- 2013Sep 03
It's been over fifty years since the 1963 March on Washington. The most famous moment of that historic event is, of course, the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., now one of the most iconic speeches in American history. The refrain of that speech is one that is so embedded in the American memory that most people know the speech simply as the “I have a dream” speech. There are some things about that speech that I think could inform Christian preaching today.
The primary lesson we need to learn from this speech is the way it spoke to the conscience. Part of the gravity of this speech came from its location, before the monument to the Great Emancipator. Part of the gravity came from the surroundings, a mighty throng of men and women and children gathered in the nation’s capital to ask for the cashing of that metaphorical “check” of equality guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. But a great deal of the power behind this speech came from the way that King was pressing a claim onto consciences.
He started with a contrast between the promised end to the injustice of slavery and the ongoing injustice of Jim Crow. This contrast is similar in content, though different somewhat in rhetoric, to the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Against the so-called “white moderates” who counseled “patience,” King pointed out “an appalling condition” that Americans were still, in large numbers, exiles in their own land. With such injustice, there was no room for the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
What was King doing here? He was doing precisely what the Old Testament prophets did with Israel and Judah, pointing out sin and judgment, warning implicitly of the justice of God. We often hear caricatures of evangelical “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. But I don’t think I’ve heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon in years. Most evangelical churches breezily converse about sin in terms of consequences to be avoided. In fact, most of the preaching I hear on sin and judgment sounds an awful lot like my dentist telling me I should really floss more. I feel guilty, and I know he’s right, but it hardly feels like a transcendent word—because it isn’t.
King’s words though, intentionally were resonant with the cadence of the King James Bible, because he was speaking a word of judgment to a Bible Belt who knew that Bible. He wanted to confront consciences with what they said they believed. Whatever King’s personal doctrinal commitments were or weren’t, he didn’t preach Fosdick or Tillich or Niebuhr. He preached to Americans Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln, and he preached to Christians Amos and Isaiah and Jesus. And when the regenerate conscience is confronted with Jesus, remember what the Shepherd of Galilee said, “My sheep hear my voice…”
But King didn’t simply preach judgment. After all, Malcolm X could preach judgment, and did, in harshly nationalist Islamic terms. King knew that his argument wouldn’t resonate with Christian consciences unless it appealed to the Christ-haunted imagination. That’s why he spoke of a dream.
What King did was to enable his hearers to imagine what it would be like if the appalling condition were reversed. If freedom were to ring “from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.” He also didn’t picture this future as simply liberation for African-Americans. He recognized that hatred is a heavy burden on the heart and the conscience. Those singing “Free at last!” aren’t just black men and women, but all people. His future is one in which “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
Where did King learn to speak with fiery denunciation and with welcoming invitation, in the same speech? Well, I would suggest he learned it in church pews, listening to the preaching of the gospel. He saw there a vision that doesn’t leave sin undisturbed. Jesus, as with the prophets before him and the apostles after, consistently called out sin, and not merely in generic abstract terms but in all the ways sinners creatively find to consider our sins acceptable. The Pharisees, after all, weren’t dishonoring parents; they were giving that money as offering to God, and so on. Jesus often stops people who want to follow him by pointing out that he isn’t sure they understood how his gospel contradicts their lives.
But in the Bible gospel preaching never left off with condemnation. Jesus presents a kingdom that he pictures consistently as including those who would never feel themselves welcomed. He asks us to picture what it would be like to join his little flock of future galactic servant-rulers. He asks us to imagine what left to ourselves we would never imagine, that the gospel is really good news for us. It’s meant to leave us with the sort of shock that I remember from an old gospel song we used to sing in my boyhood church, “Whosoever surely meaneth me!”
I wonder how much weightier our preaching would be if we remembered to thunder God’s justice, while always following with God’s welcome, through the proclamation of a God who in the crucified Christ is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
As we commemorate Dr. King, let’s remind ourselves of how far we have to go as Americans to see the promise of racial justice realized. Let’s remember how far we have to go as Christians to see gospel unity in our own congregations. But let’s also think about the fact that there’s a reason this speech is still on our minds after fifty years, and maybe we could learn something in our gospel preaching about what it takes to address both the conscience and the imagination.
