Racism and the Bible

The word “racism” is being thrown around a lot by the media and the Biden administration. I even overheard someone say that the Bible is “racist.” This has caused me to think about racism in the context of Scripture.

The word “racism” has been defined in various ways, some better than others. Here’s one example: Ibram X. Kendi, in How to Be an Antiracist, defines it like this:  “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” That’s not exactly a helpful definition. In other definitions that I came across, the word that seems to be common to almost all of them is “superiority.” That is, if someone believes his race is superior to others, he is a racist. And naturally, if one believes this, it will eventually be reflected in one’s actions, some more obvious than others.

The person who I overheard saying the Bible is racist believes this because God chose the nation of Israel to be His people. Actually, and more accurately, the Lord chose Abram (later changed to “Abraham”) and promised to make him into a great nation (Genesis 12:2); the Israelites were his descendants through his son Isaac. In Deuteronomy 7: 6-8 we are told, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession. The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” In the second part of Isaiah 49:6 we are told, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

So, why did the Lord choose the Israelites to be His people? Because He kept the promise He swore to their forefathers (beginning with Abram). The Israelites were then supposed to be a light for the Gentiles (non-Israelites), passing on the knowledge and blessing of the Lord. Way back again in Genesis 12:3, the Lord tells Abram, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” You might ask why the Lord chose Abram; what we know is that it was the Lord’s sovereign choice. Does this mean that Abram and his descendants were superior to other nations? Not at all. In fact, when we read the Old Testament, we find that again and again, God’s people sinned greatly and were punished. Eventually, they were taken into captivity. By the time Jesus was born, they were under the thumb of the Roman empire; then in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Israelites were scattered.

We have examples from the Old Testament of non-Israelites who were blessed by the Lord. One person who comes to mind is Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram. In 2 Kings 5, you can read the story of how the Lord healed him of leprosy through the prophet Elisha. Another person who comes to mind is the widow at Zarephath of Sidon. In I Kings 17, you can read the story of how the Lord brought her son back to life through the prophet Elijah. Yet another person who comes to mind is the queen of Sheba (in Ethiopia). In 1 Kings 10, we read about her coming to visit King Solomon, and in verse 9, we have these astonishing words from her: “Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, He has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.” This “foreign” woman had great understanding of the Lord!

In the New Testament, we also have examples during Jesus’ time on Earth of non-Israelites who were blessed by the Lord. The person who came immediately to my mind is the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. In verses 3-13, you can read how Jesus healed the centurion’s servant; not only that, but in verse 10 we read Jesus’ words about the centurion: “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Imagine: a “foreigner” who had greater faith than any of God’s chosen people! There’s another centurion in Luke 23:47, immediately following Christ’s death: “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.'” A third person is the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28; you can read there how the Lord cast out a demon from her daughter.

There are many other examples of non-Israelites in both the Old Testament and the Gospels who are blessed by the Lord. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have what I consider the ultimate statement of the Lord’s blessing to people of different ethnicities (as well as both genders): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, neither your ethnicity nor your male/female gender matters in regard to salvation; the Lord saves all those who put their trust in Him, regardless of ethnicity or gender. In the grand finale, the book of Revelation, Chapter 7:9 gives us this glorious view of heaven: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” Notice the word “every!”

So, is the Bible “racist?” There is ample evidence that it’s not. For those who think it is, they’re on very dangerous ground because in essence, they’re saying that God is racist. After all, we don’t call the Bible “God’s Word” for nothing! Are people–even God’s people–racist? As I wrote earlier, the common denominator in various definitions I came across is superiority. If we view our race, whatever it may be, as superior to others–or even thinking it should be superior to others–and then worse, act on that view, whether in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, then yes, we are acting like racists. Let me put it this way, speaking for myself: I’m more comfortable with two races–my own and one other–than with other races. When that causes me in some way(s), even mentally, to exclude people from those other races, then yes, I am thinking and/or acting like a racist. One caveat, however: thinking and behaving like a racist in a given time and place does not define me as one, in spite of what the media may say. May the Lord continue to form us who profess His Name into Jesus’ image, including in this area.

What Is the Emergent Church?

In my first blog post 14 months ago, I mentioned that if you have a big question or issue you would like me to respond to, please let me know. I have previously written one such post. This week’s post is in response to another question, an excellent one, from another very regular reader of this blog.

