June 9, 2020
Dr. Wade Mobley
President, Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary
Editor’s note: This post is much longer than usual blog format, but exists to help readers sort through and think “Christianly” about the several inter-related, yet non-identical issues currently facing our society.
“To understand a man, look at the world when he was twenty.”Napoleon Bonaparte, in Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny
As the President of a seminary that trains pastors for congregational service and a college that engages students around their twentieth birthdays, I am continually aware that I and those in my charge are shaping men and women during their most malleable and enduring years. It is a duty and privilege that each of us takes to be sacred.
These twenty-somethings are capable of and thirsting for critical thought and application of Biblical principles to the world in which we live. If Napoleon is right, humans are disproportionately shaped by the world they live in at the age of twenty. Their world and my world are the same, but not so the formative power. The world in which these young adults live is no more or less dark and terrifying– or brilliant and wonderful– than that of preceding generations, but this world is theirs, and of late it has been both loud and complex. They are seeking to understand it.
“What do you think of all of this? Is it just racism, or is there something more going on?”Paraphrased question of a recent student
Before we ever heard the name “George Floyd,” the more explicitly and overtly racist killing of Ahmaud Arbery wrecked us all. And while we will never know what was going through the mind of the officer now facing murder charges, the video doesn’t look good. It isn’t much of a leap to assign racist motives, and our society is quick to do so.
I know countless others– so do you– who are emotionally and/or physically taxed right now. For me, some are black and some are white. Some live in a neighborhood torched by…someone who probably doesn’t live in that neighborhood. Others wear blue, and don’t know why the actions of some make them a target for (seemingly) all. There is a lot of pain to go around, while some are just trying to survive.
Issues, Sides, and Solutions
I have struggled to write in reply to their questions. Not that I am at a lack for words, or even the right words. Rather, I am searching for the right issue. The problem is that there are so many issues now seemingly interwoven, even if only by curation on the home page of your preferred internet news source. Therein lies the problem: The issues are many, not one, and the “sides” of each issue are many, and not two. Solutions to each of these issues are varied, rather than uniform.
Thus, I have struggled to write a straightforward answer to the question, “What do you think of all of this? Is it just racism, or is there something more going on?” The struggle is compounded by the fact that what we believe, teach, and confess at the Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary is a distinctively Christian way of thinking, and that most of the societally-acceptable answers specifically deny that way of thinking.
I give you as an example the specifically Biblical answers given by NFL star Benjamin Watson and former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, which elicited racial slurs from those rallying against racism. Never read the comments.
Racism, and So Much More
Yes, what we are experiencing is racism-related, and there is much more going on. As Christians, we must lead with and cling to the fundamentals of our confession. These fundamentals remain the same– indeed they must, or they are not fundamentals– regardless of our place of residence or political expediency. Sometimes there is a political or personal cost to bowing the knee to a political party or cause, but there is always a theological cost for doing so.
In seeking to understand the turbulent seas of current society, Christians must be able to affirm, not just deny. How we respond to any situation will greatly depend on how well we build on these affirmations:
- God created the world and everything in it, and did so in perfection.
- God created humans, male and female, in His image, as the pinnacle of that creation, being neither God nor, in the words of Francis Schaefer, “non-man.”
- Every human being is thus an image-bearer of God, a precious, eternal human soul, and of inestimable worth, quite without regard to pigmentation.
- Human kind fell in sin, sin entered the world, and death through sin.
- God, because of His great love for us, reconciled mankind to Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ, who became man, lived a perfect life, died, and rose again.
- God calls dead, deaf, sinful man to Himself through the effective means of His Word, speaking our faith into existence just as He spoke the universe into being– out of nothing.
- There is coming a day when this sin-stained world will pass away, replaced by the word and hand of God with a new heaven and a new earth, thus restoring the perfection of creation.
This confession governs how we view issues, sides, and solutions. Our view of issues is informed by God’s view of concepts left unaddressed in our recent conflagrations: Justice, righteousness, mercy, equality. Christians view these concepts through the eyes of God, which lest we forget, means that these concepts are higher, bigger, and more important than human reckoning. Sides of issues boil down to God’s side, or any countless number of human “sides,” all with varying degrees of validity, helpfulness, and perspective. And our solutions carry distinction both in ethos and manner of application. Christians conduct themselves as those grateful for forgiveness, modeling the sacrifice of the One who gave Himself once for all, the just for the unjust. Christians apply their solutions vocationally, as God has given gifting, calling, and opportunity to His people to serve in their family, the state, and the church.
