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Monthly Archives: August 2020

Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of “Institutional Racism”?

Recent Unbelievable? shows.

 

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I will admit that I continue to be surprised about what I hear on the topic of “systemic” or “institutional racism”. While this term was unknown to many of us even a few years ago, today we are increasingly hearing about the topic in more and more spaces and places.

Recently, I found it very interesting to listen the past two programs of the British Christian podcast Unbelievable?. Discussing racism in both shows, all five of the guests discussed the topic of systemic or institutional racism. Clearly, each of the guests simply assumed that because of “white culture” and “whiteness” systemic or institutional racism was a given – it didn’t matter that the two guests in the first show were American and the three guests in the final show were British. For them, the topic was certainly not something to be carefully laid out and explained, nor was it something to be questioned. Or, for that matter, even carefully defined.

All stuff unique to “white culture”? (not a white supremacist graphic)

While I suspect that I will find out in coming weeks that the viewpoints of these five evangelical Christians are held quite widely – and that that posts like the one I am writing here are simply “beyond the pale” for many – I nevertheless want to take the time to ask the question in the title of this blog post:

Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of ‘Institutional Racism’”?

Despite the impression given in the Unbelievable? podcasts, I think the answer to that question is a definite “yes”! Furthermore that not only Christians should be doing this!

I will try to explain myself more in this post by taking the time to thoughtfully respond to one of the guests from the first program about racism in America, Dr. George Yancey.

Dr. Yancey is one of the editors of the 2004 book United by Faith, which followed up on the well-known 2001 book by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith addressing the issue of racism in the church, Divided by Faith. He is also the author of the books Transcending Racial Barriers and Beyond Racial Gridlock (both which I plan to read in the coming weeks). Finally, following his Unbelievable? appearance, he recently wrote two articles “Why we cannot ignore Institutional Racism” (published at his own Patheos blog “Shattering Paradigms”) and “White Fragility: The Order of Unity” (published at Christianity Today’s site).

What does this mean? “[It has come to my attention that… t]here are those who deny the reality of institutional racism.” – George Yancey

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Before we go on, you might be asking: “What are your qualifications to speak on this issue?” or perhaps “Why should I read this post?” All, I can say is that I am a theologian – I believe a good one – who believes that the discipline of theology has relevance for every area of our life. That is my perspective which you can learn more about by exploring an article that I wrote for the journal Lutheran Mission Matters, titled “Effective Christian Outreach to Minority Communities: What Does it Take?” (an article I took a long time to research and which research largely informs the response which follows below). Much to my surprise, this article was actually promoted, even if indirectly, by the Witness, the Black Christian Collective. This is the tweet of mine that they re-tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Infanttheology/status/1295706055398297600

In sum, I am writing this current article because I think we cannot ignore the topic of institutional racism. More specifically, I believe that in order for there to be any possibility of fruitful dialogue, there needs to be the ability to question claims about what really constitutes the presence of institutional racism.  

Preston Sprinkle, thanks for the show with Tyler Burns of The Witness black Christian collective, but why so little pushback?

 

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Of all the guests on the Unbelievable? show mentioned above, I found Dr. Yancey to be the most helpful in his approach. This is largely because he not only has strong and informed convictions about the topic of systemic racism, but it is also clear that he wanted to be very careful about how to go about bringing up and discussing the topic with others, others who did not necessarily share or even understand his views. For example, in his Christianity Today article, he says the following about Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism:

“White Fragility, falls apart in several ways for Christians. It is theologically flawed, only recognizing human depravity among whites and not among people of color. It is empirically flawed as research indicates that such browbeating does not product positive results. It prioritizes capitulation over a unified front to confront contemporary racism. I appreciate the attention it has brought to institutional racism; however, this does not compensate for its many flaws. As such my recommendation is that Christians seek out ways to lead by having the type of collaborative dialogue necessary in our racialized fallen world rather than using the flawed model found within White Fragility.”[i]

White Fragility the book? Dr. Yancey is not a fan.

Dr. Yancey is also the only participant on the Unbelievable podcasts who tells us how he defines “institutional racism,” which is always helpful in promoting helpful discussions. In his Christianity Today article, he says “I define institutional racism as institutional forces that have a negative impact on racial minorities regardless of the personal intentions connected to the shaping of those institutions.” In his Patheos article, he even more succinctly states that institutional racism is “…mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality.”

How helpful are these definitions? Let’s take a close look at the second one. Right away you might notice that although a definition has been given, you still need to think pretty hard about what is going on. When Yancey talks about “mechanisms” what does he mean? Can he give some practical examples? Also, when he speaks about how these mechanisms lead to racial inequality is he thinking more along the lines of inequalities of opportunity or inequalities of outcome? Would, he, for example, agree with the understanding of racism and inequalities that is increasingly common among secular academics?:

This is an understanding being pushed — more than anyone else, I think — by the personally winsome scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who is even attempting to popularize his ideas through board books for young children:

Should you teach your baby Kendi’s “antiracism”?

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It is hard to say just how Yancey’s beliefs compare with Kendi’s. Yancey does speak about “unfair racial outcomes in our society,” how Kendi’s “antiracism has been the dominant approach among cultural elites,” and how this “heavy-handed antiracism method does not work” (italics mine). Still, it is not clear from Yancey’s definitions whether or not he basically agrees with Kendi’s understanding of institutional racism.

Yes? “[Kendi’s] book[ is] useful for clear communication about justice among believers.” — Mere Orthodoxy’s antiracist Bill Melone

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Nevertheless, at the same time, we can get an idea of what Yancey means when he talks about those “mechanisms”. Right after saying that “I define institutional racism as mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality,” he elaborates:

“To be sure one can argue that some of these mechanisms are justified. Since African-Americans are more likely, even after controls for individual characteristics, to commit murder, then one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism. For obvious reasons we should not rid ourselves of those laws. What we would lose from getting rid of those laws far outweigh any benefit we get from ending this racial disparity.”

Think about what Yancey is saying here. While he does not doubt the violent crime statistics which indicate that black Americans commit a disproportionate amount of murders[ii], he also goes on to say “one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism”. More specifically, what Yancey seems to be saying is this: For the time being, the laws against murder, sadly, need to be racist. That is, until other cultural practices and political policies can be developed to get the black community in a better place such that the laws, when equally applied, will no longer end up giving us a racist result….

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: Racist power creates policies that cause racial inequities.

Again, it seems Yancey himself is arguing that the laws are racist but we should nevertheless keep them. Notice how this kind of reasoning turns everything on its head: shouldn’t we be doing our utmost to systemically root out all racist laws? Would that not be the truly anti-racist thing to do? But keep in mind that the reasoning makes perfect sense if you are thinking along the lines of Dr. Yancey’s definition of what racism is (and Kendi’s too, by the way).

I do not doubt for a second Dr. Yancey’s desire to be careful about how we speak with the goal of making real progress when it comes to race relations. Nevertheless, I think that many an American Christian, particularly one who has not drunk the Kool-Aid at our universities, will really want to ask questions like:

  • How really, is it helpful to seriously argue that the laws against murder are examples of institutional racism?
  • Just because of the disparities we see in prison populations because black people tend to commit more murders? Really?
  • Just how are the “institutional forces” here, in this case the laws against murder, “hav[ing] a negative impact on racial minorities”?
  • Are they not rather countering negative things coming out of communities?

So right away, with these definitions it seems like there is potential for a massive breakdown in communication! Common understandings about laws and justice are being re-framed and even, it seems, re-defined. To say the least, this introduces all kinds of confusion which seems completely unnecessary to many of us.

The definitions they are a-changin’.

For example, what is particularly sad about this is that the things that Yancey goes on to talk about really are things I think many folks of goodwill would want to deal with. For example, right after the strange argument about how racist laws might sometimes be necessary, he goes on to say the following:

“But we must make that calculation on other policies disproportionately impacting people of color that are harder to justify as being worth the differences in racial disparity. For example, although it is better, we still have a serious sentencing disparity for those who use crack and those who use powder cocaine. Since African -Americans, relative to European-Americans, who abuse drugs are more likely to use crack instead of powder cocaine, this disparity is one of many factors why blacks serve longer sentences than whites. It does not matter whether there was a racist intent in the disparity of the laws. The results are unfair outcomes for people of color.”

