It seems that the role of every brave (or stupid) blogger is, at some point, to wander where angels fear to tread and make some comment on the hot issue of the day. No issue has been more fiery than the current furnace raging over the question of race and for many Christians there is every sense that not getting this topic right will lead to being cast straight into the flames themselves.
So here we go. This is going to be several pages. If you’re going to read all I ask is that you actually read. That’s it. Don’t assume what I’m saying. Don’t jump to conclusions. This is a long one and it will take me a while to lay out my thoughts because, despite what some are insisting, this is not a simple topic. Hear me out and then, if you want to respond, please respond to what I actually wrote. If you’re not prepared to do that then fine, but you’ll understand if I’m more zealous in comment moderation than normal.
Some Basic Agreement
Let’s start at the point that (I would hope) everyone can agree on. What happened to George Floyd was just wrong. Plain wrong. It was nothing short of murder. We’ll leave the Americans to have their discussions about what “degree” although I do fear that the more the charges get ramped up, the less likely we will actually get a conviction let alone a fair trial for all those involved.
If you’re not yet convinced that Floyd’s death was egregiously wrongful (with the obvious caveat of waiting for an actual conviction) then there is no better summary of the situation than this NY Times’ article which pieces together in a remarkably even-handed way the various bits of video evidence that we have. It demonstrates nothing less than an utterly callous disregard to Mr Floyd’s welfare. It is now common knowledge that such a knee-hold is only ever required when someone is resisting arrest. Once they are restrained with cuffs the urgency is gone. Yet the Police Officer in question kept much of the weight of his body over Floyd’s trachea for many minutes, even when those around pleaded with him to stop. No argument about Floyd’s supposed criminal history (whether historic or recent) is relevant at this point: the man was restrained and his subsequent treatment abominable.
What we might also agree with is that Floyd’s death has catalysed a strong response. This response flows out of a perception amongst many African-Americans that they are treated unfairly in a systemic way, not least by the police. I say “perception” because that is the issue at hand. Whether we think black Americans actually are or are not systemically mistreated in this way, can we not agree that many perceive it to be the case?
But now it gets tricky. It gets tricky because the response we are seeing is not simple. Some parts are well-intentioned, one might even argue necessary. Other segments are part of a larger movement that is wreaking much terrible destruction across our Western liberal societies. And they’re woven together so that slowing down and unpicking the strands is difficult. But it’s necessary.
That it is difficult to describe what is going on is central to the thesis I want to set out. One of the core problems we are facing at the moment is that many of those responding to the perceived injustices faced by black people insist upon only one way of seeing things. Anyone who does not agree is denounced in the strongest possible terms. This is nothing new. We have seen it in a number of other movements and positions championed by many of the same people. These past two weeks it is the moniker of “Black Lives Matter”. But in terms of the wider movement we are seeing the moniker might as well be “love wins” or “men can have wombs”. My point here is not about the sense (or lack of it) of one of more of these slogans but with the strident ways they are insisted upon. It is not enough for us to sympathise with some or all of the underlying issues – we must be fully compliant with a certain view of the world.
So it is not enough for me to firmly believe that homosexual men and women should be afforded every possible protection under the law. I must also agree that the understanding of marriage should be changed to allow them to be part of it. All of this without any actual robust definition being provided and consistently applied.
It is not enough for me to firmly believe that gender dysphoria is a terribly painful thing for those that experience it. I must also agree that a man can be a woman and vice versa. I must also agree that teenagers and even pre-pubescents should be allowed to transition despite the clear research evidence that such action does not really improve mental health outcomes and in the shadow of the staggering fact that of such “trans” teenagers up to 95% will reject that self-perception when they are through puberty. Maybe I just think you need a Y chromosome to be a man. That’s what they taught me in high school and what every medical student needs to affirm before they’re made a doctor.
In a similar vein now it is not enough for me to recognise that every act of racism is deeply wrong; a denial of the imago dei in every person. I must now declare #blacklivesmatter and that I have #whiteprivilege. On one level I have no problem doing that. Of course black lives matter. I am entirely sympathetic to the argument that we ought to speak out about the particular wrong in front of us even if I don’t mention every wrong at that moment.
I am also more than happy to concede that I have had a privileged life. I grew up in the right part of the city, went to a decent school and when the time came for further opportunities I had the resources (both financial and internal) to take them up.
