In the last post, I explored the idea that love is truly love (as opposed to imagined love) when it is experienced in particular, rather than in general. In this post, I want to look at the act of condemning. I imagine that some might immediately balk at this word. I get it. Condemnation with the right intention, however, is not only a necessary act but can also be an act of love. I understand that scripture clearly states that there is “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”1 Because this is true, those things which stand directly against Christ Jesus must be condemned. We don’t condemn people, but we do condemn oppressive systems of behavior that stand in opposition to the Kingdom of God.
Timothy Keller writes that the church “must discern where and how the culture can be challenged and affirmed”2 (emphasis mine). The church must walk on both sides of this line. We affirm the good but we also challenge what does not lead to the flourishing of our communities. If we only challenge, we remain fundamentalists; blind to the beauty that surrounds us. On the other hand, if we only affirm, we neglect our prophetic calling and people suffer as a result. Part of the prophetic-imaginative role of the faithful is to prayerfully discern what should be affirmed and what should not.
I’ve noticed something in recent years that hasn’t sat well with me though I couldn’t put a finger on why, exactly. It’s a practice that I’ll call general condemnation. Let’s use racism as our primary example here. Racism in the United States is a systemic sin. This is not arguable, and yet I’ve seen, multiple times, church people say (or write on social media), “we don’t have a skin problem, we have a sin problem.” This is catchy and I imagine I could get a lot of amens if I used this at the right point in a sermon. There is one problem, though: it’s not true. Some might be upset that I write this, rightly pointing out that we do have a sin problem. I agree. I would even go so far as to say that sin is our main problem. Sin is the underlying issue. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that this sentence is not only fundamentally wrong but also damaging. Why? Because we do have a “skin” problem. (Admittedly, this is a troubling way to phrase the problem). I think I can finally put my finger on why this is problematic: condemnation cannot take place within a vacuum. When we say that we have a sin problem and do not identify the sin problem in particular, we actually use the word sin to cover sin. In this instance, we are removing the gaze from the particular sin at hand (racism) and are therefore distracting from what actually needs to be dealt with. We do this all the time. “We don’t have a gun problem, we have a heart problem.” Identifying a “heart problem” when innocent people are dying violently doesn’t do anyone any good. In fact, it makes things worse because it’s a way to escape dealing with the particularities (note the plural) of the problem while sounding spiritual. Before you get too upset about me mentioning guns, please read my forthcoming post which is meant to be a follow-up to this (The Prophetic And).
Just so we’re clear, I believe sin is a problem and, in fact, the root problem of all evil. Sin isn’t primarily a bad thing we do, sin is a power at work in the universe. But the Bible’s prophets, who also believed this, didn’t go around merely saying, “we have a sin problem.” They spoke to the specificity of sin. This was why Tish Harrison says, “Old Testament prophets are terrible at tea parties.”3 Nobody really minds if you interrupt their afternoon tea by saying “our country has a sin problem.” Start dealing with specifics, though, and you’ll find out exactly what she means. When Jeremiah prophesies against the “House of Israel” he deals with the particular:
“[The rich and powerful] do not promote the case of the fatherless;
They do not defend the just cause of the poor.”4
He’s dealing with specific and systemic issues of injustice. He then deals with the religious leaders with these searing words: “the prophets prophesy lies, [and] the priests rule by their own authority, and my people like it this way.”5 Ezekiel also deals in specifics. In Ezekiel 8, for example, the Lord showed Ezekiel the “detestable” things that are happening in the temple. The place is full of idol worship. God did not tell Ezekiel that there was some general sin problem. Instead, God took Ezekiel by the hair and showed him, detail by detail, what was wrong. We could go through all of the prophetic books and find examples, but our greatest Prophet did the same thing. In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces his “woes” upon the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Why? Because “they do not practice what they preach” (v3). Because “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (v4). Because they “give a tenth of …[their] spices—mint, dill and cumin. But…have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v23). This goes on for an entire chapter. It is painstakingly detailed.
I’m not the kind of person who goes around condemning everything under the sun. Still, when Christians encounter systems of injustice we must speak up. This is part of our calling; we affirm and we challenge. My fear is that when some boldly begin to prophetically challenge, others, perhaps even well-meaning others, deafen that challenge by silencing the particularities of the problem. It is necessary to understand that we have a sin problem; a heart problem. But for the sake of those who suffer in our world we must also move beyond the general language and ask what, specifically, this means in our neighborhoods and in our world. Generalities don’t change anything. We must condemn in particular.
1 Romans 8:1
2 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City p. 18
3 Tish Harrison, Liturgy of the Everyday p. 83
4 Jeremiah 5:28
5 Jeremiah 5:31