Since the post I'm going to criticize here has been around for a couple of years, though recently re-posted, it's possible that some readers will recognize the quotations and know who wrote it. If so, try to do the thought experiment of pretending that you don't know. If you don't know, don't look ahead to the end. Just read the quotations and this post first. It's also entirely possible that some readers who do get to the end won't be at all struck by the name of the author. Protestants, especially Protestants who follow the blogosphere, are more likely to have heard of him than Catholics. (Yes, it's a "him." That doesn't tell you much.)
Okay, let's get down to it. Suppose that you read the following, but didn't know who had written it and had no special reason to think of this writer as a conservative or even a very sensible person:
Jesus has AIDS.
Just reading that in the type in front of you probably has some of you angry. Let me help you see why that is, and, in so doing, why caring for those with AIDS is part of the gospel mandate given to us in the Great Commission.
[W]hat we’re often likely to miss is that Jesus has identified himself with the suffering of this world, an identification that continues on through his church. Yes, Jesus finishes his suffering at the cross, but he also speaks of himself as being “persecuted” by Saul of Tarsus, as Saul comes after his church in Damascus (Acts 9:4).
Through the Spirit of Christ, we “groan” with him at the suffering of a universe still under the curse (Rom. 8:23,26). This curse manifests itself, as in billions of other ways, in bodies turned against themselves by immune systems gone awry.
Some of you are angered by the statement I typed above because you think somehow it implicates Jesus. After all, AIDS is a shameful disease, one most often spread through sexual promiscuity or illicit drug use.
Yes, but those are the very kinds of people Jesus consistently identified himself with as he walked the hillsides of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, announcing the kingdom of God. Can one be more sexually promiscuous than the prostitutes Jesus ate with? Can one be more marginalized from society than a woman dripping with blood, blood that would have made anyone who touched her unclean (Luke 8:40-48)? Jesus touched her, and took her uncleanness on himself.
AIDS is scandalous, sure. But not nearly as scandalous as a cross.
At the crucifixion stake, Jesus identifies himself with a sinful world (including the scandal of my sin). He was seen to be cursed by God (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). This is why it seemed so reasonable to the shouting crowds to curse him as a false Messiah, because only those rejected by God would ever be hanged on a tree. And that’s why the apostle Paul had to repeatedly insist that he was not “ashamed” of the cross. At Golgotha, Jesus became sin (though he never knew it himself) by bearing the sins of the world (2 Cor 5:21). Now that’s scandalous.
And so, if we love Jesus, our churches should be more aware of the cries of the curse, including the curse of AIDS, than the culture around us. Our congregations should welcome the AIDS-infected, and we shouldn’t be afraid to hug them as we would hug our Christ.
Go below the fold to read the critique. I won't reveal the name of the author until close to the end of the post.
What would, or should, be some of the first thoughts to spring to the mind of a clear-thinking, theologically well-informed Christian conservative upon reading this? Here are a few. (Note: These categories overlap. Examples that fall into one could also fit into another.)
#1: It's theologically shallow. The author makes a big deal about Jesus' "identifying with a sinful world," but he doesn't trouble to mention the fact that, when Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world, God judged and punished sin in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The message of the cross isn't, "God identifies with sinners," especially not in the modern sense of "identifies with." It's, "God hates sin. God took upon himself your sin and was crucified by your sin. God suffered terribly because of your sin. God judged your sin in Christ so that you can repent and be forgiven."
#2: It's trendy. Let's face it, we've all heard ad nauseum the "Jesus ate with prostitutes and sinners" shtick, as an attempt to shake a finger in the faces of nasty conservative Christians for being overly judgemental. Do we really have to go through this again? Wouldn't it have been possible for a writer who hasn't been in a coma for the past several decades, a writer who is supposed to be biblically sound and doctrinally savvy, who must know how tired this left-leaning set of cliches is, at least to acknowledge some important points that need to be made as a corrective? As, for example, that Jesus called sinners to repentance. Jesus didn't go and simply hang out with sinners so as to communicate to them his "acceptance." (Also, see footnote at the bottom of the entry.) Jesus told the woman taken in adultery (I'm surprised we didn't get that passage) to go and sin no more.
#3: It downplays the importance of actual evangelism by playing up the importance of social good works and calling them "part of the Great Commission." There is nothing wrong with caring for the sick, including the sick who have brought their misery upon themselves. Such acts can be corporal works of mercy and very good. In the course of history, missionaries have often started hospitals and other charitable works, ministering to man's body as well as to man's soul. But the Great Commission is, first and foremost, about preaching the Gospel of salvation from sin. It simply confuses this issue to call caring for the sick "part of the gospel mandate given to us in the Great Commission."
#4: It's a deliberate attempt to annoy and goad social conservatives. There is no question here about this post's intent to be shocking. The author emphasizes that fact over and over again. You might say he revels in it. The gentle, didactic tone, the pretense of theological depth (see point #1), the pretense of answering objections (see point #2)--do we really need to wonder at whom these are directed? I have a hint for you: They aren't directed at the followers of Tony Campolo. They're directed at people who might be less than accepting of those who engage in sexual promiscuity. Which leads us to...
