Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.



The Great Gospel Opportunity

February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I mentioned last week, we are currently living in a culture of division and hostility. Our desire to vilify our political opponents has led many to accept and promote #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts. We are more wedded to our ideology than to reality, in other words; more committed to our narrative than to truth.

 

This all feels fairly depressing, I admit. But the current backlash against #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts also presents us with a tremendous gospel opportunity. I’m not sure Paul’s words to the Ephesians have ever felt so apropos: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (5:15-16). So, then, what is the gospel opportunity before us, and how can we make the most of it?

 

Put simply, the opportunity before us is that truth is starting to become fashionable again. We live in a post-truth culture—it was OED’s word of the year in 2016—which is highly suspicious of absolute truth claims. But we are fast reaching the limits of philosophical relativism. Christians have long been saying truth cannot be relative, and if we live as if it is, well, we’ll end up in the mess we’re in. Our culture is waking to this reality. One cannot plant one’s feet in mid-air, as Beckwith and Koukl might put it. #FakeNews isn’t to be believed just because we like it; #AlternativeFacts aren’t facts at all because they don’t square with reality. If truth is real, and not a product of our wishing only, we get to ask the all-important questions: Which truth? How can we distinguish truth from error?

 

Now we can see how to make the most of the opportunity before us. These questions lead to God, for God is the ultimate Reality. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Christians should never fear truth, because Christianity is true—and the facts point in that direction, as you’d expect. (One thinks of the evidence for creation, for example, and especially the evidence for the resurrection.) As I joked in my last post, the non-existence of God is the original #AlternativeFact.

 

So if you have a friend, colleague, neighbor decrying #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts, pleading with humanity (read: those on the other side of the political aisle) to wake up to the truth, you have a gospel opportunity before you. This person believes truth is real. This person has stated that facts matter. In impassioned tones, this person is proclaiming an objective morality. That’s a place to begin a gospel conversation. “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. I’m concerned for justice too, because I believe God is a God of justice. Would you mind my asking you a question? How do you know justice is good and right and true? How do you determine what justice looks like in this situation? What ethic undergirds your passion for justice?”

 

These are questions one cannot answer without revealing an ultimate foundation. And if that foundation is in mid-air—“I just know it to be true!”—we can gently, lovingly suggest what the foundation actually is. We want justice, feel the burden of morality, because God has written the moral law on our hearts. And unfortunately, it is a moral law we have broken: we have all acted selfishly (time and again) when we should have chosen sacrificial love. Now we have a crisis. If justice is real, and we have been unjust, what does that make us? Law-breakers. Or, as the Bible would put it, sinners in need of grace. Enter Christ.

 

Now, Paul follows up his charge to live wisely with this statement: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have an opportunity before us, yes, but we have the opportunity to make fools of ourselves if we’re not sensitive to God’s will. In our cultural context, I think we can pinpoint the foolish opportunity pretty easily: to make the gospel secondary and our other political concerns primary. I hope and trust we can all agree that some political issues are more important than others. I hope and trust we can all agree that the Bible is not equally clear about where Christians should stand on all political issues. Sometimes the biblical principles are so clear, and the issue so black-and-white, that we can confidently state what the policy should be on the basis of those principles. More often, however, the principles are clear, yes, but there can be genuine disagreement over the best policy. For example, the Bible is undoubtedly clear that we as Christians should care for the poor, and that a concern of the state should be the welfare of its citizens. But well-meaning, loving Christians could certainly disagree about what government policies genuinely help the poor.

 

The foolish opportunity is to take a hard stand on debatable policy discussions rather than pursue the gospel conversation. If my social media feeds are any indication of how many Christians engage in these conversations, I think we can all agree we tend to be foolish, unwise, not understanding what the Lord’s will is. My advice is simple here. When it is an unimportant, secondary issue on which loving people may disagree (and that is most of the issues), yield the right to be right. It doesn’t matter. Pursue what matters most. Engage with the gospel. When we start the conversation with, “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. The problem is you’re an idiot and so is your whole party and if you all get your way we’ll all be dead in a week,” we’re unlikely to have many follow-up gospel opportunities.

