(Reblogging from chantrynotes.wordpress.com. Author: Tom Chantry 12/2/2014.)
So America is experiencing race riots again, which is simply awful.
My heart goes out to the people of Ferguson who are living this nightmare. My heart goes out to the police who risk their lives to protect ours. And my heart goes out to the Body of Christ, which is Black and White and Both and Neither, and in which we are expected to live as one.
Racial tension always exacerbates our struggle for unity, and racial violence does not bring out the best in any of us. Predictably, genuine Christian pastors of varying political, social, and cultural stripes have weighed in on the riots and their cause, and they have not agreed. Recriminations have followed. I have no desire to enter that fray.
In the midst of it, Voddie Baucham posted his thoughts on the Gospel Coalition blog, and while many have linked to his thoughts, it seems to me that most who have interacted or evaluated have either misunderstood or misrepresented his statements. It’s fairly obvious that most have read Baucham’s remarks through their own personal tinted goggles, so maybe I have also. But I’ll tell you what I think anyway, because if I’m reading him correctly, he has said some genuinely wonderful things.
But First, About Baucham
Voddie Baucham is someone I hold in high esteem in spite of our differences. Prior to 2012 I only knew of him as the pastor from Texas who, while he holds my Confession of Faith, is also part of the family integrated worship movement – a position with which I have some rather sharp differences. (NB: This post isn’t on that subject, and neither will the comments be on that subject.) Quite honestly, I had read some things he wrote without ever realizing he was black. I think that is actually significant: Baucham is a pastor with a theological and ecclesiastical point of view, not a representative of a particular racial group.
In 2012 it suddenly mattered that Baucham was black. That was the year of the fateful Elephant Room II conference, in which Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald (remember when folks still thought of them as trustworthy evangelical leaders?) decided to embrace anti-trinitarian and prosperity heretic T.D. Jakes as a “Christian Brother.” Baucham was invited to participate in the conference, initially agreed, and then withdrew. He was still slated to speak at another conference at MacDonald’s Illinois church, but that fell through over Baucham’s vocal criticism of ER2. His own explanation of these events is still available here.
So what did race have to do with all this? Simply this: Jakes is also black, and apparently Baucham was expected to take his “side” out of racial solidarity. Some black pastors argued that anyone who has a problem with Jakes is a racist,theology be damned. MacDonald went so far as to post an incredibly offensive video in which he sat down with two race-baiting pastors. Baucham was aware of all this; he linked to the above linked article himself. However, he was uninterested in being identified as a “black pastor” if that meant being somewhatless identified as a “Christian pastor.” Put another way, Baucham proved in a difficult hour that Christian unity is around the gospel, not around our skin. (He wasn’t alone in this; Thabiti Anyabwile took a similar stand.) Perhaps this is why so many were clamoring for Baucham to weigh in on Ferguson.
What Baucham Said
Regardless of the reason, the clamoring commenced with the first (August) protests in Ferguson. Baucham’s response was finally published last week. What follows is my own summary and interaction with what I heard. You really shouldn’t read it without reading his article first, because – as I said above – I may be wrong.
- A pastor’s work is in his church.
Apparently a lot of people asked for Baucham’s thoughts (“asked” may be too weak a word) in August, but for three months he said nothing. The reason is that he is a pastor and a father, roles he mentions in his brief post. If you’re not one of his kids or a member of his church, you have less claim on his time than the child struggling with math homework or the church member grieving over a lost child or a deceased spouse. Quite frankly, our desire to know what the “black pastor” thinks about Ferguson is less important than their need for the true spiritual ministry of a Christian pastor.
If you can’t grasp the significance of this point, you may as well skip the rest of Baucham’s essay. It isn’t just that he delayed his reaction; that is missing the point. He doesn’t appear to have been waiting for the Grand Jury; he merely spoke when he believed his voice as a Christian minister could be useful. He didn’t approach Ferguson as a politician, or as a social scientist, or as a political commentator, because he isn’t any of those things. He didn’t even approach it as a black man per se, or even as an American. He approached it as a pastor, asking what the Word of God says to this situation. He has to be evaluated on that basis. He apparently knows and accepts the calling of Christ communicated through His church. He spoke as a “steward of the mysteries of God,” which is rare enough in this instance. Perhaps that is why so many have misunderstood him.