And I think: “Of course! It seems altogether reasonable to suggest that there should be similar sentencing for those who use crack or powder cocaine, as well as those who sell either kind…” Even as I’d be interested in watching a debate about this very issue – trying hard to understand the original reasoning for the laws – my guess is that most persons would think that this is only sensible and fair.

After all, my generation at least (I am 46 years old) grew up learning that racism was never something that could be justified, and as best I could tell, all my classmates agreed. In Appleton, Wisconsin in the early 1980s my elementary school class was shocked to hear about things like black people not being allowed to stay overnight in local hotels as late as the 60’s. Why would they exclude Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman and Walter Payton? So I “resonate,” as folks say today, with Freddie Gray writing in the Spectator, who said the following:

“…western society isn’t systemically racist. If anything, it is systemically woke. Our political institutions, our schools and colleges, our corporations are all geared towards destroying racism. Students in schools and universities aren’t brainwashed into thinking that racism isn’t a problem. On the contrary, almost everybody who has been educated since the 1970s has been relentlessly taught to abhor racial prejudice. Our workplaces are run along politically correct lines. Our language is policed, in case it might incite racial hatred. The machine, or what those Sixties radicals would have called ‘the Man’, is anti-racist.”

Nevertheless, we are now learning that this kind of education that I received was insufficient. “[C]olorblindness as the route to racial harmony” does not work because it is an insufficient concept for dealing with our problems, as Yancey assumes. Right now I would simply point out that even if it is true that “colorblindness” was only the first step in overcoming racism (i.e. making it so that laws were truly equal so that they could not explicitly discriminate on the basis of skin color differences), it appears that we are very far from common definitions and understandings of racism that one could find among scholars even around 15 years ago.[iii]

“Free your mind… be colorblind…” No. Now, change your mind…

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In spite of the problem of this re-defining of the term “racism,” for the time being let’s push on and ask, “What does Yancey think are some of the strongest examples that show systemic racism, as he understands it, exists?” In the Christianity Today article, he is most helpful in providing a brief list:

“…we know that there has not been any real decrease of racial discrimination in hiring over the past 25 years. There is statistical support for “driving while black” fears. Residential segregation still impacts people of color. Finally, there is evidence of racism in the beliefs and practices of medical heathcare providers.”[iv]

Yancey goes on to say that “[t]hose who deny the existence of institutional racism are either ignorant of the evidence or do not want to know if institutional racism exists.” At least he is, presumably, ready to have patience with a person like me who says…

I don’t question what people say about their particular experiences when it comes to being made to feel racially inferior or unfairly discriminated against. The only thing I question – and question all the time as a matter of course – are people’s interpretations of their experiences. For example, in my marriage I may sometimes feel slighted by my wife and then realize later on that I misinterpreted what she was saying or doing. I didn’t put – or for some reason was, at that particular moment in time, perhaps not even able to put – the “best construction” on what she did. And I admit that sometimes I feel she does the same thing with me (I say feel here because so often, when emotions run high, it is hard to know if I am really thinking clearly). So, having had experiences like these with the persons I know best and knowing in particular my own weaknesses… when it comes to many of the matters above, I really do look to hear both sides of the issue… different explanations of the evidence and other possible interpretations of what people say about their experiences. What do these experiences really mean? Right now, given what I know, I would say that I am unable to believe what more and more people in our society tell me I should believe all the time. So, when it comes to this stuff, please have patience….

Guessing they won’t be reading Booker T. Washington, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell…

I don’t see why Dr. Yancey and I, both being Christians who take the Bible very seriously, can’t see eye to eye on the same basic core values. It is just that I don’t really comprehend here the direction that he is pushing in…

Let me illustrate by giving a couple examples, based on his list above. Yancey says:

“…sometimes businesses hire by word of mouth. That is, when they need to find someone for a position, they ask their employees if they know someone who needs a job and is a good worker. If their employees tend to be white, then chances are their social network is pretty white as well. So in this way whites can gain jobs that people of color never even knew were open. The employer may well have had no intention of being racist. Indeed, this could be a good strategy to find a hard worker since current employees are unlikely to irritate the employer by sending the job announcement to a lazy uncle. But the result is still an unfair advantage that whites are given over people of color.”

Should we say this particular employer is being racist even if he has no intention of doing so? For the life of me, I do not understand, given the history of the term, how it would ever be a good idea to call a person like this a racist.

Is that what we should call it? And then get the board book?

Let us concede for the sake of the argument that in the example above, black candidates who are equally or more qualified for these jobs are being passed over. Nevertheless, instead of talking about systemic racism here why not consider parsing matters more broadly, speaking perhaps about the implications of “systemic in-group preference”? And perhaps, in particular, “systemic in-group preference” when it comes to the dominant group (and maybe, more specifically, of those exercising leadership roles in the dominant group)?

While I do not doubt that systemic racism is likely a reality in this or that locale (it certainly was in America very broadly for a very long time and must to some extent remain a reality!), and that such situations would be similar to Yancey’s example when it comes to the issue of practical effects on black people, these situations would nevertheless be quite distinct. In the way I am looking at this matter, real examples of systemic racism — where base hatreds of the other and/or beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority are endemic — would just be one sub-species of this larger category of “systemic dominant in-group preference.”

…What really, is necessarily wrong with “social systems giving our social groups an advantage” (Yancey)? Is it wrong, for example, for Americans to recognize specific rights of citizenship for Americans?

 

Yancey also talks about how “[r]esidential segregation still impacts people of color…” Not too long ago, I listened a show from Reveal News that alleged something similar: “Today, a new epidemic of modern-day redlining has crept quietly across America. The gap in homeownership between African Americans and whites is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.”

The show was interesting, and I think did the best job that it could to make the case that systemic racism was responsible for this. And yet, as I listened a few things came to mind that did not seem to be on the radar of the reporters. From the data set that the reporters discuss, can we determine any distinctions between the blacks who got loans and those who didn’t? (there did not seem to be much curiosity when it came to examining this data). Also, they say “having a home helps create wealth,” and while I do not doubt that that can be true, surely it is more important to emphasize that “having wealth leads to home ownership”. And here, sad to say, the fact that white families typically have fifteen times the wealth (not income) of black families as well as the critical nature of having co-signers occurred to me.

What is the real story?

I do not want to discount the work done by the reporters or to deny that what they put forth does seem to indicate that the congressional investigations their work has spurred on are necessary. This sounds to me like a good idea. At the same time, I think about all the posts that I have read from Rod Dreher over the years that talk about the complexities of gentrification, for example (see, e.g., here and here).

And I will also admit that like one of the men interviewed in the program, I simply have a hard time understanding why lenders would not want to make money off of black people with stable financial situations as well. Would lenders not, generally speaking, be more concerned about issues of class than race?

What to do to really help?: “Often there are not very many grocery stores or places to work in [lower-class minority] neighborhoods… within black neighborhoods there is a concentration of individuals who are jobless, potential criminals, pregnant teens and other factors that we find more with the poor than with the wealthy.” – George Yancey

 

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Back to the significance of Yancey’s definition of institutional racism.

As already pointed out above, the definition is confusing, and yet, given what it concedes, it is helpful and important for us nonetheless. Even as we might never be inclined to say, with Yancey, that “racist laws are necessary,” we can appreciate the fact that the issue of systemic or institutional racism is a little bit more complicated than many in academia today are ready to admit.

And, given the way that claims about specific instances of racism can be rendered problematic by something as simple as the empirical data that Yancey allows, one might wonder, as I just did in the last section, what other claims concerning specific instances of racism could similarly be called into question, or, as they say in academia today, “problematized.”

