I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd, the Gospel, and Our Response

I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd, the Gospel, and Our Response

With the events of the past two weeks, I have been asked on numerous occasions to give my reflections and while I do have some thoughts, no one has better articulated the moment we are in than my friend Chris Brooks. Chris is not only an outstanding pastor in the Detroit area, he also serves on the board of Made to Flourish. I am grateful Chris has given his permission to repost the blog he recently wrote to his church family.  – Tom Nelson

By Chris Brooks – Senior Pastor – Woodside Bible Church

Yesterday, I lost my breath! My breathlessness came because of watching the now viral video of a man gasping for the desperately needed air his lungs begged for. He pleaded with the police officer whose knee was crushing his windpipe as he moaned out the words, “I can’t breathe”. These are infamous and haunting words for African Americans who became all too familiar with this painful phrase as we watched the killing of Eric Gardner by New York City police in 2015. The echo of this refrain acts as a dying man’s declaration of his demise at the hands of those who cared more about administrative procedure than his asphyxiation. These three grievous words, “I can’t breathe,” also stand as damning evidence of a generation’s lack of basic human decency towards those who are all too often misunderstood, mislabeled, and marginalized. These are words we hoped we would never hear again, yet the pain they bring came rushing back into our souls yesterday as we saw, through tear-filled eyes, the killing of Mr. George Floyd.

These types of horrific events trigger fear, pain, anger, and distrust in the hearts of ethnic minorities. Those who personally identify with the social situation that created the conditions for the death of Mr. George Floyd are left feeling vulnerable and afraid. Unfortunately, the psychological stress produced from seeing a man slowly die as he agonizes and helplessly cries out for his life is only exasperated when minorities look to their spiritual families and local churches for comfort. Too often they find deafening silence or even worse, a voice of rebuke from Church members who feel it’s out of place for them to express their lament. To affirm Christian love and the solidarity Christ prayed would mark His Church (John 17:20–23), we must give voice to these undeniable injustices.

Our acknowledgment must transcend the social scientists and cultural commentators of our day. Our critique must rise to the level of the Gospel.

This is true precisely because we are Gospel people, and this is a Gospel issue. Injustice is always a matter of the Gospel revealing our blind spots and exposing our theological deficiencies. The holes in our Gospel can only be remedied in Christ as we have our hearts reformed by His Word and filled with His grace. Considering this, I suggest there are three Gospel truths Christians should address when considering the killing of Mr. George Floyd.

Three Gospel Truths Christians Should Address

1. We do not believe in Moralistic Evolution.

While most people may not be familiar with the term and corresponding tenants of moralistic evolution, our society has been deeply impacted by its beliefs. Darwinism has long been the accepted and, in the minds of many, unquestioned worldview of the academy. Secular humanism ascribes to the belief that humanity improves over time through the process of natural selection. This conviction is also known by the phrase, “the survival of the fittest.” Darwinists champion the hypothesis that genetically, humanity grows stronger as weaker genes are weeded out in favor of more dominant genes, which are then passed from one generation to the next.

When applied to one’s view of ethnicity, Darwinism expresses itself through the claim that weaker races of people are rightfully dominated by stronger ones, thereby improving humanity. Secular biologists, like the outspoken Princeton Professor Peter Singer, unapologetically advance the idea that weaker species lack value and, therefore, deserve to be eliminated by stronger ones who exercise their might. This erroneous and deadly doctrine extends to the field of ethics as well. It is falsely assumed that humanity exists on an invisible, but real, arch of moral improvement as it pertains to our morality.

It has been 45 years since the term “sociobiology” was introduced by E.O. Wilson who suggested “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized” (Wilson 1975, 562). His conviction was that humanity evolves morally, thereby forming progressively more just societies by weeding out detrimental ethics in exchange for behaviors that increase the common good. According to the proponents of moralistic evolution, these superior behaviors are codified and agreed upon through some form of an assumed social contract. Under this contract, societies of people agree to do away with actions that bring harm to one another in exchange for a morality preserving their collective futures. The central tenant of moralistic evolution is that each successive generation, guided solely by the forces of biology, becomes morally superior to their predecessors. However, this assumption has one major problem. The evidence does not support it. We need look no further than the genocides of the 20th century around the world, the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, and the rise of racism in our own country to see the truth. From the institution of Jim Crow, which marked the American Bible Belt just a generation ago, to the present-day increase in the number of hate crimes and racialized hate groups, the truth sits plainly before our eyes. The murder of Mr. George Floyd is simply the latest of these atrocities.

