Good Doctrine Gone Bad

Today we feature a guest post from Kevin Garcia. You can read about his journey into the Reformed tradition here.  

It happened again.

Those were my thoughts as the lump in my throat grew. On this particular Sunday I had switched off the internet in order to catch up on some reading. I had heard the terrible news about Jordan Edwards when I received a text from a friend in New York City.

Jordan, a black boy who was only 15-years-old, was shot and killed by police officer Roy Oliver. And yes, in case you were wondering, the officer is white.

Jordan was a wonderful young man who did well in school, excelled in sports, and clearly brought joy to anyone he made contact with. Much has been made of Jordan’s character and the ways his “goodness” made his death particularly egregious as opposed to those who with a history of criminal accusation and activity.

However, there are many who have rightly pushed back, while emphasizing the inherent worth of every human being. Jemar Tisby, President of the Reformed African American Network, ends this article by stating, “The next person who ends up a hashtag may not be as virtuous as Jordan, but that doesn’t mean he or she is any less deserving of dignity. Our sorrow shouldn’t depend on whether someone got straight As.” Every person has God-given dignity, whether they are a petty thief, or a philanthropist who has adopted multiple children and has a clean record.

This is where we find ourselves. We live in a time when an unarmed black or brown person’s criminal history is pulled up while their blood cries out to God for justice. Why do some struggle to connect the shooting of an unarmed man or woman to a 15-year-old marijuana charge? It is a ridiculous act of dehumanizing slander.

A few days after Jordan’s death, my wife and I attended a vigil hosted by a local AME church. Cornel Brooks, President of the NAACP, and writer/activist Shaun King were to make an appearance. King said a few things that night I may never forget. Allow me to paraphrase from memory.

“The pursuit of justice and calling for not only the firing but the arrest of officer Roy Oliver will not be enough. A civil case that may cause the city to give some form of financial recompense will not be enough. A hashtag, vigil, t-shirt, or protest; none of these will be enough.”

Not enough. Nothing done after the killing of Jordan Edwards will be “enough” to make up for this young man’s life, a life taken away violently and prematurely. One could have all the money in the world, all of its possessions, and total justice from today until 2078, but Jordan would still be gone. Any good parent will tell you: there is not a thing in the world as valuable as their child’s life.

So for the last week and a half I have been considering how people think about Jordan. About the way Bible-affirming Christians think about Jordan.

About how they thought of Tamir Rice and said, “But he shouldn’t have been playing with a BB gun.”

About how they thought of Eric Garner and said, “But he shouldn’t have been selling non-taxed cigarettes.”

About how they thought of Sandra Bland and said, “But she should have just listened.

About how they have, for the most part, been silent about Jordan Edwards.

As if these lives had less value than another that would be taken.

I have been thinking about all these things and wondering how someone believe that in some cases a simple law violation justifies on-site execution and violent police overreach.

Good Doctrine Gone Bad

In the Evangelical and Reformed traditions there is a strong emphasis on the seriousness of sin. We speak of sin as our heart’s condition. We speak of it as “missing the mark” or intentionally violating God’s law. Most often, we speak of the effects of sin and how it fractures our relationship with God.

For the Reformed crowd, this doctrine is summarized in the “T” of the popular acronym “TULIP” that refers to a doctrine of total depravity. John Piper summarizes it this way: “When we speak of man’s depravity, we mean man’s natural condition apart from any grace exerted by God to restrain or transform man.”

This doctrine flows from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that “the wages of sin is death.” It reflects on the especially vicious section in Romans 3 where Paul tells us that our throats are open graves and that none of us are near righteous apart from Christ.

In context, these scriptures are clearly speaking of our relation to God. But often these passages are used to berate the value of humans in general. People are referred to as worthless, sinful, and wretched rags that do not deserve any good. While this emphasis is true in regards to salvation, when removed from the right context the doctrine is distorted and leads many to believe that human beings don’t actually deserve to be treated fairly.

I would contend that it is not a stretch to say that an inappropriate emphasis on how raggedy humans are, an emphasis that does not include a robust theology of the image of God, contributes strongly to people’s justification these killings.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that belief in the doctrine of total depravity necessarily leads to justifying a person’s death. I affirm this doctrine in relation to our righteousness before Christ. But what I am saying is that if we change sin from our deserving death from God to our deserving death from another we enter dangerous territory.

Is it possible that this doctrinal distortion is why, when seeing an immigrant fleeing terrible conditions in a South American country, that many American evangelicals say “They are illegal and law breakers!” Is it possible that this response stems from confusing the way we speak of unworthiness before God with an internalized belief that we do not owe our brothers and sisters honor, love, and respect?

James says that the inherent image of God should cause us not to curse our brother and sister because their identity of image-bearer implies dignity and value (James 3:9). If one should not dare curse another brother or sister, who are we to question if a life was worth saving with better law enforcement practices?

We are not in God’s position of functioning as judge. When someone sins, it does not disqualify them from the basic rights they are due. The doctrine of total depravity should not be internalized in such a way that it is wrongly stressed more than the also important doctrines of human value and dignity and especially the truth that God is for those who are outcasts in our society.

What Now?

So here I lay in this tension. I understand the beauty and wonder of God’s grace to his undeserving creatures, yet I also see how we belittle his children by speaking so ill of them after they feel the terrible sting of death. We can often point to the terrible depths of depravity after a particular news story but ignore the same heights of glory that this creation is capable of.

There are countless responses to a tragedy like the one surrounding Jordan Edwards. Should there be protest? Should there be meetings? Another reconciliation night? Rather than being paralyzed by the multiplicity of options let us at the very least push back the darkness of the dehumanizing effects in how we discuss the image of God in our brothers and sisters. Let us re-examine how much we affirm and value the crown jewel of God’s creation who while separated has immense worth to the Creator and to one another.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

One thought on “Good Doctrine Gone Bad

  • June 15, 2017 at 10:11 am

    There has been a lot of dehumanizing over these deaths.

    If anyone really believes that justice is best served by execution without trial, they need to not only develop a better understanding of the value of human life but also study how our justice system in America works.

    There is not a single crime for which the punishment is execution without trial here. Even in states where the death penalty is the punishment for some crimes, it is carried out only after a trial (usually many) and a number of other conditions are met.

    However, I also find that dehumanizing exists on the other side of the discussion.

    For instance, in the case of Tamir Rice, the police certainly appear to have done wrong. They did not follow the procedure they’re required to take before firing a weapon. The officer who shot also apparently had a history of being unstable (should have been screened).

    Still, I don’t think anyone was making the argument that “playing with a BB gun should result in summary execution.” It’s unfair to assume that of most people.

    Rather, people were likely questioning if the presence of the gun was the reason the police felt Tamir posed enough of a threat to life that the shooting was in the defense of human life rather than an intent to take it.

    There are unethical police out there. However, there are also officers who, because of their job, are subjected to situations where the people they are dealing with literally want them dead (sometimes just for a routine traffic stop).

    They have now been told by their country that if they even attempt to defend themselves (or others) in some of these situations, many will immediately label them a monster and even threaten the life of their family. It’s to the point where officers in Chicago are willing to die to protect their department and families by taking beatings like this one

    It seems a lot of people forget their are at least two lives in every one of these cases, and that they’re both afforded dignity.

    In any event, we as believers need to make sure we’re approaching all of this discussion with humility (Philippians 2:3) rather than feeling superior to others.

    After all, the doctrine of total depravity ensures us that a part of every one of us wants to make these discussions about building ourselves up, and that’s particularly scary when we’re talking about human lives!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.