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The Other Side of the Race Debate: Four Ways to Disagree Christianly

Ten years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012, could you have predicted where we would be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022? Some surely foresaw a number of our present sorrows. But who could have foreseen Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Charlottesville, and Confederate-monument debates, and Trump, and national-anthem kneeling, and George Floyd, and the outrage of 2020 — to name just a few of many tragedies and controversies? And who could have imagined that the events of these ten years would so severely tear the fabric of our Reformed world?

Even by 2017, John Piper could mourn the “improbable constellation of [racial] sorrows” unknown in 2012. The last five years have only added to the improbable constellation, splintering a once-unified Reformed evangelicalism into groups that often struggle not only to partner with one another but even to understand each other.

And that struggle to even understand touches on one of the many dysfunctions beneath our divisions: in our thinking and talking about race in recent years, many of us have failed to engage the issues and one another Christianly. Many conversations, especially online, have savored less of Solomonic wisdom and more of political savvy (no matter how apolitical we may feel otherwise). Too easily, many of us have adopted and advocated for positions not because we have thought through them carefully, prayerfully, with open Bibles and in thoughtful dialogue with Christians who think differently, but simply because these positions are not what the other side holds (whoever the other side may be).

The dysfunction would be easier to brush aside if it characterized only the most extreme among us, the most militantly “woke” and most virulently “anti-woke.” But too often, such a dynamic has characterized my own thought and talk. Even those who generally strive for patience and fair-mindedness are falling into these ditches. With a topic as fraught as race in the American church, almost everyone has an “other side,” a group whose thoughts and sentiments feel not only troublesome but threatening — and therefore a group we struggle to hear, much less learn from.

Healing such dysfunctional engagement would not heal all our divisions, not by a long shot. But it may soften our various prejudices, nurture deeper understanding, and (on the micro scale if not the macro) lead us toward a less fragile unity. Or, if nothing else, we may simply become better at talking when the temperature rises over other tense issues.

Talking in the Boxing Ring

In many ways, the deck of the last decade was stacked against Christian habits of thought and talk. Even as we faced the constellation of sorrows, information overload accelerated, social media colonized public discourse, and our society’s typical partisanship seemed to swallow steroids. Often, the context of our conversations has felt less like a living room and more like a boxing ring. And it’s hard to engage as Christians when the rules of the game are punch or be punched.

Many of us have learned to think and talk on the surface of things. Once, a phrase like systemic racism offered an invitation to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and then consider whether the description fits biblical and experiential reality. But our communicative climate rarely encourages such engagement. Now, systemic racism has become a badge for a particular team — one that, depending on your side, either cannot be questioned or cannot be considered. The phrase (and more like it) no longer spurs thought, but replaces thought. Meanwhile, we fall deeper into our own silos, less able to hear truths that might counterbalance our perspectives. We learn to parrot whatever voices are loudest or most immediately persuasive, and parroting, by nature, inevitably leads to partisanship and polarization.

The danger for many Christians is not that we will disown manifest biblical concerns, but that we will so underemphasize some biblical concerns (that is, the other side’s) that they become functionally denied in our theology and practice. Where we now stand, some of us don’t want to talk anymore about God’s care for the oppressed (Exodus 22:21–24; Psalm 103:6); others no longer want to discuss the necessity of due process (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16). Some are nervous about acknowledging the prejudice that power can bring (Deuteronomy 16:18–20); others are wary of admitting the fallibility of wounded feelings (Proverbs 18:17). Some are slower to condemn American slavery and Jim Crow (1 Timothy 1:10; James 2:1–7); others are slower to denounce the unjustly disproportionate black-abortion rate (Psalm 139:13–16).

In each case, however, the balance and emphasis of Scripture is no longer setting our theological and ethical agenda. The other side is.

Four Postures for Christian Conversation

On one level, we cannot help but think and talk from our subjective perspectives. But by God’s grace, we can avoid thinking and talking more like political people than Christian people. We can unlearn the reflexes and rhetoric of the city of man. And to that end, we can pursue four Christian postures for thinking and talking about race (or any contentious subject), adapted from the framework creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

Embodied

To be human is to be wonderfully and inescapably embodied, a creature among creatures in God’s physical world. Most of our communication technologies, however, treat us as an avatar among avatars in man’s ethereal world. And much of the time, an avatar thinks and talks differently from a creature.

Martin Luther King, looking upon Southern segregation, once observed, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (Free at Last?, 68).

Today, of course, we actually can communicate in real time while separated. But to King, our technological talk would hardly look like the kind of communication he had in mind — the kind that erases ignorance, eases fears, and melts hatred. To him, our social media platforms may seem more like anti-communication technologies.

