By / Mar 29

President of Oklahoma Baptist University, Dr. David Whitlock, announced last month a decision to remove a small stained glass panel containing an image of the confederate flag from one of its chapel windows. The panel appeared among other symbols relevant to the history of Oklahoma, re-narrating its story by displaying several of the more monumental plot points. This window was installed many decades ago to remind onlookers of what has happened to and among us. It hardly needs pointing out that the window could only display and never control the meaning of the images cast translucently in the Raley Chapel nave.

The decision to remove the confederate flag panel from the window was the right decision. We laud President Whitlock and his administration for the wisdom and courage to see the flag for what it now represents. It is clear that the confederate flag represents far more than idiosyncratic nineteenth-century regional disputes, southern unity, or even some nostalgic pride in lost forms of life. If this symbol unites any longer it does so at the cost of deep, deleterious division; a source even of enmity.

The confederate flag should have no place amongst a people united by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. To better reinforce this truth we shall need to get a clear picture of the power symbols carry in our lives and then discern how this particular symbol clashes with the great symbol of reconciliation—the Cross of Jesus Christ. If the flag fails to unite and only divides the Church, then by extension it has a similar but exaggerated effect within wider society. A scratch in the church is a hemorrhage in the world.

Symbols by their nature carry power they do not themselves fully control. They portray or disclose meaning in ways determined in part by original intention and in part by the exigencies of present circumstance. The meaning of a symbol may therefore change over time, and it is often remarked that symbols may likewise seem to take different meanings to different people. The swastika, hammer and sickle, union jack, star of David, skull and crossbones, and UN circle of stars, to name but a few examples, all evoke feeling but do so in different ways and to varying degrees in different places. Flags are particularly notorious for coming to mean more than they were ever intended to mean. They take a life of their own. And that is certainly true of the “stars and bars”; an insidious source of pride to some, a picture of hatred to others. No catalog can comprehend its fuller meaning and significance for us as a nation or as a Church.

The flag’s appearance in the Raley Chapel window at OBU is set within a larger panel telling incompletely a very regional story. It is one symbol among many. But for our brothers and sisters of color, and indeed for many white members of the university community, the pane of glass leapt from the window like an assailant. For them—for us—the flag is emblematic of a political attitude that is unavoidably theological and racial. Whether the Civil War in which the flag became representative was really one of “northern aggression” is here beside the point. In the decades following the war’s completion the meaning of the flag would be fully deconstructed, and mostly by those who worshiped it most fervently. You see, symbols do not merely represent a thing, but express the otherwise inexpressible and thus formatively shape human sensibilities in often powerful and imperceptible ways: flags don’t just tell us something, they also makeus something. Thus, the confederate flag is for our brothers and sisters of color thesymbol of white Southern supremacy, evoking a sense deep-seated hatred, hostility, and even the threat of legalized terrorism.

Only the hopelessly naïve southerner could possibly suggest that the flag is merely a regional trope, for it has now far too regularly been the backdrop to overt racial animosity. In fact, for many African Americans, there is often a distinct feeling that the animus has never really ceased, but instead reincarnates itself in ever more pernicious ways. No symbol today quite conveys the message of racism and exclusion like the confederate flag. As a symbol it has evolved into an icon.

Historically, flags have carried tremendous political symbolism. Whether we are conscious of it or not, flags are the object of allegiance. Here in this country the Pledge of Allegiance is memorized at a very early age. Desecration of the flag was a federally punishable offense until 1989. We feel strongly about flags. They’re evocative. The confederate flag is not somehow uniquely impotent in this regard. It has not been, and never will be, neutral in its presentation. The flag doesn’t just signal a difference of opinion, but already reflects unacknowledged, longstanding resentments and divisions.

Some will wish to retort here that folks who take offense at the confederate flag should educate themselves on the flag’s history, and in the meantime get a slightly thicker skin.  If somebody takes offense, in other words, it’s the offended party’s problem. Flags just do their thing. In response to this claim consider Paul’s instruction offered toward the end of his epistle to the Romans:

let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-19)

And later: let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Now, of course, we fully recognize that Paul addresses here the customs of eating or not eating under the law, and not of rebel flag raising. Nevertheless, the theological rationale of the exhortation is directly applicable to the confederate flag: is the act you undertake in any way a stumbling block, hindrance, or harm to another brother or sister? If so, then according to Paul “you are no longer walking in love.” To paraphrase: do not let your appreciation for a flag cause another to stumble or to ruin one for whom Christ died.Thus, when some raise high the confederate flag as a partial associative identity, they should bear in mind that their act is accounted by people of color as tantamount to hate.