Excuse me, I’d like to ask some questions…

Now, at this point some might be getting irritated because I have clearly taken advantage of something that Yancey has said to put forth my own perspective. One might claim that I took an honest admission and begin to, in a way, use it as a wedge in order to re-frame the discussion.

Exactly right. Still, is an attempt to do that an “illegitimate power play” of some sort? Why?

Let’s cut to the chase on the issue of violent crime by blacks for example. If you look at the explanations for black violent crime on the extremes, the answers boil down to pretty simple things. Many “race realists” think that violence among black people has to do with their genetics. In other words, who they are by nature. The other extreme looks to ideas like those of Karl Marx, contending that capitalism naturally leads to oppression of the disadvantaged and that this in turn leads to crime among the disadvantaged whose situation goes from bad to worse.

““The [black man] dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes…” — antineomarxist [?] W.E.B. Dubois

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I think most all of us recognize that explanations such as these really work towards destroying notions of personal agency and responsibility, which is always a critical aspect of our humanity! Not only this, but they loudly proclaim that what is really critical when it comes to this issue is not only what white people are doing but what white people think. Why? Because both of these kinds of statements, whether they are uttered as propositions, theories, or proclamations, have, historically, been put forth almost exclusively by white people who been heavily dependent on anti-Christian notions, theories, and argumentation.

Overall, the kinds of evidence explored and the amount of people involved in the conversation needs to be made broader – those who are skeptical of the current prevailing narrative must not be seen as being “beyond the pale”. And we also must not allow complicated people like W.E.B. DuBois to be used by people with more Marxist leanings. In his article “The Head Start Myth: What We Get Wrong About the Racial Wealth Gap,” J. Edward Britton writes:

In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, shortly after describing the abhorrent treatment of black laborers by white landowners in the late 1800s, W. E. B. DuBois comments: “The [black man] dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes; if he is poor, it is because the white man seizes the fruit of his toil … if any misfortune happens to him, it is because of some hidden machinations of ‘white folks.’”

This controversial statement was written in the same book in which DuBois documents the woes of black American life in the early post-Civil War South. Many chapters cover the brutality endured by black workers in everyday life and the grim, complex reality of racial segregation and the feelings of subjugation it aroused. Yet none of this stops DuBois from vehemently opposing racial victimhood. His hesitancy to correlate black anguish with white prosperity should serve as a reminder that America’s conversation about privilege, power and oppression has strayed far from the original understanding of how social justice ought to operate.

There is no way to truly know the effects past injustices have had on modern wealth inequalities. To deny the fact that slavery, Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement played a role in creating the racial wealth gap would be absurd. It is equally absurd, however, to point exclusively to past injustices when explaining the racial wealth gap.

Is this not sensible?


Yancey states that “…residential segregation makes it harder for people of color to remove themselves from such neighborhoods since people of color tend to make less money than whites.” And yet, what to make of this? See most recent stats here.

In the end, I certainly agree with George Yancey when he says:

“What we need, and what we are not going to get from White Fragility, is the ability to enter collaborative conversation with each other. Those sorts of conversations can help us to work together, to be held accountable for our own biases, and to find solutions that we can live with. These are the conversations that get results.”

So, jumping off of this, my humble proposition is to ditch the Kendian understandings of what constitutes racism and to start with the older and more common definition. And, then, to patiently deal with those who are keen to look at the evidence for real racism with the goal of offering resistance against it wherever it might be found. I don’t know if that will be meaningful to everyone — I get that many are tired — but I pray it will with many.

Finally, I would contend that it is not only Christians but many Americans of good will who are genuinely interested in not only not unfairly discriminating against others, but also seeing increased and even proportional representation from different ethnic groups in most every context.

At the same time, it also does us all well to remember, for example, that domains like the National Basketball Association may indeed look much the same many years into the future, no matter what kinds of steps and actions are taken to make it just as if not more excellent while also making it more diverse!

FIN

Notes:

[i] Regarding capitulation Yancey says in that article: “Our inability to see the effects of that depravity can create in us a confidence that we are almost always right. So it is natural to think that unity only comes when others capitulate to us. This is where White Fragility can feed into the worst impulses of some people of color.”

[ii] The summary of the scholarly article he links to begins: “African-Americans are six times as likely as white Americans to die at the hands of a murderer, and roughly seven times as likely to murder someone. Young black men are 15 times as likely to be murdered as young white men. This disparity is historic and pervasive, and cannot be accounted for by individual characteristics.”

[iii] See my article in Lutheran Mission Matters, mentioned above, for more information about definitions of racism.

[iv] See also the list provided by Bradly Mason in this post I did about him: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/tweets-to-about-bradly-mason-and-his-dangerous-ideas/

Note: Revised the original post as it contained information about co-signing which was incorrect. It does not substantially change the arguments above.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Short Statement Regarding My Being Banned from a Lutheran Facebook Group

I have now been banned from three Lutheran Facebook groups.

Strike one.

Strike two.

Strike three:

“After numerous violations of the group’s rules of conduct, and constant complaints from the participants here, [Infanttheology] has been removed from the group. I don’t want this to devolve into gossip, so that is my only comment on the matter.”

I guess I’m out!

I just want to make a short statement about my this most recent banning.

Like I’ve said before, I have my honor.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: “Should the fact that you have been banned from three groups now perhaps cause you to consider the problem might be with you?” Answer: Yes, I have considered that. In each case, however, I will maintain complete innocence.

Regarding this most recent banning the claim that I have “numerous violations of the group’s rules of conduct” is completely false. I have read through the rules of conduct again today, and I think that most everyone in the group will tell you that I have never been guilty of insulting, name-calling or even showing disrespect to anyone.

That is all I want to say. Thanks.

FIN

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

How to Be a Good Dog Like the Canaanite Woman

 

Note: Can be read right after this post from yesterday. And, if you find this message helpful, you might also like the last one I did: “Paul and love for one’s own race….”

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“…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table…” “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

–Matthew 15: 27

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You thought you knew how controversial Jesus was? Think again.

As my pastor likes to playfully say, “Folks, just mark it out of your Bibles….”

In all seriousness, some Christians have been deeply disturbed by this account from the Gospels today.

And not just some Christians today. Even the 5th c. church father Chrysostom said: “the more the woman urged her petition, the more [Jesus] strengthened His denial…”

So he bluntly states that Christ acts “backward[s]” here (Aquinas)!

Others, in spite of the fact that the text gives no outward impression of this, say that Jesus was somehow testing the woman’s faith, perhaps with a “wink and a nod”.

Or using her to test the faith of his disciples… or to help them counter their own chauvinism, prejudices, or even racism.

Perhaps? “God, help us save Jesus’ reputation here!….”

Again, however, the text – to the dismay of many – says absolutely nothing about this (maybe one might want to argue it is saying she deserved free health care as well?)

In fact, given the way it reads as it does, some have even insinuated that the Son of God Himself learns a lesson from the woman about his own racism or racial prejudice.

And awaaaaaaaaaay we go!

Of course we know that today being concerned about the multitude of ways we have been wrongly discriminating against others that we may not have been previously aware of is all the rage.

Do you think it is “OK to be white”?

That is your racism and white supremacy talking!

Does the young man prefer, all things being equal, to marry a debt-free virgin without tattoos?

He’s a total jerk filled with toxic masculinity!

Do you think Islam is right about women?

Well, in this case, you really might be a misogynist…

(Oh wait, I can’t really say that can I? — perhaps I should be clarifying that I mean not just any woman but “people who menstruate” or “individuals with a cervix”…?).

The fact of the matter is that some kinds of “discrimination” are just normal parts of life and other kinds are even very good. “Discriminate,” after all, can just mean where we differentiate or make a distinction…

So here, we can clearly assert that Jesus is not committing the sin of showing favoritism or worse.

Rather, we see here in the Gospel how what He and the Apostle Paul teach and practice go hand in hand…

Namely:

“…anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…” (I Tim. 5:9)

Also:

“…as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal. 6:10)

And even this, from Paul’s letter to the pastor Titus, who was stationed in Crete:

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’…. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13b)

What?!

