Waiving the Flag

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[A Piece of History]

The Civil War ended 150 years ago, but we’re still fighting over its most visible artifact. The recent, racially-motivated murder of nine African American Christians in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has only underscored and elevated a long-simmering charge that the Confederate flag has become a divisive symbol of oppression, racism, and discrimination. Not everyone who privately displays the “stars and bars” believes those things, but those associations with that flag are inescapable. And while it may represent a cherished and honored history for some, it does not for those whose forebears and families were enslaved and oppressed under it.

The sad reality of the War Between the States is that both sides were guilty of dishonorable behavior and decisions. The war was, on many levels, an epic and tragic failure of humanity. It was a bad war that exacted a heavy price for the good it accomplished. I’ve read all the “yes but” arguments cited to justify criticisms against one side by pointing out corresponding wrongs by the other, but they all miss the point. It all comes down to one irreducible wrong for me: slavery.

The indisputable fact is that the South seceded from the union to protect its own self-defined “right” for one person to own and enslave another human being. Cut through all the documents and history and that, essentially, is what the fighting was all about. Regardless how corrupted, inconsistent, contentious, and messed up the process of abolition and emancipation was on both sides of the conflict, though, Lincoln and the North were on the right side of history–abolish slavery, preserve the union.

There was a time in my life when I was caught up in the southern narrative. There is a powerful pressure to conform to the predominant conservatism of southern culture, and challenging the “states’ rights” and “war of Northern aggression” narratives might lead to suspicion of “Yankee” sympathies. In that part of my story, there was absolutely no racial animus, but while in the culture I found myself defending some vaguely defined principles of southern independence from Federal interference. I had to distance myself from that culture before I could clear and correct my vision. And even then my family history affected my focus.

You see, my family in 1861 was wealthy, white, and living in Columbia, South Carolina. We owned slaves, and a plantation, and were an influential family. We lived in the former governor’s mansion, a magnificent home surrounded by a colonnade of thirty arched columns, in the very center of the state Capitol, the very heart of the Confederacy. Thomas Boston Clarkson had seven sons who were officers in the Confederate Army. William, my great-great-grandfather, commanded the sharpshooters during the attack on Fort Sumter that began the war. Just two months before Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox, our home was personally ordered to be burned to the ground by Sherman. Our family lost everything. My view of the Confederate flag does not come out of a detached, theoretical, intellectual opinion. It comes out of real history and family.

I deeply regret the stain of slavery on my family history, but I can still take pride in my family heritage. I honor and value their sacrifices, bravery, and resilience. I cherish their stories. But I honor those things in spite of the war, not because of it. What I feel about my family history is not because of their southern heritage, but because of their rich Christian heritage. They trusted God, helped build churches, and lived out their faith privately and publicly. They knew they were lineal descendants of Thomas Boston, an 18th century Scottish pastor whose theological works, still in print today, affected generations. His sermon manuscripts, preserved by the family, were lost in the fire. After the war, William tried unsuccessfully to work the land, then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to become a train conductor so honored and beloved that his death in 1892 made headlines. One of William’s sons became a Supreme Court justice in North Carolina known for his outspoken Christian faith and beliefs. William’s namesake son moved to Texas, and his son would become my grandfather, an architect whose art deco designs are still celebrated today. He designed the ornate double-spired Gothic cathedral in downtown Fort Worth for First Methodist Church, the first church I attended.

I want to remember the good things in my family’s historical heritage. I want to know their incredible stories. They are a part of American history, and a part of my history. I am a part of their Christian heritage. That doesn’t mean I need to defend their participation in slavery and secession, and neither do I need to vilify them. They were all caught up in their own story, and I want to imagine that time and distance from their part in the southern narrative of the Civil War might have cleared and corrected their vision, too. At least one of the sons apparently was opposed to slavery, so that gives me hope. But now, six generations of Clarksons later, the Civil War is history. We’ve moved on. We can see more clearly now. And I believe the Confederate flag should be left in the past, where it belongs. A historical artifact.

Rightly or wrongly, the Confederate flag has come to represent history, beliefs, and ideologies that are not just antithetical to Christianity, but antagonistic. Because of its public use, or misuse, by offensive and patently racist groups and movements for 150 years, the flag has become a symbol of oppression and hatred for many African American citizens. For leaders who politically represent the diverse citizenry of their southern states, there is absolutely no justification for displaying the Confederate flag on public property. It is a symbol of disunity and the oppression of some by a privileged few; it can never be a symbol of unity and equality with freedom for all. And for those who name the name of Christ, there simply is no answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” that would include defending a symbol that contradicts the love and inclusion that the Savior taught. Jesus would tell His disciples to leave it, like a disgraced and discarded idol, and follow Him.