- In a sinful world, personal sin contributes to systemic sin.
At no point did Baucham suggest that there are no systemic problems facing the black community. He identified violence and criminality, immorality and fatherlessness, and indeed, latent racism which at times is manifested through official harassment from law enforcement. Each of these is a real problem which Baucham acknowledged.
However, he does not allow the category of “systemic problem” to excuse the real culprit: the individual sinner. If systemic racism pulled over black drivers without warrant, then racist cops would have an excuse, wouldn’t they? It’s the system; and they are just cogs in the machine. Or to take another example, if systemic racism beat Rodney King senseless in the street, then the officers who held the batons have an excuse. Baucham would have nothing of this; he points the finger at the individual sinner.
This is consistent with his approach as a Christian minister. The Bible addresses our sin individually and insists that we own up to it individually. A steward of the divine mysteries doesn’t get to say that black criminality is responsible for crime. Social scientists can debate that ad nauseum, but the Bible holds the criminal guilty. Similarly, he can’t hold systemic racism culpable for sin; it is the racist sinner who is guilty.
At the same time, Baucham is dead honest about the realities: cumulative sin makes up a culture of sin, and that culture affects us. In America, criminality, fatherlessness, and racism particularly affect black men in a way they do not affect white men, and Baucham never for a moment denies that. But what message does he speak to those living in that reality?
- Jesus came to redeem sinners in the world, not to transform the world.
I don’t see many commenting on the one passage of Scripture Baucham chose to highlight: 1 Peter 3:15ff, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” The verse speaks of gospel: Christ the Lord, the holy one, is the hope that is in us. Before Fox News cut him off, Baucham was beginning to proclaim the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is that hope? Perhaps what bothers everyone from Fox to MSNBC is that Baucham doesn’t seem to think the gospel has anything to do with healing America. Instead, the gospel of Jesus Christ takes away personal guilt for personal sin while allowing the individual to turn to a holy life even while living in a broken and imperfect world. It’s a good thing that this is the gospel we have if Baucham is right to say that God always holds individuals accountable for their sin!
- God is concerned with how we live under injustice, not with whether we overturn injustice.
But doesn’t the gospel also address systemic cultural problems? Doesn’t it lay out a blueprint for wiping out systemic sin and ushering in an ideal kingdom on this earth? This is simply taken for granted by the transformationalists on the right and the left. It is, however, quite wrong, and Baucham appears to grasp that fact.
As an American Christian, I’ve been troubled by the failure of the Bible to condemn slavery. It seems obvious that a faith which teaches the universal image-bearing quality of all mankind, the disappearance of race and class within the church, and the condemnation of God against “enslavers” would be a faith which would seek to overturn the institution of slavery. Yet the Bible instead tells slaves and slaveholders how to live righteously within that putrid system. Either God incomprehensibly approves a system which so evidently breaks His law at multiple points, or else we are forced to admit that the point of the gospel was never cultural transformation. It troubles me, and it must be absolutely maddening to black American Christians, but there it is. The Bible says what it says, and it doesn’t say what it doesn’t say.
So here’s the point: if the Bible fails to lay out a blueprint for abolition, why would it lay out a blueprint to overturn systemic racism, or criminality, or fatherlessness? Instead, the Bible speaks of how we are to live as Christian individuals in an unjust world: loving our neighbors of every race, abiding by the laws, and owning up to our family responsibilities.
