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).