This last little bit of doctrine– what Christians call “vocation”– is of particular emphasis in Lutheran theology, and is in large part why our college and seminary exist: What we believe influences how we behave, and what we believe about vocation influences how– and where– we will act when given the opportunity to do so.
Perhaps our first duty in these past days is to lay aside our initial reactions and weep with those who weep. But there is also a time to act. Action is best accompanied by thought. And for Christians, that necessitates (in the coined-term of Harry Blamires) thinking Christianly.
Much of what you have read, heard, and (if one is honest) thought may be missing both weeping and Christian thought. In the “fog of war” nuance tends to go missing in action. Sometimes that fog is intentional, for fearful, confused people thirsting for peace sometimes swallow both gnats and camels. The recent philosophical curse of “intersectionalism” combines numerous issues into one, then provides an (ironically) binary analysis of this issue, with proposed solutions ranging between totalitarian rule and the abolition of law, never stopping in between to observe the gospel of Jesus Christ in the kingdom of heaven, or the rule of law in the kingdom of earth.
It is also necessary to look at individual issues with individual perspective. While there is only one objective world to behold, there are countless perspectives on that world. If we insist that everyone’s “world when he is twenty” is the same as ours– or Napoleon’s, for that matter– we are not likely to understand the individual who comes to his or her own conclusion about issues, sides, or solutions that we ourselves are pondering.
We can’t possibly expect every perspective to match that of our own, nor should we dismiss perspectives that don’t match ours. Before I was a pastor I coached basketball. There were times that I was literally the only white person in a gym. Nobody did anything wrong to me, but it felt different.
Back then everybody called me “Coach Mobs,” with a long “o,” based on the phonetically-correct but not-the-way-I-say-it pronunciation of my last name. One time I expressed a desire to visit one of the players I had met at camp. He looked at me oddly when I offered. I ran it by one of the other coaches (he was black) at the camp, who replied, “Mobs, you don’t go there. They will shoot you there just for being white.” I laughed. Another coach (also black) grabbed my arm and said, “Seriously, Mobs, you don’t go there.” I was 21. It was the first time in my life that I had heard that there were places in America where I wasn’t safe due to the color of my skin. Some have never known this innocence.
On campus, we are VERY white (ruddy though I am) and mostly Scandinavian (I am not). We have a very small percentage of non-international racial minorities. On a couple of occasions someone touring our campus has been bold enough to ask (in their words, not mine), “Would I be the only black kid here?” I can’t say, “I know, but it’s no big deal.” I’m not the one who may be asked sometime by a well-meaning parent of another student, “Where are you from?” Or “Were you adopted?” I don’t know that this has happened, but I’ve thought it through enough to shudder a bit as I watched Air Force General CQ Brown, Jr. (it’s worth it, I promise).
Consider, if you will, the range of reactions to our government-induced shutdown of business during COVID-19:
- The suburban middle-class citizen with a half-acre lawn who never missed a paycheck during the COVID-19 government shutdown of business.
- The urban family in a two-bedroom apartment who hasn’t had a paycheck since mid-March.
- The family now at home full time with an abusive father/husband, or as is the majority in some communities, no father/husband at all.
It’s the same shutdown, but to different people, working and educating at home could be a novelty, inconvenience, joke… or threat to survival. And I don’t think anybody lets “cabin fever” and “abject poverty” off the hook for the depth of violence we just experienced as a society.
Extend that range of perspectives to the matter of race:
- The black man who grew up in poverty, being called unimaginable names by others, and feels trapped by systems that seem to favor others, whether by intent or not.
- The black man who grew up being called those same names, but enjoys much of what others in his community enjoy, but is constantly told that he should carry a burden. He still looks over his shoulder when driving through some neighborhoods.
- The white man who barely knows a non-white person, and though not overtly or intentionally racist, fights the urge to see “different” as “threatening.”
- The white man whose daily life includes people of varied colors and socioeconomic stations in life.
- The law enforcement officer who wants to serve and protect all in his community, and regularly faces real life “shoot or don’t shoot” situations with people who may or may not care if they themselves live, but have little regard for the life of the cop.