Yes. It does us early 21st c. Americans well to remember that, as a friend put it, “Manners are not moral absolutes.” (Cochran).

I also note with interest that right before this passage about this  Canaanite woman, Jesus has just ripped into the Pharisees for their obsession with their own cultural rules — “teachings” which “are merely human rules…”, He says….

Instead of being concerned about the kind of character that pleases God.

Are you going to tell me that the words of the Apostle Paul – who acts as God’s ambassador and urges us to “imitate him” – are not pleasing to God here?

That he, “guilty of prejudicial[, bigoted] and tactless racial stereotypification,” (Thiselton, 222) is not showing “cultural humility” because he arrogantly and incorrectly thought he could understand Cretan culture with help from his favorite “token Cretan”?[i]

Are you going to say this?:

“This man Paul, an outsider to the Cretan culture who doesn’t really know them because – newsflash, he’s not a Cretan! – in making his “objective pronouncements” on Cretans, clearly doesn’t want them to know gentle and compassionate Jesus Christ, does he?!”

Well.

Maybe… just maybe…. we should just stick with explaining what the text says, and not speculating on what it doesn’t say….

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In 2010 the commentator Juan Williams was fired from his position at National Public Radio when he confessed to feeling nervous when seeing people in Muslim garb boarding his plane.

Williams was not even admitting that his “emotional response to a cultural signal”[ii] was OK: he was just being honest that this was the case.

Is Williams a racist or bigot? Acting in a racist or bigoted fashion? Even if he was, who among us would say that we too have not, at times, not only felt but argued that we at least had good reasons for acting in similar ways?

As a general rule, in early 21st century politically-correct America, we have lost the ability to speak hard truths and so what Jesus says here is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities,” as one commentator put it.

Nevertheless, before we talk more about Jesus, let’s go back to that jarring statement from Paul about the Cretans.

Is Paul, perhaps, committing the sin of favoritism or partiality that the book of James mentions?

Well, we carefully note that in Romans 2:11 Paul says, “For there is no favoritism with God” and then he repeats himself in Eph. 6:9: “There is no favoritism with him” (Eph. 6:9 ; see also I Tim. 5:21)….

And this same Paul then also says what he says about Cretans!

So again, has Paul, in this blast against the Cretans, momentarily forgotten what he said about favoritism?

Not at all.

We can nail this down as Paul also says this, from Colossians 3:25:

Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”

So what exactly is happening here?

Paul, unlike what many modern commentators might imagine, is not showing partiality or favoritism or evil prejudice.

He is not, like the men mentioned in the book of James, making judgments about people on the basis of their outward appearance… namely about how attractive and rich they look…how successful or impressive they are in the eyes of the world … 

Rather, when he says what he says about Cretans in general – even seemingly implicating individual Cretans in particular – he is not making judgments about them on the basis of their outward appearance, but rather the proven content of their character vis a vis the objective Law of God.

And this too, as hard as it might be for us to face up to, seems to be why Jesus is talking about dogs….

+++

In the ancient world, as today, to be called a dog was not a complement.

For example, the cynic philosophers, because of their “shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets,” (Wikipedia) were given their name precisely because of this (and they, by the way, often reveled in their role).

And, as regards the Jews, one commentator has noted:

“References to dogs in biblical literature are overwhelmingly negative, and when the term is used metaphorically for human beings it is abusive and derogatory… Keener’s survey of attitudes to dogs in Greco-Roman culture… confirms the negative implications of the term in those cultures too…” (595, France)

The Old Testament refers to the unbelieving as dogs.

Paul calls the legalistic Jewish Christians who required circumcision for people to be sure that they were Christians dogs.[iii]

And the book of Revelation says that the dogs will be among those thrown into the Lake of Fire.[iv]

Both the Cretans and the Canaanites really did have some issues, and so, it is only right to call a spade a spade…

In America, we love the individual who claws and scrapes and fights and achieves and overcomes – and so, we will gravitate towards the exceptions to the rules – but nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with using generalities and even stereotypes….

No offense, but it’s true!

Distinct people groups, ethnicities, cultures, nationalities tend to have certain characteristics. They have strengths, which in most cases we tend to celebrate!… and they have weaknesses, which in most cases we tend to not talk about…

And people – good and honest people – have been recognizing these for a very long time…

You might think that the content of your character is better than the rest when you refuse in each and every situation and circumstance to attribute negative characteristics to this or that ethnic or national group or religious group….

But when you do that and insist that everyone else does the same, are you also going to insist that no one attribute any positive characteristics to them either?

That, to say the least, is a rather bland and colorless way of looking at the world – not to mention a foolish one I’d say – is it not?

Don’t misunderstand: in saying all of this, we are not necessarily saying that all of these characteristics are entirely genetic or something that can never be helped.

The guilt of original sin is always with us – even as it is forgiven in baptism – but progress can certainly be made fighting against particular sins.

And we are certainly not saying that any collection of characteristics a group possesses should make us think they are naturally superior… inherently or intrinsically superior to others…

So when Jesus is focused on His people and His mission here, He is not, as I recently heard someone say “committing a racism”.[v]

Furthermore, again, He is not showing partiality in the way it is talked about in the book of James for example, where favor is shown to the rich, the attractive, the powerful and successful.

Jesus Christ is, after all, sinless…

Finally, we also have no indication that this is a situation where Jesus is learning to be more sensitive to how people apply laws like “honor your father and mother” in the world while also not sinning, which we really do have the impression occurred when He was twelve years old in the temple.

No, no, and no!

Rather, our Lord and Savior comes not to save us Gentiles first, but rather for “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel” (Gibbs, 787).

As the commentator Lenski puts it, as regards his calling his own people “sheep, all his love and kindness toward his nation is revealed. He thus also denominates himself as their true Shepherd” (597).[vi]

Another puts it this way (Fraanzman):

“Quite simply, [the statement “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel”] makes it abundantly plain that the biblical doctrine of Israel’s election must be taken seriously.”

+++

“Wait though,” you might be thinking… “Even if one is not believing that one’s group is intrinsically and inherently superior to others, this has implications…

Aren’t you suggesting that Jesus would tell us not to hire someone on the basis of their skin color?

Aren’t you saying that because Jesus knew what generally characterized the Canaanites He assumed the worst about the Canaanite woman?

Aren’t you saying that it is impossible for real racism, odious to God, to be one of the contributing causes to the material inequality that we see exists in our nation?

Again, “No, no, and no….”

Sad to say, many modern people living in America, like many modern biblical scholars, are very good about making assumptions about the character and attitudes of others based on the flimsiest of evidence.

If I say, “I live by the rule that sometimes there are exceptions to rules and that these exceptions matter…”

…that doesn’t mean I am hiding my evil hatreds at worst and my politically incorrect prejudices at best.

I am just stating this: The text does not say that Jesus intended to do anything here other than to simply assert the priority of those who God chose…. therefore making them Jesus’ own precious flesh and blood…

His own beloved if not wayward people Israel…

And – do you see it?

This is beautiful! Strong! Admirable!

Jesus is even better than the Marvel movie Super-Hero Black Panther, who dearly loves His nation Wakanda!

And the woman marvels at such singlemindedness, such devotion to one’s mission… to one’s people…

And she is no doubt attracted to such love – a love for one’s own that does not necessarily equal a lack of love, or an “unlove” for the “other”.

And so, she, as one commentator puts it, is the only person we know of who could “beat Jesus in a debate”!

She beats Jesus in a debate – and so He praises her to High Heaven!

+++

How could she have known what was deep inside the heart of Christ?

She, was, after all, one of those awful Canaanites!

Well, speculating can be dangerous, but in this case I am going to suggest it can be done quite responsibly.