When we take our complex racial conversations onto social media, we take them into an environment that forces three-dimensional topics into a two-dimensional mold, that rewards slander and belligerence, and that (contrary to James’s counsel) teaches us to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger (James 1:19). Image-bearers become little more than “mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate,” as Alan Jacobs puts it (How to Think, 98). And eradicate we try.

I know proximity is a buzzword in some circles. Even still, nothing has mitigated my own tendency toward unthinking aversion of “the other side” more than looking some of the other side in the face. Something changes when your ideological opponents are no longer two-dimensional representatives of a barbarous idea, but instead living, feeling, speaking beings — and perhaps even friends.

Fallen

The doctrine of the fall has not experienced the same neglect that the doctrine of creation has in recent years. Few doctrines have been so universally emphasized, even among non-Christians, than the fall of humanity. But too often, the emphasis has landed on the fall of other humans, of those humans over there.

“A pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse.”

Ironically, a pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse. Few instincts are less Christian and more devilish than turning the blade of God’s word against everyone’s sins but our own (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10). The doctrine of the fall, rightly grasped, does not put a spotlight in our hand so we can expose the sins of others; it reveals the spotlight in God’s hand, exposing us all (Hebrews 4:13).

Of course, to say “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) is not to say all have sinned in the same way or to the same degree. And so, in conversations about race, we need not assume the same kind or same level of guilt on all sides. Some of us have more reason than others to suspect ourselves.

But all of us have some reason to suspect ourselves. Given all that God has said about sin, it would be astonishing indeed if anyone in these conversations had nothing to learn and, from time to time, no fault to confess. God’s regenerating work does not make fallen people flawless people. Therefore, we exercise not false humility but biblical realism when we enter most conversations assuming we don’t see everything clearly and that this other human, ideological opponent or not, has some truth to shine on us.

Redeemed

If the fall means we should expect to find our ignorance and sin exposed in conversations about race, redemption means we can. Those who wear the robe of righteousness can bear to see the stains beneath (Isaiah 61:10). Those who hear God’s pardoning voice can handle his reproofs (Hebrews 12:5–6). Those forgiven of much can go ahead and weep their repentance in public (Luke 7:36–50). If the fall compels us to suspect ourselves, redemption frees us to reveal ourselves: we are unafraid to be seen as the sinners we are.

“Every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus.”

We can easily feel like conversations about race happen beside the cliff edge of condemnation, with an admission of fault casting us over. But no: every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13–16). And all our guilt casts us onto him who preached peace to Jew and Gentile, privileged and oppressed, and whose gospel speaks a stronger word than all our racial sins (Ephesians 2:17–18).

Many of us would do well to briefly pause during tense interactions and remind ourselves of Psalm 130:4: “With you there is forgiveness.” With God there is forgiveness, even when there is none with man. A new humility may come from embracing such a promise. And humility has a way of opening doors for understanding that self-righteousness never can.

United

Through redemption, Jesus has united us — to himself, first and foremost, but also to all others in him, no matter how differently they understand race in America. And so, whatever team or tribe we affiliate with for practical purposes, let it never be forgotten that our true team and tribe reaches far as redemption is found.

What might happen if we began to identify more deeply with the whole church of Jesus Christ than with our particular pew? We might renounce the old Corinthian folly of finishing the sentence “I follow . . .” with any name other than Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:4). We might recover the true sense of the word prophetic and gain courage to reprove our own friends. We might find new freedom in pursuit of truth, knowing that a genuine win for “the other side” is a win for us all. We might live up to our identity as sons of a peacemaking Father (Matthew 5:9).

Joining the Needlessly Divided

The road of racial harmony still stretches far ahead of us — in our friendships and churches, in our denominations and broader networks. And if the last ten years have taught us anything, they have taught us that no one can really know where we’ll be a decade from now. But oh that John Wesley’s praise for John Newton might rest upon many in that day:

You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.

Such healers of breaches will not arise from the knee-jerk opposition that has become so common. They will carry the hope that “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) forms a stronger tie than the unity of political party, cultural similarity, or any ideological kinship. They will arise from the ground of Christian thought and Christian talk — embodied, fallen, redeemed, united.

How the Lottery Preys on the Poor

Audio Transcript

Good Monday morning, everyone. We start this new week talking about gambling, and not for the first time. Of course, Pastor John, we have a handful of helpful episodes on this theme already in the podcast archive. Elsewhere, you’ve talked about how lotteries prey on the poor. That’s a point you made in a 2016 article titled “Seven Reasons Not to Play the Lottery.” Reason number five was that it preys on the poor. You made the point, but only briefly. I want to dwell on this point here on the podcast. How does the lottery prey on the poor? And why we should care that it does?