I could, of course, argue my credentials on the current issues. I could speak of a multi-ethnic heritage and multi-racial marriage (which on occasion has caused me to receive the most vile attacks). I could tell of repeatedly embracing and promoting cultural diversity in various ministry positions. I could point you to aboriginal or black people I have spoken up for in law courts. I could relate my work implementing responses to racism in an NGO. I’m sure I could get a nice list of testimonies from people of all sorts of different skin tone. All of these activities were privileges too. I hesitate to mention them here and really only do so to make the wider point: for all my action I find it hard to bend the knee to the hashtags and statements because they end up being associated with this:
In other words, every radical leftist agenda of the past decade. All packaged with nice-sounding words into what has become known as “cultural marxism”.
The Freedom to Disagree
The problem therefore is that, like it or not, statements like #blacklivesmatter come inextricably attached to so much more. At this point I part ways with the position of esteemed blogging colleagues such as Nathan Campbell who argues eloquently in the other direction. I respectfully don’t agree. I don’t think people so readily discern the difference and the way I have been challenged (that’s putting it mildly) to affirm a hashtag tells me that there is something else also going on here. There is a coercive nature to many of these requests/demands.
My point is not whether Nathan is right or wrong; you decide that for yourself. Let’s assume that he is (wouldn’t be the first time). My concern is whether the cultural zeitgeist will give me the freedom of conscience to disagree and decline to join the chorus when the protest songs are played on whatever horn, pipe, lyre, tigon, harp or bagpipe comes to hand.
Because the problem is that I do disagree. And I think that my disagreement is over important things such as the background to the complaint that so many black people are killed at the hands of the police. Even as I say that it will be enough for some to write me off. Which is exactly my point above. So hold back the rage and hear me out. I’ll not do the detailed argumentation here but just point you to the issues. Once again my point is that there are complexities here that simple hashtags don’t deal with. In fact many would argue that the hashtags are used to try and suppress bringing up these complexities. Complexities include a hard look at whether black people really are disproportionately targeted when incidents are compared to crime rates. We might have a difficult discussion about the fact that far more black young men die in black-on-black violence then at the hands of the police. Surely there must be some contemplation over the rates of fatherlessness in many of these communities and the reasons for that? Those rates have skyrocketed after the various legislative responses of the 1960s. These sorts of arguments are being put forward by black as well as white commentators (here’s one great example of these arguments being put forward and responded to).
Of course, some would argue that these people are traitors to their race. But what is really being said is that because their narrative isn’t the right one they should be silenced or are, somehow, not dealing with the substantive issues. Here’s the most recent example from my own country of origin, but it more than makes the wider point:
Here’s where trying to articulate some of that ends up getting you. Click through to read the whole thread to see the disappointing way that #blacklivesmatter has become an immovable golden statue that even Christian ministers demand we bow down to…
So there you have it. I’m simply saying I find it difficult to use a particular bit of rhetoric and I’m castigated as racist and unloving.
Never mind that an aboriginal man steps in to point out that I might have a point. He gets told he doesn’t have a clue.
Let’s just pause and make sure we’re clear on what I am and am not saying. I’m not saying that any of these arguments about the Black Lives Matter movement, if shown to be true, negate actual acts of racism (beginning with the killing of Floyd). I’m just suggesting that there is another narrative and a different analysis to listen to that the movement won’t address and even wants to silence. When I suggest that we might therefore look for an alternate expression that we can unite around to achieve the same goal I end up being denounced even when I’m appealing to find a way to be an ally. This, as I’ve argued above, is just one more in a long line of attempts to silence disagreement.
The difference (as opposed to the other examples above) is that Christians are doing it and now some of us find ourselves being accused by them of being complicit in what we actually decry. I oppose racism in all it’s forms. I just don’t think that the Black Lives Matter solution which is associated to the protesting crowds is the right one. Nevertheless I want to urge us to see that the same basic themes we have seen in other debates are being writ large within the church itself and it places some of us in a very difficult position.
Now onto Trump
The whole thing took on a distinctively religious flavour when Trump made his infamous stance at the historic St John’s Episcopal Church. Bible in hand, the hypocrisy of the moment was clear. Here’s a man who quite obviously lies about reading the Bible. This witty response is one of the best.
But the outrage that his action has generated was remarkable and actually plays into Trump’s whole strategy. If ever there was someone that the leftist movements want to silence, it is Trump. He infuriates them. They rage against him. What must be most annoying about him is that he refuses to be silenced. Here is an arrogant, immoral, braggart of a man who seems to delight in speaking (his version of) truth to their increasing power. They can silence and coerce no end of media organisations and corporations but their superpowers are impotent in the face of his hubris. It’s Godzilla vs Kong with no obvious end to the conflict.
