I spent most of Saturday at church. We had an elders’ meeting in the morning, and then later I had a premarital counseling appointment. When I was finished with all of that, I just puttered around the office for a couple of hours attending to lots of open-ended projects from the week just past. I didn’t get home until nearly 3 pm, and when I walked into the house from the garage, Mary Lynn was watching TV in the den, and I could tell from the tone of the CNN reporter’s voice and the look on Mary Lynn’s face that something awful had happened. It was Charlottesville.
As the afternoon wore on, and the story grew, the more persistent and insistent were the stirrings inside me to change what I was going to preach in church the next morning. This has happened before. I keep a pretty tight sermon schedule. My sermon is almost always written by the Thursday of the week that it’s going to be preached. That leaves some time for it to marinate. I need to live with the sermons that I am going to preach before I actually preach them, and so I get pretty anxious if I don’t have that manuscript in my hands by Thursday. But sometimes something happens in my personal life, or in our congregational, national or global life after my sermon is written on Thursday, and I know that I need to set aside that week’s prepared message in order to speak more directly to the immediate circumstance. I believe that it’s the Holy Spirit who is behind these stirrings when they come, and so when I sense them, I have come to trust them. I felt them Saturday as the afternoon unfolded. And so after dinner, I sat down at the computer at home and I went to work on another sermon for Sunday morning. I know lots of preachers who were doing the same thing.
My prepared sermon for last Sunday was the sixth message on the Lord’s Prayer in our summer series – “Teach Us to Pray.” The scheduled petition for Sunday was “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And that remained my focus. I still wanted to think and talk with my congregation about forgiveness because the way I see it, our only way forward as a people right now is going to be by grace. We know what outrage in the streets looks like, we saw it on full display on Saturday in Charlottesville. And we know how elected officials talk, or fail to talk about it; we heard them, or not, on Saturday evening. But to change the hate and the hurt, the fear and the aggression, the frustration and the indignation that clashed so violently in the streets of Charlottesville on Saturday I believe that we are going to need more than just outrage and talk. We are going to need something else, something more.
As I understand it, the trigger for the violence on Saturday was the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the campus of the University of Virginia. This is something that is happening all over the South these days, including right here in Dallas. There is a debate brewing about the future of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park where Arlington Hall, a reproduction of Robert E. Lee’s ancestral home in Virginia, sits and hosts some of this city’s most fashionable weddings. The original Arlington Hall was confiscated by Abraham Lincoln to become the grounds for our National Cemetery when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army to become the Commanding General of the Army of Virginia in the Confederacy. Trust me, there are going to be some tense debates at City Hall and some very vocal public protests along Turtle Creek about this before too long, and I get it.
I appreciate the wound that these monuments inflame. I see the offense that these memorials perpetuate. And personally I think that they more properly belong in a museum where they can be viewed and be interpreted as part of our history and not prominently displayed in a public space where their presence can be construed as some kind of lingering approval of slavery, or as some kind of latent longing for secession. But here’s what I also think, even if all the monuments go, even if all the buildings, parks, streets, and schools get renamed, we are still going to have a problem. Removing a statue and changing a name are ways of addressing the symptoms of a much deeper problem, the problem of racism. And the crucial question as I see it, is, how do we address this deeper problem? How do we put an end to racism?
The very first building block in the formation of my social conscience as a Christian was a book that Sherwood Wirt, the editor for many years of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, wrote and that I read in 1968 when I was just 15 years old (The Social Conscience of the Evangelical – Harper & Row). These were the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam. Big questions about peace and justice were churning in society at large then, and I was trying to figure out how someone like myself who had consciously named Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and who was actively looking to the Bible for moral and spiritual guidance was supposed to respond. Sherwood Wirt’s book helped me to make sense of things. And this, in part, is what he wrote about racism – and remember that these words were written 49 years ago!
