What Tolkien Can Teach Christians About Our Current Moment

One of the great things about JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is his uncanny ability to relate truth about the human condition through his made-up fantasy world. This is what brings me back to the books again and again. Of late the evangelical community in America has been in turmoil, almost as if it is at war with itself. As I have watched this unfold, I keep coming back to Tolkien’s great work. There is a section in Tolkien’s work which offers us guidance with our current issues—the Scouring of the Shire.

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At the end of the major conflict in The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits return home. They expect to find it as they left it—peaceful. Sadly this is not the case. Despite having experienced victory, their homeland is overrun and their people are oppressed. This reality shocks our heroes, yet they are prepared to handle this challenge precisely because of what they just went through. Their experience showed them the cost of denying reality and compromising with evil-- it only makes matters worse. For the Hobbits, the worst part is not the actions of their enemies, but the state of their own people.

There are three groups of Hobbits living under the new order who all have responded differently. It is these groups which illustrate the various camps within evangelicalism today as secularism, Cultural Marxism, and progressivism assault the church. Like the different groups of Hobbits living under oppression, evangelicals have responded to our new found reality in different ways. Here are the groups in Tolkien’s work:

  1. The Peasants- The majority of the Hobbits fall into this group. They lived in constant fear of their oppressors and what they might do next. This fear did not drive them to resist, but to submit even more to those who were actively destroying them.  When Frodo and his friends return, they are unaware of all the new rules they are supposed to obey. So they start accidentally breaking rules, which causes the peasants to tell them to “Stop!” The philosophy of the peasants can be summed up as: “Don’t rock the boat, you are only going to make matters worse. If we obey, things will at least be better than if we don’t.” The problem is things were already terrible. It is their ongoing inaction and cowardice which led them to this oppression. Eventually, Frodo and company begin to intentionally break the rules. More on that later.
  2. The Shirriffs- This group of Hobbits embraced the new order. Their job was to carry out the will of their oppressors, making sure their own people followed the rules. They are turn-coats, who either love power or who actually prefer the new way of life to the old freedom they once had. It is this group which saddens Frodo and company the most—how can someone turn on their own people and side with those who are seeking the destruction of their people? The Shirriffs turn out to be weapons of the enemy, and not really Hobbits at all in any meaningful way. 
  3. The Resistance- This group is smallest of the three groups. They wised up to what was occurring and revolted against the new order. This led to most of them being locked away. There are too few people in this group to launch any meaningful resistance. So they wait for their fellow countrymen to wake-up. Eventually, because of the leadership and rule-breaking of the returning Hobbits, most of the prior two camps join in the resistance and retake the Shire. This only happened because people were moved to active resistance. 

So what does all this have to do with us today? The evangelical movement is in a time of identity crisis. As the secular world increases its hostility to faithful Christianity we are all faced with a choice—to resist by remaining faithful or to compromise. Compromise can look like that of the peasants, who do so by remaining silent and submissive to the new overlords, or it can come by outright betrayal. We are currently seeing both.

There are also evangelicals striving to remain faithful, but whenever they sound the alarm, others tell them to knock-it-off—If we keep talking like this, it will only make matters worse.  It is here that we should hear the echoes of how Frodo and company were greeted when they returned, “You can’t do that! It’s against the rules!” The problem is we are already at a terrible place from where we once were. The boat needs to be rocked more, not less. Whose rules are we going to follow anyway? This camp in evangelical is marked by the same cowardice and shortsightedness of the peasants.

Cowardice is one thing, but betrayal is far more demoralizing. There are many today who call themselves evangelical who are nothing more than Secular-Shirriffs. They see their job as having to enforce the new ways of thinking and the new moral order of our day on evangelicalism. Whether it is in the guise of social justice (which rejects the basics of biblical justice) or the pursuit of supposed relevancy, we see on a daily basis an increase of the ranks of the Secular-Shirriffs. The problem is not only their presence but that they are exerting  influenceon the camp of peasants.

So what shall we do? What can we do? The same answer we are always are given in Scripture, repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  If you find yourself bent toward cowardice, you need to repent. Trust in the power of God to conquer the progressivism of our day. Jesus is King of Kings and he is currently ruling from on high. Refuse to convert to the new morality of our day and join the resistance—this is what repenting and believing will look like. We must come to terms with the reality that compromise and appeasement has led us to where we are today. It would be insanity to return to that vomit thinking it will taste better this time.  We need resistance, not appeasement. 