Most of us will never address thousands of people before a statue of Lincoln. But many of us will stand in front of our little gatherings, before an unseen multitude of angels and the great cloud of witnesses. Let’s preach to the conscience. Let’s preach to the imagination. Let’s preach the bad news with thunder, and the good news with laughter. Let’s identify where we’re trying to hide from God’s judgment, and where we’re trying to hide from his invitation.
Let’s be hellfire-and-kingdom preachers who know how both to warn and to welcome, how both to weep and to dream.
- 2013Jul 24
In light of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s actions on Internet pornography, here’s why I think we ought to care about digital porn.
There’s a situation in counseling I come across all too often: a couple will typically tell me first about how stressful their lives are. Maybe he’s lost his job. Perhaps she’s working two. Maybe their children are rowdy or the house is chaotic. But usually, if we talk long enough about their fracturing marriage, there is a sense that something else is afoot. The couple will tell me about how their sex life is near extinction. The man, she’ll tell me, is an emotional wraith, dead to intimacy with his wife. The woman will be frustrated, with what seems to him to be a wild mixture of rage and humiliation. They just don’t know what’s wrong, but they know a Christian marriage isn’t supposed to feel like this.
It’s at this point that I interrupt the discussion, look at the man, and ask, “So how long has the porn been going on?” The couple will look at each other, and then look at me, with a kind of fearful incredulity that communicates the question, “How do you know?” For a few minutes, they seek to reorient themselves to this exposure, wondering, I suppose, if I’m an Old Testament prophet or a New Age psychic. But I’m not either. One doesn’t have to be to sense the spirit of this age. In our time, pornography is the destroying angel of (especially male) Eros, and it’s time the Church faced the horror of this truth.
A Perversion of the Good
In one sense, the issue of pornography is not new at all. Human lust for covenant-breaking sexuality is rooted, Jesus tells us, not in anything external to us but in our fallen passions (Matt. 5:27–28). Every generation of Christians has faced the pornography question, whether with Dionysian pagan art, or with Jazz Age fan-dancers, or with airbrushed centerfolds.
But the situation is unique now. Pornography is not now simply available. With the advent of Internet technology, with its near universal reach and its promise of secrecy, pornography has been weaponized. In some sectors, especially of our young male populations, it is nearly universal. This universality is not, contrary to the propaganda of the pornographers themselves, a sign of its innocence but of its power.
Like all sin, pornography is by definition a perversion of the good, in this case of the mystery of the male and female together in a one-flesh union. The urge toward this is strong indeed, precisely because our Creator, in manifold wisdom, decided that human creatures would not subdivide like amoeba, but that the male would need the female, and the female the male, for the race to survive.
Beyond that is an even greater mystery still. The Apostle Paul tells us that human sexuality is not arbitrary, nor is it merely natural. It is, he reveals, itself an icon of God’s ultimate purpose in the gospel. The one-flesh union is a sign of the union between Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22–33). If human sexuality is patterned after the very Alpha and Omega of the cosmos, no wonder it is so difficult to restrain. No wonder it seems so wild.
An Ecclesial Issue
Pornography, by its very nature, leads to insatiability. One picture, stored in the memory, will never be enough to continue arousing a man. God, after all, designed the man and the woman to be satisfied not with a single sex act but with an ongoing appetite for each other, for the unitive and procreative union of flesh to flesh and soul to soul. One seeking the mystery outside of this covenantal union will never find what he is looking for. He will never find an image naked enough to satisfy him.
Yes, pornography is an issue of public morality. We have spoken to this repeatedly. A culture that doesn’t safeguard the dignity of human sexuality is a culture on its way to nihilism. Yes, pornography is an issue of social justice. After all, pornography, at least as we know it today, is rarely about mere “images.” Behind those images stand real persons, created in the image of God, who through some sad journey to a far country of despair have tumbled down to this. We agree with those—often even secular feminists with whom we disagree on much—who say that a pornographic culture hurts women and children through the objectification of women, the trafficking of children, and the commodification of sex.
But before pornography is a legal or cultural or moral issue, it is an ecclesial one. Judgment must, as Scripture tells us, begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). The man who is sitting upstairs viewing pornography while his wife chauffeurs their children to soccer practice might well be a religionless, secular culture warrior. But he is just as likely to be one of our church members, maybe even one who reads Touchstone magazine.