 

Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether or not Christianity is true.” In too many cases, Christians have not shown love—to each other or anyone—and in so doing we’ve forfeited one of the greatest gospel opportunities in recent times.

 

If you’re a greater evangelist for your political viewpoint than the gospel—if you pursue every political conversation, often unlovingly, but can’t manage to find time to live or speak the gospel—repent. Be very careful how you live. Don’t be foolish, but understand what God would have you do here. Make the most of the opportunity.



#FakeNews and #RealSin

January 25th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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#FakeNews. #AlternativeFacts. There seems to be a lot of buzz these days about the media we ingest and whether or not we can opt-out of reality. For Christians, that brings with it a tremendous opportunity, as I’ll try to explain in my next post. But it also carries with it a clear and present danger.

 

Now, I feel a bit like Jude in wading into this topic. Like him, “although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write” (Jude 3) on a subject that distracts from more important topics. But then, most of the New Testament letters are occasional in nature—that is, occasioned by some circumstance or other—and I suppose blogs should occasionally function the same way. I was surprised and pleased to see two excellent recent blogs by gifted, insightful Christian leaders—Trevin Wax and Ed Stetzer—that treat the same subject, so I guess the occasion is real.

 

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what is the danger we face as Christians living in a post-truth culture? What temptation lurks in an era of #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts? It is, quite simply, the temptation to gossip. After all, what is gossip? It is the willful spreading of misinformation for the purpose of tearing down an opponent (whether social, political, etc.). And isn’t that exactly what #FakeNews is?

 

Consider some recent examples from both sides of the political aisle. (Sin, you’ll remember, is bipartisan.) We’ve endured eight years of relentlessly false information about Obama’s birth certificate from those on the right who question his legitimacy. #NotMyPresident is #NotWithoutPrecedent. And then there was the #PizzaGate scandal, alleging a massive left-wing child sex scandal—thoroughly debunked, thoroughly untrue—which led to a shooting at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. On the other side, we’ve had a shamefully inaccurate hit piece on Rick Perry widely disseminated, as well as the MLK bust dust up after Trump’s inauguration.

 

Why do fake news stories spread so quickly? It’s not difficult to analyze the human psyche here. We want to believe facts and stories that confirm our view of the world. As Solomon noted long ago, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8). In other words, #FakeNews tastes good, feels right. So if you’re a liberal, you want to believe stories that demonstrate the idiocy or malevolency of the right, and vice versa. It feels instinctively true, so considering the source and examining the (missing) evidence doesn’t even occur to us. Just click retweet. Share. Feel a smug sense of (false) superiority because you belong to the right side of history/morality/politics/science.

 

I’ve written and spoken before on the danger of imbibing a single stream of information, so I won’t repeat myself there. But I do want to point out that spreading misinformation—even if you think it might be true—and especially if it assassinates the character of a divine image-bearer (that would include Democrats and Republicans, members of all races and genders, etc.)—is sin. Unequivocally, Spirit-grievingly sin.

 

When Paul describes how it looks to suppress the truth of God’s existence (the original #AlternativeFact), when he describes the horrifying contours of humanity in rebellion against a good and gracious Creator, what habits does he mention? “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:29-30). One way we express hatred of God is by gossiping. That fact alone should be enough to make me think twice before sharing a questionable story. Gossip and slander routinely make Paul’s “sin lists”—lists of those activities that Christians should unquestionably avoid—as in 2 Corinthians 12:20; Ephesians 4:31; and Colossians 3:8.

 

A few practical considerations to close then—more wisdom from Solomon.

  1. First, many rightly lament the deep divisions and sad hostility plaguing our culture now. Is there anything we can do to quell the quarrel? Solomon says yes: “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Proverbs 26:20). It is a small step, but in the right direction at least. Refuse absolutely to spread gossip. Don’t share #FakeNews or other hit pieces about the side you’ve vilified. Don’t put wood on the fire. Perhaps the quarrel will die down.
  2. Second, some publications have developed a reputation for partisan journalism (I’m actually struggling to think of any that haven’t), which now sadly includes spreading misinformation in service of “the narrative.” If we’re going to refuse to spread gossip, perhaps we should also consider refusing to hear gossip, which may include adjusting our news intake. As Solomon reminds us, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). Perhaps we should contextualize this wisdom to include social media: avoid those media outlets—BuzzFeed and Breitbart, for an example from each side—that seem to relish dishing out choice morsels of sinful gossip. And maybe, just maybe, we need to avoid following certain people on social media who retweet and share and throw wood on the fire—who “talk” too much in a virtual world.