In Matthew 8, after all, following the Roman centurion’s giving us another example of amazing Gentile faith, Jesus says:

“….I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And just two chapters before in Matthew 12:19-21, Jesus tells us of the salvation He is bringing to the Gentiles:

[God’s servant] will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations[, that is the Gentiles,] will put their hope.

Maybe the news had spread! Or maybe – just maybe – she was aware of the book of Isaiah Jesus was in the process of fulfilling and believed that?

Whatever the case, however it happened, this is basically the opposite of His disciple’s faith, which Jesus had earlier called “little”…

The woman’s brilliant faith absolutely amazes Jesus….[vii] …and the story makes it into the Bible. : )

How does she do it? The late 5th/early 6th century commentator Epiphanus the Latin says: “The woman agreed, saying to the Savior, ‘Yes, Lord.’ That is to say, I know Lord, that the Gentile people are dogs in worshipping idols and barking at God…”

Another excellent modern commentator (Schaeffer) sums up things by saying her faith is a

“…happy combination of all the essential features of true faith,” including “clear views on Christ’s character, or a certain amount of religious knowledge (respecting His power, grace, etc.), entire, unquestioning and humble submission to the Lord’s will (thankful even for crumbs),” and a confident reliance in the face of discouragement as well” (373, italics his).

But, but, but….

He was saying she was dog!

Yet she did not hear “Go away.”

And she did not just hear, like she might have heard from us: “Just wait, I want to get to you…”

She heard: “Wait, I will get to you!”[viii]

…and she thought she’d try her hand at a little bit more!

Isn’t this Jesus Christ after all?[ix]

Our friend Martin Luther also said something very intriguing about this story. He suggested that in not directly calling the woman a dog, Jesus is “leaving it undecided whether she is a dog or not” (Luther’s Church Postil Gospels. Vol. 11, 152).

Contrary to Luther, some commentators argue that Jesus was just calling the woman “a little puppy” here. Probably not.[x] On the other hand, even back then, “little pet dogs” did have owners who kept them in the house and fed them…

Therefore, the man Lenski who I mentioned before suggests that the Gentiles who “lived among the Jews or came into contact with them… could thus in a way obtain some of their blessings….” (Lenski, 598).

So: maybe the question to ask is this: What kind of dog was this Gentile… this Canaanite woman?

And what kind of Gentile dog are you?

+++

So with this my friends, I hope I have persuaded you that this is a beautiful, beautiful story….

What Jesus says is not full of evil prejudice or something worse, but something marvelous and wonderful – and a sight to behold!

And likewise with this most excellent Canaanite woman! Like a good mother would, she cried out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter.

We can learn from her example of great faith. For whom do we cry out to Him for His healing? Are we first like this woman and the Apostle Paul, crying out for our own family or people (Rom. 9:1-3)…. even as our affections and concern are also not so limited – and so can and will extend ever more broadly?

What is wrong with American Christianity today?

Even among those who I thought would know better, economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups in our nation are taken as prima facie evidence of systemic racism by white people.

Again, never mind that disparities between racial or ethnic groups exist everywhere, and have from since the Fall, since Cain and Abel, since the tower of Babel…

Never mind that the average earned income of “white people” is far, far down the list, behind Asians, Nigerian immigrants, and many more![xi]

And so here… in our text for today… a perfect man on a mission of love seems to clearly indicate to someone that they are not His first priority or responsibility…

…and many in the church go to absolute pieces, wringing their hands, clutching their pearls, and running to the corner for their coloring books and teddy bears.

Again, do we think the sins of nations, “the ethnos”acting like dogs with their worship of idols and their barking at the one true God – are no big deal?

What a contrast this woman is… In today’s Gospel reading I would say we see one of the greatest examples in the Bible of faith from a non-Jew: a Gentile!

Why does all of this not cause of to marvel at the love and plan of God, and to cry out, like the Roman centurion – another Roman Centurion! – at the foot of the cross:

“Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Why does not all of this cause us to have admiration for His mission, His devotion?

And why, in addition to this Canaanite women, do so many of these Roman centurions in the Bible “get it”?

It was after seeing the faith of yet another Roman centurion [!] that Peter confessed: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism…” (Acts 10:34).

I think it probably has to do with their having at least a passing acquaintance with the Scriptures, but there is something else as well.

In Matthew 8, the centurion says to Jesus:

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

This man understands authority – and He gets that when it comes to His judgment according to His Law, the Lord, unlike many leaders among men, is no respecter of persons…

…in His desire to show mercy and grace as well…

What greater authority could any of us be under?

Where, I ask – other than your works of fantasy and science fiction which steal from the Gospel story anyways – are those who have it better?

Really…

What greater Master could we serve?

Words from the cross come to mind. Words for me, words for you, words for all of us:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/cultural-humility-wokeness-at-baylor/

[ii] https://areomagazine.com/2018/09/24/race-culture-and-the-dynamics-of-prejudice/

Also from the article:

“On a more essential level, however, the acrimonies that exist between groups today reflect less the recent history of racism in the West and more the perennial condition of inter-cultural discord that has shaped human conflict throughout recorded history.”

“Much of what sounds like racist condemnation of African-Americans and Latino immigrants in the States, or of Arab and African immigrants in central and western Europe, is, in fact, concerns over what are perceived to be the cultural ailments of certain portions of these groups of people. Conservatives in America (most, but not all, of whom are white) are generally not anti-black. Yet they see part of black culture as lending itself to the vices of family dissolution and criminality. (Black conservatives, and many black liberals for that matter, feel this way too.) They are not anti-Latino, but see many Latino immigrants as bringing with them a tolerance of socialist authoritarianism that conflicts with traditional American civic values. Latino conservatives feel this way too. Similarly, opposition to unchecked immigration into Europe from the Arab world has far less to do with any social presuppositions made on a genetic basis, but rather on an understanding of Islamic culture that sees it as embracing illiberal attitudes towards personal freedom, and imbued with too great a willingness to tolerate political and religious violence. Most of these cultural critiques come from white Europeans, but by no means all. They are echoed by some Muslims and ethnic Arabs living in Europe as well….”

[iii] A late 5th/early 6th century commentator by the name of Epiphanus the Latin argues that the Jews themselves, in their unbelief, were reduced to just these kinds of dogs: “[T]he unreceptive Jews were made into loathsome dogs out of children, as the Lord himself said in his Passion through the prophet: ‘Many dogs surround me; a company of evildoers encircle me.’” (Sionetti, 29)

[iv] Theophylact of Antioch (8th c.) bluntly says that “Christ speaks of her as a dog, because the Gentiles led an unclean life and were involved with the meat sacrificed to idols, while the Jews He speaks of as children” (133).

[v] Case-Winters, for example, talks about how Jesus’ humanness is on display here, as he is “caught with His compassion down,” but that the woman “teaches Jesus about a wider divine embrace” (202).

[vi] Lenski perhaps overstates his own case a bit when he says that because Jesus really was focused on his mission to Israel (“I was not commissioned save to the sheep that have been lost of Israel’s house”), we need to give up the idea, which is also “so offensive to moral feeling,” that Jesus “pretended to be hard and tortured the woman with uncertainty for the purpose of testing her faith in order then to praise her” (596, italics mine).

[vii] Gibbs: “She is, like the Magi and centurion before her, an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to babies (11:25-27).”

[viii] Hillary of Poitiers writes “Not that salvation was not to be imparted also to the Gentiles, but the Lord had come to his own and among his own, awaiting the first fruits of faith from those people he took his roots from. The others subsequently had to be saved by the preaching of the Apostles.”

[ix] Christ, of course, only “oversteps the limitations” of His earthly mission. For, again, as can be seen in earlier passages in the book of Matthew, God’s light coming to the Gentiles for their salvation was always in view, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies hearkening of the Messianic Age to Come

[x] For more on exegesis on this passage throughout church history, see here: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/is-jesus-christ-the-anti-social-justice-warrior-social-justice-warrior/

[xi] Thomas Sowell also asks a pointed question: “If you cannot achieve equality of performance among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, how realistic is it to expect to achieve it across broader and deeper social divisions?”