What they don’t get is that their outrage only emboldens him. His whole appeal in this current drama is that he is the one who will finally stand up to all this nonsense. The inaction of so many municipal and state governments built him the stage on which he stands. As they appeared to be inept and even conniving in the face of an outbreak of disorder and violence he marched in as the “Law and Order” President. Of course he cleared Lafayette Square of protestors, whether peaceful or not. He was positioning himself as the only one prepared to do it. The backdrop to the event was not simply those passively holding placards at the White House railings, it was the scenes of looting and assault shown night after night on the TV. It was Trump standing tall when so many had bent the knee to the riot. Of course he was happy to have Lafayette Square cleared, it was a shining example of what he was calling for in the whole country and the News Channels who so virulently oppose him gave him the publicity for free.
None of this is written to defend Trump. Far from it. I just want us to see what is really going on. For every outraged episcopal priest on our flatscreens (more of them in a moment) there are also many voters sitting at home saying “finally, someone is doing something about this!”. It’s just that you won’t see them on CNN. The media isn’t showing them. The only time you really get to see them is every four years in November. In 2016 they showed up in droves and Trump was elected. Trump who was exposed as a womanising, lying, bully got elected. It wasn’t because almost 50% of the voters wanted a womanising, lying bully. It’s that they really didn’t want the alternative. They chose one bully over other bullies and you’ve got to be a pretty awful bully to make people side with Trump.
Which means we need to understand that Trump is not really the cause of the division. He is largely a symptom of it. The leftists with their denouncing of everyone who won’t toe the line created an atmosphere where Trump seemed to be the only viable alternative.
Which Card Do We Play?
Trump’s intervention was the moment when lots of Christian decided to get really annoyed. How dare Trump hold up a Bible like that? That’s when I got annoyed too.
Of course, some who rightly called out Trump’s patently self-serving masquerade do also complain in equal measure about resurrection-denying bishops. But for so many it is distressing to observe what the different levels of public outrage actually are. The Episcopal bishop of Washington D.C. is a notorious TEC revisionist who denies the physical resurrection of Jesus.
To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.
If all of that sounds familiar then you’d be right – it’s from exactly the same playbook that we saw John Shepherd read from.
So now here is my aggravation. The Christian must decide which is, ultimately, the more important thing to engage with and prioritise accordingly. I’m not saying we don’t speak out on social issues – we have an obligation to do so. But the priority is clear:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you.(1 Corinthians 5:11–13)
That’s an interesting hierarchy isn’t it? Let’s sort our own house out first. After all, that’s what those of us who are ordained promised to do,
Will you be ready, both in your public and private ministry, to oppose and set aside teaching that is contrary to God’s word?
I will, by God’s grace.
Why pick Trump? How does this one act of grandstanding by him really make the top of the tree? To respond to him is to end up feeding his trolling. Of course it was outrageous. It was Trump being Trump. But it didn’t actually make the situation worse. And where was the outrage the very next day when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tried to out-Bible Trump? Pelosi, that great proponent of abortion which kills exponentially far more black people than the police, just ended up being as crass and inept at the whole thing as Trump. But it was worse, because surely someone on her staff could have spotted that this was just a repeat of what Trump had done the day before. Staged, inauthentic, transparently opportunistic. And, frankly, not nearly as well executed:
But where were the protests?
None of this is whataboutism. Whataboutism is when you point at one act of wrongdoing to deflect attention from or to seek to vindicate another. I don’t want to do that. A pox on all their houses, I say.
By responding to Trump and not to some other very obvious wrongs wrapped up with the same issue all we’re doing is playing Trump’s game. And we end up looking like the very thing that others are being accused of – we care selectively. But we begin to look like we’re very selective.
Just how many black babies never see the light of day because they’re killed in an abortion? 19 million since Roe v Wade. And massively disproportionately on the basis of colour. This deliberate killing of the unborn is the leading cause of death amongst blacks and yet the BlackLivesMatter movement advocates for “reproductive justice that gives us autonomy over our bodies“. If you want to get outraged in public about something, how about that? Margaret Sanger anyone?
Even more terribly, just what everlasting damage does denying the Resurrection do?
Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised.(1 Corinthians 15:12–15)
Answer: it’s a lie from the pit of hell that drags people down there and it’s preached from the pulpit that Trump waved a Bible in front of.
Here is my complaint. Of all the things for Christians to get so aggravated about, Trump wasn’t it. There are far worse things going on but Trump was an easy target. He’s always an easy target because Trump is Trump. But Trump is not Trump in a vacuum. He’s mostly the symptom, not the cause. He’s not where we should be playing our own trump card. If you’re a Christian going public on Trump, where were you when we marched for the rights of the multitudes of babies killed in the womb? Where were you when ordained ministers and bishops teach heresy from the pulpit?
If the answer is that you were relatively silent then I need to gently ask, “does Trump really trump all of those?”.