First, don’t be that person. Second, don’t listen to that person. No more #FakeNews. No more sinful gossip. That’s the commitment I want to make.

 

What other wisdom would you suggest for a culture of #AlternativeFacts and partisan reality?



Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.

 

Until another comes forward, that is.

 

Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.

 

Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!

 

The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.

 

Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.

 

  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.


Thoughts on Planned Parenthood

February 16th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I am probably a week too late to comment on The Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood and the subsequent reversal of this decision. And yet reflection so rarely happens in real time that it may be best to revisit the topic with the clearer sight distance affords.

 

Many evangelicals rightly responded with joy when the decision came to cut support. Planned Parenthood has been at the forefront of abortion-rights activism since its inception. Its founder, Margaret Sanger, held to an unconscionable vision of eugenics closely akin to that of Adolf Hitler, and declared openly that she supported abortion as a means to limit the African American population. (Her vision, I might add, has largely been realized, as more African American pregnancies end in abortion than birth.) More than sixty million children have died in this socially acceptable holocaust—in large part because of the work of Planned Parenthood and similar organizations. As evangelicals we cannot—and should not—support any institution so wholly committed to a modern slaughter of innocents.

 

But there is another issue—and one we too often overlook. Abortion accounts for only 3% of the services Planned Parenthood provides. Other services include breast-cancer screening and contraception for many impoverished women.[1] Providing for the basic needs of the poor and marginalized remains an indispensable outworking of the gospel for the church today. In our righteous zeal to see Planned Parenthood defunded and ultimately defunct, have we given sufficient thought as to who will provide these services now? Have we begun providing them ourselves?

 

If we were doing what we should be doing—if we had the same commitment to living the gospel visibly and tangibly among the poor that the early church did—perhaps our political battles would be less needlessly acrimonious and sadly abortive.



[1] A brief aside: assuming the contraception offered is not an abortafacient, we should have no qualms about providing it. I suspect the squeamishness comes from a fear that providing contraception will lead to an increase in promiscuity. I am not sure this argument makes sense, though. We should never be so naïve as to think people will not have extramarital sex; they always will. Contraception simply keeps them from compounding the sin. It is no different than saying, “Do not get drunk. But if you do get drunk, at least do not drive.” In fact, I think God himself makes a similar allowance when it comes to divorce (in the Old Testament). In effect, he says, “Do not get divorced. But if you do, at least make sure you provide for the basic needs of the spurned woman” (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Jesus’ words in Mark 10:1-5). Contraception does not cause promiscuity; sin does.



Right to Life

January 24th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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In honor of National Sanctity of Life Day, which was yesterday, here is a short poem I wrote depicting the horrors of abortion. I will warn you that this is not for the faint of heart. While not any worse than the story of Ehud and Eglon, if you would prefer not to read graphic language, I would suggest you pass on to the next post (while still supporting the sanctity of life, of course!).

 

Hush, Little Baby

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word

Mama’s going to dilate her cervix so you can be scraped and dismembered

 

And if that knife makes you fuss

Mama’s going to insert a suction tube to vacuum you off her uterus

 

And if that tube is clogged with grime

Mama’s going to snap your spine and crush your skull, pulling you out a piece at a time

 

And if those forceps flinch when you grin

Mama’s going to inject saline into her womb to poison you, bursting your brain and burning off your skin

 

And if that salt stings your eye

Mama’s going to take prostaglandin to deliver you prematurely, then watch under the delivery room lights as you are left to die

 

And if those lights seem too garish

Mama’s going to slice open her stomach, rip you out and wait patiently for you to perish

 

And if she’s scared the scalpel will hurt her

Mama’s going to give birth to you, except the doctor is going to plunge scissors into your skull just before you arrive and then suck out your brains so that it doesn’t count as murder

 

But if his thorn can’t pierce your crown

You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town



On Rights and Duties

November 9th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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One of the great problems with modern society is its insistence on our rights. Hardly a single major issue—moral, social, economic, political—does not center on the question of rights. The right to state-sponsored university education. The right to marry whom one pleases. The right to life—or its nemesis, the right to choose. The right to a minimum wage. The right to self-fulfillment.

