I have rather seriously tracked Evangelical responses to Ferguson. This is my tribe, and I take fairly seriously what happens among them/us. Here are some of my responses.
1. Evangelicals are more seriously engaged with racial justice issues than in the years I was in college in the 60s. Evangelicals were then newly disengaging with the Fundamentalism of the first half of the 20th century and some of the more turbulent reaction to the integration movements of the 1960s. They did not have the developed skill sets to do that well. Times have changed.
2. Evangelicals have not allowed the left to monopolize the language of love and dialogue. There was a time when Evangelicalism seemed to be simply the counterpoint to the left’s point. Evangelicals have learned that the contribution of the church is redemption and forgiveness as what it primarily brings to the table. The church is not the state and not the court system.
3. Evangelicals are not even flirting with Fundamentalism. The Evangelical right wing is hardly showing up in the cultural dialogue though it does make theological waves on such issues as inerrancy, theological debate and NeoCalvinism.
4. Evangelical blogs, articles and Facebook postings hardly even mention law and order as a cultural good. Some of this is ministry positioning, for sure. But I think some of it can be laid to Evangelical mantras and shibboleths making the rounds as of late. They have turned everything into Gospel. This is increasingly being offered as a critique, even among concerned Evangelicals. The message of free forgiveness through God’s grace in the act of justification has increasingly edged out the place of sanctification as a cooperative work between the redeemed and the Redeemer and has questioned the use of the Law in guiding spiritual growth. Witness the critiques of Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and his Liberate conferences. Many have asserted that he has turned sanctification into a remembrance and meditation upon justification. In my mind this is a weakness of High Calvinism in general. The spectre of Antinomianism is raising its head, and this is a very serious concern to me.
5. Evangelicals do not know how to engage hot button issues for fear of being accused of being Bible thumpers or feeling like Bible thumpers. We have learned that just quoting Bible verses at a culture has little impact. But what else to do? Evangelicals need a new engagement with Natural Law Theory (NLT). In Natural Law Theory transcendent morality is an absolute good that can be reached and determined by reason. We are not limited to Bible verses. We can utilize the tool of the common grace of reason that allows people to argue and agree to some common definition of moral absolutes. Natural Law Theory continues to be used in our courts. Not every case can be decided by an appeal to some legal code or regulation. Rules cannot cover everything. So what happens when a case comes before the court where there is a gap in the legal code or where the legal code does not address the issue of two competing goods? They utilize Natural Law Theory. NLT is rooted in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics and shaped by Thomas Aquinas of the 1200s.
Evangelicals are stuttering when it comes to defining cultural goods if they cannot quote John 3:16. And they do not know what to do if they can’t quote it. What are their options? To engage human reason. People can be intellectually persuaded. It’s hard work, slow work, patient work. And it takes people who are willing to go beyond mantras and banners. But over time it can win the day. Note the arguments of the Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers and other pamphlets. Eventually carefully constructed arguments with an appeal to rationality won the day. It is true that large numbers of people either do not care to be reasonable nor trust reason as a tool, particularly in this time of postmodernism where all institutions and literature are seen as an exercise in power rather than objective discourse. I wonder if the subjectivity that characterizes much of Evangelicalism actually buys into the postmodern paradigm. Still, our choice is between the rational and the irrational. The rational must win hands down.
We must train our leaders in the use of reason and the skill of intellectual engagement in order to establish cultural goods. They must be smart and prepared. Christians are not only concerned about the Gospel as deposit of truth. We are also concerned about cultural supports that both reduce human suffering and give the Gospel more credibility.
For an example of NLT, read and view Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. His defense of the heterosexual definition of marriage is an excellent example of NLT in practice. See here and here.
6. Evangelicals will face a loss of credibility with the masses if they cannot speak the language of law and order as necessary goods, even primary goods, for cultural flourishing and the means to reduce human suffering. There is no doubt in my mind that many American, most Americans, are angry at the mayhem on display at Ferguson, both on the streets and at podiums where the non-sensical is obvious and flagrant. Order and law, the necessaries for cultural dialogue and understanding, appear to have no value. People intuitively know that true religion must value these goods, and where they are absent “street guy” will be distrustful. As I check blogs and articles this is hardly showing up in the Evangelical response. This is alarming. And it will work against the church as a pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)