Civil Unrest

In an unprecedented move, I’m forced to blog twice in one week. Both yesterday’s post and this one are very much needed and come from a pastor’s heart. Forgive me in advance if I offend you, but if biblical truth offends you, line up with it. It won’t change, and I won’t apologize for it. But I am not the source of biblical truth and am therefore subject to error. The views below which are outside of Scripture are my own, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, least of all the Almighty. I debated saying anything at all, but circumstances demand a faithful response.

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I’m not sure we qualify to call ourselves the United States of America anymore. We’re states alright, and this is still America, but united, we are not. Right now, we’re divided on everything surrounding our values and our history. Racism, Civil War statues, Nazis . . . I thought these matters were settled.

Apparently not.

Let me say two things that absolutely should not be controversial. First, racism is evil. Always. Period. For many reasons. We know from the creation narrative we are all made equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). All human beings bear that stamp of divinity we call the imago Dei irrespective of race, ability, age, or other factors. We further know from Galatians 3:28 race has no bearing on access to God or value in His eyes. Finally, Revelation 7:9 explicitly states people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” assemble in heaven. No one is less-than in or omitted from the kingdom of God based on race, ethnicity, or other criterion other than relationship to Jesus Christ. And if that’s not enough to convince you, please remember: Jesus isn’t a white man.

Secondly, if racism is evil, which it clearly is, Nazism is as well. It is a militant racism, militant discrimination. The ideology of genetic/racial/religious superiority is so vile, so abhorrent, the world banded together to put a stop to its spread. If your ideology has its roots in the origins of the Holocaust, if it can be directly linked to genocide, if its hero is one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the planet, then you need a new ideology. Don’t call it “free speech,” and certainly don’t call it “American patriotism.” We, as a country, fought in a world war to put an end to it. The swastika is our enemy, not our greatest good. And when our president fails to denounce it outright until pressured to do so, we have problems. It shouldn’t be that difficult to say Nazis are a bad thing.

Again, those things shouldn’t be controversial. What I’m about to say will be, however, especially in my context.

The matter of the Confederate statues is, well, beyond simple description. The statues that aren’t being moved or removed are being forcibly pulled down by angry mobs. In America. Those people say the statues represent the glorification of the great American evil, slavery. They argue (rightly) we don’t have statues to the losers of the other wars we’ve fought. And the country that would see them as true heroes and patriots, the Confederate States of America, no longer exists. Just as we have no monuments to Benedict Arnold, they say, we should have no statues of other traitors to the United States.

On the flip side, Southerners are notoriously proud of their southern heritage, and they bristle at the things going on the “godless” (I prefer “frozen”) North. The Confederacy, it’s argued, wasn’t about slavery but about the overreach of the federal government impinging upon states’ rights to govern themselves. The men of those statues are heroes who stood against tyranny to preserve a way of life. Tearing them down, they say, is tantamount to rewriting history and ignoring the sins of our own government.

Clearly only one group is correct.

Right?

I’m not a historian. It still seems to me, though, that slavery was the rallying point for a laundry list of states’ rights violations. In this way, the debate over slavery was the greatest symptom of a deeper problem, and so it became the public face of the war. I could easily be wrong. Regardless it is undeniable the men on those monuments fought to keep slavery in practice. Period. It was a constitutional right in the CSA, and we cannot pretend otherwise just because popular opinion surrounding slaveholding has changed. To deny this is to be guilty of erasing history — the very charge leveled against those calling for the removal of the statues.

This is a salient point. We must never destroy, whitewash, or deny historical truths. But neither can we diminish or abrogate the force of those truths by comparison to other historic evils. And the prevalence of precisely that is what demanded I write this today.

I’ve seen many people argue in favor of the South by saying African-Americans cannot speak about slavery from a special position since whites and other races have been slaves at various points in history as well. I personally refer to this as “illegitimizing of anger”: you can’t be angry because I deny the reason for you to be so is valid. In this specific example, it’s frankly outrageous. American enslavement of Africans has been widely recognized as one of (if not the) cruelest forms of slavery on record. But even if that were not true, why can’t we say it was evil and call other forms of the institution evil, too, and just stop there? Why not cry out against all forms of slavery, including current ones, instead of saying everyone was a slave so get over it? It’s infuriating we are unable to accept the realities of evil.