 

I have wondered recently if the world wouldn’t be a better place if we abandoned this notion of rights—and instead focused on doing our duties.

 

Rights, no matter how steeped they are in reality, are necessarily self-centered: I deserve this. This is owed to me. Duties, contrarily, are others-centered: They deserve this. I should do this for them. A subtle shift in pronouns, a radical shift in lifestyle.

 

Consider marriage. A husband who demands his right to sexual intimacy with his wife swiftly becomes domineering, egotistical—and the sex becomes joyless, passionless, loveless. A wife who demands her right to conversation turns to nagging and manipulation. The marriage succumbs to bitterness, resentment, distance. But if each would think of his or her duty instead—how would the marriage be different? The wife offers herself willingly to her husband, because she delights in him and longs to be a delight to him; the husband sets aside time to connect with her emotionally and spiritually, because he loves her and wants to express it tangibly. They both experience love, giving and receiving it; they both remember the joy that brought them together at first.

 

Seeking our rights seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

 

For Christians especially, all this talk of rights should be anathema. Think of our Master for a moment. Which of his rights did he cling to? To worship? He made himself nothing and clothed himself in frail obedience. To honor? He was despised and rejected. To devotion? He was abandoned and denied by those who knew him best. To life? He laid it down for the sake of his children.

 

How can his children, ostensibly walking in his footsteps, do any differently?

 

In Christ, we have earned the right to persecution, martyrdom, denial of self, our own cross to carry. Let us do our duty cheerfully and bear our cross joyfully.



From Protest to Praise

November 4th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | 5 Comments
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It was the stuff of literature, the dramatic juxtaposition of striking contrasts.

 

I spent the morning at a ministry for children in one of the worst barrios in Bogotá. These children face horrors beyond what most of us would dare to dream exist in the world. All live in unimaginable squalor. They have little or no prospect for education or advancement. Many are the children of drug dealers and addicts. Others are the children of prostitutes—and have slept or played in the rooms where their mothers work. A majority have been abused sexually. Some have been used as child prostitutes, others offered to the landlord to pay the rent that (or every) month.

 

Coming home, I spent some time scanning the headlines, reading of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the men and women who make up its ranks. Thirty-somethings. Making tens of thousands of dollars a year. Filling us in with regular updates from their iPhones. Clothed. Sheltered. Filled. Protesting economic inequality.

 

There is inequality, to be sure, between the self-proclaimed 99% and the world’s wealthiest. But I suspect there is a far greater chasm between the protesters and the children I had the privilege to serve that morning.

 

Have they had to move in with their parents because of a shortage of funds? At least they haven’t had to share a room with their entire family, share a kitchen and bathroom with several other families, looked on as their mothers worked in the most degrading profession. Have they not found the employment they were hoping for when they graduated? At least they haven’t been forced into prostitution as children in order to pay the rent for the hovel they call home. Have they student loans that need paying? At least they had the privilege of education and a government that helps them finance it. That is inequality.

 

The debt we have—and most all of us have it, Christian or not—is a slavery of our own making. We could have gone through college without student loans, but we chose not to, because we preferred drinking and video games to the weariness of working and studying full time. We do not need the majority of the things we have, but we purchase them anyway, regardless of whether or not we can afford them.

 

We have sold ourselves into our slavery.

 

But these children were sold into theirs. With no choice and little possibility of redemption.

 

Perhaps the time has come to divert the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations going to these protesters to those who truly need it—and who have not the privileges necessary to make their protest heard.

 

Perhaps the time has come to turn the protest into praise—gratitude for the many blessings of which we are manifestly unworthy.