- The law enforcement officer who, in a moment of fear, operated against good training (or perhaps because of bad training) and harmed someone in the process of apprehension.
- The law enforcement officer who wakes up in the morning angry about racial minorities infesting his city, longing for the opportunity to put someone in their place.
The Rule of Law
That last perspective is likely exceedingly rare, but all of these perspectives– and hundreds of others– exist across our fair land, and it is impossible to govern with each of these perspectives in mind at all times. Some perspectives are impossible to govern; the hard case makes bad law. For the one who wants to inflict racial harm, no law will suffice. For the one who wants to inflict harm on police or a community, no law will suffice. And, in the most bitter of ironies, for those arguing that the solution to the rule of law being inconsistently applied is the abolition of the rule of law, no law will suffice.
In Minneapolis, some city leaders are now advocating for the abolition of the police department. This causes one to speculate just who will protect citizens from any less-than-altruistic souls who enter its confines. Mayor Jacob Frey, who is 38 years old and proudly possesses unquestionable leftist bona fides, was shamed away from a protest when he told them that abolishing the police department was a bad idea.
This is one reason that a Christian must state unequivocally that “black lives matter,” but should resist the urge to hashtag or virtue signal “Black Lives Matter.” The former confesses good theology; the latter denies it. When you #BLM, you are saying far more than you wish to say. Always Google a virtue before you signal it. Author and activist Ryan Bomberger discussed this well recently on the “World and Everything In It” podcast on Friday, June 5.
There is a vast, somewhat voiceless majority in our city who support peaceful protest for racial justice while at the same time decrying the violence of rioting (I can’t recall the source, but I saw one mainstream survey that put the numbers at 73% and 78%, respectively). They are voiceless because the zeitgeist doesn’t allow for distinction between “protesting” and “rioting,” let alone any nuance in how to address the pervasive issues of poverty, vice, and the character of our public servants.
Not all perspectives are equally valuable, and some should be disregarded completely. Most, though, are in some way both valuable and beautiful. Temporarily out of work WCCO sports reporter (turned intrepid embedded journalist) Mike Max captured one set of perspectives in a late-night interview: [It starts at 1:44, and please forgive any objectionable advertising inserted by our digital overlords]. Watch it. Then read the rest of this piece. It is beautiful, and the type of media you and I need to consume at this moment.
What you may have noticed in the background of that interview was another, less reasonable soul, ginger in complexion, sticking out his tongue at the camera while sporting a vulgarity-laced hoodie and a backpack that said “abolish police.” The Associated Press style guide cautions authors against using the term “looting” due to its racial overtones. Instead, authors are to use the phrase (I’m serious– you can’t make this stuff up) “breaking windows and stealing items off of shelves.” I wasn’t aware that “looting” was a racially-charged term, but if I used only my week-long observation I would assume that the “race” besmirched was “twenty-year-old white kids.”
Yes, this is about race. And yes, this is about so much more. What is it about that twenty-year-old white kid’s world that leads him to these conclusions, and thus, his actions? The toughest part is realizing that maybe there isn’t a reason, at least not a direct one. The problem with the Napoleon quote at the head of this post, which I take to be generally and observationally true, is two-fold: First, Napoleon isn’t necessarily right, and second, it assumes that all people act rationally and intentionally. This is not necessarily the case, and our heads hurt as we try to find answers.
We want to blame, so we come up with stories and tell them to ourselves and others. “It was 80% out of town agitators,” said city and state leaders, who walked it back when confronted with stubborn facts. “It was fascists,” said others, without a hint that they knew what a fascist was. A fascist, paraphrasing author Gene Veith, is something that no one claims for himself, but freely applies to all of his enemies. “It was Antifa,” said others. It didn’t help when a Minneapolis city council member (the son of our state’s Attorney General) pledged his support for the organization, which advocates for the violent imposition of anarchy. Others have no ideological allegiance, but show up like storm chasers when the potential for violence looms.
One of my law enforcement friends told me that the “out of town agitator” crowd comes from many different perspectives, shows up once the protesting starts, escalates it into violence, then leaves town when things get really ugly: “My work here is done.” Others do their damage from afar. Why throw bricks at police officers when you can Tweet from a safe distance “People are throwing bricks at police officers” on one of your burner accounts, and “Let’s throw bricks at police officers” from another. Somewhere sadists laugh.
