Pastors have many reasons to be afraid in these troubled times.
COVID has divided their congregations between those who want to reopen the churches and those who think that reopening risks lives. The race debate has pitted those who think all white churches need to confess their racism against those who think the gospel is obscured by such charges.
Pastors must also face what some sociologists have called the new cult of anti-racism. John McWhorter, the black professor of literature at Columbia University, has written that this new “anti-racism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology.” Religious, but not the religion of Jesus.
This new religion claims to offer a better diversity than God's. While St. Paul says that in the new creation he “now know[s] no man after the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16), the new anti-racism focuses on the old creation and knows men only after the flesh. Its diversity is about skin color alone, rather than God’s infinitely more interesting diversity of Jew and gentile, man and woman from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).
All true disciples of Jesus must abhor racism, which is a sin against God and neighbor. It is a sin to look at the color of my neighbor’s skin and make a judgment about his or her character based on something so superficial. The gospel teaches us that there are only two races, the first based on the creation of every man and woman in the image of God. The second race is the new human race of all those who have been born again and are asking God to help them be continually remade in the image of Jesus. We disciples of Jesus must stand in compassion with every person who has been harmed by racism. And we must stand against anyone who harms another person because of skin color.
But the new religion of anti-racism has its own version of original sin. It holds that people with one skin color have a harmful privilege that is possessed even by those who hate racism. They will never be able to be cleansed of that original sin. This new religion of diversity has its own baptismal liturgy, in which you confess all that is associated with your skin color and your complicity in slavery and Jim Crow and continued racism—even if you have always detested slavery and Jim Crow and racism. It has its own new birth, after which you see that all the people with one skin color are racist—and therefore perpetually guilty—and people of other skin colors are always victims and therefore innocent.
This is a radical departure from the gospel of Jesus, which declares that all people, no matter their skin color, are sinners. No one is innocent. We deal with our sins through absolution and cleansing in the blood of Christ, which washes away every sin. Transformation comes not from being woke, but from the cross of Christ that crucifies the old man.
The new religion of anti-racism encourages people to practice what Jesus condemned: “Do not judge, lest you too be judged” (Matt. 7:1). It imputes bad motives to some based on skin color and good motives to others based on skin color. This is racism by another name. It is sinful judgment. And there is no absolution in this false religion.
So pastors today face the challenges of this new religion, the challenges of COVID, and of course the challenges of preaching what the Bible says about sexuality and marriage in a society that sees orthodoxy as hateful. Pastors know that no matter how they resolve these questions, some members of their flock will feel alienated and leave. All the more reason that pastors—and all of us—should look to the example of Joshua, Israel’s leader after the death of Moses (Josh. 1:1-9).
Joshua had good reasons to be afraid. Moses was gone. The man who had spoken to God face to face for forty years was dead. Joshua was his top student. But God had never spoken to him face to face. Joshua knew he could not rely on the people of Israel to follow him. They had rebelled time and again against Moses and against God himself. Not only had the older generation rebelled, but they were also cowards. They had failed to enter the Promised Land forty years before because they were afraid, their scouts complaining that the Canaanites looked like giants (Numbers 13:33). Would their children do any better?
Then there were the Canaanites. They outnumbered the Israelites, and probably were stronger now than forty years ago. During the years in the wilderness, the Israelites had received little experience in warfare, and none in sieges against fortified cities. Yet God told Joshua to step up and lead this fickle people against their fearsome enemy. “Get up, go over the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving them” (Josh. 1:2).
God knew Joshua was afraid. So he gave him two promises to cling to (Josh. 1:5–7). First, none of his rivals would “be able to stand before you.” And second, God himself “will never leave you or forsake you.” Then, no doubt because he knew Joshua was fearful, God gave him the equivalent of a divine kick in the rear: “Be strong and courageous, Joshua.” And then again with more oomph: “Be strong and very courageous.”
Both Soren Kierkegaard and Alexander Solzhenitsyn said the rarest virtue in the modern age is courage. Fear is far more common than courage, not only in society but also the church. Robert P. George recently wrote that the orthodox lost the culture war over marriage “because too many Catholics, Evangelicals, and other believers in marriage reality and traditional norms of sexual morality failed to muster the courage to fight. . . . They wanted ‘other people’ to do the work . . . But there weren’t enough ‘other people.’”
So how do we become like Joshua, who did muster the courage to fight? This passage from Joshua 1 gives us three steps on the path to courage: Start to obey, don’t turn, and meditate.
Start to obey. Take little steps of obedience. God told Joshua, “Be careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you” (Josh. 1:7). Joshua could not do everything at once. Neither can you. Start with what is on your plate today. Care for your family. Study the Word. Take time to pray. Obeying in the little things will give you courage to obey in the big things. Form the habit of obedience, no matter what.
Don’t turn to skepticism or foolishness. God said, “Do not turn from my Law to the right hand or to the left” (Josh. 1:7b). Don’t turn to the great heresies of our day, such as the heresy that attacks God’s revelation that human beings are created with two sexes only, and that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Meditate on God’s Word, but at the feet of the Great Tradition and the early Fathers, most of whom were from North Africa. This will keep you from taking the broad and easy way that Jesus said leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). Those who take the easy way always think they can come up with a better Christianity: a better God who is only gracious and not also holy, a better Bible that has eliminated the passages about costly discipleship and the holy judgment of God, a better gospel that is only about justification and not also sanctification.
Courage has always been hard. It often means persecution. But it also frees us from something far worse—fear of man, which is a prison of its own. Courage frees us to taste that strange joy that Jesus talked about as he faced his own imminent death. On the night before his passion, he promised his apostles that they would be hated just as he was hated, but that at the same time they would experience his joy (John 15:18; 16:22, 24; 17:13). This is the joy that every courageous pastor has found to be his strength (Neh. 8:10).
This essay is adapted from a commencement address delivered at Beeson Divinity School on August 15, 2020.
Gerald McDermott is editor of the forthcoming Race and Covenant: Retrieving the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation.
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