Westboro at the bottom of the Seine

March 20, 2014

Irony is often used in humor, but it finds its most powerful expression in tragedy. News outlets are reporting that Fred Phelps Sr., the founding pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist, was excommunicated before he passed away on March 19. There’s a sad suitability to the fact that a man who trained others to hate would one day be the object of the impulse he bred. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

That same tragic irony is what made Javert’s watery death in Les Mis so disturbing. You live by unforgiving law, you die by unforgiving law. And I say this as a Baptist, one who really wants to make a clear distinction between biblical Christianity and the travesty of Westboro theology, which deserves its place at the bottom of the Seine. A great way to do this for those unfamiliar with the contours of conservative Christianity, in fact, is to trace the contrast between Javert and Valjean.

The contrast between Javert and Valjean is not their understanding of the law. And so with Westboro and us—the difference is not whether homosexuality is a sin or not. Conservative churches, including my denomination the Southern Baptist Convention, stand with the historic orthodox understanding of Scripture on this issue: Homosexuality falls outside God’s good design for human sexuality to be expressed only in the marriage of one man and one woman.

The contrast between Javert and Valjean is rather their understanding of how God relates to those who break the law. Javert thought he could please God by conforming to the law. Valjean knew he had no hope of being able to do that. Both men had been gutter-dwellers without much hope. Valjean responded to the injustice and depravity around him by sinking deeper into it. Javert responded by climbing out of it. In other words, Valjean remained evil, and Javert became good.

Until mercy came and made everything all wrong. Mercy makes the evil person good. But it also makes the good person evil.

That second statement is the key to understanding the religious insanity of Westboro. Here’s how the mechanics of mercy work to make good people evil: God demands from people righteousness—flawless righteousness, in fact. Because he is beautifully holy, God must condemn sin, which includes homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-30) as well as many heterosexual sins and sins not involving sex at all (1:28-32). Thus, all people stand equally condemned for their sin. But people who think of themselves as good don’t like to be lumped into that. Javert saw himself as other than the prostitutes and thieves around him. A good person doesn’t have much use for mercy.

White heterosexual men from the Midwest may find it quite offensive to be told that they are as sinful as any homosexual out there. Like Javert condemning the street scum around him, Westboro thinks of themselves as sentinels of righteousness in a dark world. But they fail to recognize the vicious darkness within them.

The gospel says that everyone needs mercy. Jesus told a little parable about this, contrasting a sanctimonious Pharisee with a crooked tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). One thanked God that he was not like other people. The other would not dare even lift his eyes to heaven. Spoiler: It wasn’t the Pharisee who went home righteous. No godhatestaxcollectors.com here.

The whole point of Jesus’ mercy is to show that good people are actually bad, and bad people can be made good. God knows that no one can keep his law. He’s God. He’s perfect. But mercy shows us he did something about it. In the person of Jesus Christ, God himself lived the only righteous human life ever. On the cross, he took the punishment of sin for any who place their faith him.

Only the wicked will seek this mercy. Only those who know their record of debt want it nailed to the cross with Christ. Monsieur Myriel’s grace toward Valjean shamed him because he knew he didn’t deserve it. And, beautifully, this shame provoked Valjean to repent of his sin and seek the forgiveness offered him in the name of Christ. The result was a man who did not condemn prostitutes, but identified with them.

Why should the world care about one conservative-style Baptist trying to distinguish himself from another? It may sound like two cannibals arguing the moral superiority of their butchering method. But this issue goes way beyond one Baptist and another. It’s the difference between a Christianity that offers life to the world and one that celebrates its death. Trust me, you want your neighbors to be the first type of Christian, the kind that identifies with the world even as they proclaim its need for salvation.

We value the moral standards of God because we value God, and if anyone asks us to compromise those, we cannot. But we aren’t compromising his law one bit to be merciful in our approach to others, no matter what kind of sin characterizes their lives. God’s righteousness is proclaimed in his mercy (Rom. 3:21-26). It is one of the most beautiful aspects of who he is.

I pray that, unlike Javert, Phelps found that in the end. Because only the wicked seek mercy.

Jeremy Pierre

Jeremy Pierre is Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling at Southern Baptist Theoloogical Seminary. Dr. Pierre is author of The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life: Connecting Christ to Human Experience (New Growth Press, 2016) and co-author of The Pastor and Counseling (Crossway, 2015). His writing has been featured in Tabletalk Magazine, Baptist Press, and the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24