Ferguson and plumb lines

Meredith Flynn —  April 9, 2015

COMMENTARY | Mark Coppenger

Mark_CoppengerIn late February, I was in St. Louis for a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, a trip connected with my work as an apologetics prof at Southern Seminary. I figured that since I was in the area, I would visit the suburb of Ferguson, recently aflame on international news.

I was surprised at a number of things: that the city had not been reduced to Beirut, but that the vast majority of buildings were unscathed, and business alive; that the Indians who ran the store Michael Brown robbed would speak freely of the incident; that a chain fence with hundreds of inscribed streamers spoke promise more than anger, e.g., “The sky’s the limit.”

But my big Ferguson moment came at the downtown meeting, where the philosophers devoted a three-hour session to the riots. After attending presentations of other papers, I was able to make the last hour of the panel discussion. There I heard unrelenting disdain for the city and police and an unbroken strain of lament for the victimhood of Brown. And the moderator was fielding audience jeremiads without rebuttal.

When one of the panelists asked what philosophers might bring to the table, I raised my hand to suggest that we could use more Socratic give-and-take instead of the “groupthink” I was hearing. I also said that I could tell my grandson (who is white) in an affluent suburb of Nashville to expect very bad things to happen to him if he ever shoplifted, manhandled the clerk, or menaced a policeman who confronted him. My comments were not well received.

Look, anybody whose been the victim of a speed trap or addressed with gratuitous surliness by a cop has had at least a small taste of what blacks were protesting in Ferguson. The Department of Justice report pictured a sorry system of fine-doubling and a virtual debtor’s prison for some, policies that fell particularly hard upon poor blacks.

Of course, there’s a school of thought that says I have no right to speak a word of judgment on Brown or the rioters since I’ve not suffered the indignities of systemic racism, etc. But we face that sort of argument all the time in ethics. During the Vietnam War, they told us we had no right to judge Lt. Calley for the My Lai massacre since we hadn’t shared the horrors of infantry combat in Quang Ngai Province.

Similarly, we’re told we guys have no business telling a woman she has to carry a child to term since we never have to endure unwanted pregnancy. On it goes, whether you’re trying to bring a biblical word to bear on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, or tithing. Of course, this makes ethics a joke, since feelings and testimonies of victimhood can trump standards at every turn.

One side says you really can’t make the call until you’re in their shoes. The other side says that “in their shoes” is often a bad place to make the call, since you may well be addled by the hurly burley of trials and emotions. This turns into a game of self-serving story telling, a war of anecdotes, when what we need is dispassionate moral clarity.

It is far better to sort things out, Bible in hand in your armchair or prayer closet, before descending into the chaos.

Reflecting on Ferguson, I’ve returned to Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is essentially a salvation passage, one that feminists have tried to press into service against male leadership in the church and home. I hope I’m not joining the ranks of Scripture twisters in quoting it to stand up for universal standards of Christian morality, where all are subject to biblical guidelines, no matter how exalted or degraded their circumstances may be.

In Amos 7, God hangs moral plumb line beside the culture, and I think that color-blind Galatians 3:28 does the same thing.

Mark Coppenger is professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was formerly president of Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, and founding pastor of Evanston (IL) Baptist Church.

Meredith Flynn


Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.