What Should I do: Thoughts on Political and Cultural Engagement

I’m struggling.  I’m struggling with how to engage culture for God’s glory.  The recent nomination fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh forced that struggle to the front of my conscience.  There are five realities guiding my decisions on cultural engagement, and five action steps I’d like to take in the future.

5 Realities

  1. I have friends who I want to influence with the gospel:  This reality hits me hard.  I have many friends who don’t think like me, vote like me, share my background, etc…  I want be a Christ like influence in their lives.
  2. I see our society moving in a counter gospel direction:  I’m concerned about the direction of our culture.  We’re not moving toward the gospel.  We’re not moving toward Christ.  We’re moving away from Christlike values.
  3. I have opinions:  I have opinions on politics and on other aspects of our society.  I have biblically informed opinions that I’d like to share. I’d like to be a part of the conversation.
  4. My political party does not always align with my opinions:  This has become abundantly clear in the past two years.  The Republican party has moved farther to the right, and has left me feeling like a man without a party.
  5. God is neither republican or democrat:  I may feel like a man without a party, but I am never without God.  There will be democrats who spend an eternity with Christ.  There will be republicans who do not.  This is the most important reality.  It connects back to the first reality.  My heart’s desire is to see all my friends spend an eternity with God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

What am I to do?  These realities are difficult to navigate.  I’m not the only Christian struggling with the correct biblical posture for cultural engagement.  Here are five action steps I’d like to recommend to those who are struggling with this issue, both democrat and republican.  I’m committed to following these steps in the future:

  1. Do not be a stumbling block:  When Southern Baptists met for our annual meeting  in St. Louis in 2015, the messengers debated a resolution supporting a ban on the display of the confederate flag on public property.  There were emotional speeches on both sides of the issue.  Dr. James Merritt said, (I’m paraphrasing here) “If the confederate flag causes my brother or sister to tune out the gospel, then the confederate flag must go.”  If the voicing of my political opinions causes my brother or sister to miss the message of the gospel, then I should keep my political opinions to myself.
  2.   Engage with purpose and grace:  I always need to ask myself, why am I engaging this person on this issue?  Am I just looking for a fight?  Am I just looking to prove someone wrong?  Christ never engaged just to fight someone or prove someone wrong.  He always engaged with purpose and with grace.  The message of God’s grace was always on his lips, and He offered forgiveness while simultaneously standing against sin.
  3. Cultivate more relationships with people who do not think like me:  I can’t engage in meaningful discussion in an echo chamber–see reality number one.  I want to cultivate more of those relationships.  I want to genuinely listen to arguments.  Those arguments may not change my mind, but they give me an insight into people and their thoughts.
  4. Those who have different values are not my enemy:  There are too many conservative Christians who treat non-Christians as enemies.  They are not our enemy. The Bible says our fight is against the ruler of this atmospheric domain.  I want to always be careful not to treat those who ideologically oppose me as my enemies.
  5. I will not belong to either political party:  I’ve found myself in the position of not belonging to either political party.  I will still vote for a certain type of candidate, but I will not vote republican just because I’m a Southern Baptist Pastor.  The Republican or Democratic, or whatever party will have to earn my vote.

This is where I’ve arrived in my struggle.  Paul wrote in Philippians 3, verse 12 and following, “Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.  Brothers I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do; forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

Have We Taken God out of School?

I fell for it.  I fell for it, hook line and sinker.  I parroted this critique of the liberal public education establishment:  they’ve taken God out of our schools.  That was before I became involved with our local school.

There are many who believe that the cause of our societal decline began when The Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Engel vs. Vitale has become an easy scapegoat for the moral decline in our nation.  It’s convenient to blame nine dead justices for everything we revile about our society, but in our righteous” anger, we’re exacerbating the problem.

When we declare God’s removal from public schools, we’re declaring that The United States Supreme Court has the power to move God.  We proclaim the sovereignty of God from our pulpits, but in our conversations we intimate the sovereignty of a human institution.  The court didn’t push God out the door of our schools in 1962.  They only forbade government sanctioned recitation of prayers.  God was never taken out of our schools, and He never will be.

When we propagate this untruth, we’re insulting our teachers.  There are three public school teachers in my congregation who pray for their students.  Are their prayers not heard?  Do their prayers not count?  If God has been taken out of our schools are the prayers of Christian teachers useless?  I’ve found most teachers to be courageous, humble, and selfless.  Christ encourages and pronounces blessings on people with those qualities.  If God was not in our schools anymore, we wouldn’t have so many quality educators.

I also pray for my children every morning as they get on the bus.  I used to pray only for my children, but now when the bus drives by my widow, I pray for all the children on the bus.  If God were absent from our schools then my prayers would be useless.  I know there are other parents who pray for the school children.

There are also children who pray for one another.  What are we telling those children when we tell them that God has been taken out of school?  We’re telling them that their prayers don’t count either.  That subtle lie does more spiritual damage to our children than we’ll ever realize.

