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The Theology of Riots: Part I

A Sermon on Proverbs 1:1-19

Preached on June 14, 2020 

At Five Solas Church (OPC)

By the Rev. Christian McShaffrey

This summer season has become a season of social unrest. The frequency and intensity of protesting and violence in our city streets has steadily increased over the past several years and many are wondering, “What should we do?”

Sadly, many in the church are suggesting politically-correct answers to that question like, “We need to listen more… we need to apologize… we need to pay reparations…,” but what saith the scripture? What counsel do we find there? In Proverbs chapter 1, we find something of a Theology of Riots and here it is in brief:

Rioting occurs where the fear of God is absent.

The fear of the Lord, as we read in vs. 3, is the foundation and fount of all wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity. The fear of the Lord once restrained the citizens of our land (even those were not converted) from lawless behavior; but those days are long gone.

The Unites States of America has abandoned the fear of the Lord and adopted a new civil religion which is built upon envy, which embitters people against one another, which agitates social unrest, and which even emboldens people to riot in the streets.

I point this out not to sound political, but only to strengthen the central plea of this passage (and of this sermon): vs. 10, My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. That, of course, applies to all kinds of sinners, but especially to the type of sinners who have been rioting in the streets of our nation. My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.

Christians do not agitate. Christians do not engage in disorderly conduct. Christians do not riot. Christians do not throw bricks. Christians do not loot. Christians do not shed innocent blood. So, my son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.

The book of Proverbs was written by the wisest father who ever lived to teach his son how to fear the Lord, how to be wise, and how to live a long and fruitful life. Much of his instruction is about avoiding fools, harlots, criminals, and anyone else who might lead him astray. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we see happening today. Children, who were raised in the church and taught to fear God, are being led astray by the prophets of our new civil religion. I do not want that to happen to you, and so I preach.

1st Main Point: The God of Justice – Everybody is talking about justice nowadays, but Job 4:17 raises a crucial question: Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Of course not. Only God is just. He claims that title and perfection for himself. Just-ness (or righteousness) is one of God’s divine attributes. It is, who he is as God: the God of Justice.

He also, therefore, reserves the right to define what justice is and he has done just that in scripture. The Holy Bible is inspired that we might (vv. 1-3), know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity…

Do mark well the words “Justice and Equity” there, because that is what everyone is talking about nowadays. You can read the signs “No justice, no peace.” You can also read all the inane editorials that identify systemic in-equity as the root cause of all our societal woes.

In all this, we need to remember that only God gets to define justice and that, he has sufficiently done in scripture. Actually, he has defined it rather exhaustively in the legal codes contained in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is there that we are taught the fear of the Lord, how to love our neighbor, and how to deal with criminals.

Modern man has rejected all of it. That is the real reason our nation is now falling apart; but while modern man has rejected God’s word, we must rest in it. As Christians, we believe in justice, because we worship the God of Justice. He will allow no sin to go unpunished: small or great, intentional or unintentional, public or private; God sees it, hates it, and will destroy it all in due time.

As we wait and pray for that day, “Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24), we must also trust God’s wisdom in establishing certain institutions and procedures for the exacting of his justice on earth.

He has given us the family, the church, the state. He has given us the inviolable principle of Lex Talionis (i.e., eye for eye, tooth for tooth). He has established procedures for filing charges, the discovery of evidence, the examination of witnesses, and the determination of just verdict and sentence. Do all these things always work absolutely perfectly? Of course not, for they have been entrusted into the hands of sinful men; but that does not mean we should just burn it all to the ground.

Rather, we should trust the God of Justice in times of perceived in-justice and here is what that looks like (Romans 12:19), Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Many of the rioters are just avenging themselves. Many are avenging someone else. So, while they claim to be advocates for justice, they are actually agents of vengeance. That describes the best of the rioters. As for the rest of them, I would suggest that they are not seeking justice at all. They are just greedy thieves who have no respect for private property or human life.

2nd Main Point: Sinful Motives Unmasked – We are told by all the experts that the cause of all this rioting is something, “You just can’t understand because you have been blinded by privilege…” but that is nonsense. We are not blind. We have the Word of God and it tells us the real reason people go out at night with their “friends” looking for spoil. Three sinful motives are specifically mentioned in this text which deserve to be unmasked:

GREED – There are, of course, worse sins described in these verses, but greed is mentioned as something of a root cause of those other sins: vs. 19, So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.

Historically speaking, greed has always been regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. Aquinas explains it this way, “Greed is a sin against God… in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” Dante speculated about the just punishment of such sinful earthly-mindedness by picturing the condemned as “bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated excessively on earthly thoughts.”

Greed is an obsession with the things of this world. Coveting things you do not have. Envying those who do have it. Hating those who have. Greed is a great evil in-and-of itself, but it also leads to many outward acts of evil.

THEFT – There are two kinds of theft mentioned in these verses and the first is this: vs. 13, We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil…

Now, there is a good Bible word: spoil. It comes from an old root which meant to “strip the hide from a slain animal.” It was later applied to what men do to one another in their brutal acts of thievery: stripping a man of what he rightfully owns (i.e., his own personal property).

The other kind of theft mentioned here is, admittedly, a more subtle kind: denying the legitimacy of personal private property. vs. 14, Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse. That is the heart of communism. Americans do not talk much about communism anymore, but it is actually one of the philosophical pillars of our present-day riots.

Here is a page right out of the old communist playbook: stir up envy and hatred between two classes of people, wait until tensions are high, then light it on a fire. After everything burns to the ground, the messianic state can step in to build its egalitarian utopia.