If you find yourself promoting the ways of the world as good, let me ask you this, “Do you love the Church as your people, or are you ashamed of the bride of Christ? Do you love Christ, or do you love the world?” You cannot love both. If you truly agree with the trajectory of our culture, then fully embrace it. Leave evangelicalism behind, as you already have in practice. Stop wagging your head at those of us who are loyal to Christ. If though you really want Christ and his kingdom, then return to his teaching and show allegiance to him and his people. Repent of your double-mindedness and throw yourself upon the mercy of God. Above all else and stop doing the job of those who are anti-Christ, and join the resistance.   

Tolkien’s work reminds us of our tendency toward both cowardice and betrayal when faced with persecution. He reminds us we can only overcome our current challenges by honestly identifying our enemies, working together as one people, and refusing to submit to the new order. Open defiance is not only the best strategy but the only one. This requires courage, a strong moral vision, perseverance, and a humble dependence on the grace of God. It also means we need to stop fighting among ourselves. Like the Hobbits, we too know the King has already won, and his Kingdom is coming. Now all we have to do stand and fight for that kingdom. 

Ecclesiastes, Easter, & Finding Gain

This Sunday I finished teaching through Ecclesiastes, which has been my favorite study to date. It is an oddly perfect time, the start of Holy Week, to conclude this study. This book is difficult to understand and has on more than one occasion left me scratching my head. Despite that, I have benefited greatly from wrestling with this book. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon struggles with the frustrations of living in a world which is broken. Since Genesis 3 mankind has lived under the curse of God. This brokenness is the righteous judgment of God upon mankind’s sinfulness, and we run head first into this frustration daily whether it is car trouble, problems at work, or drama at home. Life in this world is marked by sin and death. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the ever-present impact of sin and death on life.

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In Ecclesiastes, Solomon stares down the reality of death and the short-comings of life in a way that makes many of us in modern evangelicalism uncomfortable. It makes us so uncomfortable some scholars try to explain away the unity of the book. Yet any serious study demonstrates the unflinching unity and honesty of this book as it deals with the difficulties and tragedies of life. Solomon took the world as it was, and then he offers us wisdom on how to live in light of the vanity. His advice: trust God in the darkness. Live as creatures before the Creator knowing our limitations and his perfections.

It is here that Ecclesiastes helps us to better understand the beauty of Christ’s work. The main enemy in Ecclesiastes and all of life is death. It is death which drives the vanity of this life. It is death which darkens all of our pursuits. In Ecclesiastes, as in life, we cannot escape this great foe. Solomon searches for a way out, a way to beat death, but he cannot. He writes, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” There is no hope found within ourselves, or in the world at large.  We are nothing in comparison to death. There is no gain at all in this life for death eventually overpowers all of us.

It is here the good news of Christ’s work resounds with unbridled hope. Christ has overpowered death. He has destroyed death by dying. That which defeats us, he has defeated.  Paul writes of this in Philippians 1.21, “ For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” When Paul wrote these words he was facing the possibility of execution. He knew that if spared he would continue to live for Christ, but if he were to die he would gain. I do not believe that word is an accident.  Paul knew his Old Testament backward and forward. I think he has Ecclesiastes in mind here. Where Solomon saw only defeat before Christ, Paul sees gain through Christ. By the work of Christ's death, that which has frustrated and defeated mankind since fall, has been overthrown.

In studying Ecclesiastes my joy has increased precisely because it shows me my limitations and my need for someone greater than me. It shows the world as it is, which highlights my need.  It has taught me to be gracious for the gifts of God, to trust in his sovereignty, and to come to terms with the frustrations of life in a fallen world. But above all of that, it points me to my need for Jesus Christ. It shows me that gain in this life is only found in dying with Christ so that I may rise again as he has. There is gain, not by my work, but by his work. For this reason, and many more, we should all take the message of Ecclesiastes to heart. 

Believing in God is not Enough

Belief is central to the Christian faith. Christianity teaches individuals can only be saved by repenting and believing.  The act of believing itself is a gift from God showing us no works we do can save. These are truths found in scripture and as is often the case, such truths are twisted and misunderstood. Many individuals today believe in belief they place their faith in faith.  Yet the Christian faith is directed at someone specific—the Triune God of Scripture. He saves through our faith in him. True belief must be directed at the proper object—Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Triune God. 

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The importance of this distinction hit me like a three-hundred pound defensive linemen when reading a recent study which says 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Now we may read that and take heart. Yet this study really is a sign of the confusion of our age. If 80 percent of Americans truly believed in the God of Scripture, then would this country would look very different. Eighty percent of Americans may believe in a god, but this is not the God found in Scripture and revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. 

The question becomes, “What god do Americans believe in?” The answer is as diverse as our country, yet most people believe in a god which reflects what the person desires most. You want to be affirmed in your choices? You probably believe in an affirming god. You want a god who will help you feel better about life? Then you probably worship a god who resembles a therapist. While we may scoff at ancient peoples who chiseled their gods out of wood and stone, we do the exact same thing thing in our minds--we fashion a view of god which suits us best. No god constructed by our desires is actually god, for we are creating him.  Our modern idols look every bit as silly as the ones of ancient times.

As Christians, we must remember that belief in some god is not enough. In fact, belief in any god who is not the true God revealed to us in Scripture is damnable. The God who is there, the one who exists, has revealed himself both in his Word and through the life of Jesus Christ. He has told who he is and what his character is. He is chiefly revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—the God-man who became one of us to die for us. This is the God Christians place faith in. It is he and he alone who saves. Belief in any other god is as empty as the Vikings’ Super Bowl case. 

Losing Our Soul

Yesterday marked yet another school shooting. There are many natural questions in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, but the one that resounds in my mind is, “When did we lose our soul as a people?” This is the just the latest tragedy in a long line of mass shooting that highlights our lack of virtue as a people. We see in every area of public life, but tragedies like this amplify our condition.  And while it is true history has always been filled with violence, we cannot help but notice the ever-increasing reality in our day of mass shootings. So common in fact are these types of event that the shooting in Florida is sure to fade in our minds rather quickly—how did we get to such a place? Societal trends like this do not occur in a vacuum overnight. Ideas always have consequences, and the ideas we have built our identity on are bringing about rotten fruit. 

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While pundits and politicians are quick to offer their diagnosis of our problems and their supposed solutions, they all rightly ring hollow in our ears. We know laws will not fix the problem, they may help, but no law has ever changed individual hearts. As a people we are desperately sick, so where did it all go off course?

We, mankind, are the problem. The entire identity and desires of our age are thoroughly wicked. We have replaced God with the idol of the self. You cannot idealize the self as the highest end and highest virtue of life without first severing mankind from God. When your God (the self), is threatened you can justify any and all actions. By turning to the self we have lost all standards for morality, we simply do not teach right and wrong in any meaningful way. Instead, we trumpet, “Follow your heart!” This shooter followed his heart and it lead to the death of seventeen people. How can we look such evil in the face and call it evil when everything is relative and life is all about identity politics? How can we call it evil without a God above?

We have replaced God with our own wicked selves and the results are predictable—chaos and death. As we reject God, who is light, we show that we love darkness. The more we turn inward to look for answers the darker it gets. The insanity of it all is we are convinced we can see better now than ever before! Our own foolishness is breathtaking. We are blind guides claiming sight as we repeatedly run head-first into the same wall over and over again.

There is a way out from this, but it means turning to God in repentance. It requires we teach our children they do not belong to themselves; life is not all about them. Life is found when you intentionally lose yourself in pursuit of Christ. Life is not about self-esteem and self-fulfillment, it is about picking up your instrument of death and following Him. The radical message of Christ, self-denial and faith in him, is the only hope the world has ever had—but we are convinced we know better! The more we cut ourselves off from the fountain of life, the more death we will see. This cycle will not end until many, including the church, start to believe Christ is preeminent in all things.  

I wish I could say things will get better, but that would require u-turn as a society. This is of course possible, God could send his Spirit to break our hearts of stone and bring life where death currently reigns. It is here Christians must admit our failure. We have neglected offering life to our world. All too often we underestimate and under-communicate the gospel. If we want tragedies like this to lessen, Christians should turn to God in humble prayer—repenting of our laziness and pleading with him to bring about widespread repentance. He can do it, but first we must humble ourselves and set ours about to praying and declaring the kingdom. He gives sight to the blind, he brings life from death, and it is to him we must turn. We need to hear the call not victimhood and self-pursuit, but to self-denial and humble pursuit of obedience through faith in Christ Jesus. We have lost our soul as a society, but Christ is greater and he can bring new life. 

Come Lord Jesus!

Systemic Injustice: Disagreeing With John Piper

As a pastor I am constantly telling our people the importance of thinking as a Christian. By this I mean processing everything through the worldview God has given us in his Word. This is his world, and if we want to understand it rightly, then we must understand it on his terms. Lately, I have written on justice twice (here and here). I have done this because much of what I read in Reformed Christian circles on justice ignores what God has revealed to us about this topic. This is no small thing. Justice flows from God. It is inherent to his character. If we get justice wrong, we get God wrong. Moreover, justice is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He came to satisfy the demands of God’s justice on our behalf. If we get justice wrong, we will get Jesus wrong. In other words, justice is pretty important to Christians. 

So I have spent time reading and thinking about justice as a Christian. Specifically, I have focused on how to apply the biblical truth of justice to our day. This is what has spurred my prior posts leading to this discussion on systemic injustice. It is here we find the capstone of so much of secular thinking on justice. Unfortunately, far too many evangelicals have swallowed this thinking hook, line, and sinker. 

So today I am writing on this topic to foster discussion and to call Christians to talk about this topic as Christians. We must not follow the lead of those who are far from God when discussing justice. If we continue to do this, we will reap the fruit of rebellion—spiritual death. The only remedy is a ruthless commitment to the authority of God found in his revealed Word. If we do not do this first, everything else is a waste. But it must stop there, Christians must also communicate with each other as brothers and sisters, not as political adversaries. In such heated discussions we must show each other grace and we must possess a heart which seeks to understand, not to accuse. There be a stark contrast between how Christians discuss these topics and how the political left and right discuss them. 

So building on my previous two posts on justice, I want to apply the biblical understanding of justice to the discussion of systemic injustice. How should Christians define this term? Does it even exist today? If so, how and where? 

In order to answer these questions, I will start by offering a definition of systemic injustice. Then I will discuss where the most prominent forms of systemic justice exist today. 

Systemic Injustice According to Piper

In a recent post, John Piper (who I respect greatly), offered his defense of structural racism (i.e. systemic injustice). Piper boils his understanding of this topic to fallen human and the influence Satan possesses in this age. He writes, “In this worldview, I can think of no sin that is not systemic or structural (I’m using the terms interchangeably).” According to Piper, there is no tangible difference between systemic injustice and normal, run of the mill, injustice because we live in a fallen world where Satan exerts his influence. Therefore, we have systemic gossip, systemic self-righteousness, systemic stealing to go along with systemic racism. 

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While I agree with Piper mankind is fallen and under the influence of Satan, if this is all that systemic injustice is, then the term is both meaningless and redundant. If everything is a systemic injustice, then nothing is a systemic justice. If when define something your definition includes everything, then your definition lacks definition. Piper's argument renders the term so broad it is becomes meaningless.  I believe systemic injustice exists, but we must do a better job defining it. I fear Piper is so intent on proving his point about systemic racism that he broadens the definition and in the end weakens the validity of his argument. 

I will attempt to better his definition. There are two necessary parts which work together to bring about systemic (or structural) injustice. 

A Structure of Power

In order for something to be systemic, there needs to be a system of power in place. Systems use their power to promote, enforce, and enshrine values, beliefs, and behaviors. If there is no power structure, then we are not talking a system. For example, if Johnny commits murder, but the state (system) has outlawed murder, then there is nothing systemic about Johnny’s actions.  In fact, since the system is exerting its power to combat murder the system is actually being just.  If the local government instead made murder legal, or promoted it as a good, then there would be clear systemic injustice.

Moreover, even if a thousand people committed murder, it would not rise to a systemic issue unless the system is partaking in it. If the system is against the action, then it bears no moral responsibility for the rebellion of individuals. Again, if the system where to enshrine, protect, and advance murder, then we would have a systemic problem. 

To put it another way, there needs to be a structure of power which directs said power toward wickedness in order for something to be systemically unjust. Otherwise, we are just dealing with the sin of individuals. 

Now there are a variety of systems of power in our day which could be unjust: governments, schools, businesses, and even families. In any of these structures the power structure could implement injustices through laws, ordinances, policies, procedures, etc. 

This is where so many definitions of systemic injustices run afoul. Just because a lot of individuals commit a certain sin, does not mean there is a system of power in place enforcing and promoting that behavior. In fact, many of our systems use their power to combat wickedness and enforce justice. For this Christians should be grateful. One cannot rightly charge a government for being systemically unjust for having laws which outlaw and justly punish murders, even if the murder-rate was high in its jurisdiction. Why? Because the system is using its power to combat the injustice. Note also, that just because the system is behaving in a just manner does not negate the presence of individual sin. We need to careful when using the term systemic injustice to be sure we are talking about an actual system, and to be specific about which system we are talking about. 

We need to remember this, whether it is theft, racism, murder, or drug-use, sins by individuals, even lots of individuals, do not necessarily rise to the level of being systemic. Injustice is only systemic when it is being implemented through a power structure. 

An Injustice

The second necessary part for a systemic injustice is there must be an actual injustice. I know what you’re thinking, “Levi, you just are using the two words of the term for your definition.” You’re right. Words are important. If we insist on using terms like systemic injustice, then those words carry meaning with them.

This is why I spent so much time defining justice biblically in prior posts. What is justice? At its root it means individuals receive what they have earned. An injustice is receiving punishment, or ill treatment, which a person did not earn. In order to determine what an individual has earned, we need a moral standard to judge by. For the Christian, this is God’s word. For the modern secularist, this is more often than not a morality determined by Marxism. Here is the rub, the Christian and the Marxist will necessarily have vastly different moral structures by which they make this judgment. 

For the Marxist, justice is about equality of outcome.  For the Christian, justice is about rendering unto someone what he has earned. The Christian view necessarily means outcomes will differ. The Marxist view necessarily says this is unjust. This is why the disagreement between a biblical view of justice and the Marxist idea of social justice are not only incompatible, but they are necessarily in conflict with one another.  At their core, their allegiances vastly differ which makes common ground nothing more than an illusion. It’s like two fans of rival sports teams, then will never agree because of their prior commitments. 

So the definition of systemic injustice is as follows: when a system of power (government, business, etc) uses its power to promote, enshrine, or accomplish that which is morally evil, wicked, or unjust. 

Examples of Systemic Injustice

With a clear definition in place I can offer examples of systemic injustice from both the past and present. The early church had to deal with systemic oppression from the Roman Government as Christians refused to practice the state religion. The Roman Government exerted its power to promote evil and punish righteousness by sending Christians into the coliseum. This is a clear injustice empowered by a powerful system. 

More recently, the Nazi’s attempt to exterminate Jews is another clear example of systemic injustice; as is the gulags of the Soviet Union. In fact, throughout world history as governments grow in power they generally grow in wickedness. The historical examples could fill countless volumes of books. 

In America we are not innocent either. The enslavement of Africans is a clear example of systemic injustice. Jim Crow Laws are another example of state and local governments systematically enforcing wickedness. Christians are to stand against such wickedness, and many did. 

Thankfully, systems can change, they can repent.  This does not mean all the repercussions of an injustice have been dealt with, but it is a good thing when systems move from injustice to justice. The US Government has repented of its wickedness found in the form of slavery. It further repented in the Civil Rights era. Our state and federal governing bodies no longer behave in such wretched ways. In fact, this repentance was spear-headed by Christians working toward establishing justice. For this we should be grateful. This does not mean there are no lingering ramifications for those systemic sins, but repentance has occurred at a systemic level. 

Do we see systemic injustice today? Of course. The clearest examples of systemic injustice in our government are no longer tied to slavery and racism. In fact, we now have laws which outlaw and punish discrimination against minorities. The system now exerts its power in the opposite direction. So we can say to extent, our system is just in this area. 

Yet our government still promotes systemic injustice in heinous ways.  The clearest example is abortion. The power of the government enforces, promotes, and protects the slaughter of millions of defenseless children. This is the greatest systemic injustice in the West today. Other examples would include same-sex ‘marriage,’ and the attempts of many local governments to limit the free exercise of religion. These are just a few examples of grave systemic injustices which need to be repented of.  As Christians, it is our job to the salt of the world by calling our system and its people to repentance. 

If Christians desire to speak prophetically to the power structures of our day, as our forefathers did, then we need to do so with a Christian understanding and a uniquely Christian voice. This means our targets include abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and the protection of religious liberty. It is easy to rebuke the sins of prior generations, it takes far more courage to look the current power structure directly in the eyes and say, “Repent or face the judgment of God.”

Conclusion

Often our discussions are being shaped by secular thinking and some desire to signal our virtue to the virtueless, instead of by the careful study and application of God’s word. If the American church continues to flirt with such morbidly anti-Christian thinking it will reap its due fruit—death. Those who profess Sola Scriptura need to act like they actually believe it. 

There is more we could discuss, and I will perhaps write on in the future, but the call here is for Christians to think, communicate, and act as Christian’s first and foremost. This is our charge as who call Christ our Lord.