Al Sharpton's Christianity

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I'm finally getting back to my comments on the SC debate from last Thursday. I left off commenting halfway through with the foreign policies issues completed. I then read through the remainder of the debate and discovered only one thing worth discussing, so here we go. I'm really wondering about Al Sharpton's Christianity. It doesn't seem to be anything like the Christianity I know, and this has absolutely nothing to do with white churches vs. black churches. Whatever he thinks Christianity is all about seems at best a social gospel version of Christianity, which in effect neuters it and destroys its main point. So far that's not any different from Bono's public presentation of Christianity (at least since U2 became famous). That's just old news, though. A couple things Sharpton said in the debate are bothering me far more than that. He seems, in fact, to be proud to display one of the three biblical characteristics that warrant excommunication (i.e. ceasing to call him a Christian brother) -- persistent and loveless divisiveness.

Sharpton has not only referred to members of the Nation of Islam as "brother". He has now denied brotherhood to the vast majority of evangelical churches. In last Thursday's debate, he said: Mr. Bush and some of his crowd have said they represent a Christian view against the Islamic. And I don't think Christ could join most of their churches.... But many of their supporters talk about how they represent Christianity. I don't think they represent Christianity any more than some of these murderers, and mass murderers, represent Islam. It's one thing to ally yourself with someone who opposes everything Christianity stands for, considering racial ties more important than identity in Christ. That's extremely bad but tolerable to some extent, given that Sharpton really seems to believe most of his insanely overreactive charges of racism for everything ranging from unbiased rudeness (to everyone, including black people) to the negative effects of black people's attitudes and actions themselves (as in the case of victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism). If the awful oppression were as bad as he says it is, then allying with people on civil rights issues would make sense, and even considering that more important than the gospel, though horridly wrong for any Christian to do, would be at least psychologically understandable. After all, if racism is as bad as he says it is, then we're in a situation worse than what Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois had to endure. Any racism that explains the 200-point SAT differential and the over a whole grade point difference in grades must be worse than whatever environment allowed those two to be so successful as intellectuals. Well, my sympathy for Sharpton's pathology would end there (even if it could get that far). This new claim is just unconscionable. What kind of Christianity does he have in mind (what kind of Christ does he have in mind?) to think that Christ would not consider a whole gathering of believers to be his own simply because a number of them happen to support President Bush? This is certainly not the Christ I read about in the gospels, who would leave the 99 sheep to recover the lost one sheep. Even if it's straying from Christian principles to support Bush, it's not straying from the gospel, and so the people he's talking about are at worst better than a true lost sheep. Isn't it at least possible that someone could genuinely believe the gospel and also think affirmative action hurts black people, that removing Saddam Hussein from power is the compassionate thing to do in the interest of the people of Iraq, that cutting taxes across the board actually helps the little guy like me (who got back money without having made enough money to have paid any to begin with)? There are lots of other problems with his statement. For one thing, the Qur'an really does advocate violence against persistent opponents of Islam (though I believe the opponents have to initiate by combat or some other form of persecution, and I know the Qur'an has more controls on it than Al Qaeda would allow, e.g. a waiting period to allow repentance first, no attacks on women and children, etc.). Also, more Muslims worldwide have connections with groups like Al Qaeda than there are who practice the liberal Islam promoted in American university chaplains' offices that Sharpton seems to think is mainstream Islam. What does he mean by "represent a Christian view against the Islamic"? Bush considers Islam a good religion and says Muslims worship the same God as Christians. This makes me think Sharpton must mean that the Christians he opposes are those who consider Muslims not to be true followers of God as Christians are. Bush hasn't said anything about that issue, which I think is a separate issue, though I believe him to be exclusivist on it. Sharpton can't mean that Bush is really waging a war on Islam and that all sorts of Christians back him on this because it's a war against Islam, using military strength. Is he that out of touch with reality? Maybe I shouldn't have put it like that, because he probably is, but I can't believe that he really thinks Bush is waging military war against a religion he says is good and follows the same God as Christians do. So he must be opposing the exclusivist religious view that the vast majority of evangelicals hold. Islam is not true worship of God. Christianity is true worship of God (though most Christians undoubtedly get aspects of it wrong, even sometimes very wrong). Once this is clear, it leads to a disturbing conclusion. Sharpton is engaging in serious divisiveness. He's claiming to be a Christian minister. He attaches the title 'Reverend' to his name. Yet he denounces almost the whole of evangelicalism as churches Christ could not join, as thoroughly unrepresentative of Christianity. This is at best disastrously divisive. D.A. Carson (Love in Hard Places, Crossway Books, 2002, pp.169-170) lists three biblical criteria for not considering someone a Christian brother: The first is gross doctrinal error that jeopardizes the gospel itself (e.g. Gal 1:8-9); the second is gross moral lapse (e.g. I Cor 5); and the third is persistent, loveless divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). Remarkably, these three align with the three positive tests of I John: a truth test (in that case, bound up with certain Christological confessions), an obedience test, and a love test. And John makes it plain that it is not "best two out of three." Where there is flagrant disavowal of the truths essential to the gospel, where there is persistent and high-handed disobedience to the commands of Jesus, or where there is chronic, selfish lovelessness, there, John insists, we find no authentic Christianity. I'm not sure how certain I can be of Al Sharpton's motivations or deepest views. He's not known for the most careful statements of his views, though he is a master wordsmith when it comes to moving people along emotionally if they share his deep-seated conviction that racism against black people is the only problem with the black community. Still, his statements on this matter seem so extreme that I have to wonder if he's at least in danger of failing miserably on the the third criterion. I haven't seen any gross gospel-jeopardizing error on his part, though I've never seen him affirm the gospel, and if this statement shows a denial that salvation is given only to those who follow Christ, then I wonder even about that. I don't know the details of his life, and though there are excesses (see his hotel bills of late), I don't see any obviously gross moral problem. The third issue is really worrisome, though. If he sees the Nation of Islam as closer to him than conservative Christians, I have trouble seeing him as having gospel values at heart (and I would say the same to conservative Christians who would have a hard time embracing believers who happen to be Democrats or Arminians or whatever other group they don't agree with). In his case, it's worse than simply not embracing someone. He's declaring someone to be a nonbeliever over an issue that isn't directly tied to the gospel. That's divisiveness, and the fact that he'd say it on national TV as he's running for president shows that he's either incredibly impulsive and saying things he should know better than to say, in which case he's no real leader of any community, or he's deliberately trying to isolate himself from conservative evangelicals, in which case he's at least dangerously close to persistent, loveless divisiveness. If it's the second, then I'm not sure we should consider him a Christian brother at all. If it's the first, then someone needs to reign him in. Unfortunately, I don't believe he has anyone in spiritual authority over him who would be willing or competent to take the necessary biblical steps to confront him on this and determine whether his divisiveness and possible gospel-denial are grounds for not calling him a Christian brother. That leaves me wondering what to do and how far Christian love extends. I've tried to interpret him as charitably as I can, and I'm having a hard time seeing how this statement could come from someone who genuinely understands the gospel (never mind believes it).

