Please pray for the officers as we deliberate and plan for resuming worship. It will be a complicated process, especially as we seek to shepherd people with a variety of dispositions and perspectives on the virus, and we need your prayers. Pray for wisdom and pray for unity. Thank you.
This is a bit longer today, but mostly because of the excerpt from a letter by Lewis on the atomic bomb. I’ll explain at the end of my comments why the quote is relevant. The subject of this note is the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Along with many other PNW pastors, I signed a letter that ran in an ad in the Seattle Times a few days ago. You can read the letter here. His killing is viewed by almost everyone, Christians included, as a political event. The result of that is most people using language, and pre-arranged perspectives, that align either left or right. Then the predictable (and now incredibly dull) verbal blood-bath begins. Our calling as followers of Christ is to know better. All nations, this one included, will come to an end along with their political systems and followers. We, on the other hand, follow a king whose dominion has no end, and whose word will stand forever (Isa 40:8). What I’d like to try to do, as far as I am able, is to see the Ahmaud Arbery case as the Lord sees it. If you’re not familiar with the case, and you want to understand what follows, you may have to do some reading.
- “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). To destroy the image of God is a significant event that is justifiable in cases of murder only. U.S. territorial laws once permitted hanging for horse thieves. Those laws were contrary to Scripture. Arbery hadn’t killed anyone, nor had he come close to killing anyone. No human being had scriptural grounds to take his life.
- The presumption of innocence in U.S. culture and courts is not a principle grounded in ignorance of human depravity and original sin, but in the human tendency to assume the worst of others and the best of ourselves. One of the great battles of our lives is to guard against the easy targeting of people and people-groups who are (conveniently) not present to defend themselves. This is why Jesus tells us to take the plank out of our own eyes (Mt 7:5), and why Paul urges us to consider others more significant than ourselves (Php 2:3), to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Rom 12:3), even blessing those who persecute us (12:14), and repaying no one evil for evil (12:17). Many white people are afraid of black people; and many black people do not trust white people. Both sides are prejudiced. As believers, our fears and prejudices are not grounds for conduct. Regardless of circumstances, two white men getting into a truck with loaded guns to look for an unarmed black man are not doing so in order to avoid repaying evil for evil.
- Contrary to a widely-held belief in conservative churches, self-defense is not grounds for killing (though I’m not assuming the man who killed Arbery was defending himself). Jesus said, “I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:39). This is well known in the ancient annals of Christian ethics. Scripture entitles us to use violence in defense of the innocent, but not in defense of the self. If ever a man lived who had grounds for killing in self-defense it was the Lord, who prayed for his executioners, and could have called down fire from heaven but didn’t.
That’s the barest of beginnings and only the tip of the iceberg. I encourage you, in this and many other things, to divorce your heart from the media, whether you read the NYT or watch Fox News. Frankly, I find almost all news outlets exasperating for their profoundly flawed epistemology (grounding assumptions on which they build all that they say). If you long for truth, don’t seek it on television. Yes, there are a few exceptions out there, but for the most part the media have no commitment, training, or innate capacity to lead you in faithfulness to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — which is the only thing you need to be concerned with in this world. Do not love the world or anything in the world (1 Jn 2:15).
So, why the quote below? Even in a pandemic, ordinary life must not only go on, but it ought to dominate our time and thinking. I offer it (Lewis’s quote) as a reason for continuing to think through things like biblical justice in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. But it reaches much farther than that. Lewis says much the same as this in his excellent essay, Learning in War Time. For this, if you replace “atomic bomb” with “pandemic” you’ll get the idea.
“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
Here’s an earlier version of the same sentiment in his essay “Learning in War.” This may be Lewis’s most pointed defense of the doctrine of hell, but his point is that there are more important things to think about than war (the ultimate destination of the soul among them). So he says, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’.” And just prior to that he had said,
“I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.”