TLDR: Knowing how to preserve emphases rightly is hard.
In his brilliant little volume The Deep Things of God
, Fred Sanders posits that evangelicalism is best understood as a set of emphases against a broad backdrop of Christian theology
: the Bible, cross, conversion, and heaven are not the only doctrines that evangelicals have, but evangelicals are especially interested in them. But an emphasis, he argues, needs a background for it to remain emphatic. Without the full counsel of God, “anemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!).” Dislocating the emphasis from its context means that it no longer makes sense.
Sanders’ analysis fits not only with evangelicalism, but a whole host of movements. One thinks, for instance, of the claim that black lives matter. The ascription is obviously emphatic: it does not entail that only black livers matter, but indicates that they especially matter here and now. In that case, the emphasis is oppositional: it gains its force as an accent because black lives have not mattered, rather than (say) merely giving a distinctive, even if complementary, spiritually awakened hue to an existing ecclesiastical body like the Church of England.
Having an emphasis is useful—and maybe even crucial—for uniting people to pursue a more perfect justice through democratic activism. The debate over the meaning of ‘pro-life’ is similar: the movement has long been emphatic about the idea that ‘baby lives matter,’
a message that its origin opposing a practice that is dehumanizing in a way similar (though not identical) to police brutality. Such an emphasis has been widely derided in recent years as too narrow and reductive by a wide range of otherwise sympathetic Christian figures, many of whom (rightly) denounce efforts to dissolve emphasis of ‘black lives matter’ into the bland and politically empty counter-slogan that ‘all lives matter.’
That is not to say such critics of pro-lifers are wrong, necessarily: it is possible that the emphatic insistence that ‘baby lives matter’ has become reductionistic and anemic in the way Sanders worries evangelicalism has become. Yet I wonder. For my own part, it has always seemed to me that emphases are excellent entry points to draw people into the kind of broad backdrop they need to remain emphases. (Sanders himself does this throughout Deep Things: it turns out, evangelical emphases at every turn are only a step or two away from the Trinity.) Start with the distinctive and unique value of black lives or babies and we may discover that we are thinking about the social, economic, and legal environment needed to ensure each has their due.
Still, it is important in such a process to attend to the ways in which emphases can distort our vision, even when
we remember that they are emphases. In a recent discussion on Mere-Fi about our criminal justice system,
Anthony Bradley defended a multivariate account of mass incarceration: race contributes to the problem, to be sure, but so does over-criminalization, underfunded prosecutors’ departments, backed-up courts, class, economics, family, and so on. If we pick one variable—even if a prominent one—and focus on it, we may end up proposing a ‘solution’ that is not only ineffective, but has unintended side-effects which leave us in a worse condition than before. The worry applies without remainder, it seems to me, to my own approach to being ‘pro-life’ and abortion.
Yet an analysis that remains emphatic might make more sense on race than it does on abortion. As Malcolm Foley pointed out on this week’s episode
, emphasizing race makes sense given that it is the variable many white Christians are least comfortable addressing. Abortion is a discrete act, performed by a doctor upon a mother and her baby; as such, it is easier to think of it as contained to the room where it occurs. We are not much inclined to think of the practice in ‘systemic’ terms, though I have sometimes proposed we should
. But whatever else we think about race as a factor, it entangles us all from the outset. There is no possibility of a uninvolved discussion about race in America, for we are all entangled by it whether we realize it or not. An emphasis on race—as opposed to developing a multi-variate analysis—helps us not indulge in self-deception through strategies of avoidance.
Even so, a mistaken understanding of the background conditions for a set of emphases might mean they ultimately are put to ill use. A pro-life movement which emphatically pronounces that ‘baby lives matter’ without a sufficiently careful account of the social conditions might end up unwittingly fostering an environment that is punitive toward mothers who make tragic choices. Alternately, a pro-life writer who does not think every decision to not try experimental treatments on dying children is merited might unwittingly give cover to a broader social movement which is, in fact, aimed at undermining the dignity of disabled children and so effectively permitting suicide. Emphases are dangerous things if they reach into an environment that is not hospitable to our views.
I have worries that Christians are at risk of something similar in our current moment. ‘Black lives matter’ is the right emphasis to have, it seems to me: but it might
be reaching into a social environment that risks distorting its contents in ways that would undermine other commitments Christians have. Public officials should permit protests: but giving sanction to them whilst keeping church doors closed is a striking indication that progressive racial politics is displacing religion for many highly-educated leaders in this country
(especially highly-educated white people). It matters that the Black church which led through the Civil Rights movement has given way to Black Lives Matter
, an organization with aims and policy positions with which Christians should not make common cause.
Christians protesting police brutality will have to make unhappy alliances, to be sure, in order to reform what needs reforming. No political movement can avoid doing so, much we might wish otherwise. Knowing who we should align ourselves with is, it seems to me, a matter of extraordinarily difficult judgment. I opposed the alliance the pro-life movement made with Donald Trump, for instance
, a decision that looks smarter today than it did in January of this year. But it may have been the right call for the pro-life movement to advance its aims—just as aligning with Black Lives Matter might be necessary to galvanize a sufficient number of people to reform our policing and criminal justice system so that they are more equitable.
I don’t know, honestly. And it is not my call to make. I write this with some trepidation, even, as speaking about such matters these days requires having standing to do so. It seems to me, though, that one practical conclusion one might take from the above is that those who share my worries should do what we can within the ambit of our own vocations to further the work of those Christians who are pursuing the emphasis of racial justice as Christians. The only real antidote to a bad philosophy is a better one, C.S. Lewis says somewhere—and it seems to me that the only real antidote to a racial politics which has effectively eclipsed God is one that holds him firmly at the center of things. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need black Christians like Anthony and Malcolm to lead our society forward in seeking the just mercy that arises when people confess the name of Jesus Christ—the only one to whom every knee shall someday bow.