The offense of the Confederate flag is not a made-up issue by liberals trying to impose politically correct rules on their ideological opponents. It is a real offense. The wrong that needs to be righted is not some specious offense against those who believe state governments should sanction and support “their” flag in the name of southern pride; it is the offense against those who have too long endured and suffered from continuing racial division and tension in our country. The Confederate flag is a contentious wedge that has been jammed in the cracked earth of our cultural and racial divide for too long. It’s time to remove it, to give the schism the chance to close and heal. That’s what Jesus would do. That’s what we should do. It’s time to waive the flag.

Note: Comments will be moderated. I will not be engaging in a “yes but” defense of my views. I have shared this because it is my story, and my opinion. And this is my personal blog. Thanks for reading.

Why I’m Still Evangelical

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[Piece of faith]

It will take some time for me to get into the rhythms of blogging. Getting words to the point where I can confidently click “Publish” is a slow process for me. On a larger scale, I think I run about ten years late on everything–getting married, becoming a writer, adopting new technologies. Ten years after I discovered blogs I’m finally trying to make one work.

And that (awkward segue alert) brings me to Evangelicalism. I’m 64 and just now trying to reconcile what that word means to me with what the word has come to mean in culture. It is used in so many ways by so many groups that one wonders if it means anything to anyone anymore. Inigo Montoya’s words from The Princess Bride come to mind: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I have always called myself an “evangelical,” but I do not think others mean what I think it means.

When I became a believer in 1974 through Campus Crusade for Christ, evangelical simply meant a conservative Christian who believed in the gospel of Christ, the Word of God, and the Great Commission. It got more complicated in seminary. In my Church History class, we were given the assignment to draw a graphic on paper to summarize the flow of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in the US. The other students did theirs on a single sheet; mine was ten Scotch-taped pages of rivers, streams, and tributaries.

Historically, Fundamentalism has emphasized separation from culture, and Evangelicalism engagement with culture. Two very different streams of Christian tradition. But in the last thirty years they flowed together to fight “culture wars” and mobilize the “Christian right.” Evangelicalism got co-opted by Republican party politics, and media has hijacked the once-noble term as shorthand for everything that resembles conservative Christianity. I started feeling I was on a different river altogether when I rejected the “Christian America” rhetoric and its “us against them” mentality. Super-evangelical Dr. James Dobson vilified Cal Thomas’ book Blinded by Might in 1999, but I found it convincing and convicting. I felt like Evangelicalism was leaving me.

Beyond politics, Evangelicalism, as far as it has ecclesiological overtones, has also been redefined against its will by the rapidly expanding mega influence of megachurch, pop-consumer Christianity over the past few decades. Culturally attuned evangelical churches popularized a new worship experience–thirty minutes of concert quality praise music, broadcast quality video announcements, and a conference quality inspirational or motivational message. The problem was not what they were doing, but what they weren’t doing. Historical Christian worship traditions valued and practiced for centuries by the church–public reading of Scripture, prayers of the people, confession of sins, congregational expressions of faith, historical liturgies, the weekly Eucharist–seemed to be carelessly laid aside in a rush to be culturally relevant rather than biblically consistent.

Most conservative American Christians still identify themselves as evangelical, but over the last generation there has been a splintering of Evangelicalism as a movement. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, about 25% of us are “Evangelical Protestant,” a percentage essentially unchanged since 2007. However, Evangelicalism now has many subgroups: Post evangelicals, Progressive evangelicals, Revivalist and Charismatic evangelicals, Confessional (Reformed) evangelicals, and Post-Conservative evangelicals. It’s confusing.

Evangelical should mean something to all of us, or it will eventually mean nothing at all to us. I have tried to identify the core beliefs that make Evangelicalism evangelical, at least for me. If I were smarter, I would examine Evangelicalism’s revivalist roots, and talk about Marsden, Bebbington, Dochuk, and others who have done the hard work of research and analysis. But I’m not an academic. I am a seminary trained American Christian, a student of the Word in full time ministry, who simply wants to identify the biblical (not cultural) watermarks, the sine qua non, of Evangelicalism. Here are five evangelical watermarks that work for me:

The Gospel — Evangelicalism begins with the evangel, the “good news” of the kingdom and salvation. The Gospel is God’s grace for the whole world (John 3:16). Everything we teach and do comes back to the offer of new life in Christ that is available to all by faith alone because of what was accomplished on the cross.