Let me begin with a few observations taken from various studies. First, just a quotation from that article that you mentioned that I wrote on this some time ago. I said that the lottery supports and encourages “a corrosive addiction that preys upon the greed and hopeless dreams of those entrapped in poverty.” Then I gave this example: “Those earning $13,000 or less spend an astounding 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets.” Now, that was a statistic from maybe six years ago or so.

Here are a few more recent things. People who make less than $10,000 a year spend on average $597 on lottery tickets — that’s 6 percent of their income. Another observation is that the odds of winning a state Powerball lottery are considerably less than being struck by lightning. For example, the odds of winning the January 21 Powerball drawing in Tennessee was 1 in 292.2 million, while the odds of a lightning strike death hover in the 1-in-2.3-million area.

Pull-Tabs and Scratch Games

So, it’s a pretty weak possibility to say the least, but let’s clarify what we’re talking about. We’re not just talking about Powerball with its million-dollar payout. There are many different kinds of public gambling, lotteries, some far more destructive for the poor than others. Lotto America, Mega Millions, Lucky for Life, Instaplay, pull-tabs, scratch games — all of these created by governments to help pay the bills.

So when we think of how the poor spend money on public lotteries, we must not just think about Powerball. In fact, even poor people recognize that the chances of winning millions are so remote that that’s really not the main draw. That’s not where poor people are spending their money.

The main draw is pull-tabs and scratch games. You buy a ticket — so you can go online and just type in “Scratch Games Minnesota” and find what the offerings are. In Minnesota, the $1 ticket that you can buy online or at the gas station is called Rake It In. That’s the name of the ticket for $1. You scratch it off and you’ll know immediately if you’ve won, and the payouts are like $1, or $10, or $50, or right up to $5,000.

So, in Minnesota, the extent for the scratch-offs are from $1 all the way up to $5,000. These kinds of games are less attractive to middle-class people and upper-class people because adding $10, or $100 dollars even, to your bank account really doesn’t make that much difference to a middle-class person. But to a poor person — $10, $100, or $500 — that’s like a windfall. Therefore, the more frequent payout and the greater the likelihood of winning draws in disproportionately more poor people for these kinds of games than for, say, the big Powerball payout.

53 Cents to the Dollar

The poorest one-third of American households purchase one-half of the lottery tickets. The lowest one-fifth of earners in America have the highest percentage of lottery players. One study showed that the introduction of scratch-offs grew three times faster in poor areas than in others.

“The lottery did not become a million-dollar industry due to its large output of winners.”

But study after study has shown that, across the board, players lose on average 47 cents for every dollar. Or to say it another way, what you purchase, on average, when you spend a dollar on the lottery is 53 cents. And of course, that statistic is highly misleading because, to arrive at that average of millions of people investing, you overlook the fact that millions of those people got exactly nothing. To bring the average up to getting back 53 cents on your dollar, you have to reckon that some people have won a million dollars — a very, very few people. So it’s a truism to say the lottery did not become a million-dollar industry due to its large output of winners. That’s not the way it works.

It’s true that states have created lotteries to help pay for social services that aim at benefiting everyone, but there are ironies. Most states allocate some of the lottery income to providing services for gambling addiction, and some try to provide a good kind of education, which creates, supposedly, habits of mind and heart that are the opposite of the habits they exploit by the lottery itself. Very ironic. Addictive behaviors are more common among the poor, and living by immediate rather than deferred gratification is more common among the poor. Publicly funded gambling feeds these kinds of habits, which are destructive to people’s lives.

Regressive Tax

Now, for all these reasons, the lottery has regularly been called a regressive tax on the poor. Here’s what that means: it’s a way of luring the poor, who pay almost no taxes for social services, to pay a kind of tax in a way that worsens their situation rather than making it better, which is what taxes are supposed to do. They’re supposed to make life better for us, so this is a regressive tax in the sense that it may make life worse for the poor rather than better. Now, it would be easy to sarcastically say, “Well no, actually it’s not a tax on the poor — it’s a tax on the stupid.” I know there are a lot of people who think that way about the poor, as if the only factor in making a person poor is all their bad habits, or they might say stupid habits.

And of course, it’s true. Personal responsibility and the failure to act with righteousness, integrity, and dependence on God through grace, through patience, and through trust in Jesus Christ is a huge factor in why many people are poor. But there are many other factors as to why, say, a widow might be stuck economically — earning $20,000 a year working full time, and spending half her income on her apartment, and unable to afford a car, and facing physical and mental challenges few people know about that make advancement for her, of any kind, unlikely. There are more factors.