In researching this question, I discovered that the “emergent church” goes by other names as well, including the “emerging church,” “progressive Christianity,” and the “post-evangelical movement.” First of all, we should not expect a church to identify as “emergent” or “progressive.” Second, as you can probably guess from some of these names, it is questionable whether this kind of church or movement is a true church as the Bible defines it. The church is the Body of Christ, meaning all people who have come to saving faith in Jesus. Before the church even existed in a more formal way, Jesus said this in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Michael Youssef in his book Saving Christianity? gives an excellent overview of the emergent church: “Whereas Biblical, evangelical Christianity emphasizes the authority of the Bible, the forgiveness of sin, the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, and eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus alone, ‘progressive Christianity’ rejects these doctrines. This mutated form of Christianity cherry-picks the Bible and the words of Jesus, claims that all religions lead to the same God, and seeks to build a utopian ‘kingdom of heaven’ on Earth through a liberal-progressive social and political agenda. Leaders of this movement, many of whom claim to be evangelicals, say that truth is unattainable and that certainty should be condemned as a lack of faith.”

Notice that emergent church leaders do not accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, instead choosing the parts they like and rejecting what they don’t like. For example, and perhaps most importantly, in their belief that all religions lead to the same God, they reject what Jesus said in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

One of the emergent church leaders is Brian McLaren, who writes in his book A New Kind of Christian: “There [on Christian radio stations] I hear preacher after preacher be so absolutely sure of his bombproof answers and his foolproof biblical interpretations… And the more sure he seems, the less I find myself wanting to be a Christian.” In another book, A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren writes, “A generous orthodoxy … doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is humble; it doesn’t claim too much; it admits it walks with a limp.” On the surface, perhaps being “humble” and even “less sure” sound good. However, on his website, brianmclaren.net, he says postmodern Christians like himself are “eager to engage with questions that have been suppressed–including rethinking penal substitutionary atonement theory, biblical inerrancy and interpretation, and the violence of God.” That first question is regarding whether or not Jesus took the sins of the world upon Himself, dying in our place. Notice the second question, alluded to earlier: whether or not the Bible is without error. The third question is about his questioning the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed the world with a flood and brought judgment on the various Canaanite tribes who, for example, sacrificed their children to idols.

It should be obvious by now that at least some of McLaren’s questions strike at the very heart of the Christian faith. Regarding McLaren’s self-proclaimed “humility,” Michael Youssef notes this about McLaren and others like him: “They don’t have any doubts whatsoever about the progressive sexual agenda… They question the Bible while making certainties and sacraments out of gender politics, victim politics, [and] environmental politics.” In 2015, for example, McLaren stated that he did not believe homosexual conduct to be sinful. It’s clear that his desire to be humble does not extend to his politics or his firm views on sexuality. In contrast to McLaren’s so-callled humility, Youssef wisely writes, Genuine Christian humility begins when we submit ourselves in awe and reverence before God and His Word. Genuine Christian humility begins when we accept the gospel of Jesus Christ as truth.”

Brian McLaren is not the only leader of the emergent church; another example is Rob Bell, who I’ve written about before. Bell is a universalist who believes everyone will eventually end up in heaven, and McLaren has defended Bell against critics. Thankfully, Bell is no longer a pastor, but I’m sorry to say that McLaren is.

While I was researching the emergent church, I was reminded of Pilate, who in John 18:38 scoffingly asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Emergent church leaders do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, which is what causes them to question the fundamentals of the Christian faith while at the same time being very firm about issues that agree with their politics.

I once had a conversation about churches with a colleague who I believe is a Christian. She told me about the church that she and her husband were attending. Among other things, the pastor was very affirming of homosexuality, including gays and lesbians in church leadership. My colleague also mentioned a couple of other things, expressing concern about the direction the church was heading; however, when I asked her if she had considered changing churches, she said that she and her husband wanted to stay there because of the people they knew there. I hope that if you ever find yourself in a similar position to my colleague, you will leave and not look back.

Who Do You Follow?

Many years ago, when I was a young believer, I heard a sermon in which the pastor defined being a Christian as being a follower of Jesus Christ. In John 14:15, Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” That is the essence of following Jesus: living in obedience to what He tells us to do.

