When injustice is enough justice: Parsing theology into nothingness

Part of this post deals with the terrible situation at Penn State University that broke in recent days. Because my website crashed and was down for several days I was unable to write a full post and was limited to expressing my outrage on Twitter and a few Facebook status updates. Suffice it to say that I am thoroughly disgusted with what happened to the boys involved and the cover-up that allowed former coach Jerry Sandusky to continue his pattern of child rape. That he used the auspices of a “benevolent” organization like the Second Mile Foundation to bring young boys into his sights is a most grotesque kind of evil.

Even with this in view I have friends who are utterly off the sports grid. Two of them had no idea who Joe Paterno was and had not heard this news at all even after Paterno was fired. My concerns as expressed here would not, as it will become clear, apply to such people.

In my last post I wrote a little about the current discussion as to whether justice is essential to the gospel, using a debate between Southern Seminary president Al Mohler and Sojourners president Jim Wallis as a launching point. That ongoing discussion, of which their debate is merely a microcosm, concerns the nature of the gospel itself. That is the reason why people on both sides tend to respond with such passion, and well it should be.

There is in the landscape of theological perspectives today a movement that is commonly referenced as “gospel-centered.” Many, if not most of the people in this movement, would align themselves with Mohler’s position, i.e., that justice issues are not essential to the gospel. These are opposed to any attempts to “add” anything to “the gospel” and define any kind of stand against injustice as works that spring from the gospel instead being integral to the gospel itself.

In the wake of the Penn State revelations I was looking to various people from the gospel-centered movement who would speak in defense of the victims, a need which took on growing importance when, following the firing of Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, Penn State students rioted in support of Paterno (who was fired over potential complicity to the situation). For many of the students was the face of Penn State, and certainly of its football program. I thought of all the people online, of all who had an audience, the gospel-centered writers, bloggers and pastors would have been spearheading a call for justice for the victims. Or, a demand that well known people not be allowed to get away unscathed simply because they were famous or important to the financial position of Penn State. Or, given their strong and encouraging support of adoption, a defense of the defenseless, calling for a full and thorough investigation of those involved at Penn State for sure and The Second Mile if need be.

So, I waited. And waited. And waited.

Al Mohler wrote a piece that appeared on his website Thursday, November 10, 2011, as did Thom Rainer on his on the same date (but Rainer is not generally recognized as one of the “gospel-centered” bloggers). Then on Saturday, November 12, 2011, an article appeared on The Gospel Coalition blog entitled, Love Notices Wet Hair, which decried the Penn State abuses. The title came from a reported situation in which a young boy came home with wet hair after showering with Jerry Sandusky. His mother became suspicious, and, after confirming with her son what had happened, called the police. It was an important piece, but it wasn’t written by one of the big name bloggers at The Gospel Coalition website. It was written by Tim Henderson, the campus director for Cru at Penn State University.

I am not calling out a particular individual, because no blogger, writer or pastor can address every single issue that arises. But we are talking about the biggest American sports story of this year, and the most harmful story of any kind in the history of PSU. This was a story that dominated both sports channels and non-sports channels for days, and continues to do so with every new revelation. Counted among the gospel-centered heavy weights are rabid sports fans in general and college football fans in particular.

How is it that the most well known members of an entire movement have written almost nothing on their websites and blogs or have precious few tweets concerning it? I searched the terms “Penn State,” “Jerry Sandusky,” and “Joe Paterno” with every name or website I could remember, plus the term “gospel centered” and found, other than the two mentioned above, no quotes, articles or posts from the biggest most influential names in the movement. If I missed one it wasn’t for lack of trying.

I can only imagine how swift and thunderous would have been the response had Rob Bell suddenly endorsed NAMBLA as a legitimate expression of biblical love. Fifty-page pdf denunciations would have been published within hours. But why the near complete silence from this same group when pedophelia and child rape take place on the campus of a major university? It is this blanket of silence that is of concern. If those seeking to be gospel-centered are not motivated by that gospel to make their voices heard on such an issue, then one is forced to ask, “Why does this theology not, through the love of Christ, compel its adherents to speak out?” How in the world can adoption be a gospel issue, but the victims of pedophiles not be?

If gospel-centeredness does not lead to a vocal, biblical response to injustice of all kinds, then it has become perilously close an exercise in theological parsing. And, like water flowing downhill, extreme theological parsing leads to fundamentalism where the de facto result is striving to be more right than the next guy philosophically with no concern about it practically. If being gospel-centered creates a spiritual state in which adherents are not moved to speak out against such an atrocity as what we’ve seen at Penn State, then how could any serious follower of Jesus take seriously the gospel-centered position? If, as Al Mohler contends, justice is merely an expectation of the gospel, then, at least in the Penn State case, gospel-centered has proven to be a theological assemblage to which some issues of justice do not raise flags. When justice, which is a pronounced concern of God’s, becomes an optional expectation of the gospel in the real world then that theology, no matter how systematically astute, ignores the very gospel around which it purports to be centered.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • A powerful indictment, Marty. All who claim the Gospel, whether they are part of a movement or not, must rise against injustice. The silence of many verbose men has been a curious irony at best. A tragic revelation at worst.

  • What about the “big name, heavy-weight” pastor Matt Svoboda? He wrote a great gospel-centered response: http://www.bridgesh.com/2011/11/perspectives-sandusky-penn-state-and-the-gospel/

    Seriously though, good post…those who are blessed by God with an incredible amount of influence MUST be willing to speak up against injustice as swiftly as they speak up against a promo video to someone’s new book!

    And btw, welcome to the best city in America (Nashvegas)!


    • Marty Duren

      Thanks, Craig! Good to hear from you. I did read Matt’s strong response. He’s already a heavy-weight in my book.

  • Marty,
    This could well be one of those indirect critiques of those who somehow miss Jesus’ actions as moves of restorative justice as illustration of Divine love and grace. Sometimes human illustrations are better arguments than direct confrontation. I am thinking of the current back and forth as a result of DeYoung and Gilbert’s book where an underlying premise appears to be Mohler’s position – justice is a nonessential element of Gospel. To me, we would have to strip the Gospels bare to support such an argument from the Incarnation narratives – or Jesus’ narratives.

    You could have been even more stronger but your tone does invite some respond from the ardent gospel-centered group. Hope you get some engagement and the catty retorts are left un-typed.

    • Marty Duren

      Do you think an issue is that the gospel is being too narrowly defined? If one defines the gospel as conversion I can see how “nothing added” is defensible. But, isn’t the gospel more than conversion?

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