The Word of God — Evangelicalism believes that God has revealed Himself, as the eternal Word, in His written Word. We trust the Bible–the Old and New Testaments–because “all Scripture” is inspired by God to accomplish His purposes in and for us (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The Bible is authoritative and true because God is.

The Body of Christ — Evangelicalism affirms that every believer, by virtue of being “in Christ,” should be united with the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-16). The local church is God’s eternal design for the mutual edification of believers through teaching the Word of God, fellowship, corporate worship, and the sacraments.

The Fruit of the Spirit — Evangelicalism affirms the ongoing and efficacious work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). He is the source of conviction, regeneration, and sanctification that make us Christian. Without the power of the Spirit, we are powerless to become like Christ or to live a fruitful Christian life.

The Mission — Evangelicalism is driven by Christ’s Great Commission to the church to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). We are sent out to bring Christ the King and the kingdom of God to the world by preaching the gospel, baptizing believers, and teaching them to follow and obey Christ.

Could there be more? Should there be less? Maybe, but these five are core for me. There are numerous issues that often get added, such as sanctity of life, gender and sexuality, eschatology, social action, the nature of election and the atonement, and other doctrines and traditions. But the evangelical core must be about universal, doctrinal essentials. If Evangelicalism as an expression and movement of Christianity is to survive, there need to be boundary markers that define the biblical ground on which to stand that is worthy of defending and protecting. For me, for now, the five markers above define Evangelicalism in a way that makes sense to me. If the markers still hold, then I’m still evangelical.

Putting the Pieces Together: What about you? Are you an evangelical? If you are, what does the word mean to you? What else would you add to my list of “evangelical watermarks.” If you’re not, what stream of Christianity do you find yourself in? What are the core beliefs of the Christianity that you most closely identify with? Or, are you among the rapidly growing stream of “Nones” who choose to be unaffiliated with any particular stream of Christianity?

Happy “World Book & Copyright Day”!

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Today is “World Book & Copyright Day.” Who knew? It’s also known as just “World Book Day” and “International Day of the Book,” but I think copyright should get a shout out, too. It’s celebrated on April 23 in the US and the first Thursday of March in the UK, and it would seem that 2015 is the twentieth anniversary of the day, inaugurated in 1995 by UNESCO, a UN agency, to promote reading, publishing, and copyright (occasionally they get something right). And no, it’s not a day to celebrate “World Books” (whatever those might be), but just a day for the world to celebrate books.

World Book Day appears to be a much more celebratory event in the UK than the US. Perhaps we book-loving types can just let it be a nudge to remember the power and privilege of books in our lives: Create or stock a Little Free Library; donate children’s books to a hospital or low-income school; buy multiple copies of a new author’s book to give away; volunteer for an after-school reading program. Or, hey, why not write and publish your own book and release it on World Book Day? It’s not that hard, and it’s the ultimate statement of bibliophilia.

We actually have something bigger to celebrate in our era. Books are no longer the purview primarily of stuffy publishers with protected connections. New technology and the Internet has democratized the process of writing, publishing, and selling books so that anyone can create a book with minimal cost. And you don’t need to fret about getting copyright right. If you write something original, and you can prove it, and you put it in a “fixed” format (print, digital, etc.), it’s yours–you’re not even required to add a copyright notice or register the copyright with the Library of Congress. We don’t see it because it has crept up on us, but the digital revolution in books is probably on a par with the invention of the printing press in 1440.

Sally and I have been writing and publishing our own books since 1994, about the same time that WBD has been around. Our dozen or so books are a “paper pulpit” and a “literary legacy” that we will leave behind us. We don’t own all of our copyrights, but our children will own and control many of our copyrights for seventy years after we’re gone. And then, if fates allow and God so moves, some of our books might still be around in the next century to help multiple generations of Christian families. That’s why we’ll keep making books as long as we can. That’s why we celebrate books and copyrights today. And for what it’s worth, even with the growth of ebooks, we believe that books will stay “in print.” We want to pass down the motto for the book lovers who come behind us that in their homes “books live here.”

So, again, Happy World Book Day. And if you’re ever tempted to think books might not make it, just remember that the “Lamb’s Book of Life” is a physical book in heaven with things written in it (Rev 13:8), and that God’s word will never “pass away” (Matt 24:35). God’s Word is a Book for the World that we can celebrate every Day.