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

What Does the Bible Say about Showing Favoritism or Partiality?

“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” — I Peter 1:17

 

I thought my sermon was too long for tomorrow, so cutting out the first third of it and putting it here….

+++

“[W]e shouldn’t show partiality or favoritism to anyone…

Do you agree with that?” [i]

Well, we had better agree, right? We are, after all, commanded in God’s Word to not show favoritism…

Let’s start by reading an extended portion of the book of James, from chapter 2 there:

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Now, there is no doubt that when James writes all of this about favoritism, he is particularly thinking of the temptation we have to favor those who have the things the world desires and finds attractive.

And so, at the very beginning of his Epistle, he warns them about these impulses. He even says “the rich should take pride in their humiliation[!]—since they will pass away like a wild flower”!

And then, near the end of his letter he directly addresses some of the rich in this congregation: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you….”[ii]

And this seems to go hand-in-hand with another main theme of the book, which, alternatively, is a word meant for everyone: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble…”

+++

And… speaking of that, the Bible seems to be pretty full of surprising people who, in humility, often “get” what God wants far better than God’s very own chosen people….

You know, the ones who, again, Paul is talking about in Romans 9-11: the “people of Israel”.

The ones who, loved on account of their patriarchs, received God’s irrevocable promise and calling…

(remember that it is they who are the “root”, the “cultivated olive tree”[iii] that supports the “wild” Gentile branches, contrary to the olive tree’s nature, which are grafted in… )

No… God’s chosen people largely missed the boat. One doesn’t have to look too far in the Gospels to see Jesus talking about the “the tax collectors and the prostitutes…entering the kingdom of God ahead of you….” “You” being the Pharisees, leaders of the Jews who He even states “sit in Moses’s seat”…

So we too are among those Gentiles also commanded to have humble faith, and in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28) we see this in spades.

How does this story relate to the issue of favoritism?

 

In fact, I would say that this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one of the three greatest examples in the Bible of faith from a non-Jew: a Gentile!

We note that even among the 12 disciples whom Jesus chose, their “little faith” (see Matthew 14:31) is often contrasted with the great faith of these Gentile believers….

Here in Matthew, just a few verses after chastising Peter for being of “little faith,” Jesus exclaims of this Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman: “Woman, you have great faith!”

And reacting to a Roman centurion a bit earlier in chapter 8 of Matthew Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”[iv]

In yet another story in the book of Acts, Peter is wowed by the faith of another Roman centurion and confesses to his own epiphany:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

+++

Let’s talk real quickly about a thing that is right…

The Apostle Paul talks about how “we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. 8But if we have food and raiment (or covering)[v]” – meaning, I believe, both clothing and shelter – “we will be content with these.” (I Tim 6:8).

The people James was talking about earlier would have no concern about something like this though, preferring to overwork and/or underpay the poor just because they could….

“’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’ Hmmmm… Is this really relevant in this particular case, I wonder?… Maybe what really matters here is only what seems right… or I can get people to think seems right…”

No…

In what we read above earlier from James, we saw that the rich were exploiting the poor and dragging them into court.[vi]

They were abusing the power and privilege that they had. And because of that, they were treated better!

This is one way favoritism happens…. Are they attractive? Are they adorned with all the glorious things that wealth can attain?

YAS!

We fallen human beings tend to form judgments based on selfish, personal criteria, valuing the rich more than we value the poor…

God is different, however. Very different. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character…. One thinks, for instance, of this from the book of I Samuel:

“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider [Saul’s] appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’

A well-known pastor sums it up well:

“We tend to put everyone in some kind of stratified category, higher or lower than other people. It has to do with their looks. It has to do with their wardrobe. It has to do with the kind of car they drive, the kind of house they live in; sometimes it has to do with their race, sometimes with their social status, sometimes outward characteristics of personality. All of those things with God are non-issues. They are of no significance at all. They mean absolutely nothing to Him.[vii]

That’s right. Again, as I Samuel puts it: “The Lord looks at the heart.”

So when the Bible says….

  • “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe” (Deut. 10:17).
  • “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” (I Peter 1:17)
  • “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” (Col. 3:25)

….we see that not showing favoritism is all about the law.

It is all God’s law and God’s judgment: He ultimately is the Only Judge That Matters.

His Right, not Ours….

And God applies His law equally to people, and holds everyone to the same standard. As regards His own demanding, punishing, rewarding, etc. He insists, quite firmly and repeatedly, that He doesn’t “play favorites” (see Acts 10:34-35, Rom. 2:9-11, I Pet. 1:17, Eph. 6:8-9, Col. 3:25).[viii]

What is important is not

  • what one looks like…
  • where one comes from….
  • or one’s privileges in the world…

Which is why Peter says about that Roman centurion in the book of Acts…: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).[ix]

And, we need to be honest: American demands here, frankly, are not always the same as what the Bible demands…

For example, does not showing favoritism necessarily mean that:

  • ….everyone must get paid the same (“equal pay for equal work?”)?
  • ….those joining in the work at the end of the day must get less?
  • ….or prices must always be the same for everyone?

Not at all.

One may indeed, for example, make a sacrifice on behalf of those with less means, like the violin teacher we know who provides lessons to poorer students by using a sliding scale…

Even if there is no doubt that things can’t go the opposite way!

+++

Now… back to our three believing Gentile folks mentioned above.

All of these recognized a few critical things about Jesus, and one of those things they seem to have understood was that God does not show favoritism.

Still, we might be wondering, is that really true?

The modern Merriam-Webster dictionary, after all, says favoritism is “the unfair practice of treating some people better than others.”

I mean – come on! Wasn’t Jesus treating the people of Israel better than the Canaanite woman?

Wasn’t that favoritism?

Or, maybe not…maybe Merriam-Webster is wrong – or, at least, not completely right….

To be continued…

FIN

 

[i] Found on the blog of Samuel Sey, “Slow to Write,” in the questions he offers for reflection on the matter of racism:

“1. The Biblical definition of racism is partiality. Do you agree with that?
2. The Bible says we shouldn’t show partiality or favouritism to anyone—including black people or white people, black people or police officers. Do you agree with that?
3. Do you think it’s sinful for white people to assume the worst of black people?
4. Do you think it’s sinful for black people to assume the worst of white people?
5. Since racism is partiality—systemic racism is systemic partiality—so what laws or policies in our nations’ system today show partiality against black people?
6. Do you agree disparities are not independently evidence of systemic oppression?
7. If racial disparities are evidence for systemic racism—and since racial disparities exist in every nation—do you believe every nation is systemically racist?
8. If racial disparities are evidence of racism, then would you agree that any nation or system that doesn’t seek to eliminate racial disparities is systemically racist?
9. If any system that doesn’t seek to eliminate racial disparities is systemically racist, wouldn’t that make the Mosaic law—God’s law—systemically racist?
10. If racial parity or equality of outcome is evidence of a racially just system, what policies or laws need to be implemented to establish that?”

[ii] This passage is also interesting to think about in the context of this content about the rich: “You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.”

[iii] They are the “natural family” selected by God (see, e.g. Is 1:2, Ex. 4:22, Hos. 11:1) And “Christ has become a servant of the Jews[a] on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed” (Romans 15:8).

[iv] “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

[v] And having food and raiment,…. “Food” includes all things necessary to be ate and drank, of which there is a great variety, and is here expressed in the plural number; and “raiment” every necessary covering, as the word used signifies, and includes an habitation, which is a cover and shelter from the inclementencies of the weather. And now having all these comforts and necessaries of life, food to eat, and drink to extinguish thirst and refresh, raiment to put on, and a house to dwell in…

Covering….

…and the Syriac version, “food and raiment are sufficient for us”; and so the apostle sets himself, and others, as examples of contentment to be imitated and followed…

“σκεπάσματα: may include clothes and shelter, covering (R.V.), tegumentum ([297]), quibus tegamur, as the Vulg. well puts it; but the word is used of clothing only in Josephus (B. J. ii. 8. 5; Ant. xv. 9, 2). So A.V., raiment, [298], vestitum (so Chrys.).