In February, my church started a three-year plan of reading through the entire Bible. This has been good for me as it has been many years since I did that. I have already been reminded of so many nuggets tucked into the Bible. For example, Exodus 23:2 tells us, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.” Nine chapters later, in Exodus 32:1-2, we read, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us.'” The Israelites were very quick to forget the Lord’s miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians. Aaron, the high priest, who should have been the leader in upholding the Lord’s holiness while Moses was on Mount Sinai, instead acquiesced to the demand of the people by fashioning a golden calf and an altar to it.

Another example of following the crowd is the morning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew 27:20 tells us, “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” In verses 22 and 23, the crowd calls out to Pilate, the Roman governor, “Crucify Him!” Unlike Aaron, the priest who made the golden calf, Pilate at least tries to reason with the crowd, asking in verse 23, “Why? What crime has he committed?” In verse 25, we read these chilling words from the crowd: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Pilate then gives in.

In spite of American society being a relatively individualist one, we can also easily give in to the crowd. I recently came across a rather shocking statement from the Atlanta mayor, but before that, let me give a little background. Perhaps you’ve heard of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by Garrett Rolfe, a police officer; this happened last summer. The case is still under investigation, but one striking thing about it is that Rolfe was fired the day after the shooting. Normally–and legally–an officer has 10 days to respond to a “notice of proposed adverse action,” e.g. possible disciplinary action. Here is the statement from Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: “Given the volatile state of our city and nation last summer, the decision to terminate this officer, after he fatally shot Mr. Brooks in the back, was the right thing to do. Had immediate action not been taken, I firmly believe that the public safety crisis we experienced during that time would have been significantly worse.” Maybe at first glance, this doesn’t seem shocking to you, but if you read it carefully, I think you will see what I mean. The reason Officer Rolfe was fired so quickly is, to repeat, that “the public safety crisis we experienced during that time would have been significantly worse.” In other words, Rolfe was denied due process because the mayor was afraid of the crowd, or the mob. Would the rioting in Atlanta last summer have been even worse if the mayor had not immediately fired Rolfe? Maybe so, but that doesn’t make the mayor’s decision “the right thing to do,” regardless of what you or I might think about Rolfe’s actions. I should add that Rolfe was reinstated last month, which was the right thing to do, while the case is still being investigated.

In all three cases–Aaron the priest, Pilate the Roman governor, and the Atlanta mayor–we have leaders who gave in to the crowd. This emphasizes the heavy responsibility of leadership. However, I’m sure we can also all think of instances where we have followed the crowd, not as leaders, but one of the crowd. This may have been in a very direct way, such as when we were kids. It may also be in a more indirect way, such as not being intentional about raising our own kids to follow the Lord rather than the crowd. It may be in following the crowd/cultural norms ourselves rather than Scripture. May the Lord continue to give us the strength to stand up for Him, especially in regard to not following the crowd in doing wrong.

More about Humility

About a year ago, I wrote a post about humility; the gist of it was that when we are praised by someone, we have a choice in how we respond, both inwardly and outwardly. Here is the link, if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/05/20/what-does-humility-look-like/ As we mature in Christ, hopefully we can develop the habit of responding humbly. For example, I recently wrote some encouraging words to my pastor; here is his response: “Thank you for your encouragement; may God have all the glory.” If you knew him, you would know that he means exactly what he wrote!

Another thing that caused me to think more about humility was a recent reminder from someone (thanks, Jennifer!) about Moses. Numbers 12:3 tells us, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” As I studied more about Moses and thought about his life, I realized that here was a man who grew up in the luxury of the palace of the Pharaoh; however, after he killed an Egyptian, he fled to the desert of Midian, where he spent the next forty years! That was a huge step down from a human perspective, but we know that the Lord was preparing him to lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. Moses had a close relationship with the Lord; in fact, Exodus 33:11 tells us: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Exodus 34:29 is particularly striking: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” Notice that phrase: he was not aware. That is the essence of humility: when we are living in close fellowship with the Lord, and as a result in thankful obedience to Him, we are not always even aware of it. From a human perspective, we might think that Moses, a man who was God’s friend and whose face shone after he spoke with Him, would be boastful; in fact, however, it was because of his close relationship with the Lord that he was so humble!

