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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog

We should pursue every opportunity to cultivate healthy families because what goes on in our families shapes our consciences and personalities and souls. Family is more than food and shelter. It ripples out through generations, transforming how countless people see God, the gospel, and themselves. We must work, if we are parents, to discipline our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that they might see a reflection of something of what God is like.

But you don’t have to come from a good family, or even know who your parents were, to experience the Fatherhood of God. In real­ity, every family is, to some degree or other, a broken family. If you’ve come from a terrible situation, God is not surprised by this. After all, Jesus loves you; the Good Shepherd came out searching for you. You are not just that collection of cells, or that bundle of DNA. You are also your memory, your experiences, your story. An essential part of who you are is the story of where you came from. The fact that you know that something was wrong is itself grace. The fact that the gospel has come to you means that God, fully knowing your background, offers you, right along with the rest of us, a new identity and a new inheritance. As the prophet Daniel said of God, “he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him” (Dan. 2:22).

We see this throughout the Scriptures, even through horrible family patterns of which God does not approve. It’s hard to imagine a family more dysfunctional than a band of brothers beating their little sibling to near-death, and then selling him into a human trafficking racket. Early in Israel’s story, though, that’s precisely what happened to Joseph. God condemned this for what it was: wickedness. At the same time, though, God was at work, turning this awfulness around, to save Israel by Joseph’s providing grain in a time of nation-threatening famine. Joseph said to the brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).

Unlike Joseph, we don’t have direct revelation, to see exactly why God permitted you to go through the awful things back in the background that some of you have experienced. In some ways, you might be able to look back and see how God was with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death. You might be able to see how the scars you bear made you into who you are or prepared you to minister later to others. Or you might not be able to make sense of any of it at all. Our family stories demonstrate, from the very beginning of our existences that we are part of a plotline, but that plotline can often seem confused and mysterious and unseen to us. We know this, though. We know that God is just and will call every evil to account. We know that you cannot go back in time and undo those things. You can fantasize about an alternative reality where you had better parents or where you were a better parent, where you had better children or where you were a better child. But those fantasies cannot force those alternative universes into existence.

You are not your genealogy. You are not your family tree. You are not your family. After all, if you are in Christ, you are a new creation. You are not doomed to carry on the dark family traditions that would harm you or drive you away from God or other people. That will entail the sort of ongoing prayer and effort the Bible refers to in spiritual warfare terms. That’s not just a task for those who come from “dysfunctional families” but for all of us, just in differing ways. The religious leaders around Jesus were quite proud of their family tree—a family tree we call “the Old Testament.” And yet, Jesus reminded them that, like their ancestors, they were not above killing the prophets among them (Matt. 23:29–36; Luke 11:47–51). Stephen the martyr told his fellow Israelites much the same, that they were repeating the errors of their ancestors by stifling the prophetic word (Acts 7:51). The apostle Paul warned a Gentile congregation that they should not “walk as the Gentiles do” (Eph. 4:17). And the apostle Peter reminded another Gentile band of new Christians not to go back to the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18). That means that they should overcome their natural backgrounds by following Christ. This is not done by sheer willpower. It is done by clinging to the gospel, remembering your new identity and your new inheritance in Christ. You are ransomed from your old inheritance “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).

Do many of you have good, stable family backgrounds for which you should give thanks? Yes. You should not therefore boast as though this makes you better than another; “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Do many of you have wounds that you carry throughout life? Yes. Must you unlearn old patterns and models? Yes. Are you then hopeless? Are you predestined to repeat the disappointments or traumas enacted upon you? By no means. Your inheritance is not just your future reward in the world to come. Your inheritance is also a new Spirit and a new community, able to overcome through you all of the snares of the Evil One.

This post was adapted from my latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family

Read Crosswalk's review of Dr. Moore's The Storm-Tossed Family here.

This post originally appeared at russellmoore.com. Used with permission.

Publication date: October 3, 2018

Image courtesy: Thinkstock

Pope Francis pronounced this week that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” changing officially the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment. He had previously called for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide in 2016. The updated Catechism of the Church now regards capital punishment as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

According to the Pope, the mandate to oppose the death penalty comes from the Ten Commandments; “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” Some may wonder, then, whether consistent Christianity ought to, as the Pope says, mandate moral and political objection to capital punishment in all circumstances.