Part of what the Bible says – part which very much applies in Ferguson this week, as well as whatever city you live in – is that we are to submit to the governing authorities. Many are outraged that Baucham went there, insisting that it is somehow less applicable in the midst of America’s racial injustice. It is as though they think the Apostle Paul wrote those words to the Saints in Mayberry – that fictional South in which there were no black people, there was no oppressed class, and the governing authority didn’t bother to ever carry his ‘sword’ with him outside the office because he could rely on his backwoods charm to win the day. Of course we should submit to that governing authority, but what do you expect when the system is as messed up as ours? As you know, the Apostle actually wrote those words to “those in [Nero’s] Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” so yes, it probably does apply in Ferguson, too.
If the Roman Christians were to render obedience to Nero, and if the black residents of Ferguson are to render obedience to their predominantly white police force, then perhaps those verses also mean something to Christians living under persecution throughout the world – and perhaps soon here as well. We need to get this issue right, and soon, for our own sakes. Baucham points us to the right place: God’s concern that we, people of the Holy Christ, live as holy in an unholy world. That’s what he tells his kids and his church members (Remember them? This is all about them, in his eyes), and it’s what he tells us also.
- Those who break God’s laws are without excuse and will suffer accordingly.
Baucham also sees a corrective lesson in this story. Remember, he has acknowledged that systemic racism exists, and that sometimes cops are the individuals who are personally culpable for it. He passes no judgment on Darrin Wilson, whom he has never met. He does, however pass judgment on Michael Brown, based on the evidence now publically available and on his own two eyes.
This seems to have upset everybody, but let’s just wait a moment and think about it in light of everything else Baucham said. Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that Officer Wilson is one of the racist cops, that he profiled Brown unfairly, and that he precipitated the situation. Baucham is neither a supervisor in the police force nor a member of the Grand Jury. He is, as he reminds us again, a “father of seven black men.” He looks on this situation in light of God’s command to live a holy life even in the midst of injustice, and he says to his kids, “This is what a holy life doesn’t look like. Don’t rob stores. Don’t ignore police orders. Don’t attack the police and try to grab their guns. It isn’t how Christ calls you to live. Furthermore, if you do these things, recognize that you live in a world where divine justice is very real, and if you reap what you sow, whom will you blame but yourself? ”
This has absolutely nothing to do with whether there is racism in America (there is, and Baucham acknowledged it) or on the Ferguson police force (there may be, but Baucham has never been there and can’t say). It is simply a biblical truism.
What Everybody Heard
That is what I heard, but it seems I’m in a small minority here. Many heard something different.
The Left and Baucham
Many on the left, including some evangelical Christians, who are either defined by the political left or who are highly desirous of being thought of as “racially sensitive,” heard only that Baucham went off script. He didn’t say the things that black men are supposed to say in this circumstance. (They’re right; he wasn’t trying. He’s a Christian pastor.)
In the worst instances of criticism Baucham has been accused of selling out his people. (He didn’t; as one of ‘his people,’ I can attest to that!) Others have suggested that he is racially insensitive, which is a truly stunning accusation for white pastors and writers to make! Many worry that he has only given cover to those who want to grab onto his words to support their own white/right-wing political agenda. But did he?
The Right and Baucham
In fact, I think there are some who have latched on to Baucham’s words as vindication of the idea that systemic racism is not a real problem and that the body politic should simply move on. He actually never said that, either; he asserted that racism is a real problem in America. Presumably he would like to see that change, and even would like to see it addressed intelligently in America. The thing is, he’s a steward of the mysteries of God, and the magical key to solve systemic racism isn’t one of those mysteries.
What the right doesn’t seem to want to hear any more than the left is Baucham’s actual message: that sinners sin but that Jesus saves. After all, it was Fox News that cut him off just as he began to go “off message” and talk about the gospel – the real gospel. The real gospel isn’t about political conservatism any more than it’s about racial justice. The real gospel is about spectacular grace offered to spectacular sinners, of which Baucham, you, and I are three of the worst.
The Ultimate Irony
What I find truly amusing in all of this is that none of it has actually revealed anything political about Voddie Baucham. I don’t know how Voddie votes. I don’t care how Voddie votes. Voddie apparently isn’t too interested in broadcasting how Voddie votes. His mission is to proclaim a King whose Kingdom is not of this world.