When we insinuate the uselessness of prayers from teachers, parents, and students, we’re operating from a defeatist mindset.  Christ has admonished us to not be afraid because He has overcome the world.  There is no reason to operate as though we’ve been defeated, and when we act as though prayers for our school, we are slowly conceding the battle to the enemy.

There are also parents who use this battle cry to pull their children out of public schools.  We’ve removed a large chunk of Christians and children from Christian homes from our schools, and that has done more to erode the potential spiritual impact than the Supreme Court’s decision in 1962. We should never use our children as missionaries in our public schools, and there are situations where it is necessary to remove children from a public school.  However, by removing so many Christian children from our public schools, we have removed a large Christian influence from a public institution.  The secularization of our schools should come as no surprise when we remove Christian influence.  When we remove our children from public schools, we also remove our influence from them as well.

I’ve made some of you angry.  I can hear you furiously pecking at your keyboards with accusations such as:  how dare you insinuate that I’ve done more to remove God from our schools than The Supreme Court.  You’re going to accuse me of sending my kids into a secular public school just to be missionaries.  You’ll probably tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m only 38.

My family is blessed to live in a small town with an outstanding school.  We know and love our teachers and administrators.  There are many of you who are not that blessed and have made the decision to not educate your children in the public school.  I respect that decision and know that education, both public and private is complicated.

What’s indisputable is God’s presence in our public schools.  He never left because God does not dwell in a building.  His Holy Spirit lives in each one of us.  If we kicked God out of school, which we could never do in the first place, then every teacher who is filled with The Holy Spirit would have to leave.

I’m never going to utter the phrase, “we kicked God out of school,” again except to point out the absurdity of that notion.  God bless all of the courageous teachers who dedicate their lives to the education of our children.

The Best of Enemies

Do you know the names Ann Atwater, CP Ellis, and Howard Fuller?  I didn’t until I read the book “The Best of Enemies,” by Osha Gray Davidson.  The book chronicles racial relations in Durham, North Carolina in the 1960’s.  I heard about the story of CP Ellis and Ann Atwater during this year’s pastors’ conference when Dr. Tony Evans used their story as a sermon illustration.  I decided to research the story and found Davidson’s book.  I’ll give a summary and then three strengths and three weaknesses of Davidson’s work.

Summary

During the first half of the 20th century, Durham, North Carolina was known as a progressive jewel of the south which had great race relations.  This, of course, was not true.  Durham did boast a class of black elites which was more than most southern cities, but the living conditions for the lower class black population were just as squalid and unfair as other Southern cities.  The book chronicles the rise of both Ann Atwater, a poor, single black mother and CP Ellis, a poor white man who found a sense of purpose in the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  He would eventually become The Exalted Cyclops of the Durham chapter.  Ellis and Atwater clashed at many city meetings and became bitter enemies.  In 1971 the Durham schools were forced to integrate and this caused considerable turmoil.  A man named Bill Riddick came to town and suggested the city hold what is called a charrette.  A charrette is an intense meeting over several days, in Durham’s case 10 days, where an entire community is invited to come together to solve a particular problem.  The charrette began by naming a steering committee.  Guess which two people were elected to chair the steering committee.  Ann Atwater was not even in attendance when she was elected a co-chairwoman of the steering committee and her fellow chairman was none other than her worst enemy, CP Ellis.

During the meetings, Atwater and Ellis found that poor black families and poor white families struggled with the same problems.  Ellis came to believe that blacks weren’t what keeping poor whites impoverished, but the ruling elites, both black and white.  There’s a moving scene in chapter 13 which describes Ellis and Atwater talking alone in the auditorium when reality finally poured in on Ellis and he began to cry.  The charrette ended with Ellis renouncing his membership in the Klan and reportedly tearing up his klan membership card in front of the community.

Ellis and Atwater became lifelong friends, and when he died in 2005, Atwater delivered a eulogy at his funeral.  The introduction includes a story about Ann coming to the funeral home before CP’s service, and, while sitting there was asked to leave by a white man.  She finally stated that CP was her brother.

Strengths

  1. Davidson does a remarkable job of setting the scene for the charrette.  He plows through a century of racial history in Durham and relates the events in Durham that coincided with the larger national struggle regarding race relations.
  2. Davidson gives equal pages to both the histories of Ellis and Atwater. Davidson is a career journalist and when I began reading the book, I assumed he would major on Atwater’s story, but his work is non-biased and fair.  He notes the high price Ellis paid for his actions during and after the charrette.
  3. His character descriptions of Atwater, Ellis, and other minor characters are moving.  I felt as though I could close my eyes and hear Atwater or Ellis talking with me.

Weaknesses

  1. Davidson only devotes two chapters to the seminal event, the charrette. He spends 11 chapters covering background material, but only two chapters dealing with the event that shaped this unusual friendship.  I would like to hear more about the charrette itself.
  2. He ends the book with a retelling of Ellis’ suicide attempt in 1972. and the psychological price he paid for his actions.  I would like to have known more about the friendship that developed after the charrette, but so much time was devoted to background material that a detailed description of their friendship would have made the book very lengthy.
  3. This may not be considered a weakness, but for a novice in black history, such as myself, Davidson includes the action of too many activist groups.  I was difficult to keep up with who belonged to which group and which groups were militant and which were peaceful and so on.