Marx (the architect of communism) was willing to wait for his eschatological utopia to establish itself. Lenin was not. He called for action, and uprising, and insurrection. Blood flowed in the streets.

VIOLENCE – vs. 11-12, If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit…

Ambushing passers-by. Coming up behind someone and punching them. Lurking with a stick outside the entry of a local shop, waiting for the owner to step outside. This is what has been happening in the streets of our land and there is so much evil in it. There is also, as we have seen, no small measure of irony in it.

How many people showed up expecting a “peaceful protest”, thinking that it would be some kind of kum-ba-ya moment, only to find themselves bullied and bloodied by those whose feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood? Some, in fact, never even made it home and that is why I am preaching this sermon. It is not so much as a rebuke to rioters I will never personally meet, but a warning to the godly, to covenant children, to young adults, to all who name the name of Christ. So here it is:

3rd Main Point: Never Attend a Riot – You think, “Well, duh, I would never walk into riot…” but you do need to think a little more deeply here, because riots do not start out as riots. It is the agent provocateurs that make sure “peaceful protests” escalate.

The actual invite you will receive will sound something like this: “Meeting tonight in memory of so-and-so…” “Stand with us for justice…” “Silence is violence, so come to our peaceful protest…” all of which invites will come with emojis of peace signs and rainbows.

Be not deceived. My advice still stands: vs. 10, My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. vs. 15, My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path. It is simple enough to understand, but let us also be honest enough to acknowledge how difficult it can actually be to refrain thy foot at times.

I was a senior in High School during the Rodney King riots. I attended a liberal arts college later that same year and I remember full well how it works. You are in the cafeteria after class and the conversation goes something like this: Question: “Hey, did you hear about such-and-such?” Response: “Yes, it’s awful.” Counter-response: “No, it is more than awful, these inequities need to be addressed… wanna come to meeting tonight? We are going to raise some awareness… we’re going to make a little noise.”

The wise answer is this: “No thanks. Have fun. See ‘ya.” That is easy enough, isn’t it? It most certainly is, but that is when things get complicated because those who preach tolerance have not a shred of tolerance in them. You will be challenged: “What, don’t you value our First Amendment rights? What, are you siding with the man? What, are you a racist? What, are you a fascist? [and then Godwin’s law kicks in] “What, are you a Naaaaazi?”

The wise response: “No, I am a Christian. I fear God. I believe his Word and that Word offers far better solutions to sin than stoking the fires of social unrest.” If you say something wise like that, you can expect two possible responses.

First, most leftists will just disown you, right then and there. That is actually a good thing, because they were never going to be your friend anyways. The other possible response is anticipated in 1 Peter 3:15, But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear…

You might be asked about the “better solution” you mentioned and, if you are, be prepared to explain it. You do not need to take a class in presuppositional apologetics. All you need to do is proceed right to the New Testament; because Jesus himself lived in days of extreme social unrest. In fact, it was in some ways more intense than what we are witnessing today.

Quick review: the Romans were the tyrants, the overlords, the 1%. Jesus’ kinsmen were the oppressed, the underdogs, the 99% and just as it is today, those who felt oppressed responded differently.

Some, like the Zealots, were militantly anti-Rome, ethno-nationalists, advocates of tax evasion, and even engaged in violent resistance. An off-shoot of the Zealots called the Dagger-men actually assassinated Romans and Roman-sympathizers in the streets. On the other end of the political spectrum were the Publicans. They were content to be subjugated by Rome. In fact, they even worked for Rome as tax-collectors. As such, they needed to keep an eye open for the dagger-men while shopping in the market.

So even in the NT we observe two opposite ends of the political spectrum: militant nationalists on the one side and shekel-loving-sell-outs on the other. Then, of course, was Rome (which simply wanted law and order in the streets).

So which side did Jesus choose? You know the answer: none of the above, because his kingdom was not of this world. That is why he was able to walk through this world as a stranger to it; calling men out of the world with that simple, but transcendent invitation: Follow me.

He called a Zealot named Simon. He called a Publican named Levi. He called a Roman named Cornelius. Jesus, through his Word and Spirit, called men out of the world and into his kingdom, which rules over all. He continues to do that to this very day.

Part of that call, as we have seen, is the fear of the Lord. That is simply the realization that since this is God’s world, and since he is a just and holy God, we cannot just run amok upon the face of it and expect to escape his just judgment. The fear of the Lord stops us from engaging in evil activities like greed, theft, and violence.

The other part of Jesus’ call, of course, is follow me. That calling invites us to engage in positive spiritual activities like trusting him, reading his word, praying in the spirit, worshiping with God’s people, loving the brethren, reaching out to the lost, etc.

It can even involve less-spiritual-sounding things like appealing to government officials in times of injustice (which Paul did in Acts 25), carrying a weapon to protect ourselves (which Jesus commanded in Luke 22), or even casting a vote when given an opportunity to influence change in society (there is no biblical reference for that because the early Christians had no such privilege).

There is one thing, however, that the Christian calling does not include (and yes, you can go ahead and search the NT and scrutinize your Strong’s concordance when you get home if you do not believe me). The one thing our Christian calling does not include is this: any kind of participation in social unrest.

Christians do not agitate. Christians do not engage in disorderly conduct. Christians do not riot. Christians do not throw bricks. Christians do not loot. Christians do not shed innocent blood. So, my son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. Amen.

Christian McShaffrey is the Pastor of Five Solas Church (Reedsburg, WI) and also serves as the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of the Midwest (Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

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