But wait, the common objection goes, no one alive in the U.S. today was ever a slave; they have nothing to complain about. The men on those statues did have slaves or at the very least fought for others to keep theirs; there’s your necessary historical component. By way of analogy, would you want a statue of your great-great-great-grandmother’s serial rapist and murderer on display in the town square as the local hero — because, after all, nothing ever happened to you personally? I thought not. I can agree this sort of argument can seem out of hand at times (you can’t use “my ancestor was a slave” as an excuse for everything), but it doesn’t make it less true on the whole for the discussion at hand.

A second disturbing comparison I’ve been seeing lately is likening the display of Confederate statues to Jews keeping Auschwitz in existence — because, as we all know, the Confederate battle cry was “Arbeit macht frei.” This comparison states we keep the one around as a reminder to ensure such evil never happens again, and so we should keep the other for the same reason. Remind me, though: what large, vocal minority of the German people wave swastikas around and treat concentration camps as places of hero worship? Oh, right, they can’t; it’s illegal in Germany. We, however, treat those statues, those graven images, as idols and elevate them as ideals; similar idolatry of Buchenwald is unthinkable. The comparison fails since we simply don’t see the generals of the CSA as villainous, as evils which should never recur.

Suppose, then, you still personally attribute positive meaning to the CSA monuments and maintain your stance as the historically-correct view of them. That’s what they stood for when erect, in other words, and that’s their only true meaning: champions of states’ rights against a government who only served some of her people. Original intent is all that matters, you say. I’m afraid this argument won’t hold up, either. Statues are symbols, and the meanings of symbols change over time. There are countless crosses worn by Christians, for example, because the naked cross represents atonement accomplished, salvation, and resurrection in our religion. Its original meaning, of course, was the torturous death of criminals and political dissidents. Wearing a cross around your neck in the time of the Roman Empire is unfathomable; it’d be like wearing a pendant of an electric chair today. The meaning has shifted.

Or let’s borrow an analogy from language. If I saw you laughing, smiling, and in a generally good mood around a century ago, I may easily remark to you, “You’re gay today.” If I did that to certain people in our own time, I wouldn’t escape the encounter with all of my teeth still in my head. “Gay” no longer refers to “happy.” It refers to homosexuality. The term can no longer be used even as it was a century ago — and many words change meaning more than once across the years. Now you can say we just need to educate the public and reclaim the original intent, but history shows us it doesn’t work that way; what has passed is past. Simply put, the meanings of symbols change over time, be it right or wrong, and we must live in those present realities.

In our current society, with our current problems with racism, discrimination, and neo-Nazis, maybe the loving response is to remove icons which have come to represent those evils, evils the figures in the monuments valued for themselves, regardless of other earlier meanings. The Civil War itself will never be forgotten; that’s guaranteed. It won’t be removed from our history books or cultural memory regardless of how many statues we don’t have around. (And the historiography argument cuts both ways, anyway). Again, it’s just not going anywhere. It won’t be forgotten, but it needn’t be glorified, either — war never should be.

As a Southerner and an Appalachian — and a fairly conservative one at that — let me close with an appeal to you to truly love your neighbor as yourself and to frame this issue in those terms. If the reason we insist on keeping those statues is “I’m culturally vindicated” and not “I love you,” they need to come down. Likewise, if the reason to tear them down is “We’re historically vindicated” and not “We love you,” they need to stay up. I personally say it may be time for their removal — not because of political correctness or pressure, not even out of concerns of historiography, but out of love for my brothers and sisters.

And remember: old soldiers never die. They just . . .

. . . fade . . .

. . . away . . .

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Eclipse-O-Rama

If you were in my office earlier today, you would have overhead me say, “I don’t believe this. I’m going to have to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I’m going to have to go after the heretics myself.” They aren’t heretics, mind you — false prophets at worst — and I really don’t feel like dignifying their terrible teaching with a response on the day of the big event itself. But too many people have bought into it, including fellow clergy, and I have to be a good shepherd and do my part to steer the flock back to sanity.

Before I begin discussing the things swirling around the eclipse, it’s important for you to understand the target of my rebuttal. I hate to link to these sorts of things, but a good overview of both the general feeling and some details of the insanity surrounding today’s eclipse can be found here and here.

Now then. On to reality.