[vi] Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Note also Exodus 23:3 : “Do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

[vii] Jon MacArthur, found in this context:

“…is it not because these believers valued the rich more than they valued the poor? They would rather have the rich attend their church than the poor, and their treatment of the rich and of the poor reflected their values

James reminded his readers that their values were not God’s values: “Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? Yet you have dishonored the poor” (2:5-6). They were acting in a way that was contrary to God’s values.

In a message on the evil of favoritism in the church, John MacArthur said: ‘We tend to put everyone in some kind of stratified category, higher or lower than other people. It has to do with their looks. It has to do with their wardrobe. It has to do with the kind of car they drive, the kind of house they live in; sometimes it has to do with their race, sometimes with their social status, sometimes outward characteristics of personality. All of those things with God are non-issues. They are of no significance at all. They mean absolutely nothing to Him.’”

[viii] Like a few authors from the classical world, everything God says here alludes to “equality under the law” — His law, of course.

[ix] From a site: “…it is difficult to avoid showing favoritism. Even Christ’s closest followers struggled with bias against people different from them. When the apostle Peter was first called to minister to non-Jewish people, he was reluctant. He later admitted, ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right’ (Acts 10:34). The fact that James specifically addresses the sin of favoritism implies that this was a common problem within the early church.”

 

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

The Apostle Paul and Love for One’s Race

 

[sermon text]

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For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” – Rom. 9:3

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I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we in the church – and the Western world at large – really have little idea about what to do with the Apostle Paul’s words here….

First of all, the world hears Paul say this and says:

“Why are you so confident that the only way your race can be saved is through Jesus Christ? How arrogant!”

Then, much of the modern church hears Paul and cynically says:

“Is that misogynist Paul, who often tells us to ‘imitate him,’ perhaps trying too hard here to convince us how important his own race is to him? Insisting that he’d rather go to hell himself than have the whole lot of them go to hell? Should our love be so strong for our own race such that we should actually be glad to be damned eternally?”

And…now… what about this whole “race” thing? A few weeks ago we mentioned the topic of racism and how the definition has changed from it being a belief in the intrinsic superiority or greater value of one group over another to now, where it is something that is quite hidden and quite systemic and not necessarily about individuals and their attitudes.… Well, we can clearly see that issues of race are a big deal today, and so….

The world and much of the modern church hears Paul and says:

“Paul, are you perhaps you are putting a bit too much stock in your genetics, in your blood relationships or ‘kin’? Being a Christian, after all, is about faith, Paul…  It is more an idea and has nothing to do with some kind of sacred blood…

So such concern with your own race, is, to say the least, problematic, given your privileges! True, in your day Jews were not at the top of the heap, but today, they are quite privileged… And you wouldn’t want to give encouragement to some of these German and Scandinavian-descent-folks here, for example, to show some racial pride! To push back against the righteous cause to eliminate the existing system of white supremacy by feeling free to utter a terrible expression like ‘It’s OK to be white’”… [i]

[yes, that is sarcasm… appropriate layer upon layer of it actually]

Well, yes, what are we to do with the Apostle Paul’s seemingly unhealthy passions here?

And, truly, what could be more volatile today than this issue of race?

But, you see, Paul does go there, and so somehow, if we are to really understand this text, we must also go there…

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So Paul talks about “his race” What does he mean? We’ll get there in a second.

First, however, what do we mean? As I reflect on even my own education, after all, which largely took place in the 1980s, I very much remember hearing about how it was not long ago where it was still common to talk about the English, Chinese, or French race, for example….

Is this, perhaps, closer to what Paul means? I will say this: the Washington Post, who tweeted out the following last week, is definitely far away from what Paul means:

The @washingtonpost will also capitalize the “W” in White, citing that “White is a distinct cultural identity in the United States…” and is a “collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation.”

Now, the Post was just responding to another phenomenon that has been occurring over the past several weeks among journalists – that is the capitalizing the “B” in Black to go along with the capital “L” in Latino and capital “N” and “A” in Native American, for example, but still, you might wonder: “How true to real life is all of this?”

In what sense after all, are all of these groups “collective groups”? I suppose years of Census taking and like things where we have checked off “white” or “Caucasian” may very well have made seem normal. Made this kind of thinking and language seem less simplistic and offensive than it is.

I know for me it always felt a bit weird: a lame denial of my real past and present (hey, I’m half Finnish and half German and, by the way, I want to just be an American!)….

In any case, I can fully understand the irritation shown by another commentator in Louisiana (Rod Dreher), who, reading this tweet, was prompted to reply:

“I would bet that I have at least as much in common culturally with a black person from Baton Rouge who went to LSU (like me) as I do with a white person from Boston who went to Harvard. But that commonality is erased by these ridiculous racial obsessives.”

Indeed, increasingly in our society today, it is as if “race” has become the “one ring to rule them all”. Sure, there is some ambiguity and fluidity about whether one is male or female – of course! – but we must have none of that when it comes to race: One is White, Black, American Indian, Latino, Asian, period – and now in capital letters mind you…

Pick you category, and, it increasingly seems, pick your side….

We have gotten very far away from the truth of what the words that Paul uses were originally meant to convey. The objectivity and utterly unbendable nature of one’s own family ties – one’s concrete mother, father, and relatives —  is indeed sure and an important ground for life, but what of these categories?

They, in truth, are abstract and comfortless things that man has invented for his own purposes, and – truth be told – purposes that will certainly fail….

One can point out how it was indeed largely those of European and British descent who, in the process of doing their business in America and the Americas, made the bland categories “black” and “white” into a highly important thing… and things “progressed” further when the scientists got involved, what with “scientific” notions of race and racism and the like….

And now, it seems, the consequences have come home to roost, as aggressive and aggrieved identity increasingly takes center stage, becoming, for some, more or less all-encompassing…

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So, that, I humbly suggest, is our context. What does all of this mean in Paul’s context?

For race, Paul uses the Greek word συγγενής here, from sun, which means “together with” and genos, from where we get “generate” and now also “genes” (not your blue jeans).

So Paul is talking about his relatives by blood, his cousins, kinsfolk, broader tribe, and by extension, his fellow “countrymen…” Not “race” in the more abstract and again, comfortless, way people use it today.

And this then ties together with the idea of ethnicity. Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the biblical concept of “ethnos,” from which we get our word “ethnic,” and hence, talk about “ethnic groups” today.

In like fashion the word “genos” by itself – again, from where we get the word “genes” – can be  translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our own modern notions of “culture” (we won’t get the meaning of culture today!!)

This all is important in the Bible because, ultimately, the Church is a new Nation, a new Ethnos, that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or, more accurately, Kingdom, to whom all the earthly nations will stream in the life to come, “Kingdom come”.

And hence, Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth.

In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen nation (or ethnos)” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall and post-Tower of Babel, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9)…

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So this, really, is what Paul is on about… and so, where is he going with this in Romans 9?

Well, first of all, it is abundantly clear that the election of Abraham’s natural descendants must be taken seriously…

Second, though: what Paul wants to communicate is this: While any Jew may rightly say “We are Abraham’s offspring” – descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specifically – on the other hand, finally, it is faith which proves more critical than matters of blood.

So throughout Romans 9-11, we see that Paul is making a critical distinction: there is an Israel according to physical descent and an Israel according to faith in the promise…

These things are meant to go together, but at the same time, “not all receive the promise”, he says….

And saying “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” by the way doesn’t mean that he was deciding to create an Israel who would be heaven-bound while also setting up Esau and all his descendants to go to hell…

It just means that the Promise given to Abraham – which eventually culminated in the “Seed” of the Messiah Himself, Jesus Christ, coming from His line! – went down through Abraham, to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and not Esau…

And faith simply recognizes and accepts this truth for its forgiveness, life, and salvation!

