1. Beware of truths that demand your immediate reaction.
Time and process are the natural enemies of emotion. When we’re told we don’t have time to stop and think, it’s a good time to stop and think. Due process was created to protect justice from strong emotions, and we need it most when we want it least.
2. Beware of truths that require you to forget other truths.
There is no conflict between moral principles, and they are all summed up in the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself”. If we are asked to elevate one moral principle by suppressing another, we can be sure we are being misled.
3. Beware of truths discovered within the last few days.
A wise old king once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” If a principle is true today, it was true last year, and it will be true next year. It is our reaction that changes – not the truth we are reacting to – and it is our reaction that should be examined, in the light of all we know to be true.
4. Beware of truths that inspire people to steal, kill and destroy.
As a rule, good trees produce good fruit – peace, humility, reconciliation. A tree that routinely produces anger and violence is probably a diseased tree.
5. Beware of revolutions based on condemnation.
We are advised not to judge – even people we know – because it’s hard to be fair and we are often guilty of the same faults we condemn in others. It feels righteous to rise in judgement, but it is wrong, and all the more wrong when we judge people we don’t know – especially so when our judgement is based on broad generalizations.
6. Beware of revolutions based on conformity.
God may accept a humble and broken heart, but men are not so easily satisfied. They want displays of conformity and their joiners want signs of acceptance. If conformity (which everyone can see) is more important than having the right heart (which only God can see), the revolution is moving in the wrong direction.
It was a moment like this. Angry and urgent. The shouting made it hard to think. That, and her weeping. They had scratched a line between his God and the woman sobbing at his feet, and lines have two sides. He had to choose one or the other.
The next time was different. They came quietly, respectfully. Carefully, they baited the trap, and then hung on his words, ready to pounce on whichever answer he gave. A line had been drawn between God and Caesar, and he would have to choose.
If there is a predominant intellectual sin today, it might be the one the Pharisees used. We draw lines in the wrong places and make people choose sides.
When a line is drawn in the right place, there is clarity. We are, for example, largely symmetrical creatures, living in a largely symmetrical world, and the truth of this is apparent if you draw the right line. Any other line turns clarity into chaos.
And what we have today is chaos because we are drawing the wrong line. We know this. You can learn no more about a man’s heart by the color of his skin than by the color of his toothbrush, but we’re drawing a line between races. Again.
It’s a stupid line, but also ancient, used on this continent and over much of the earth before there was an America. Our nation did not draw the line and our citizens have spilled an ocean of their own blood trying to erase it, in places like Gettysburg and Normandy and Selma.
It’s a stupid and destructive line, and we’re drawing it again.
Take the Brees family. Drew is a famous athlete and famously good guy. On Wednesday, he honored the American flag, apparently forgetting the flag is on the wrong side of the line On Thursday, he tried to get back on the right side of the line by accusing America of “systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality”, and claimed that respect for the American flag was “not an issue about the American flag” and “has never been”.
His wife tried even harder, confessing that “loving one another as God loves us” and raising their children “to love, be unbiased and with no prejudice” is part of what makes white people like them “the problem”. Instead, they should be “actively looking for racial prejudice” and repenting of “our preconceived notions of what that flag means to us”.
They tried so very hard to get back on the right side of the line. They took a knee, seemingly admitting that Christianity is not good enough and America is not good enough. In the brutality of this moment, nothing seems good enough.
So, imagine a nation without systemic injustice, where the same laws applied to everyone, regardless of race. A nation where anyone could rise to the highest positions of leadership or success, regardless of race. A nation where economic help was available during times of need, regardless of race. Oddly enough, you might be imagining America, a nation that has suffered to erase the stupid line between races.
And yet, here we are, a nation in flames.
When the woman was dragged weeping to Jesus’ feet, or when the Pharisees slyly inquired if Jesus would pay taxes, they were not looking for solutions. They drew their line carefully and dared him to cross it, anxious to light the fireworks they had prepared for the occasion. Instead, Jesus put out the fire by moving the line — away from their loud, controlling, judgmental system and back to the everyday choices of real people.
We will remain in flames until we do the same. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” is not a religious cliché, it is the only possible foundation for civil society. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is still the best way to erase the stupid line between races and most other injuries we do to one another.
ML King believed all this and looked forward to a day when children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. His dream has gone suddenly out of fashion, but it’s still the right dream.
It is true, but we are forbidden to say it. It is the teaching of Christ, but we are forbidden to remember it. Instead, we say what we feel compelled to say, and by our compliance, we compel others to do the same.
What we are now compelled to say is true, so far as it goes. Jesus and his followers have been saying it for hundreds of dusty centuries, but Jesus will not receive credit for the discovery. Not even from his followers. No, this is a moment of cultural, and not religious, crescendo. We are witnessing the birth of an ethical development, and all must pay tribute or risk great offense.
The offense is real because our culture’s ethical developments are born of passion, not humility. Reaction, not reflection. They enlist our rage, not our repentance. They borrow from the ethic of Christ, which is written on our hearts, but are presented as new inventions.
And in a dangerous sense, they are new inventions. They borrow from Christ, not to honor him, but because there is no one else to borrow from. They borrow but distort, exaggerating one idea and cutting off another, creating an imbalance that suits their purposes.
There is nothing new in this and every year brings new examples. A moment ago, it was virtuous to stay in one’s home and trust the government. Today, it is virtuous to leave home and confront the government. Last year, we were to believe every accuser of the correct gender. This year, we want due process and distrust the concept of gender.
There is often truth at the heart of a new ethic – the bit that was borrowed from Christ and which resonates in our conscience – and this creates great confusion. How can one honor what is true, yet recognize and reject the distortions attached to it?
There are three answers for those who would honor Christ. The first is to tell the whole truth about ideas in our culture, remembering that every movement has its looters, seen and unseen. Praise what is true and popular (“Black lives matter”) while also declaring what is true and forbidden (“Every life matters”). Protest the evil that culture hates (e.g., brutality) and also protest the evil it ignores (e.g., kids being torn to bits).
The second is for us to follow Christ alone and resist those who would add to his message. There is no human movement that completes or improves the ethic of Jesus, whether feminism or socialism or racism/anti-racism. The promise of “Jesus plus ____” always becomes “Jesus minus” in practice.
Third, we should refer our neighbors back to the brilliance of Jesus. Every ethical movement borrows from him and we should credit him for the good in it. Peace and justice and love for one another are not only beautiful ideas; they are God’s ideas and his plan for this world. They are not to be found in new ethical developments, but in humbly submitting to what we have always known.
Culture is a jealous god. It claims moral authority. It demands compliance. Those who love their culture will peacefully reject its claims, gently resist its distortions, and faithfully point to the One from whom peace and justice flow.