Sadly, the reach of moralistic evolution has crept into the Church in many ways, especially as it pertains to the inconvenient sins of racism and discrimination. Many within the Church assume somehow our society is growing more morally fit and racism is decreasing. However, the message of Scripture is consistent concerning the heart condition of each generation of humanity. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” As Christians, we can not ascribe to the social heresy of moralistic evolution. The Bible’s indictment over the wickedness of our hearts is not simply a matter of concern within the Torah or the Old Testament. Our eschatology (the theology concerning death, judgement, and the final destiny of humankind) is also informed by the Apostle Paul’s concern over the corrupted nature of the human heart. He expressed this concern in a letter to Timothy:

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
2 Timothy 3:1–5

The sin of racism is just as rampant and vile today as it has always been. The only unique reality for our generation is this evil is now being recorded and spread virally through the powerful platform of social media. The Gospel, which is the only cure for these forms of discrimination and injustice, is just as needed today as ever.

Without the transforming grace of Christ at work in our lives, we are no less bigoted, racist, or prejudiced than our ancestors.

So, the Church must not fall prey to thinking that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. The killing of Mr. George Floyd is a tragic reminder racism is a current and present danger.

2. We must continue to acknowledge that the Homogeneous Unit Principle has done much damage to our witness and renders many churches powerless for addressing injustices.

I realize the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) is a theological term foreign to most, but its practical impact on the Western Church is enormous. Popularized in the 1970s, HUP became the driving theory behind the Church Growth movement. The pragmatic underpinnings of HUP were simple yet effective. Proponents argued the best way to grow a church numerically was to create spiritual communities marked by commonality and not diversity. Many Missiologists of that time adopted the belief that evangelism was most effective when people were not forced to cross ethnic, linguistic, or cultural barriers. It was theorized that the more diverse the environment, the slower the growth and the fewer number of conversions. HUP was applied by church planters with wild numerical success.

Sadly, a generation of churches were born that neither reflected the demographics of their community nor were in touch with the concerns of those outside their socioeconomic world. The problem again is that HUP is not the Gospel. Thankfully, groups like the Lausanne Movement (1977), which was co-founded by evangelists Billy Graham and John Stott for the purpose of advancing the global spread of the Gospel, began to confront and condemn HUP as a practice. The Pasadena Coalition, as they were then called, noted that from the beginning the Church was intended by Christ to be multi-ethnic and culturally diverse.

Revelation 7:9 declares,

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

This beautiful mosaic is the picture Christ wants his Church to reflect as we focus on multiplying disciples, leaving the numerical growth of the Church in the hands of Christ and not in the hands of pragmatists. It is through the natural and healthy tensions that arise from living in a loving, Gospel-centered local church, with other believers who come from a different socioeconomic reality than us, that we develop the spiritual muscles needed to address the structural injustices in our society. Christ intends for the Church to be diverse, even if it means exchanging short-term and sometimes shallow numerical growth for a greater depth of spiritual maturity as we become disciples who make and multiply other disciples.

3. We must extend our commitment to the sanctity of life to marginalized adults.

My wife and I are passionately Pro-Life. It is this conviction that has led us to become foster and adoptive parents. As we do our part in defending the rights that come along with the personhood of the unborn, we have become unapologetic and outspoken advocates. Over the years we have also immersed ourselves into the Right to Life community. We joyfully and financially support the courageous, gospel work of Pregnancy Resource Centers. I know firsthand the blessing of sharing my faith with hurting young moms and dads as they stand outside an abortion clinic just steps away from making an unalterable decision that will damage their souls and destroy the life of their precious baby. For my wife and I, all our Pro-Life passion is rooted in God’s inerrant word. We wholeheartedly believe Scripture affirms each person is a unique and special creation of God. As early as Genesis 1:26 we are told people are made in God’s image and after His likeness. Scripture never shies away from the teaching that life begins at conception. The words of Jeremiah 1:5 burn deeply in our hearts,

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…”

However, it is equally important for us to affirm God loves and identifies with the marginalized adults in our community as much as He does the unborn in their mother’s womb. The Prophet Isaiah instructs God’s people to, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In Proverbs we are given guidance for what it means to live a life that honors God and invokes his blessing. Proverbs 31:8–9 tells us that in part, living in reverence and honor of God means we obey the instruction to, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” By all measure Mr. George Floyd was a member of the group that Proverbs 31:8–9 has in mind.