Let me first say where I agree with the Pope. He is absolutely right about the value of human life. I am glad that he has spoken up against a culture of death that sees life as, in his words, “disposable.” He is also right about the church’s responsibility to prisoners, to remember those who are jailed, to minister to them, and to work against policies that violate human dignity or harden criminals in their criminality.

That said, I cannot agree with Pope Francis that the death penalty is, in all circumstances, a violation of the command not to murder.

There is, of course, a stream of Christian thought that consistently opposes the death penalty. This is the pacifist tradition, represented in many places in the ancient church and in, for example, Anabaptist churches. The pacifist view sees all killing as morally wrong, under all circumstances. This view opposes not only capital punishment but also war or military action. This tradition would forbid Christians from serving in the military or from authorizing lethal action as civil magistrates with responsibility for military or police forces. At least since Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church has defended the principle of “just war” in at least some circumstances, as has most of Protestantism. But that’s where the debate is: is every act of killing murder, or not?

If one believes the state can order the military to kill opposing combatants in war, one does not, by definition, believe that every instance of the state killing is a violation of the commandment not to murder.

In fact, the Mosaic Law in which the Ten Commandments are revealed provides for capital punishment in multiple instances. To be sure, the civil aspects of the Mosaic covenant do not apply outside of the theocratic order of the Old Testament covenant nation of Israel. The new covenant applies a command of capital punishment in the old covenant to church excommunication in the new (1 Cor. 5:13; Deut. 13:5). Even so, the point here is that the Mosaic Law itself draws a distinction between murder and lawful execution by the state.

Moreover, the application of the death penalty predates the Mosaic code. In the covenant with Noah, God forbade murder and simultaneously made provision for the death penalty in some instances. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” God declared (Gen. 9:6). Those who oppose the death penalty would say that this merely describes the reality rather than proscribing it. And yet, God seems to ground the shedding of blood by man in the dignity of human life. Humanity, created in the image of God, is of such value that to murder is to bear the most awful consequences imaginable, the forfeiture of one’s own life.

In the New Testament, Jesus and then his apostles forbid the church from exercising vengeance on anyone (Matt. 5:38-44), and even from exercising judgment over those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:12). And yet, in Romans 13, right after the Apostle Paul has called Christians away from vengeance (Rom. 12:14-21), Paul speaks of the Roman state “bearing the sword” against “evildoers” by God’s own authority (Rom. 13:1-5). Some have argued (unconvincingly, in my view) that this “bearing the sword” is police power, not death penalty. But police power, if armed with lethal arms, always carries at least the possibility of the death of the evildoer. If that is always and everywhere murder, then it deserves the full sanction of God’s moral judgment.

Paul does no such thing, even though the Bible elsewhere clearly calls out as unjust and immoral the state’s execution of the innocent (Rev. 20:4). The thief on the cross, in his repentance, recognizes that his actions are indeed deserving of the punishment he was receiving, which was death, while Jesus’ execution was not deserved and thus unjust (Lk. 23:41).

This does not settle the question of whether we ought to have capital punishment. There are, in many places, serious problems with the application of capital punishment. DNA evidence has uncovered places where innocent people were executed; such is immoral and an act of public injustice (Prov. 17:15). There are in many places racial and economic disparities in capital punishment. Such is an abomination to a God who is impartial and demands impartiality in justice. These are problems not just with capital punishment but with almost every aspect of criminal justice, including prison sentencing.

Christians can debate whether a state should declare a moratorium on capital punishment while reforming unjust sentencing practices. Christians can debate whether the death penalty is effective as a deterrent or whether the death penalty is meaningful at all in a world in which legal systems delay for years the application of the penalty. These are prudential debates about how best to order our political systems, not debates about whether every act of state killing is murder and thus immoral and unjust.