Jacob was chosen for these special purposes of God in a way that Esau was not – and not because of anything that he had done…. (in fact, the whole thing ran counter to Sarah’s efforts to do things on her own!)

And all of this was done in order that, in the fullness of time, the Gentiles, that is the “nations”…. the other members of humanity… would began to pour into God’s Holy Nation as well! And not only this, but in Romans 11 Paul goes on to say the following (it is long, but bear with me – the details are very important):

17 …if some of the branches [of the natural olive tree\ were broken off, and you, [a Gentile,] although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root[c] of the olive tree [that is Abraham’s line], 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Paul essentially goes on to say that God is saying this to the Gentiles:

“I am choosing for my purposes, I am having mercy on you and preferring you now….  in order to make Israel jealous, that they might hear and believe…”

Why? He explains more at the end of chapter 11:

“As regards the gospel, [the Jews are] enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Now perhaps we can understand better Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”….

Do you see what matters here? The Promise is all about those who believe this message, and yet – and yet – physical lineage matters because family connections matter…

Romans 9-11 is teaching us that despite Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, God’s promises to her are still valid….

Through the work of Jesus Christ who its leaders killed, they – even though they have fallen away and fallen away hard! – can still be grafted into God’s purposes now, and become God’s “Israel” again for now and eternity!

And there is no reason for God’s true Israel – made up of believing Jews and Gentiles! – to not grow together as one in Jesus Christ!

So… “hated” ones like Esau and all other Gentiles – let the full measure of God’s people come in! And pray that the Jews would share the joy!

By the way, we have a similar thing that can happen today…. Despite the unbelief and disobedience we see in many quarters of the church, God’s promises to her are still valid….

The one who is baptized and fallen away, for example – even fallen away quite dramatically – may have lost the practice of faith, but that does not mean that their baptism is not valid…

They too, can return to the Lord Jesus Christ, and be grafted in again….

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Well, now let’s get really controversial…

In the passage from Romans 11 we read above, it said this:

18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you….”

How should we better understand this? Well, in another day – a saner day – we might have done it by drawing the analogy with having “citizenship” in a certain nation here on earth…

People who come to this or any other nation are grafted into it….

In the past, most all would have said they were being integrated, assimilated, naturalized… they would learn the culture… become a part of the nation…

Now, why would that be so important? Well, I recently read the talk of a controversial U.S. Senator who was speaking about the issue of immigration, and he gives us a clue as to why these kinds of things are so important…

“Prior to those stirring passages about “unalienable Rights” and “Nature’s God,” in the Declaration’s very first sentence in fact, the Founders say it has become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands” that tie them to another—one people, not all people, not citizens of the world, but actual people who make up actual colonies. The Founders frequently use the words we and us throughout the Declaration to describe that people…

“Perhaps most notably, the Founders explain towards the end of the Declaration that they had appealed not only to King George for redress, but also to their fellow British citizens, yet those fellow citizens had been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Consanguinity!—blood ties! That’s pretty much the opposite of being a citizen of the world….”

But… to talk like this. We feel we dare not go there… especially in our current context. How could this ever help?

Many in the West in general, and in America in particular, are haunted by images and/or stories of what their ancestors – or at least their countrymen – perpetrated vs. Indians. And vs. African men and women kidnapped from their homes and sold into bondage. And so, they have actually fallen off the other side of the horse…

Now… as if to make it up… virtually no one will any longer defend a national identity, heritage, inheritance…  Even defending a notion of one in public may seem perilous… at least in this or that locale…

“How could I have pride in such things? Even if I didn’t have to be reminded of the evils of the past, isn’t pride in such a thing necessarily hatred for others? Xenophobia? Idolatry?

I mean, it is OK when the Marvel Super-Hero the Black Panther has pride regarding His people of Wakanda, but look at them… they were a much better and noble people than we….”

And yet, how many of us would quickly disown our family members – or even neighbors we have come to deeply know and love — if someone began dredging up horrible past sins they had committed and started calling them and us terrible names? (before you answer this, please read this).

I doubt it any of us would do this, because love makes a difference….

Perhaps some of us might do this… even as we would also feel great shame and guilt about that later as well!

Again we wouldn’t do this because love matters. Love – expressed in shared language, culture, and custom – matters.

“…do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you….”

Do not be arrogant toward the branches because, in a sense, life is all about the love that we first learn about in family trees and this can’t be avoided When in Rome do as the Romans do because it is good for the Romans to honor their ancestors and uphold their way of life….

We should learn from God’s people, the Jewish nation. The concept of nation cannot – and therefore should not – be separated from realities of heritage, ethnicity, and blood.

Even pagan authors like Cicero and Epictetus could see that “Nature produces a special love of offspring,” and “Natural affection is a thing right according to Nature,” respectively (Lewis, 96, 99).

Again, there is a very, very good reason the Apostle Paul speaks so strongly about his “kinsmen according to the flesh, (see Rom. 9:1-5)…. 

So, how do all of us balance and think about all these things? When the Apostle Paul says “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” and “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” what should this mean for us as his people today?

What we see today is confusion, even among those who seem to understand the complexity of these issues the best…

And many see no way to get a “win-win” here. They see no exit.

[Explained following cartoon…]

 

And our struggles here…. our imperfect and flawed ways of trying to get our bearings and figuring out what to do …should only drive us closer, nor futher, to Him…..

“O God, I want to love my nation…and yet I know you show no favoritism…”

“O God, I think I should want to be colorblind…”

“O God, they now tell me being colorblind is racist…Help me see the truth…”

“O God, I don’t want to deny the value and importance of any persons’ heritage…”

“O God, I don’t care if people mistakenly call me racist, but just let me be able to keep a job where I can provide for my family and more!”

It should all only drive us closer to Him…..

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I hope you do feel a bit desperate when you think about these things. Because that, of course, drives us to God.

The God who, in the course Romans 9-11, deals with the answers that we need.

Nations will rise and nations will fall (and we pray ours doesn’t fall and fight that it doesn’t)… And yet the doctrine of predestination, like justification…. is the teaching that He is the One who will pull His people out of the messes that we create…. Not by our works like Sarah and Esau, but by His grace….

On the one hand, perhaps much like a nation’s immigration system, we shouldn’t ask question of God when He shows particular favor to some and not others, perhaps accusing Him of unfairness or favoritism….. In Romans 9-11, Paul is saying just that: “You have no business doing that, you clay pot… You are the clay and He is the Potter…”

At the same time, even as He speaks to us the way He does in those chapters, we should not assume this means that this is about Him desiring or intending to eternally exclude or condemn anyone! Unlike what the Calvinists have said His blood is indeed shed for all people and He means it!

Even Pharaoh – who Scripture famously says was hardened in order to accomplish God’s purposes for Israel who was His glory and to give glory to Him? I need to presume so…  and note that this is not the only place God insists on talking like this…

The point is that God has noble purposes and common purposes, and both need to get done…

And what are we told, at the end of chapter 11, are his highest purposes?:

 “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

That sounds quite curious, but strangely applicable….

And during such crazy times as these, it is nice to know that God has sent us men who not only have our back, but are willing to give up far more than the shirts on their backs….

Hence Paul in our text today, crying out for his people.

Hence Moses in Exodus 32:32, when he says to God about his own people: “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

And hence Jesus. Of whom we might say this:

God so loved the world, that He becomes one of us, physically, first as regards the Jew, and then as regards the Gentile….

And then… for the joy set before Him, endured the cross for our sakes, to unite all peoples in Him.

So that in the end of the trials we have in this vale of tears, we will indeed have a home where such troubles are known no more….

Thank you dear Heavenly Father, for sending us the authors of Scripture, who not only are right but who are the only voices we can listen to for true hope….

Amen.

 FIN

 

[i] https://reason.com/2019/11/04/its-ok-to-be-white-flyers-lead-to-promise-of-severest-disciplinary-action-by-western-conn-state-u/  One might think it would be OK for a white supremacist nation like ours to say that without it causing an incident every time someone utters it, right?

 

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2020 in Uncategorized