I live in a complex world. I was raised a southern conservative evangelical but was plopped down in adulthood in the liberal, socially conscious Pacific Northwest for thirteen years. The dueling moral codes of my upbringing and my Seattle culture made me squirm at first. But more importantly, they made me think. I was uncomfortable at times in Seattle. I didn’t always fit. But now that I have moved back to the South, I am uncomfortable here as well.
Though I was raised to see southern conservative culture as morally superior, I no longer believe it is so simple. I have seen in particular the horrible blind spots defended by some southern Christians around the basic dignity of mankind made in the image of God. I went to a private elementary and high school that did not allow blacks to attend until 1985. I then went to a southern conservative Bible college that defended their history of not allowing blacks to attend and their slander of Martin Luther King at his assassination. Even after allowing blacks to attend, they refused to allow interracial dating into the 1990’s. And they repeatedly attempted to defend these positions by way of Scripture. My Presbyterian denomination has recently gone through a period of repentance for the harm they did to others in the south when they did not stand with their fellow image bearers of God fighting for basic dignity and equal rights through the civil rights movement. I’ve been encouraged by repentance and change among conservative Christians the last few years, but clearly southern conservative Christians have no historical corner on the morality market. Even today, many still struggle with conflating political nationalism (a view that perceived spiritual superiority of the United States has caused God to bless the US in unusual ways) with the historic message of Jesus Christ of the Bible.
But neither can I lift up the culture of the Pacific Northwest as morally superior, particularly around sexual ethics and the humanity of the unborn. The Old Testament Law shows that our Creator deeply values fidelity in relationships, and sexual faithfulness in marriage is something that Scripture highlights in every genre and generation. It is an inconvenient truth that both cultures have aspects that positively reflect Biblical guidelines. And both cultures also have great holes in their understanding of righteousness according to Scripture. After all, social justice is commanded as strongly as fornication is condemned in both the Old and New Testament. One culture does it out of independence of religion and the other in the name of religion. Both are deeply flawed. Yet both reflect common grace as well.
And I daily tip toe through it all. Pitfalls on the left. Pitfalls on the right. I want those in more liberal cultures to know that their cry for social justice was God’s idea first, who made all of mankind in His image and names the care of orphans and widows as the purest form of religion. I also want to affirm a conservative understanding of human life before birth and the value of sexual faithfulness and the harm that sexual promiscuity causes to both individuals and communities.
As I navigate these dueling perspectives on morality, I offer some observations.
- For many Christians in either culture, visions of morality seem more often influenced by culture than by the Bible, and it often takes getting out of one culture and into another before one recognizes it.
- Many of us don’t have a framework for self-inspection or inspection of our preferred culture. We think our moral culture is good and the other perceived immoral culture is bad. We often miss the sins of both opposing cultures or the common grace in both.
- In the end, most Christians I observe want to call out the culture with which they do not identify, not the one with which they do.
Over my years living in Seattle coming out of the conservative South, and then moving back to the South after a decade in the Pacific Northwest, God refined my understanding of God’s moral absolutes as opposed to my own. My convictions on the sexual ethics of Scripture and dignity of all human life, including the unborn, became set in stone, but so also did my convictions on the care of the poor and immigrant, the widow and the orphan that flow from the image-bearing dignity of all human life. Social liberals in the Pacific Northwest helped me learn compassion for the least of these and grace for the down and out. My eyes were opened to systemic racism and injustice that I had been blinded to growing up.
As we end 2016 and begin 2017, I’m going to offer two (and maybe three) more posts in this Post Trump series. In the next one, I want to look at dueling visions of care of the poor. I don’t know many Christians who would argue against care of the poor, but I know a number who believe government shouldn’t be involved in it and decry the “welfare state.” I have been studying Scripture to understand God’s heart for the poor and the role of representative government in their care. In the third post, I will look at the warnings of Isaiah 7-9, as the southern tribe of Judah turned toward the king of Assyria to protect them from warring northern tribes. Ungodly alliances destroy, and God offers through the prophet Isaiah a somber warning for us all as modern evangelicals grapple with alliances with Trump. If I do write a fourth post, I am interested, still from Isaiah, in exploring the hope we have in God’s promises of Zion, both those ushered in by the first coming of Jesus and our hope for their final fulfillment through His second. These have blessed me as I grapple with demoralization over the state of the church in America even as I see God working in the next generation of believers to build the foundation of true faith, with all the fruits that flow from it.
Happy New Year, folks.
For You have been a stronghold for the poor,
a stronghold for the needy person in his distress,
a refuge from the rain, a shade from the heat.
When the breath of the violent
is like rain against a wall,
like heat in a dry land,
You subdue the uproar of barbarians.
As the shade of a cloud cools the heat of the day,
so He silences the song of the violent. Isaiah 25:4-5