The Pope is here making more than just a prudential argument. He is applying the commandment against murder to every application of capital punishment. On that, I believe he is wrong. We may disagree, with good arguments on both sides, about the death penalty. But as we do so, we must not lose the distinction the Bible makes between the innocent and the guilty. The gospel shows us forgiveness for the guilty through the sin-absorbing atonement of Christ, not through the state’s refusal to carry out temporal justice.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/allanswart

I sometimes post pictures on Instagram of books that I’m reading, usually just a stack on my table to let my followers know what I’m thinking about at the moment. The stack is almost always very heavily redacted. It’s not (necessarily) a list of recommendations, but a real-time rundown of what I’m consuming. Even so, I would never include in the stack Why I Don’t Believe in God or Beyond Good and Evil or Why Country Music Is Awful, for fear that some might think I agree with those ridiculous arguments. There was one book that I didn’t post on Instagram though for an entirely different reason; I didn’t want to be thought a hypocrite. I still don’t, but the case was so compelling that I’ve decided I don’t care.

The book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Silicon Valley scientist and entrepreneur Jason Lanier, was, in some ways, dealing with predictable issues familiar to the genre: on addiction, attention spans, bullying, and so forth. What caught my attention though was the section dealing with something approaching a disturbing account of human nature, an account that rings true with what I’ve seen both in the digital and the real ecosystems.

We all know that social media platforms amplify the voices of “trolls,” those extraordinarily wounded psyches who seek out such venues to vent their inner demons with anger. Lanier’s argument, though, is not just that social media give a hearing to trolls but that these media are making us all, a little bit, into trolls. He uses a word that is less-than-evangelical-friendly, but that is synonymous with a boorish, mean-spirited, jerk, and says that social media actually can make us into people like this.

PERSON OR TRIBE?

To make his case, Lanier compares human nature to that of wolves, arguing that in every human personality there is the mode of the solitary and that of the pack. When our “switch” is set to “Pack,” he contends, we shift into emergency mode, to the protection of the real or imagined “tribe.” This mode is necessary, he contends; think of when individuality should essentially evaporate into the larger collective, say, in a time of military attack. This should be rare, though, and the “switch” should usually be kept in the “Solitary Wolf” mode.

“When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order,” Lanier writes. “We pounce on those below us , lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ so quickly that we perceive them as individuals. They become archetypes from a comic book. The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”

This is why, he argues, nonsense is a more useful tool of building online “viral” content than is reason or imagination or truth. When “truth” is defined by what is useful or “memeable,” one’s embrace of that “truth” is a signal not that it is based in reality but instead that it makes one part of the digital “pack.” Those who fall repeatedly for what are self-evidently absurd concepts they latch on to on the internet are not necessarily stupid (though they may be). They are looking for a place to belong, and that’s the price.

Lanier argues that capitalism and democracy cannot survive while the “Pack” mode is permanently switched to “on.” He writes: “Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.” The solitary wolf is forced to care about the larger reality more than the perceptions of the tribe. That leads to the qualities of the scientist or the artist as opposed to what happens when social status and “intrigue” become more important, a situation that forces one to act more “like an operator, a politician, or a slave.”

INDIVIDUALS IN COMMUNITY

He’s right not only about the economic or democratic conditions around us, but also about a reality he doesn’t examine at all: that of the church. The church requires a balance between individuality and community. When individuality becomes disconnected from community, one refuses to submit to one another or to serve one another. But the opposite is also true. If I find my identity in the community, or in the community’s perception of me, I am no longer free to serve the community.

I can only do that if I bring to the community the gifts God has given to me, anchored in an identity that is found in Christ. That’s why the Spirit uses the analogy of the body and the organs of the body for life in the church—organically connected but distinguishable. Indeed, when the personal is absorbed into the raw rush to the collective, we end up with angry tribes within the church (“I am of Peter; I am of Apollos…” 1 Cor. 1:12). Those who do so are not selflessly serving the whole; they are instead seeking to selfishly find themselves, in a tribe they can war against another. This leads, the Apostle Paul tells us, to an animalistic biting and devouring of one another (Gal. 5:15).

Church splits and Twitter wars aren’t really all that different. Joining a cult and spending time wondering what people think about you online are different in degree, but maybe not that much in kind.

I’m not arguing that we all should delete our social media accounts. I am, though, wondering if you should spend some time asking whether your social media account is leading you places you can’t handle. Do you find yourself given over more to anger or to anxiety or to envy or to pack thinking? Then maybe it’s time to step back, or even to leave for a while.

After all, you weren’t created for a hive or a pack. You were created for a church. And, for that, you need more than a tribe. You need a soul. Your church needs that from you, too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/marchmeena29

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