In this regard we must likewise acknowledge the American Church’s occasional complicity in perpetuating the power and meaning behind the confederate flag. No church or denomination is unaffected by racism, we realize, but for many of our minority faith-communities, the unwillingness to rebuke or denounce the flag on Christian grounds is almost as grievous as actively hoisting the flag itself. The deafening “silence of friends,” to quote the memorable phrase of the late Martin Luther King, is piercing.

The theological and moral question here is whether love will be extended to our brothers and sisters of color by removing from their view a symbol of anguish, enmity, and terror. If you believe this exaggerated then may we implore you to ask a person of color, particularly one who lived through the mid-century civil rights struggle, to offer theirimpressions of the confederate flag. We believe you will find it both deeply educational and evocative.

But in truth it shouldn’t have to come to that, for if one cannot see that a brother and sister is plainly more deserving of love than a flag, then not only do they “destroy the work of God” (Rom.14:2) but the central symbol of Christianity itself has been mistaken. The Church is united not by flag but by Cross. Following Jesus Christ in discipleship requires taking up one’s cross. The cross companies us in our travels with Jesus, and in this way unites us as a people of faith. We carry our crosses together. The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of humanity’s reconciliation with God and in turn the symbol of the Church’s unity under his throne. No thing, and certainly no flag, can match the bonding power of the Cross. As Bonhoeffer puts it so eloquently in Discipleship, “peacemakers will bear the cross with their Lord, for peace was made at the Cross.” Jesus is our Mediator and all our brothers and sisters are those to whom Christ comes.

The glass panel of the confederate flag has come down from the chapel window at OBU because President Whitlock wisely understands that as a Christian learning community this political symbol estranges us from one another. Our distinguished Raley Chapel is the place we gather to celebrate God and the life he has given us together for a time here on Bison Hill. Its purpose has always been to facilitate our assembly and to bring us together around common purposes, to enclose us in a sanctuary for prayer, singing, and receiving the word of the Lord.  And now, thank God, when the sun makes its western descent we no longer see the red and blue hues of the confederate flag cast darkly on chapel seats. Our brothers and sisters of color can gather for chapel each week without its quiet reproach. A symbol of enmity has been expunged from the very place where our unity is most beautifully and meaningfully embodied.

By / Jul 29

Religious liberty is “the condition in which individuals or groups are permitted without restraint to assent to and, within limits, to express and act upon religious convictions and identity free of coercive interference or penalty imposed by outsiders, including the state.” The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta was June 15, 2015, and Magna Carta set forth, for the first time in Western law, the revolutionary idea that all people are subject to the rule of law. Magna Carta propounded 63 distinct liberties, first of which was the freedom of the English Church:

“In the first place we grant to God and confirm by this our present charter for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church is to be free and to have all its rights fully and its liberties entirely.”

This Western tradition of religious freedom, though wrought with inconsistencies, carried forward to the formation of the United States of America. America’s cherished first freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Religious liberty, however, is not just an American or Western value. The 1981 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief set forth the truth that violations of religious liberty have “brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance and Discrimination each decry the violation of religious liberty and are considered binding on roughly three-fourths of the world’s nations.

Unfortunately, not all nations of the world respect religious freedom. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide and acts as policy advisors to the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government. USCIRF bases its analysis and recommendations on its statutory authority and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In its recently released 2015 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended the designation of 17 countries as Tier 1 countries of particular concern, or CPC, including China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam. The USCIRF also placed 10 countries on the Tier 2 list, countries that do not fully meet the CPC standard, but are nonetheless characterized by at least one of the elemental violations of CPC countries. Those countries include Cuba, India, Turkey and Russia. These countries are marked not by the religious freedom guaranteed in Magna Carta, the U.S. First Amendment or U.N. Declaration, but rather act in violation of the first and most basic human right.

