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A recent CNBC.com article contained an embedded tweet from President Donald Trump that caught my attention. It read:
“If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!”
In response to this somewhat cryptic presage by our nation’s 45th president, Jesse Jackson, a man who many today still regard as a leader in the cause of civil and human rights, counter-tweeted President Trump, saying:
“We need a plan, not a threat. We need jobs, not jails.”
In reflecting on the conspicuous ideological dissonance expressed in this social media tête-à-tête, I am reminded of the 1959 epic film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which a similarly heated exchange occurs between Sextus, the retiring Roman general, and the young tribune Messala, who is zealous to take over from Sextus and make his own imprint on the military unit he has dreamed of commanding since he was a boy.
Messala has been ordered by Caesar to quash the violence in the Roman-ruled province of Judea, and forcefully restore order to a citizenry that has been in constant rebellion against the occupation.
The exchange is as follows:
Messala: “The emperor is displeased. He wishes Judea made into a more disciplined and obedient province. He has ordered the new governor and me to restore order. I intent to carry out his wishes!”
Sextus: “Yes, but how, Messala?! Oh, you can break a man’s skull, you can arrest him, you can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you control what’s up here [in the mind]? How do you fight an idea?! Especially a new idea?”
Messala: “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea? I’ll tell you how. With another idea.”
It is clear from this discourse that Sextus realized something Messala did not: that genuine behavior change is a matter of internal transformation not external manipulation (Romans 12:2).
Sextus understood that all rebellion is borne in the heart, and that no use of force or other external influence would result in making Judea into the “disciplined and obedient province” Messala determined to bring to fruition.
Like Messala, what both President Trump and Jesse Jackson fail to understand is that matters of the heart cannot be remedied through government intervention or economic incentive.
Oh, you can send the Feds into Chicago to beat up people, arrest them, and throw them in jail. You can even designate certain areas of the city as Empowerment Zones in the hopes that doing so will reduce unemployment and provide economic relief to poverty-stricken communities.
But how do you deal with someone who, for whatever reason, has made up their mind that they’re going to murder someone else?
Does the threat of arrest in and of itself change the person’s mind?
And how does simply being employed alter the sinful intentions one might have towards another of God’s image-bearers? Does merely having money in my pockets assuage the enmity and bitterness I harbor in the deepest recesses of my soul?
If so, what happens after the money runs out (Proverbs 23:4-5)?
After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand, there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach and is eliminated?” And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” – Mark 7:14-23 (NASB)
None of this is to suggest that the federal government should not do what is Constitutionally mandated to protect us, even from one another, as is evidently the case in Chicago. Nor is it to imply that the government has absolutely no role in helping meet the essential needs of those who truly are poverty-stricken and destitute (Galatians 2:10).
Though I remain convinced that helping the poor is primarily the responsibility of the church (James 1:27), we who are Christians, especially those of us who, like myself, identify as socially conservative, tend to forget that governments are established by God (Romans 13:1) as minsters on His behalf for the good and welfare of its citizens (Romans 13:4a).
So, yes, there in fact is a role for government in such matters as these.
Not all government involvement in the welfare of its citizens is inherently bad (the operative word being inherently). Nevertheless, notwithstanding what governments may or may not be able to do to enhance one’s socio-economic station in life, one thing it most assuredly cannot do is change a person’s heart.
“The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.” – John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life
At the root of the hundreds of murders committed in Chicago in 2016, and well into 2017, is the same issue that compelled Cain to murder his brother Abel many millennia ago (Genesis 4:3-8).
With all due respect to the “reverend” Jesse Jackson, Cain killed his brother not because he didn’t have a job. Both he and his brother were gainfully employed – Abel as a shepherd and Cain as a farmer (Genesis 4:2).
No, Cain murdered his brother because he purposed in his heart to do so.
It’s that simple.
In fact, Cain was so determined to carry out the deed that he completely ignored God’s direct warning against it (Genesis 4:7).
You see, contrary to what Messala might say if he were alive today, what Chicago needs is not “another idea”.
It doesn’t need “the Feds” or “a plan” for jobs not jails.
What Chicago needs is what the world entire is in desperate need of: the soul-liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. For only the gospel can so transform a person that murder – or any other type of violence – is no longer a desire of the heart (Romans 1:16).
Our problem, if we were honest, is we don’t really believe the gospel is what it says it is or that it can do what it says it can.
Consequently, we think more like Messala than Sextus.
One need only look at Chicago to see where that kind of thinking has gotten us.
Humbly in Christ,