7 Comments

This Pentacostal preacher is unlike any godly man I know! He supports a woman's choice to kill her baby and gay "marriage." I pray to God he doesn't have a real congregation.

I think you can have a morally wrong view and yet still believe the gospel, so I don't think that's a good reason to think he's not a Christian. I know some Christians who very much believe the gospel and still think that's not an issue that the government has a right to enforce. I think that's a wrong view, but I don't think having such a view means the person denies the gospel itself.

It says something about his character and his unwillingness to stand up for those who can't defend themselves, but I don't think that's a gospel issue.

Not to defend Al Sharpton, but from familiarity with his "rap," I think that when he says "I don't think Christ could join most of their churches," I doubt he is making a theological statement. I don't think I've ever heard of him making one, and I would be surprised if that was the first one. Bearing in mind Sharpton's ties to the Nation of Islam and the fact that he was probably very influenced by Cone's idea of "Liberation Theology", I think it's reasonable to assume that Sharpton would argue that Jesus was black. With that in mind, I think it's more likely that his point was religious version of Living Colour's "I've got a reason to believe we all won't be received at Graceland." No theological implication whatsoever, just social. For whatever it's worth.

I never thought his statement was theological. It's about what Jesus would in fact do. He's saying Jesus wouldn't associate with people who are genuine believers, even if their political views are bad (which they are, if Sharpton is right). I think that's divisive on the very level of where we place our identity. I'm not sure how describing the statement as merely social changes that.

I'm not sure I'm familiar enough with the black Jesus stuff or Cone's version of liberation theology (which I haven't even heard of, to be honest) to know exactly what you're getting at with that connection.

There's a pretty healthy body of work on liberation theology. James Cone is the principal architect. There are several good books I can think of that do good analysis/critiques of liberation theology. One of them is "Free At Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience" by Carl F. Ellis, Jr.

The idea of God as black is central to liberation theology (specifically black theology, since as in the social world, other groups have taken that model and applied it to themselves, so now we have Latino theology and feminist theology. I wouldn't be too surprised if queer theology is not long in coming.)

At any rate, my point was simply that Sharpton is first, foremost, and only a race man. Even his version of theology is based on race. So when he says "Jesus couldn't join most of their churches," I think he's saying it in the same context as that quote about 11 o'clock on Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America. My interpretation of his statement is this: "...I don't think a black man could join most of their churches, even if it was Jesus himself." Maybe I am selling Sharpton short, but I don't even think he really even considers alternative interpretations.

Even if 'Jesus couldn't join most of their churches' means 'a black man couldn't join most of their churches, even if it was Jesus himself', my point stands. That's about as divisive as it gets. It basically amounts to saying that black people are justified even in the most extreme cases of not wanting to associate with other Christians if those Christians happen to be conservative politically. That would be grounds for excommunication from a church that takes seriously the three biblical grounds for excommunication I outlined in the post, at least if it went on without repentance after confrontation by the elders.

Preaching a false gospel seems good indication that one has never received the true gospel.

Sharpton's fight for Abortion, gay marriage, false gospel, race division:

These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
(Proverbs 6:16-19)

Fellowship with NOI:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
(2 Corinthians 6:14)

Let the Bible bear witness:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
(Matthew 7:15-21)

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