I want to start with a few comments on the nature of biblical prophecy itself, something we tend to artificially inflate (or, conversely, limit) enough as it is. Biblical prophecy can best be explained by the refrain of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones: “Prophesy . . . and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says'” (Ezekiel 37:5,9,12). It’s not speaking in coded riddles, even if some actions are a bit weird. It’s declaring, either openly in words or in symbolic actions later explained, the word of the Lord. It’s telling a specific people a specific message from God. God doesn’t speak in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook it takes modern science to interpret; He is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33, KJV). His word will be ordered, understandable, and available to all — not just so-called “prophecy experts” (most of whom are just trying to sell books — the very definition of a false prophet [see 2 Peter 2:3,14-15 and Didache ch. 11]). It’s not all doomsday; it’s not all judgment; it’s simply “This is what the Sovereign LORD says.”

With that said, let’s look at some of the specific things people are saying about the eclipse.

First, it’s crucial to understand every dire warning being expressed right now is possible only through a specific theological framework and a specific hermeneutic (way of interpreting the Bible). Those specific frameworks in use in this matter are collectively known as Dispensationalism, and as a minister in the American Bible Belt, I can say that it is the bane of my existence. Dispensationalism holds a few key beliefs:

  • There are seven ages of history (“dispensations”) corresponding to periods of salvation history (the exact number varies)
  • There will be a literal seven-year tribulation period where the world is in chaos
  • The Church will be raptured out before the great tribulation begins
  • Christ will literally reign on earth for a literal 1,000-year period following the great tribulation (a belief known as dispensational or pre-tribulational pre-millennialism). Note that in this scheme, Jesus is required to come back a third time following the tribulation.
  • Revelation is considered strictly prophecy (futurist reading)

Dispensationalism is unheard of in church history until the 1830s. Please understand: no one prior to the 1830s ever believed any of these things, or, if they did, it was perhaps one belief out of the set and never a fully coherent theological system. Dispensationalism caught on in America but was soundly rejected in the rest of the world for not aligning with historic Christian teaching.

If we, too, rightly reject Dispensationalism in favor of historic Christian orthodoxy, the doomsday prophecies surrounding the eclipse fall apart.

  • The seven-year period between eclipses is the seven-year tribulation period. There’s not a seven-year tribulation period, so this fails. It also requires us to know the exact date Jesus will return (so the tribulation can begin), something the Bible time and time again tells us is flatly impossible, for not even Christ himself knows.
  • Gentile nations like America are specially judged during the great tribulation, something heralded by sun signs. Again, there is no great tribulation, so this is false.
  • The so-called “Revelation 12 Sign.” Revelation 12 was never previously applied in such a way, typically being read historically as the birth of Christ, the birth of the Church, or the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven — all legitimately possible interpretations given the full context of the chapter. Rev. 12:1 states, “A great sign appeared in heaven.” In English as well as in Greek, “heaven” is singular, the New Testament way of referring to the dwelling place of God. By contrast, “heavens,” plural, refers to what we call sky or space (as in Matt. 3:16, for example). Note: there are many instances of the plural including the dwelling-place of God, but very, very few cases in the New Testament of the singular referring to space/atmosphere, making it incredibly unlikely this is something referring to constellations. In any event, the Revelation 12 Sign relies upon a futurist reading of only select verses, which are then taken out of context.

Other parts of the “eclipse as judgment” scheme fall apart as well:

  • The temperature of the sun is the same as the next Hebrew year. But only on one temperature scale. And of course the numbers had to align eventually; that’s how numbers work.
  • One pastor calls this “The Sign of Jonah,” quoting Matt. 16:4 (skip ahead to 15:40 for the Jonah bit). It’s easy to see why he chose that specific verse. A similar passage, earlier in Matthew, explains the sign of Jonah as the resurrection, just as it has traditionally been interpreted: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
  • The second eclipse path crosses this one’s path on the New Madrid fault line, signalling disaster via earthquake. Really? Your best biblical prophecy is “X marks the spot”?

It should be obvious, then, there are no biblical bases for interpreting the Great American Eclipse as an omen of judgment on the country. It’s just a fascinating phenomenon.

With that said, Scripture does make it plain God judges wicked nations and evil empires — and we are both. We do well to fear divine wrath and straighten up our act. And we, as Christians, shouldn’t need to witness the sun blotted out of the sky to see that. It should be readily apparent through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit alive in us.