Mr. George Floyd deserved to breathe!

He was a man who was made in the image of God. No doubt he was marred by imperfections, like all of us, but he was worthy of dignity.

This is why I refer to him with the prefix “Mr.” It is my way of bestowing upon him the respect he should have received as he lied under the pressing knee of pain, gasping for breath, and calling for out mercy. Jesus died for his sins! This is precisely the point. Ultimately, the mercy and grace he was looking for is found in Christ alone.

But we have the responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. We must declare to the world that his value in the eyes of God was unquestioned. No matter his past or present condition, Mr. George Floyd deserved to breathe! It is not until we rid ourselves of the deficiencies of our theology that we will be able to honor his life by helping others who live in the fear that they or their sons, brothers, or fathers might be next. Breathe the fresh air of justice both in this life and the life to come!

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Written by: Chris Brooks, Senior Pastor of Woodside Bible Church
Published by Woodside Bible Church, 

Wilson, E.O. (1975). Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Harvard University

Humanity in the Age of the Immanent Frame

Humanity in the Age of the Immanent Frame

What Hollywood taught me about human dignity…

When I was about twelve or thirteen, I went to see the movie Gattaca. If you don’t recall, it’s about a future society in which humans are no longer the fruit of love between two parents, but are genetically engineered to increasing standards of perfection. Those who were not engineered, like the main character Vincent (played by Ethan Hawk), society deems “invalid” and restricts their level of education and opportunity. Only the “valids,” those humans designed in a laboratory, are worthy of real societal empowerment and investment. 

I remember walking out of the theater thinking the movie was pretty good. But it was just a movie. Most audiences agreed with me, as it had only modest reception at the time. But looking back now, its central message seems more prescient than ever, not only in that we are on the verge of nonfiction designer babies, of actually practicing what the writers of Gattaca only imagined, but because the film puts its finger on the philosophical and theological questions that still haunt us today when it comes to human value and dignity.

In the twenty years since the film’s release, my sense is that we have not advanced that discussion one bit. We are still circling around the same categories, the same arguments, the same impasse. Even Gattaca struggles to answer its most important questions. One of my favorite lines is narrated by the main character: “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands, rather than her local geneticist.” Vincent is describing his own origins as one who was conceived and born naturally, that is, from a father and mother. He can only describe that process with an appeal to God. Here the filmmakers have identified the crux of the matter: are humans more than genes? And if they are, what do we mean by that? How do we describe that something that makes us more? The message of film—and you can feel it throughout—wants so desperately to do just that, to articulate that we are more. But even at its crescendo, the conclusion, the most it can say is that there is something unquantifiable about being human. As the tagline put it, “There is no gene for the human spirit.”But that’s it.

This capitulation, I think, is why we are stuck. Every time we start to talk about human dignity and human rights,  we invariably hit our heads on the philosophical ceiling that hangs over all of Western society. The ceiling that says, “here, and no further.” There are lots of ways to describe it, but Charles Taylor has probably done it the best in his book A Secular Age. He called it the “immanent frame.” 

How the immanent frame is a conversation killer…

The immanent frame, for our purposes, is the basic philosophical principle that any concept of transcendence, anything worth talking about beyond what we can measure empirically, is off limits. Immanence, what is right it front of our senses, is all that matters. It’s all that is real. We have moved on from appeals to the divine or supernatural in how we understand the world, and consequently, in how we understand ourselves. 

Obvious examples abound. This constraint is part of the deep skepticism toward religious belief that has become more prevalent in our society and explains (in part) the church’s waning influence in culture-making institutions. So much of what Christianity has to say about truth is beyond the boundary line that more and more people are hesitant to cross: the line of transcendence.