Another aspect of humility that I’ve been thinking about for some time is forgiveness. Much has been written about forgiveness, but my main focus here is on how we apologize. In the media, I often hear something like this: “I want to apologize if…” When a person makes such a conditional statement, they are well aware that they have offended or even hurt people. Perhaps that is a blanket way of saying that they have not offended or hurt everyone, but only some; sometimes, it’s a way for the person to protect himself or herself legally. Nevertheless, it comes across as something much less than a true apology. Getting closer to home, how about this: “I’m sorry I said/did that, but…” As soon as that little three-letter word is added, the listener realizes that an excuse–or worse, blame–is coming. On the other hand, “I’m sorry that…” is much more likely to be a true apology, and it is a way to show true humility.

How we respond to an apology, or on an even deeper level, to someone’s asking for forgiveness, is also an important aspect of humility. I have recently noticed (on a couple of TV shows) statements like this: “I’m not going to let you feel good about yourself by forgiving you.” Obviously, when we let someone off the hook by forgiving them, it makes them “feel good,” but that’s missing the point: the person who chooses not to forgive chooses instead to hold on to resentment and bitterness. That is very dangerous, as Matthew 6:15 tells us: “But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Choosing to forgive is right, and it is also an expression of humility.

Do you show humility by asking for forgiveness and by forgiving others? Do I? As we continue to grow in Christ, forgiveness will become more and more an expression of our love for Him and others.

Of Masks and Meds

On May 16, the CDC updated its guidance regarding mask-wearing: “Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing.” It goes on to list exceptions, including local regulations and businesses as well as workplace guidance. As someone who hates having had to wear a mask when entering businesses and other public buildings over the past year, I am thankful for this change. Last month I chose to become fully vaccinated primarily because of the increased freedom that I will soon have.

Whether to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is a choice, and I respect those who have chosen not to; in fact, I know some of them. Some have chosen not to because they have previously contracted COVID and thus have antibodies. In fact, there is plenty of research to suggest that people who have recovered from COVID are even better protected than people who have never had it but have been vaccinated. Other people have chosen not to because they want to wait for further research about side effects. The point is that becoming vaccinated or not should be a choice; there are those who have foolishly said, for example, that it’s “patriotic” to get the COVID vaccine, implying that it’s “unpatriotic” to refrain from getting it. There has also been talk about “vaccine passports.” It wasn’t that long ago that medically-based decisions were personal and thus private, but there are those who seem to think that this doesn’t apply to the COVID vaccines.

As mentioned earlier, I hate having had to wear a mask, and there are four reasons for this. First of all, having to remember to put it on when I am about to enter a public building has been annoying. Second, and more importantly, there were times last year when my wife and I were hiking in state parks, and masking was required. Breathing is more difficult when wearing a mask, especially when doing something more strenuous than walking in my neighborhood or shopping. As a result, I had my mask off most of the time and then quickly put it back on when other hikers were approaching. Third, I’ve gotten tired of muffled voices, which make it more difficult to understand others. For example, I love using ATMs, but last year I had to enter a bank to speak with a teller. It was very difficult to understand him, and he ended up making a mistake, which I later had to rectify by making an appointment and sitting down, masked of course, with another bank employee. Finally, does anyone besides me miss seeing faces when out and about? Thankfully, virtually everyone in my neighborhood goes maskless when outside, but in other contexts, I have sorely missed the non-verbal communication of facial expressions, especially smiles.

That said, I have complied with mask-wearing guidelines when in public buildings. I have also complied with them during a couple of outdoor get-togethers with brothers and sisters from my church. Speaking of: our church is about to reopen, and we have been discussing many details related to it. Not surprisingly, mask-wearing has been a hot topic. Parents of young children, who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, have been one concerned group. Another group has been the elderly; even though they have been vaccinated, some have expressed some fear; at the same time, they are the ones who are most eager to return to in-person worship. We have also discussed what to do if a visitor enters the church and is reluctant to wear a mask. As my wife and I discussed this, the biblical principle that came to mind is this one in Romans 14:13: “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Similarly, I Corinthians 8:9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” I think these verses clearly apply to our elderly brothers and sisters who have expressed fear because even though they have been vaccinated, they are at higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID. However–and I give credit to my wife for this insight–I think it also applies to brothers or sisters who are reluctant to wear a mask at church. I think that the elderly should certainly be free to wear a mask, but also that those believers who are adamant about not wearing a mask should be free not to wear one. For the time being, I am willing to wear a mask at church, but I admit that I am not willing to do so forever!

I hope that as the reopening of the U.S. continues, people will be considerate of one another and not look down on those who choose to treat mask-wearing differently than they do. And especially for those of us who claim the name of Christ, I trust that we will be considerate of one another as well.