There is enough blame to go around. Minneapolis-born sports writer Jon Krawczynski wrote eloquently and at great length of the widespread culpability and shame in our fair city: [Forgive the potential pay wall- good journalism is worth supporting.] Some city leaders made the decision to stand down, allowing day-looting at Target just hours before abandoning a police precinct in the evening hours.
What to Do, Even When We Don’t Understand
If this is our lot, how do we move forward? I can’t answer for everyone, but I can answer for Christians (am I too audacious to think so?), for my students (or so I deeply hope), and for myself (indeed I must).
In one of my doctoral classes at Concordia Theological Seminary-Ft. Wayne we studied cross cultural missions in general, specifically applied to Islam. How do we reach Muslims for Christ, particularly those in our neighborhood? Said the instructor, we address humanity, hospitality, and spirituality. I think there are transferable concepts to our nation’s pain and panic.
- Humanity- My wife Michele and I catechize our children on race in a simple way: “Is it right or wrong to treat someone differently because of the color of his or her skin?” The question is so absurd that it is awkward to answer. Pigment-based valuation of man is as deadly as it is absurd. Those who have seen the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” wherein Don Cheadle plays the part of a real hotelier in the midst of the 1993 Rwandan genocide (to stay on the theme, I was 20 in 1993), have a taste. Through decades of European colonial rule, first by the Germans, then Belgium, then the French, the Hutu and Tutsi peoples lived in uneasy peace. The distinction between the tribes had been lost to history. It was recovered in 1957 by a Hutu-authored declaration casting off white colonialism AND declaring the racial superiority of the Hutu over the darker-skinned Tutsi. Thus, when civil war arrived it did so with French-supplied machetes and two generations of dehumanizing pigment distinction. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans perished in the predictable carnage of sexualized violence between those who were black and those who were TOO black.
- Hospitality- All politics, it has been said, is local. I also found myself surprised by the quality and objectivity of our local media during our recent crisis. Watching and politicking nationally has contributed mightily to the corporate losing of our minds. If politics and reporting are best when they are local, how much more relations between people of racial diversity? Hospitality is a local manifestation of Christian theology, which is incarnational. We can’t do “Jesus” from a far, with all due respect to Zoom. A helpful definition of hospitality is “making room for others.” That means inviting people onto your patio, or into your house. It means investing time and money in others. It means leaving time in your calendar so there is time to share with others. It means investing in people who don’t already think like you. It means eating food that they make that you may or may not like. It means not making bacon jokes around your kosher neighbors. Try it. I promise you, it won’t hurt a bit.
- Spirituality- Muslims, said my teacher, infuse every aspect of their lives with their religion. They are curious that we do not do the same. It is helpful in this regard to view the secular progressivism that dominates the city in which I live as a religious viewpoint. They won’t see it that way, and you probably won’t get anywhere explaining your point of view, but ask a question, just to listen. Don’t respond. Just listen. Here’s one: “What is justice?” And, if the first question is well-received, perhaps another: “Why do you say that?” Justification is at the center of Christian thought. When people talk about “justice” they are essentially offering to play a game on our home court. We should welcome this. If one will not receive the justification purchased by God with the blood of Christ, he will constantly justify himself, likely condemning others along the way. This should be neither surprising nor intimidating to you. You GET self-justification, for you do it all the time. Then you repent, and turn to Christ, who has made you right with Him. You can explain this. It will help your neighbor. Sometimes they don’t even understand what we think they are viciously rejecting.
Humanity, Hospitality, Spirituality
Perhaps you inferred what I did at the end of that class: “Isn’t that how you take the gospel to anyone?” The instructor responded, “That is precisely the point.”
There is much more to write, but maybe we all need to start there. Look people in the eye. Assume that they are smiling under their COVID-19 masks. Understand that sometime, somewhere, someone will hurt you, somehow. And when they do, resolve to forgive that soul as Christ has forgiven you.
Some of you know the rest of the Rwandan genocide story. Fueled by Christian conversion, leaders of both tribes met in public confession and repentance. They forgave each other. Most in the country live at peace and in racial harmony today. If they can, so can we. This picture, and not the one dominating our headlines today in Minneapolis, is the one I want to shape my twenty-year-old students, and in a day that will come too soon, my twenty-year-old children.