Forgive the rant. I’m not singling out anyone in particular and I don’t want to silence you. Far from it. I’d like to draw you into considering what we’ve got ourselves into. There are many people of good faith who are being duped over this. But also there’s a tendency for us to play to the crowd and it was a pretty large crowd screaming out against Trump. At least a pretty loud one. But what do we actually think is going to do the most damage to the societies that we love? I’ve had the privilege (there’s that word again) to work in a variety of social situations. One thing is clear to me – across the board the most damaging philosophical shift we’re facing is the dismantling of natural Created structures, particularly at the fundamental level of what the family is. Go to any principal of a school (whether it’s the affluent suburbs by the harbour in Sydney or the housing commission out in the sticks – I know, I’ve done both) and ask them what the single greatest contributor to disruption in their schools and pupils is. They’ll be clear – broken homes and particularly fatherlessness. A generation of young men and women growing up without a man in the house. Why? Because for decades we’ve been telling people that marriage has no meaning, that sex is just sex. That the notion of a mum and dad raising their own biological children in a stable permanent and exclusive relationship is archaic, oppressive and patriarchal.
Which is easy to do when you’re pulling in a good salary sipping your chardonnay on a penthouse balcony watching the Queen Mary dock in the harbour. You can somewhat immunise yourself from the damage. But back out on the edge it’s wreaking havoc. They’re the victims of our sexual revolution: the young kids wandering around without a parent who even knows how to care for them because their parents were told lies about their own parenting.
There is great wisdom in the words that I read out twice in the last month:
Our Lord Jesus Christ said of marriage that ‘From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’.
Marriage is the symbol of God’s unending love for his people, and of the union between Christ and his Church. So Saint Paul teaches that the husband must love his wife as Christ loved the Church, and that the wife must give due honour to her husband.
Marriage should be honoured by all, and is not to be entered into lightly or carelessly, but with reverent and serious respect for those purposes for which it was instituted by God.
Marriage is a gift from God for the well-being of mankind and for the proper expression of natural instincts and affections with which he has endowed us.
It is a life-long union in which a man and a woman are called so to give themselves in body, mind, and spirit, and so to respond, that from their union will grow a deepening knowledge and love of each other. In the joys and sorrows of life, in prosperity and adversity, they share their companionship, faithfulness, and strength.
In marriage a new family is established in accordance with God’s purpose, so that children may be born and nurtured in secure and loving care, for their well-being and instruction, and for the good order of society, to the glory of God.Preface to the Marriage Service, 2nd order, AAPB
Now there is a thoroughly Jesus-shaped gospel-affirming position that is for the benefit of society that we ought to be getting behind. It’s disappearance from public consciousness and allegiance to be replaced with the utterly vacuous #lovewins is one the great blights of our modern age.
The problem is that if we actually say this stuff out loud we will end up finding ourselves standing in front of the baying crowds ready to roll us over like so many tanks proceeding down Tiananmen Square. But Trump is an easy target so let’s make him the bad guy. We denounce the many-married adulterer Trump but effectively stay silent about those who want to get rid of marriage altogether and think that’s what will be best for black people, let alone everyone else. If we want to promote the best for society on the back of righteousness then I fear we’ve played the wrong hand.
A Bit of Perspective
Now is not the time? Now is precisely the time. But by making Trump the issue we played right into the hands of those who will do most damage to black lives, both now and into eternity. And #eternallifematters.
Jesus is our trump card. Of course he is. And of course he’s against any form of racism. The crowd of every tribe peoples and languages around the throne is not segregated.
I joke with my wife that when she wants to find me on that great day she should look for the little group of emotionally-retarded Englishmen awkwardly swaying while everyone else is getting into it. We’ll stick out like a sore thumb. But the reality is that we won’t be separated in that way. We’ll all be mixed in together, all with equal access to and enjoyment of the Lamb upon the throne.
My frustration is that, like those that I’m appealing to, I want as many as possible to be gathered eternally in this way. And I desire that they have life to the full in the here and now (John 10:10). I’m pretty sure that’s not what Trump prioritises and I do wish he’d read his Bible rather than wave it around.
But the Black Lives Matter organisation definitely doesn’t want black people to have that Jesus-ordained life to the full. Its self-description of goals is in direct opposition of institutions that Jesus has given us for the benefit of everyone, black or otherwise, beginning with life itself. As a Christian who longs for an end to racism I find that I can’t therefore in good conscience say the things that others demand I say in the way that they demand I say them.
I understand that others can. Fair enough. That’s a freedom that some don’t want to give me.
As a Christian who longs for the gospel to be proclaimed and lived out for the benefit of all I find myself confused with what other Christians present as the biggest issues – those things so important that they’ll go public to express them. What is it that really matters here?
Thanks for your time. Feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong.