Remembering Who We Are

In 1995 Billy Abraham published a book called Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia. Its basic premise is that, within the United Methodist Church, we have forgotten who we are and what we stand for. United Methodists are not the only Christians to have forgotten these basic markers of Christian identity. Throughout mainline Protestantism, increasingly in evangelicalism, and even through much of the Roman Catholic Church, we Christians have forgotten who we are. We see ourselves as bearers of Western culture interpreted through the lens of a rather unthreatening Jesus. This is a Jesus who tells us we are right and calls our ideological opponents to repentance, rather than one who confronts each of us with both compassion and judgment, calling us all to repentance and offering us the gift of the Holy Spirit for our moral transformation.

We have forgotten who we are, not just as the church, but as human beings. The decline of the church in Western civilization has meant a decline in its influence upon the ambient culture. The values that people once learned growing up in Christian environments are now judged antiquated, even harmful, by the power brokers of our society. They are cast aside in favor of instrumental notions of human life, and new values, directly opposed to those traditionally associated with Christians, are emerging. I’m not just looking left here. I’m looking right, too.

I’m troubled–deeply troubled, in my bones–by the recent change in abortion laws in New York. I wonder what has happened to us culturally when we are content with a a seven- or eight-month old fetus being given a lethal injection and aborted. Yes, there are qualifications. The law allows these abortions only when the fetus is non-viable or when a healthcare professional deems that the health of the mother is threatened. The stipulation related to the health of the mother, however, is broader than it may first appear. In fact, it is so vague that it establishes virtually no parameters as to when the health of the mother is endangered. The health exception may be “broadly interpreted by courts to include age, economic, social and emotional factors, rather than the biological definition of ‘health’ that normally comes to mind.” It is noteworthy, moreover, that healthcare professionals under this law do not have to be licensed physicians.

I have a particular interest in this matter since kids like my son Sean, who has Down syndrome, are aborted 80-90% of the time. I wrote about this recently in Touchstone.

We have forgotten who we are, both as Christians and as human beings, and with tragic results.

In his book, So You Think You’re Human? A Brief History of Humankind (Oxford, 2004), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto begins with the following provocative statement:

Here is a paradox. Over the last thirty or forty years, we have invested an enormous amount of thought, emotion, treasure, and blood in what we call human values, human rights, the defence of human dignity and of human life. Over the same period, quietly but devastatingly, science and philosophy have combined to undermine our traditional concept of humankind. In consequence, the coherence of our understanding of what it means to be human is now in question. And if the term ‘human’ is incoherent, what will become of ‘human values’? Humanity is in peril: not from the familiar menace of ‘mass destruction’ and ecological overkill—but from a conceptual threat (1).

I would argue that this conceptual threat involves the exchange of a theological understanding of humanity for a pragmatic and instrumental one. We have assigned human life primarily instrumental value. Hence the increase in euthanasia within parts of Western culture.

Evangelicals have traditionally opposed abortion on moral grounds, but to many in our culture these protestations ring hollow because of our alignment with political systems that seem to devalue life in other ways. If human life is so valuable, why are we not doing more to protect the lives of immigrants who are desperate for opportunity? The ontological value of one human life should extend to all others. Let me anticipate an objection I know is coming: no, I’m not suggesting simply opening the border. What I am advocating for, rather, is a renewed discussion about immigration among Christians rooted not in political values but in theological ones. What courses of action does Scripture suggest? Given our understanding of human life, what courses of action are most ethical? What guidance does our doctrine offer us? In what ways does Christian identity supersede national identity?

Another question that evangelicals must answer is, if human life is so valuable, why do so many evangelicals support the death penalty? I get the difference: a baby has committed no crime, and convicted criminals presumably have (though the number of people sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA evidence is alarming). But for Christians, the burden of proof is on those who would suggest that some crime diminishes in inherent value the life of the person who committed it. By the same token, Andrew Cuomo evinces deep moral confusion when he asserts that the death penalty is immoral on the one hand and his state’s new abortion law is entirely moral on the other. The Babylon Bee is savage on this point. It is especially ironic that in announcing his opposition to the death penalty, Cuomo invokes solidarity with Pope Francis.

Each of the issues I have touched on in this article is extremely complex and requires more discussion than I can offer here. We need a sustained discussion on a consistent ethic of life. (Any bishops listening out there?) It should start in the church, but my hope is that it would catch on more broadly. We need a discussion that will remind us of who we are, first as Christians, and more broadly as human beings. We will never have that discussion, however, until we recognize that we have a conceptual problem.

Here’s another way of thinking about the same thing: if you went up to your average United Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or evangelical and asked, “What is a human being?” would there be any consistent answer either within or across traditions? I would think not. And what resources would they draw on in answering? What would be the dominant narratives that would inform their answers? We Protestants have fallen short in identifying and teaching theological anthropology. We have abdicated the formation of our identity as humans to the cultural narrative that may be most compelling in a given time and place.

The church must be the church. To do that, we must recover the memory of who we are. We must recover metaphysical, ontological understandings of human life. Scripture teaches us that human beings are created “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7-9). If we believe we can “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we will need more than hammers and nails, more than protests and social media. We will need deep theological engagement and a commitment to deep theological formation in our churches. Then, and only then, will we begin to remember who we truly are.

14 thoughts on “Remembering Who We Are

  1. Thank you David. I think too the whole concept of what is a human for me is directly tied to my belief that God is primarily a God of grace and I prefer to live in and through grace. I was scared to death almost 19 years ago as a new pastor to facilitate my first funeral. It just so happens that it was an aborted baby that fit in a shoe box. The couple was not married. The baby I believe had Downs Syndrome and I counseled the couple not to abort. They did and then asked me to do the funeral with the four sets of parents present (divorced on both sides, two folk coming from probably over 1500 miles to this funeral). I celebrated that little but complete person the best i could with song and scripture and Word, that little Holy Innocent. So yes, i err in favor of living in grace.

  2. I will suggest, that the last thing any church needs is yet another written ethic of any sort beyond Holy Scripture. I will suggest that sustained discussion on the topic does not need a beginning because it has never ended, never slackened, has never been abandoned, by anyone who loves the Lord in both spirit and truth. I will suggest that what is needed, is great and terrible prayer, that the Lord would motivate His churches to abandon the vile and vain foolishnesses, and care profoundly about everything He has said of Himself and us in both Old and New Testaments. And I do say both Old and New. One of the vilest and most vain foolishnesses, I will suggest, is the treatment of the Old Testament as if it were less relevant. Sooner or later God will cause His churches to repent of both nationalism and Pollyanna filthmongering, to repent from denials of things God has said which shall remain unpleasant to a huge number of human beings, and to submit to Him as He has described Himself in all Holy Scripture. According to God speaking in the first chapters of Revelation, among other things He has said, He will do this, whether it is pleasant to His churches or not. I will suggest that our job is to help make His mandatory repentances as easy as we can, though I do not think they will be easy even for most of those He will redeem.

    • Thanks for this comment, Jonathan. I appreciate the honest disagreement. I do think the church needs a written ethic derived from Scripture because of the complexity of Scripture. Nevertheless I believe Scripture should be primary in these discussions.

  3. First I’ll note a typo in the final sentence; I believe you meant begin, rather than “being.”

    Second is related to the death sentence. There are times when a human performs an act so heinous in murdering another human that their earthly life should be forfeited. Otherwise, the law which does not allow the death penalty has elevated the worth of the murderer’s life over the worth of the victim’s life.

    An innocent has had their life cut short and this also ends every potential earthly good of the victim, but also affects all the friends and relatives of the victim. Is it justice for the pain and suffering the victim, friends and relatives have gone through that the murderer gets to live many decades more than the victim? And what about survivors who were victimized and watched friends or family die at the hands of the murderer. How is it justice for them to know that the person that did such evil is still living after destroying the victims. Does not society cheapen human life when when the penalty for heinous murder is not death? The victim paid the highest price in earthly life, but the murderer doesn’t have to pay the ultimate price?

    I don’t agree with you that the murderer’s life value is diminished, but that without the death penalty that the value of the victim’s life is diminished.

    Certainly in the case of mass murders, serial killers and sadistic torture murders, the death penalty should be on the table as an option.

    There is a deterrent factor in this and there is also a society protection factor. The deterrent is that the potential murderer may refrain from taking a life in fear of losing their own life. Protection for society, would include other prisoners, guards and the public should the murderer escape or be released.

    It is also my belief that government has the God-given power to enact capital punishment in a post resurrection world. Part of a government’s purpose is to protect it’s citizens from murderers and to mete out justice against the murderers.

    These aren’t random thoughts I’ve just put down, but I have developed them over decades. Unfortunately, these detailed arguments pro and con in regard to the death penalty end up as sound bytes or a tweet, instead of many many hours of thought and weighing of ideas.

    • Jon, these are well thought out points. Thank you for sharing them. The kinds of ideas you have shared here need to be part of a focused conversation as it relates to the larger question of human life. I am willing to admit I may be entirely wrong. We just need to get serious about our teaching on these kinds of matters.

  4. Had not heard of you until today, saw on my Twitter a reposting of “Four Marks of New Methodism” and liked it so much I looked you up online. I then read this article. The article spoked to me a lot, but the part I will write in my notebook and send to others is this “This is a Jesus who tells us we are right and calls our ideological opponents to repentance rather than one who confronts each of US (me) with both compassion and judgment, calling US (me) all to repentance and offering US (me) the gift of the Holy Spirit for OUR (my) moral transformation”. Amen and Amen. Especially since I am now on Twitter and like to see many Christian ideas, I find myself often thinking of ways I need to correct others of their ideological wrongs rather than seeing where I might need to confront myself. There are many, but one you see often is Calvinism or Arminian. I can always think of points I can send to those I disagree with to straighten them out. Trust me, the few times I have entered this fray I have been corrected quickly and vehemently. Keep in mind this is a Christian brother, not an enemy, we are on the same side (at least I think we are). Thank you for reminding me that I need repentance, I need compassion, that it is I who needs to be transformed.

    Also, just wanted to say I liked what Jon Burk had to say regarding the death penalty. I have always believed in it, but have questioned myself a lot based on what you said. I think he explained it for me. I won’t rehash what he said, you responded well back to him. God bless you brother, keep up the great work, I will be reading you a lot.

  5. One again, well said, Dr. Watson! It seems that we have largely capitulated to the Culture of Death (Protestants are reluctant to call a thing what it is despite the “theology of the Cross” articulated in the Heidelberg Disputation). My adult son, a budding philosopher (he’s working toward a PhD program), said to me over the Christmas break that it has little to do with the actual issues of left or right and everything to do with intoxication with power. We are co-dependent and complicit. Would that it were possible for the church (particularly the United Methodist Church) to detox by way of the 12 Steps. I believe Mr. Wesley aimed for this in his way, but we have abandoned the steps for quicker, easier ways.

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