Love cannot be created by the enactment of statutes requiring people to display comradeship toward each other. No such statute has been promulgated in the history of humanity…. The law can set bounds, but it cannot set an example… The passage of civil rights laws in America has given African American citizens greatly needed help… by clarifying their legal status and giving them a fuller possession of their national birthright. Yet the civil rights laws have not increased in the slightest the respect and affection between people of different races in our society; and respect and affection are the very qualities that are supremely needed to ease the existing tensions. Experts in race relations are surprised to find tensions in parts of America worsening rather than lessening. The Christian is not surprised for the Christian knows what legislation can and cannot do. A sociologist was astonished to find that after teaching a course on racial prejudice, some of his students were more prejudiced at the end than at the beginning. The Christian is not astonished, for the Christian understands that the answer is not education alone. (82-83)
I truly value education. I strongly advocate for legislation that is just. And I can even admit to the fact that agitation has its place. And while I believe that they all have their roles to play, I don’t believe that agitation, education, or legislation are finally going to be the way that racism will be brought to an end. Carl F.H. Henry in his 1964 book on Christian Social Ethics said that it was regeneration – the embrace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – that alone has the power to change hearts, and thereby to change society. He explained –
The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on a spiritual dynamic for social change. It aims not merely to re-educate man… but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ. The power on which it relies for social change is not the power, of legislated morality… The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “power” for changing the world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)
And this is the spiritual principle that I see so clearly at work in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It was Father Louis Evely who explained –
“As we forgive our debtors” is not a bargain that we are striking with God. It doesn’t mean, “Lord, see how well I haven forgiven, now forgive me!” No, what it means is: “Lord, forgive me, and then I will know how to forgive like that.”
We learn how to forgive by going through the process of being forgiven by God in Jesus Christ ourselves. Think about that parable of the King and His Debtor that Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35. Once the king had forgiven his debtor, the king then expected his debtor to turn around and forgive his debtors. The king didn’t wait for his debtor to forgive his debtors before forgiving his debt. But once the king had forgiven his debtor’s debt, he fully expected him to live out of that same grace that he himself had already received. And that’s precisely what I think Jesus was talking about when He taught us to pray saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is the spiritual revolution of grace experienced by us as forgiveness that has the power to change our attitudes and actions.
The events of last Saturday in Charlottesville are just the latest installment in the long history of racism that tears at our unity and dignity as members of the same human family who all share the image of God. To get justice I believe that we need good legislation and even better enforcement of that legislation. And as a citizen I will support candidates regardless of their party affiliation who believe this and who promise to work for it, and I will oppose candidates who equivocate on this. But I am more than just a citizen. I am a Christian, and it is as a Christian that I believe that if there is to be healing and reconciliation, then we’re going to need the grace of forgiveness. We’re going to have to be forgiven ourselves, and then we are going to have become consciously and relentlessly forgiving of others, and I can already hear the objections.
“Doug, you’re just spiritualizing a social problem.”
“Doug, you’re just shifting the focus away from the human dimensions
of this problem, and away from what it is that we can and must do,
to some harebrained notion of a Divine solution that you
expect God to bring about.”
“Doug, to talk of grace and forgiveness right now
is to weaken the cry for justice and soften the call to action.”
“Doug, you’re being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.”
Oswald Chambers directly challenged this notion that talk of grace in the face of social injustice was soft, and that talk of forgiveness in the face of real human suffering is cheap by reminding his readers of the costliness of grace to God –
Beware of the pleasant view of God that says that God is so kind and loving that of course He will forgive us. That thought, based solely on emotion, cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament. The only ground for forgiveness and reconciliation is the Cross of Christ. There is no other way! Forgiveness, which is so easy for us to accept, meant the agony of Calvary for God. We should never take the forgiveness of sin, and then forget the enormous cost to God that made it possible.
On the cross we see the costly display of God’s love. On the cross we witness God’s struggle with the evil that inhabits us and surrounds us. On the cross we see what God was prepared to do to break down the walls that separate us from Himself, and from one another. So, don’t tell me that grace is soft or that forgiveness is cheap. God’s self-sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was God’s way of stepping into the brokenness of this world and into the anguish of human suffering to do something about it. And it’s this grace that changes hearts. It’s this grace that heals wounds. It’s this grace that restores lives. It’s this grace that beachheads shalom. And once we’ve experienced this grace ourselves, then we become its agents. Once we have been forgiven, then we know how forgiveness works, what forgiveness costs, and why forgiveness matters. It’s forgiveness that turns hearts around. It’s forgiveness that turns hate to hope. It’s forgiveness that turns hurt to healing. It’s forgiveness that turns alienation to reconciliation. It’s forgiveness that turns fear to moral courage. It’s forgiveness that restores relationships, rebuilds trust, and refashions the future.
So, I’m glad that I was in church last Sunday. I was glad to be able to go to the Lord’s Table on that painful, troubling, confusing weekend to get my bearings. I needed to share in the breaking of the break in remembrance of what God’s grace did for us in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. And I needed to share in the pouring out of the cup in remembrance of what God did in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross to accomplish forgiveness. And then from that experience of forgiveness at the Lord’s Table, I needed to be sent from that place of grace into the Charlottesville right outside the front doors of my church. Christians need to be sent from the Table of love into the world of hate where we can show angry, violent, frightened, disentranced people that there is another way to be, the way that Jesus Christ as Lord showed us, and then died and was raised as Savior to make possible for us. DBS +