To begin to address this crisis, we call on the church of Jesus Christ to take seriously what is at stake here. Pornography is about more than biological impulses or cultural nihilism; it is about worship. The Christian Church, in all places and in all times and in all communions, has taught that we are not alone in the universe. One aspect of “mere Christianity” is that there are unseen spiritual beings afoot in the cosmos who seek to do us harm.
These powers understand that “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). They understand that a disruption of the marital sexual bond defaces the embodied icon of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:32). They know that pornography, in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ, joins Christ, spiritually, to an electronic prostitute or, more likely, to a vast digital harem of electronic prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:16). And these accusing powers know that those who unrepentantly practice these things “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
This means that our churches cannot simply rely on accountability groups and blocking software to combat this scourge. We must see this as darkly spiritual and, first and foremost, reclaim a Christian vision of human sexuality. Internet pornography, after all, is downstream from a view of human sexuality that is self-focused and fruitless. In an era when sex is merely about achieving orgasm by any means necessary, we must reiterate what the Christian Church has always taught: sex is about the covenant union of one man with one woman, a union that is intended to bring about flourishing, love, happiness, and, yes, sensual pleasure.
But it is also intended to bring about new life. An incarnational picture of sexuality, rooted in the mystery of the gospel, is the furthest thing possible from the utilitarian ugliness of pornography. Our first step must be to show why pornography leaves a person, and a culture, so numb and empty. Human sexuality is, as our colleague Robert George put it, more than “body parts rubbing against one another.”
Moreover, we must call for repentance in our own churches, and this will be more difficult than it sounds. Pornography brings with it a kind of sham repentance. Immediately after an “episode” with pornography is “over,” the participant usually, especially at first, feels a kind of revulsion and self-loathing. An adulterer or a fornicator of the more traditional kind can at least rationalize that he is “in love.” Most people, though, don’t write poetry or romantic songs about this isolated, masturbatory compulsion. Even the pagans who find pornography pleasant and necessary seem to recognize that it is kind of pitiful.
Typically, for those who identify as Christians, a pornographic episode is followed by a resolve “never to do it again.” Often these (again, typically) men promise to seek out some sort of accountability and leave it behind. But often this resolve is less about a convicted conscience than about a sated appetite. Even Esau, belly full of red stew, wept for his lost birthright, but “found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17).
Without genuine repentance, the cycle of temptation will grind on. The powers of this age will collaborate with the biological impulses to make it seem irresistible again. The pseudo-repentance will only keep the sin in hiding. This is devil work, and is among those things our Lord Jesus came to destroy (1 John 3:8).
Our churches must show what genuine repentance looks like. This does not mean setting up legalistic rules and regulations against the use of technology itself. This, the Apostle Paul tells us, is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). It does mean, however, that every point of temptation comes with a corresponding means of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). For some especially vulnerable members of our churches, this will mean giving up the use of home computers or of Internet technology altogether.
Such a suggestion seems absurd to many, as though we were suggesting that some Christians might do well to stop eating or sleeping. But human beings have lived thousands of years without computers and without the Internet. Is our Lord Jesus right when he says it is better to cut off one’s hand or gouge out one’s eye rather than be condemned by our sin? (Matt. 5:29). How much less is it, then, to ask that one cut through a cable?
We must also empower women in our congregations to grapple as Christians with husbands enslaved to pornography. We believe, and have taught emphatically, that wives should submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:23). But, in Scripture and in Christian teaching, all submission (except to the Lord directly) has limits. The husband’s body, the Bible says, belongs to his wife (1 Cor. 7:4). She need not subject herself to being the physical outlet for her husband’s pornographically supplied fantasies. If both are members of a Christian church, and if he will not repent, we counsel the wife to follow our Lord’s steps (laid out in Matt. 18:15–20) to call a brother to repentance, up to and including church action.