What I learned

What does this have to do with the Southern Baptist Convention and SBC Voices in 2018?  We’re having our own struggles with diversity and race relations.  I learned a lot about the history of race relations, and I learned about some influential people that many of us have never heard of.  Incidentally, I wonder if our own Dwight McKissic is related to the Floyd McKissic mentioned in this book?  I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know about a critical period in our nation’s history which still affects us today.  Before we go patting ourselves on the back for including minorities in leadership roles, we would all do well to read the story of Ellis and Atwater and remember that there are men like CP Ellis who paid a high price for doing what was right.  Are we willing to pay that price?

We Can Do Something – Thoughts on Protecting our Churches from Sexual Predators

When I was 16 years old, our church hired a new pastor.  I was excited and intrigued because this was the first time I could remember our church hiring a new pastor. (Turns out there was a good reason for that, as the previous pastor had been there for 19 years.)

The new pastor was awesome.  He was young and full of energy.  He preached outstanding sermons, and he even counseled me when I wanted to surrender my life to the ministry.

Then came the phone call.  My father is a deacon and one night he was summoned to church for an emergency deacons meeting.  The new pastor had been caught talking to his girlfriend on a cordless phone.  During the 90’s, if you had a police scanner, you could pick up the frequency of a cordless phone if you were in the vicinity.  Subsequent investigations revealed that he had engaged in this behavior in three other churches.  I was beside myself because, even as a 16 year old, I knew that the other three churches should have told our church something about his behavior.

Fast forward to ten years later, and the deacons are meeting again, this time to address the pastor who has just had charges filed against him for harassment. The victim was a female whom he had been having an internet affair with.  How does this happen twice in the span of a decade?  In the following paragraphs, I’d like to suggest some practical steps that churches can take to prevent this sort of can kicking, and then some suggestions for the SBC in general.  We have got to get a handle on this, and while we can’t prevent every instance, we can certainly make our churches safer for the next generation, and make it harder for leaders who have a history of sexual promiscuity and abuse to continue working and leading our churches.

Individual Churches

  1. More training—Pastor search committees should undergo a period of training before they commence their search.  Most search committees are not trained in what to look for, how to go about a thorough background check, or how to ask the tough questions that ought to be asked.  I can see a day coming when church insurance companies will require search committees to be trained or they will not cover any litigation that is brought against the church for the actions of a pastor or staff member who was hired but not properly vetted.
  2. Deeper, deeper, deeper background checks—While most search committees obtain criminal background checks, most stop the deep dive at that point.  The criminal background check should be the beginning of the deep dive, not the end.  Search committees should ask the candidate if he would submit to an audit of his finances; bank statements, credit card statements, and the like.  This should be done by an independent third party, and the search committee members should only be given the results if there something malicious or disqualifying.  Why search through financial records?  This search will probably reveal whether or not the candidate has been involved in pornography.  The type of predatory behavior we’re trying to prevent usually has its roots in pornography.  The committee should also ask the candidate to submit to an audit of his personal computer.  This again might reveal any involvement in pornography which would in turn disqualify the candidate.  Is this an invasion of privacy?  Yes it is, but God help when we’ve come to the point where we check out our candidates for political office with more scrutiny than we do the men who are supposed to lead our churches.
  3. Spies—My home church, to my knowledge, sent people to the towns of their candidates to ask around about them.  This didn’t prevent what happened, but I think if more churches would take the time to do this, there would be some grief saved.
  4. Speak up—My father noticed a few eccentricities and odd behaviors on the part of the first pastor I mentioned above.  His wife was hardly ever at church.  He kept having to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  He would cancel services.  He probably should have raised the flag on those issues.  We need to foster a culture in our churches where there is safety in speaking out.

The SBC

I have one suggestion for the SBC moving forward, and I think it would show how serious we are about our #metoo problem, and go a long way to creating a safe environment for victims to speak out.

We should create a separate entity, or a branch of an existing entity, headed by a trained investigator, whereby victims of abuse or misconduct could report their situation.  That investigative service would then investigate the report and take appropriate actions.  Those actions would include informing the authorities if there has been criminal behavior, or informing the church if there has been immoral behavior.  That investigative unit would have branches in all of our state conventions so as not overburden one person or one team with a litany of investigations.  Those state branches would all be led by trained investigators, and if we wanted to go a step further, those trained investigators would be non Southern Baptists.

Would the cost of such an undertaking take away money that could be used for missions?  This is missions.  James writes that true and undefiled religion is taking care of the vulnerable among us.

Those are my suggestions, and they may or may not have prevented my home church from hiring the two pastors, and they may or may not have kept Mark Aderholt from serving in other ministry positions.  There wil always be someone who knows how to game the system and who slips through the cracks.  The key word in that last sentence is cracks.  Right now, our system looks more like a sink hole when it should be the size of a crack.