from this kind of background. In China, for example, tens of millions are coming to Christ from atheism and agnosticism.

Secondly, Jesus Christ provides the only satisfying answer to the deep needs of the heart. These include forgiveness, love, and hope, but I want to speak of two which you might not have considered, but which exist for every person, including the nones.

First, every human being yearns for justice, but without our God, justice cannot be had. On June 17, 2015 nine people were murdered during a Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In Syria and Iraq, thousands of Christians, and others, have been slaughtered by ISIS. These and other atrocities demand that justice be done. But how do you secure justice for those so grievously wronged? They are dead. Even if the killers are caught and punished, how does this help the victims? If there is no God, a God who is holy and all-powerful, so that He knows what is right and has the ability to produce the right, there is no ultimate justice. Without a just God to whom all must give an account, this world is reduced to “winners and losers.” Winners are those who get the most “stuff” and live a long and happy life. Losers are those who don’t get the “stuff,” and whose lives are cut short or impaired through bad health or bad luck (like being born in Afghanistan!). Ultimately we all lose because death comes to all.

To be clear, if there is no God, there is no justice, and therefore Adolph Hitler was a “winner” in comparison with his victims. Hitler died at age 56. For many years he enjoyed great power and luxury. By contrast, Anne Frank, one of Hitler’s victims, died at age 15. She suffered terribly under Hitler’s tyranny, as did millions of others. Little children, young men and women, were slaughtered by this evildoer. If there is no God, and no hope of ultimate judgment and resurrection and eternal life, then there is no true justice for the most evil among us, and their victims are life’s losers. This is a reality that nones and all unbelievers need to confront. Jesus Christ provides the only hope for justice and fairness.

Secondly, every person wants to live in peace, but without our God, there can be no peace in the truest sense. In the Middle East, we are not hoping for peace. Worldly diplomacy and military engagements are merely intended to end the killing and produce what might be called “peaceful bigotry.” The goal of the United Nations is not to make the Palestinians and the Jews love each other. The goal is simply make them stop the killing and live beside each other. If the killing stops we will call it “peace,” but really it’s a “peaceful bigotry” because there is no love. The same could be said of those fighting in Iraq, or even in the streets of some American cities. Our political and judicial system is meant to keep order, not produce peace. Only God can produce peace because peace requires a heart-change. In the human heart there is a longing for peace, but without Christ the best we can hope for is a peaceful bigotry.

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, which at the same time is one of the world’s great mission fields. About four percent of Northwesterners are in church on Sunday. But we have a powerful Gospel. We have the only message that addresses the great needs of the human heart, including the needs for justice and peace. It is a good day to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Northwest.

Keys to Helping Others Discover Jesus, Part 4 – Justice

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Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25f).

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31f).

If there is no God, who both knows what is right and has the power to effect the right in a final resurrection and judgment, then Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao and every other wicked, murderous tyrant are the winners, while their victims, many of whom were women and children, are the losers. If there is no God, then life is about winners and losers, and the winners are those who get what they want, while the losers are those who get stomped upon, taken from, suffer and die young, either through the violent actions of evildoers, terrible accident, or through the bad luck of poor genetics.  

A basic teaching of Scripture is that there is a coming “day” in which the dead will be raised and God’s judgment on each person will be revealed. It is upon this teaching that man’s yearning for justice ultimately rests. Underlying the belief in resurrection, final judgment, and thus justice are three convictions.

Conviction one – God is. He exists.

Conviction two – God is good and He always knows the right thing to do.

Conviction three – God is able. He has the power to do what He chooses to do, and, conviction two means that what He chooses to do is always the right thing to do.

As we seek to help others discover Jesus Christ and submit to Him as Lord, consider the basic desire that people have for justice. It matters not whether a person is religious or irreligious, liberal or conservative, a democrat or republican, most people want justice to prevail. That doesn’t mean that “what is just” is always agreed upon, but the concept that things should be “made right” resides in most human hearts.  

Yet, without a just God, justice will never been secured. How can justice be secured for the victims of 9/11, or for those killed in the horrific school shootings that we have seen in recent years? What of the tens of millions of children who die each year through disease, war, abortion, or accident? What of the victims of crippling abuse? What does punishing the evildoer, assuming he is found and tried and convicted in a court of law, do for the victim who is dead or severely damaged? Nothing!

If there is no God, and there is no resurrection, then there is no justice. Without God we are left with “the survival of the fittest,” but even the fittest will one day succumb to the enemy which is death.

As you help others discover Jesus, show them that without Jesus, there is no justice. Few want to admit that life’s ultimate victors are those who get the most, even if by getting it they destroy others, sometimes millions of others.

This is not to say that all will be convinced because of their yearning for justice. Richard Dawkins, an atheist who delights in attacking religion in all forms, writes:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life).

Dawkins has made his choice to reject God, including the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But he understands that in doing so, he has also given up hope of a purpose, a differentiation between good and evil, and justice.

Few who have yet to discover Jesus have consciously given up all that Dawkins has. We need to help them know, however, that Dawkins has correctly identified what is at stake. Without God, there is no justice, no good, no evil, and no purpose. We are simply left with the lucky and the unlucky. And that means Hitler won, at least in comparison with the millions he murdered.