Why are we reluctant to do what’s right?

Finding the courage to do the unpopular thing

November 16, 2020

Several years ago, a friend of mine was consulted by a white evangelical church in Birmingham as to why their church was in such precipitous decline, given their storied history of success. At the time of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church across town, a terrorist attack that killed four young girls, the white church had pews packed with people and budgets flush with cash. On the morning of those murders, the white church was probably silent. 

Many of the worshippers in the white church probably reflected the viewpoints of those around them, that the struggle for civil rights was a “political” problem, being driven by “outside agitation” and probably inspired by “Marxists.” While civil rights protesters were beaten and assaulted with fire hoses in the streets, while Sunday-school children saw the stained-glass face of Jesus blown apart, only seconds before they saw his real face looking back at them in eternity, the white church no doubt concluded that they would avoid “politics” and “social justice” concerns. That was what the liberals did. They would just stick to “simple gospel preaching.” 

Left unsaid was the fact that the members of that church had no objection to all sorts of other “political” pronouncements, on prayer-in-schools Supreme Court decisions, for instance. But anything more than vague abstractions on something the Bible speaks to unambiguously and repeatedly—the “one blood” humanity in the image of God, the necessity of reconciliation in the body of Christ, justice for those who are oppressed—would have created a firestorm in the congregation. Controversy would have ensued—maybe even resulting in the near-unanimous firing of the pastor and maybe the social isolation of the deacons—if the church had dared to open membership to their fellow Christians who were black, or if they sought to baptize African-American people who came to faith in Christ. 

As the years marched on, the area became majority black. The congregation dwindled to a small band of elderly whites who now lived in the suburbs and drove in on Sundays. They tried, they said, to “reach out” to the church’s African-American neighbors, but they couldn’t get them to join. What they couldn’t see is that the church had already sent their message to those neighbors—back when the church didn’t need those neighbors to survive. 

Reluctance to do the right thing

What was behind the reluctance to do the right thing? For many churches, no doubt it was a moral blindness, an accommodation to the world around them such that they could not see what was wrong with what they were doing. For others, it was a willful choice, to obey the dictates of Jim Crow rather than Jesus Christ, knowing in their hearts that they were disobeying the will of their Lord. But there were no doubt others whose consciences knew that the pattern around them was wrong.

For many of them, a driver behind this behavior was a fear of losing relevance. After all, a leader who went against the “southern way of life” would have lost his or her ministry place immediately. And laypeople who did so would be deemed “odd” at best or “liberal” and subversive at worst. Some probably believed something would have to be done, eventually, against these injustices, but that they would have to conserve their relevance in order to do so. “If I’m gone,” they might have thought, “they will just replace me with someone self-consciously racist, who will never get the church where it needs to be.” They would have sought to protect their “relevance” to the people, as they were, in the pews. Maybe the church itself understood that this kind of segregation was wrong, but they might have concluded that, were they to accept black members, they would lose the ability to reach the white people in their area, the majority, who mostly would have been “uncomfortable” in an integrated church, for fear that their children might fall in love one day with a non-white peer and want to marry. Moreover, the church probably thought that speaking about these issues would “go over the heads” of their people, who wouldn’t see the relevance of such concerns to their lives. 

The irony is that this church not only did away with its moral integrity by their actions, but they also did away with the very thing they sought to preserve, their relevance, in the long run. Their complicity with injustice not only brought them on the wrong side of Jesus, but also sacrificed their future in order to placate the present.

And behind that was a skewed vision of who is really “important” and “significant.” In the book of Revelation, the “Beast” of power and influence and the false prophets praising it seem to be influential. But those who sit on the only thrones that survive the apocalypse to come are beheaded martyrs, the last people with whom one would want to be seen or associated, for fear of losing one’s own head too. And yet, they were the ones reigning with Christ (Rev. 20:4). And still are. 

Ordinary decisions of everyday life

Now, it is far too easy to look back on the way previous generations accommodated themselves to injustices. That was, of course, Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders of his time: “For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’” (Matt. 23:29–30). But the truth is that this phenomenon, of shrinking back in the face of injustice, is not isolated to any previous generation, but is always happening, in every time. And this sort of accommodation is not just the case in epoch-defining issues of social injustice, as with the regime of Jim Crow, but often happens in the quieter, more ordinary decisions of everyday life. 

Sometimes the difficulty comes with not knowing what the right thing to do is. There are often circumstances when that becomes a real dilemma. The Christian who works in military intelligence grapples with whether or not it is lying to take on an undercover identity as someone who is of another religion, for instance, and will have to “worship” along with others. Consider the couple who come to the conviction that human life begins at conception, but then do not know what to do with the embryos they fertilized, now kept in freezers, when they were undergoing fertility treatments years before. Or consider the woman who wonders if her husband’s several-times-now infidelities, after which he always claims to be repentant, constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. There are always going to be moments where we want to do the right thing, if only we could discern what it is.   

The bigger challenge, though, for a life of courage is not such situations, but the more typical one, in which we know, deep in our consciences, what the right thing to do is, but we lack the bravery to do it. Sometimes—as we have seen before— that timidity comes from a fear of someone else’s power or of losing our place in the community, but often it is not just these things but also the sense that the way of injustice is seemingly permanent. The seeming permanence causes many to conclude that these unjust practices or structures are “just the way the world is,” and that taking a “realistic” view means simply accepting such things. We start, then, to conclude that whatever is unjust is just normal. Or we start to despair of any ability for any of these things to change. 

Along with that, then, comes the tendency to seek to conserve one’s “relevance” to “the real world.” In such cases, our reading of the “way things are, and always will be” empowers not courage but cowardice. And often that has to do with what group we see as mattering to our own status, and what group is expendable in order to get or to maintain that status. Think of, for instance, the high school student who sees the bullied, lonely student by herself at the cafeteria table, but is scared to sit with her, for fear that this will mean that he, too, will be excluded from his friends, and will join her in her loneliness. That tendency, sadly, does not go away with graduation, but is the persistent pull all of life.  

This is an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Courage and Justice,” in The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear without Losing Your Soul.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of 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