But, what does this have to do with international trade law? Like the obligation to minimize or prevent certain human rights labor violations in the global supply chain, international trade law can be used to combat religious liberty violations around the world. In fact, United States Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, has taken the lead to make international religious freedom a cornerstone of American trade policy for the first time in the nation’s history.

Om May 18, 2015, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Sen. Lankford’s amendment to the Senate version of the Trade Promotion Authority bill by a vote of 92-0. The amendment added a provision to TPA’s overall negotiating objectives requiring the Obama Administration to consider the religious freedom record of parties to trade negotiations. The amendment does not provide specific directives on how the Obama Administration should consider a country’s religious freedom record in trade negotiations, but makes clear that the U.S. will take seriously the religious freedom of all people in all nations – religious liberty is of more importance than economic liberalization. The provision will be the first time in American history that religious freedom will be taken into account during unilateral trade agreement negotiations should it pass the U.S. House and be signed into law.

The trading partner most directly impacted by Sen. Lankford’s religious liberty amendment to TPA is Vietnam, the only country currently party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and named to the USCIRF Tier 1 CPC list. According to the USCIRF 2015 Annual Report, Vietnam severely restricts independent religious practice and represses individuals and religious groups its government views as challenging its authority. Individuals remain imprisoned for religious activity or religious freedom activity. The USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam be named a Tier 1 CPC every year since 2001.

It is unclear, though, just how Vietnam might be impacted by the amendment in TPP negotiations. The U.S. trade delegation could choose to minimize the objective, making a joint declaration in any trade agreement with no compliance teeth. The U.S. trade delegation may pursue a path with more teeth and tie the reduction of customs duty for goods sourced from Vietnam to the certification of liberalized religious liberty policies. The most aggressive, and least likely, would have the U.S. trade delegation negotiate a change in Vietnamese religious liberty policy parallel with a trade agreement. Regardless of the implementation, though, the existence of a negotiating objective related to the advance of religious liberty globally is a welcome sight even as the U.S. pursues trade liberalization.

Economic freedom is important, but religious freedom is more important. To echo Sen. Lankford’s floor speech, the greatest American export is the “dignity of each person…[and that] every person should have protection of the government to live their faith, not the compulsion of the government to practice any one faith or to be forced to reject all faith altogether.” The U.S. can pursue both policy goals – the expansion of religious liberty globally and trade liberalization. There is no dichotomous split between the goals and trade agreements can serve as a vehicle to effectively influence countries to pursue the “dignity of each person” by protecting religious liberty.

By / Aug 4

We live in a time of cultural disintegration. Not just America, but the entire Western world is jettisoning the wisdom of the ages and striving to remake the world after our own image. And, unsurprisingly, the fundamental arena in which this cultural unraveling is playing out is that of sexuality.

Given the breakneck pace of the change before us, we Christians have struggled to know precisely how to respond. The responses that tend to attract much of the media attention have to do with court cases, legal briefs, legislation, and elections. But in and through all of these legitimate responses, we Christians must labor to revive the moral imagination of this country, and especially of the young people who are casualties and victims of the sexual revolution. This revival of the moral imagination is not first an imposition of Christian morality on a pagan and secular society. After all, if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that imposing law on a wicked people only gives them more creative ways to sin. And in saying this, I don’t mean in any way to reject the legal and political battles being waged to preserve what we can through law and social policy; it’s simply a recognition that, apart from a revival of a moral (and specifically biblical) imagination, such political efforts can only be a part of a slow retreat. Laws and policies play a crucial role in shaping culture (for good and for ill), but they are insufficient for preserving and promoting the godliness and health of society. For that, the imagination must be converted.

Such a conversion and revival of the moral imagination must begin with the church of Jesus Christ. As Peter reminds us, judgment always begins at the household of God. So what would such a revival of a robustly Christian moral imagination look like?

It would start with anointed preaching of the whole counsel of God. We cannot export what we don’t have, and therefore, our minds and hearts must be shaped by Scripture—by its stories, its precepts, its warnings, and its promises. We must train our imaginations to run in biblical ruts, allowing the narratives of Scripture to exert a formative pressure on our understanding of ourselves and the story we find ourselves in. The Word of God remains living and active, and the task of pastors and preachers is to unleash it through faithful and timely proclamation.