The Gospel Answer
Finally, and most importantly, we call on the church to counteract pornography with what the demonic powers fear most: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, after all, walked with us, before us, into the testing of the appetites. His enemy and ours offered him a solitary masturbatory meal, to be wolfed down in the desert. Jesus turned back Satan’s offer, not because he did not hunger, but because he wanted a marriage supper, joined with his Church “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
The powers want any child of Adam, especially a brother or sister of the Lord Jesus, to cringe in hiding from accusation. Through the confession of sin, though, any conscience, including one darkened by pornography, can be cleansed. By the blood of Christ, received in repentance and faith, no satanic indictment can stand, not even one that comes with an archived Internet history.
An adapted version of this article appeared originally inTouchstone.
- 2013Jul 15
On a wall in my study hangs one of my favorite pictures. It’s a photograph of a line of civil rights workers—in the heat of the Jim Crow era. They’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all of them bearing a sandwich-board-type sign. The sign reads, simply: “I Am a Man.”
I love that picture because it sums up precisely the issue at that time, and at every time. The struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in this country wasn’t simply a “political” question. It wasn’t merely the question of, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it from before the Lincoln Memorial, the unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (although it was nothing less than that). At its root, Jim Crow (and the spirit of Jim Crow, still alive and sinister) is about theology. It’s about the question of the “Godness” of God and the humanness of humanity.
White supremacy was, like all iniquity from the Garden insurrection on, cruelly cunning. Those with power were able to keep certain questions from being asked by keeping poor and working-class white people sure that they were superior to someone: to the descendants of the slaves around them. The idea of the special dignity of the white “race” gave something of a feeling of aristocracy to those who were otherwise far from privilege, while fueling the fallen human passions of wrath, jealousy, and pride.
In so doing, Jim Crow repeated the old strategies of the reptilian powers of the air: to convince human beings simultaneously and paradoxically that they are gods and animals. In the Garden, after all, the snake approached God’s image-bearer, directing her as though he had dominion over her (when it was, in fact, the other way around). He treated her as an animal, and she didn’t even see it. At the same time, the old dragon appealed to her to transcend the limits of her dignity. If she would reach for the forbidden, she would be “like God, knowing good and evil.” He suggested that she was more than a human; she was a goddess.
That’s why the words “I Am a Man” were more than a political slogan. They were a theological manifesto. Those bravely wearing those signs were declaring that they’d decided not to believe the rhetoric used against them. They refused to believe the propaganda that they were a “lesser race,” or even just a different race. They refused to believe the propaganda (sometimes propped up by twisted Bible verses) that they and their ancestors were bestial, animal-like, unworthy of personhood.
The words affirmed the thing that frightened the racist establishment more than anything. Those behind the signs were indeed persons. They bore a dignity that could not be extinguished by custom or legislation. I am a man.
The words also implied a fiery rebuke. The white supremacists believed they could deny human dignity to those they deemed lesser. They had no right to do so. They believed themselves to be gods and not creatures, able to decree whatever they willed with no thought to natural rights, or to nature’s God. The signs pointed out what that those who made unjust laws, and who unleashed the water-hoses and pit-bull dogs, were only human, and, as such, would face judgment.
The civil rights movement succeeded not simply because the arc of history bends toward justice but because, embedded in our common humanity, we know that Someone is bending it toward a Judgment Seat.
“I Am a Man,” the sign said, with all the dignity that truth carries with it. And, the sign implied, “You Are Just a Man.” If that’s so, then, as Odetta would sing, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” The truth there is deeper than the struggles of the last couple of centuries. It gets to the root problem of fallen human existence, and it’s the reason white supremacy was of the spirit of Antichrist.
Behind the horror of Jim Crow is the horror of satanized humanity, always kicking against its own creatureliness, always challenging the right of God to be God. However often this spirit emerges, with all its pride and brutality, the Word of God still stands: “You are but a man, and no god” (Ezek. 28:2).
The gospel that reconciles the sons of slaveholders with the sons of slaves is the same gospel that reconciled the sons of Amalek with the sons of Abraham. It is a gospel that reclaims the dignity of humanity and the lordship of God. It is a gospel that presents us with a brother who puts the lie to any claim to racial superiority as he takes on the glory and limits of our common humanity in Adam. Jim Crow is put to flight ultimately because Jesus Christ steps forward out of history and announces, with us, “I Am a Man.”
A version of this article originally ran on January 17, 2011.