A Response to “On Financial Reform”

November 2nd, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In recent days the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released an extended treatment of the world’s current economic state, “On Financial Reform.” An unofficial translation of the text is available on the Vatican’s website. What follows is a brief response to this statement, especially the section entitled “A Global Authority.”

 

Much good can be said of the statement, especially its insistence on the need for mature ethical reflection on economic issues, sadly lacking among too many who support the free market absolutely. One suspects some of the Council’s suggestions for regulation of the market would be rendered unnecessary were affluent Christians the world over divesting themselves of personal wealth in the service of the poor, rather than living “on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (James 5:5, NIV). If we had more of the voluntary communalism commended by the early church, perhaps we would face fewer calls for institutionalized socialism.

 

Nevertheless, some aspects of the Council’s recommendations seem troubling. Particularly so is the call for a “supranational Authority” to respond to the pressing needs of globalization. The Council believes such an authority necessary considering the growing complexity of speculative markets, and the deleterious effects of these markets on the “weaker” nations. This authority would offer regulation—and presumably moral decrees—to ensure the common good of all, and not merely the individual or particular good of certain nations or interests.

 

Two questions emerge at this point.

 

1. When did the Church assume the State to be free of the corruption of sin?
That an authority like the one proposed would have to be free (or at least substantially so) from the effects of sin—an implicit denial of the doctrine of total depravity—the statement makes clear: “The exercise of this Authority at the service of the good of each and every one will necessarily be super partes (impartial): that is, above any partial vision or particular good, in view of achieving the common good.” However, the belief that this organization could be so seems blissfully naïve. Interestingly, the statement opens with a reference to an encyclical by Pope Paul VI. Perhaps this approach to government springs from an eager acceptance of his views. In the pontifical letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), he says of the State, “It always intervenes with careful justice and with devotion to the common good for which it holds final responsibility.”[1] A cursory review of history would suggest government—even democratic government—does not in fact function this way. To assume as much might well create more problems than it solves.

 

I can recall a conversation I had with a friend after reading an op-ed piece from The Washington Post in the wake of the earthquake that rocked Japan. The editorial rightfully questioned “our own sense of infallibility”: no matter how mathematical the formula, it still springs from fallen minds, steeped in the sin of “greed, denial, hubris.” My friend questioned why some within the ranks of evangelicals persist in believing in the essential goodness of those who profit from the free market—an excellent question, and one too few have wrestled with sufficiently. And yet, have too few on the other side of the aisle failed to wrestle sufficiently with the inherent fallibility of government? Can any collection of humans ever be truly super partes? freed from the sin of “greed, denial, hubris”? I suspect not. Rather than place our faith in a pipedream, let us place our faith in Christ’s Body here on earth: imperfect, to be sure, but being carried from glory to glory by the Spirit of perfection. Where regulation is needed—as it certainly is in a variety of public and private sectors—let the Church offer it by its clear prophetic voice.

 

2. When did the Church abdicate its responsibility to care for the poor to the State?
More troubling even than the naïve assessment of the State is the willingness of the Church to forego its responsibilities, to leave them to another—and one far less able to bring real compassion and justice. International diplomacy will not ameliorate the economic suffering of “weaker” nations—or even “weaker” members of affluent societies—else it undoubtedly would have done so already. (Hasn’t this task been attempted multiple times before?) Change will come when an increasing number of affluent Christians willingly spend themselves in service of the poor. Incarnational ministry, buoyed by the prayer and resources of those who “send” rather than “go,” can and does bring about small-scale change in hurting communities around the world. Our hope lies not in political machinations but in the gospel of Christ—preached and lived—before those in desperate need of it.

 

When the early Christians faced the twin horrors of the decadent Roman society and the decay of the plagues, they did not petition the government to effect change. They moved into the cities the rich had fled, and cradled the dying with the very arms of Christ. Many died themselves, having contracted the plague from those they served. Their faith was in Christ, not in Caesar; their hope in the gospel, not in diplomacy. And their ministry was fruitful, their glory assured. Has anything changed?

 

Lord, fit us for our task until you—the truly supranational Authority—come and establish your perfect kingdom in our midst.


[1] As quoted in P.T. Bauer, From Subsistence to Exchange (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 98.