Second, the church’s response to such preaching should begin with our own sincere repentance. For example, we ought to recognize that most of the damage done to the institution of marriage in our society was inflicted by heterosexuals (including professing Christians) through rampant divorce, marital bitterness, and repressed frustration in ostensibly Christian families. Expecting the broader culture to conform to God’s standards when half the church is neck deep in all kinds of sexual foolishness is a classic example of putting carts before horses. Paul has some pretty harsh words for those who berate idolaters while robbing their temples (Rom. 2:17ff). When the salt loses its taste, God throws it out in the street so that it’s trampled underfoot. And the only way to restore saltiness is through receiving the grace of God in heartfelt repentance and faith.

Third, we must seek to bear fruit in keeping with that repentance. Such fruit-bearing begins by demonstrating some antithesis, by actually being a City on a Hill. Let there be a clear and evident difference between marriages and families inside and outside the church. We need strong, sacrificial husbands, who take responsibility for their capable, godly wives, who joyfully submit to their strong, godly husbands, as they together seek to gladly spend themselves that their children may hope in God. Words about the sanctity and centrality of marriage ring hollow when they are not issuing from happy and hopeful families. This means, among other things, that we must take a lesson from the Proverbs 31 woman and “laugh at the time to come.” The short-term prospects for our culture may be bleak, but we’re reminded daily that light follows darkness like that’s its job, as if Someone was preaching a resurrection sermon with every sunrise.

Fourth, faithful preaching of the Scriptures, sincere repentance of our sins, and careful removal of the logs protruding from the eyes of our own families must be part and parcel of the cultivation of glad-hearted, confident, and sacrificial churches. When the church is under assault, one of the central temptations is to complain, murmur and shriek about our plight, as though we could bring down the gates of Hades by our shrillness. Fighting the good fight is essential, particularly when it comes to defending the unborn and preserving the family for the good of children. What’s more, when an onerous and overbearing state insists that we trample our consciences and join them in their hell-bound handbasket, we ought to quote Peter’s words about obeying God and not men and then use every legitimate means to demolish strongholds, topple lofty thoughts and expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness.

But we must always endeavor to winsomely wage culture war, to fight as those whose feet are firmly planted on a Rock that is unshaken by Gallup polls, HHS mandates, or Supreme Court decisions. Fighting from fear and anxiety, besides being tacky, is ineffective. Instead, when we take stock of the present situation and see all of those slopes getting slipped, we remember that we are standing on a mountain that the prophet Daniel says will grow until it fills the whole earth. Which means we are free to gladly and cheerfully sacrifice our time, treasure, and reputations (and some day soon, perhaps, more than that) for the good of fellow believers and for the salvation of the lost and perishing in the world.

In all of this, we must remember that our responsibility, whether at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or in our churches, is not to singlehandedly change the culture. Instead God is calling us to be faithful at our post, to be faithful where God has planted us. When confronted with the depravity and brokenness that is endemic and multiplying in God’s world, the main question that you should ask is this: What is God requiring of me now? What is right in front of my face that God is calling me to do?

The centrality of faithfulness in little cannot be overstated. Too often, my concern for the advancement of the gospel in the world turns into an attempt to coordinate heavenly troop movements, to treat the culture war like it’s a game of Risk and I’m perched on a balcony on one of Saturn’s moons. In short, it’s easy to try and usurp Christ’s place as the reigning King who is subduing his enemies under his feet (and ours). But the burden of running the cosmos does not fall on my shoulders. The burden of managing my household well does. The crying need of the hour is for millions of Christians to realize that their primary contribution in the culture war may be reading bedtime stories to their children, dating their spouse, and looking for opportunities to cheerfully, sacrificially, and practically love their neighbors. It’s almost impossible to quantify the potency of simple faith and obedience, but let’s just say that it was that sort of thing that has brought more than one godless culture to its knees.

Finally, we must pray. We must pray for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the world and a release from God’s chastening judgment. Rebellious blindness holds sway in so many places in this world. And so we plead with God to lift his judgment and unleash his storehouses of mercy. And we pray confidently with the knowledge that, if he so chooses, God could drown the world in grace.