“When you already feel hopeless, then arguments against gambling lose most of their force.”

The number-one reason why people in such seemingly hopeless situations purchase scratch-offs is because things already look so hopeless for improvement that the so-called “stupidity” of wasting this dollar won’t really make anything worse. So why not try? That’s, I think, basically the mindset that drives most of the purchases: a sense of hopelessness. It’s not going to make things worse because there’s no hope that they could get better. And when you already feel hopeless, then arguments against gambling lose most of their force.

Consider the Poor

Now, from a biblical and Christian point of view, then, I don’t think we are the least bit encouraged by God’s word to stand aloof and roll our eyes at the stupidity of millions of dollars that roll into the state coffers from people who can barely pay their bills. I don’t think that is basically a Christian standpoint. When I read my Bible, I see a different disposition — a different heart, a different mind. For example,

“Blessed is the one and who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him” (Psalm 41:1).
“Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 17:5).
“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31).
“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).
“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (Psalm 113:7).

So, I think the upshot of all of this for Christians is that we should disapprove of and resist every form of gambling. I’ve written about that elsewhere. We’ve talked about that on APJ on several occasions. Just gambling itself is a major biblical problem. So, I think we should resist all forms of gambling, all forms of lottery, which fly in the face of how God intends for his creatures to use the resources he has entrusted to us. You don’t gamble with somebody else’s money. It’s all God’s, and we wittingly or unwittingly prey upon the vulnerabilities of the poor, and we should resist that kind of institution.

Instead, we should give our thinking, and praying, and advocating, and investing, and planning toward the removal of unnecessary barriers to productive work and gainful employment among the poor, the removal of incentives and allurements toward waste and squandering and irresponsibility, and instead seek to put in place encouragements toward deferred gratification, and finally, the creation of responsibility and hope, especially through the gospel in people’s lives.

What Does It Mean To Trust God in Our Trials?

What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to believe in God’s promises? What does it mean to have confidence that God is who he says he is and that God will do what he says he will do? What is the nature of that faith, that belief, that confidence?

There are times during this long and wearying pilgrimage when we undergo severe tests of our faith—tests that are often related to our losses and bereavements. Even if we are never tempted to cast off all allegiance to Christ or to throw away all desire to follow in his ways, we may still be challenged to believe—or not believe—that what God says is true—true about life and death, true about earth and heaven, true about time and eternity. We may face the kind of challenge that calls us to live in one way if we believe and to live in another if we do not.
There are days when we believe as an instinct, as the natural impulse of the heart and mind. In such days we easily and immediately regard it as unassailably true that heaven is real, that Providence is kind, that God is working all things for good, that even our deepest griefs will someday prove to be light and momentary afflictions when measured against an eternal weight of glory.
But then there are days when we believe as a decision, as an act of the will. While some days the most instinctual words out of our mouths are confident, other days they are hesitant. Some days we have all the boldness of Peter and other days all the hesitation of Thomas. On some days we proclaim, “I believe” but on others we plead, “please help my unbelief.” Or perhaps the best we can do is pose our faith as a question, a kind of self-interrogation: “I do believe, right?”
While we prefer the former days, we have to learn to embrace the latter, to learn that faith is not passive but active, not always an instinct of the heart but often an act of the will—and to learn that faith is no less real when it comes as a decision rather than a compulsion. Faith is often choosing to believe in the face of grief, the face of adversity, the face even of doubt. Faith is not less than intellectual, but is certainly far more: it is grasping and reaching toward divine promises, taking hold of what God has said to be true, clinging to it with whatever conviction we can muster, and pleading—pleading earnestly—that God will be powerfully present in his grace and comfort.
Trusting God, we learn, is not just a matter of recalling knowledge in a moment of need, but applying the whole heart, soul, strength, and mind to accept and believe it—even when the heart is broken and the soul weary, even when strength is sapped and the mind bewildered. Faith is complicated, not simple, and difficult, not easy. Like so much else in life, faith takes practice and rewards diligence. Faith brings us far beyond the end of ourselves and leaves us utterly dependent upon the goodness and mercy of a loving God.
What does it mean to trust God? It means that in our lowest moments we will resolve to believe that what God says is true. It means that even in our darkest valleys we will determine to take God at his word. It means that even when we don’t know what to do or where to go, we will look to God with faith and, as either an immediate instinct or a deliberate act of the will, anchor ourselves on the One who has promised that his every word proves true and reliable, that he will shelter and protect all those who run to him for refuge.

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