#5: It minimizes the importance of sin. Notice, for example, the weird move from "most often spread through sexual promiscuity or illicit drug use" to the woman with the issue of blood who was healed by touching Jesus' garment. What's that all about? (By the way, the author apparently couldn't be bothered to double check the passages. Jesus didn't touch her. She touched his garment.) The connection between this woman and people with STDs is apparently that she was ritually unclean. The author practically gloats over his own phrase "dripping with blood." Perhaps that's also supposed to be profound by being shocking. But that's an exceedingly muddle-headed connection. She hadn't, in fact, done anything wrong that caused her disease. Ritual uncleanness and actual sexual sin are different things, and putting them in the same basket merely downplays the seriousness of sin.
The post deliberately blurs the distinction between sin and misfortune. This confusion is repeated throughout in lists of those we are required to welcome and empathize with, lumping everything together under the heading of "suffering."
A few more examples:
Some of Jesus’ church has AIDS. Some of them are languishing in hospitals right down the street from you. Some of them are orphaned by the disease in Africa.
[W]e cannot see Jesus only in his Head but also in his Body, also in his identification with those he calls “the least of these, my brothers” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus isn’t right now hungry, is he? He isn’t naked, is he? He isn’t thirsty, is he? He isn’t in jail, is he? Well, yes, he is…in the nakedness, hunger, thirstiness, and imprisonment of his suffering brothers and sisters around the world.
We see Jesus now, by faith, in the sufferings of the crack baby, the meth addict, the AIDS orphan, the hospitalized prodigal who sees his ruin in the wires running from his veins.
Or look at the ambiguous statement, "Our congregations should welcome the AIDS-infected." Let's ask this outright: Does this mean that we should soften our stance on the wrongness of sexual sin so as to make people who are continually, unrepentantly engaging in sexual sin feel welcome? The author doesn't say. He just tells us to be welcoming and embracing.
1-5 are just a few immediate reactions that sensible, conservative readers should have. Maybe at some point in the comments thread I'll say something more about the Jewish Scriptures and the curse of the cross. That's a more esoteric matter.
My general point here is that the post is a piece of left-leaning, pretentious theological fluff, before which we are evidently supposed to fall down in awe because it's "intense." Surely we conservatives have seen this sort of thing before and learned to disregard it as inconsequential.
There's just one small sociological problem with consigning it to that place in the dustbin of internet obscurity which it so justly deserves: It was written by Russell Moore. Dr. Russell D. Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and a senior Vice President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a strongly theologically conservative seminary. Dr. Russell D. Moore is expected by those who admire him not to be theologically shallow and socially trendy, not to be deliberately goading social conservatives, downplaying the importance of evangelism, or minimizing the importance of sin. It is therefore likely to be a great temptation to those who already admire him to engage in a certain amount of special pleading to rescue this post from contemptuous dismissal as muddle-headed (at best) and to rescue Moore from the reaction, "Gee, I never thought I'd see him spouting such nonsense."
I submit to you that you shouldn't do that, even if you have previously admired Moore. Instead, let this temper your admiration. And let it temper your admiration by considering, as fair-mindedly as you can, what your reaction would be (or was) to the post without knowing its author.
One other point: It's not as though this is the only post Moore has put up that might make conservatives think that he's trending in odd directions, particularly when it comes to political slant. As for instance--
* Here Moore blandly and without qualification endorses Earth Day and happily talks about its deep connections with Good Friday. He speaks as though he's oblivious to any problems anyone might have with Earth Day or with the environmentalist movement and seems, instead, eager to encourage Christians to get with the program.
* Here Moore, in the course of rightly and roundly lambasting Pat Robertson for his disgusting comments about Alzheimer's disease, can't resist taking a few swipes at the religious right: "Jesus didn't die for the Christian Coalition; he died for a church." Deep, man.
* Here Moore proudly posts an exceedingly manipulative test (a test!) that he gave to his ethics class on amnesty and illegal immigration. In the course of it he cheapens the term "pro-life" by implying that you aren't really pro-life if you don't endorse amnesty. This is an affront to all the babies torn to pieces in abortions.
There's an incredibly strong leftward drag on the evangelical church right now. What appears to be happening is that "Christian conservative" doesn't mean what it meant even ten years ago, much less twenty. Even those who are comparatively speaking socially conservative and/or genuinely theologically conservative (for example, those who criticize Rob Bell's theological heresies) seem to have a nearly fatal attraction for the lefthand side of the political spectrum and a desire to show that they aren't "extremists." They want to find some left-approved causes that they can get involved with in order to earn their Compassion, Stewardship, and Social Justice badges. This desire will influence their emphases, their choice of topics, and their clarity in thinking and writing. Readers and students need to realize this and not allow previous respect to prevent straightforward and uncompromising criticism when evangelical leaders are off-base.
Footnote: I have a virtual cookie for anyone who can find a Bible passage that actually says explicitly that Jesus ate with prostitutes. Come to think of it, I don't think there are any. Matthew 11:9 and Mark 2:14-17 both refer to "publicans [tax collectors] and sinners" and refer apparently to events following the calling of Matthew as a disciple. In Luke 7, the woman who was "a sinner" (plausibly meaning a sexual sinner, though not therefore necessarily a prostitute) comes to Jesus while he is eating and washes his feet. He tells her that her sins are forgiven (there's that theme again), and she goes away. She does not eat with him. There are so many reasons to retire the sermon canard, "Jesus ate with prostitutes." It may turn out that the simplest reason is that it isn't true.