This same dynamic has been at play in so much of the discussion around human dignity and worth. Appeals to the transcendence of human beings, inherent value, are dismissed out of hand, and must be for the immanent frame to survive. If we want to root human dignity in something, it must be something we can taste, touch, hear, see, and smell. This is especially evident in discussions around the beginning and end of life. 

I was recently reading the New York Times opinion article, “Why The Fight Over Abortion Is Unrelenting,” by Thomas Edsall. In it he quotes anthropology professor emerita Sarah Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, who asserts that before we can talk about abortion and women’s rights, we need to first understand male coercion of female primates as a primary scientific and philosophical backdrop. Regardless of what you think of that idea (honestly, I laughed out loud), it illustrates the point. Here is an incredibly immanent explanation for how men and women treat each other, and why men have always demanded a say in female sexuality.

This approach is consistent, but has devastating consequences. If human dignity is not based upon a transcendent metaphysical principle (like, all humans are by definition valuable because they are made in the image of God), then all we have left are human capacities. One need not think too hard about this to realize the Pandora’s box that it opens. If human worth is based on capacity, then why protect the unborn? They can’t do anything. Why fight for the aging? They are no longer real contributors to society. 

What if, for example, we decided that certain races of humans had less capacity for intelligence than others? Hello, eugenics movement! 

What if we decided that having a genetic disorder, like Down’s syndrome, made you less than fully human? Hey there, Iceland! (Iceland has virtually eliminated Down’s syndrome through elective abortion).

What if we decided to measure human worth by self-awareness or sentience? Enter Peter Singer, leading bioethicist at Princeton, who has publicly endorsed infanticide up to the age of one on that very basis. 

On this last example, there was real public outcry. Surely that action is wrong! But wham, we hit our heads on the immanent frame again. There is no argument against it without appealing to something more. Don’t blame poor Peter Singer for being consistent.

Singer’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. And round and round the conversation goes. 

Cracks in the frame…

Ross Douthat, another writer for the New York Times, recently tweeted about an exchange he had with friends over dinner (by the way, how do you cite Twitter? What a time to be alive!). He asked his friends if they believed in ghosts. Of course, not a single hand went up. But the woman next to Douthat leaned over and said, “I don’t believe in them, but I’ve seen one.” 

The same dynamic, I think, is at play in human dignity. If there are cracks in the immanent frame, this contradiction is a big one. We may not “believe” in transcendent human worth, but we’ve seen it. Just think about it. Do you know anyone who truly believes human beings are a collection of cells and chemicals? Almost everyone I have talked to knows through and through the inherent value of people even if they can’t articulate it. 

This has been the foundational passage on which all discussion of human worth is based in Western society. Our secular friends are simply trying to have their cake and eat it too, to uplift humanity as something special without appeal to divine creation. My opinion? It won’t work. 

So what do we do in the meantime? How do we push on these cracks in the immanent frame? A concluding thought for the church: 

Human dignity is not an argument to win. It’s a mission to be lived out. 

I believe that, as Christians, we have a strong logical case for human dignity. I’ve laid out some of it here. But logic alone is not very compelling, nor is it all that God asks of His people. I’m afraid that Christians in the United States have a reputation for wanting to win arguments around human dignity without actually loving people. Fair or unfair, we should take that criticism seriously. In Jesus’ kingdom, it is never enough to be right. One must also be good. Can we practice what we preach? Can we backup our high view of human life with a high commitment to helping others, especially those whom our culture struggles to love? Can we, as Peter admonishes us,

“live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV)?

Here’s my suggestion to help us do this. Let’s sing ourselves an old song, with one emendation: Jesus loves THEM this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  I think we would do well to remember that, yes, Jesus loves me, but He also loves them, whoever “them” happens to be in society. Just like the “invalids” in Gattaca, every culture has a “them,” a less than. Christianity has always been known, at its best, to love them well. There is a reason the church has exploded in places like India, where the gospel radically challenges the caste system and raises the dignity of the Dalit, the “untouchables.” It was on the basis of human dignity that chattel slavery was eradicated in the Western world, though it took way too long for that to happen. There’s a reason the Christian faith thrived in Rome, even under heavy persecution, because Christians protected exposed infants meant to die and willingly sacrificed themselves to love others during the plague.

This commitment in particular to human life changed an empire not too long ago. 

The immanent frame looks strong. But God’s love is stronger. May we wield it well.