Sunday, March 22, 2015

Leave It to Satan

Last month a bill called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act emerged out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats. The bill would bolster law enforcers' tools against perpetrators of human trafficking—the horrendous, outrageous modern-day slavery that majors on child labor and prostitution—and create a fund to help those rescued.

Two weeks ago, however, as debate on the Senate floor was about to begin with the bill assured of easy passage, some Democrats challenged a provision in the bill that prohibited money from the fund to be used to pay for abortions for five years. This language, known as the Hyde Amendment, has been included in a variety of laws passed by Congress for the last four decades (and, according to some, has loopholes wide enough to drive a truck through).

In previous legislation, however, the prohibition runs on a one-year renewable term, but in the current bill the term is five years. This expansion was enough to send Democrats to the barricades, accusing Republicans of surreptitiously sneaking the language in, despite that the wording had been in the bill from the very beginning. With Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women whipping the Democratic caucus into shape, forty-three senators voted successfully to block the bill from coming to the floor for a vote, effectively killing it unless Republicans removed the abortion-related language.

We are at a point in history where no Democrat on the national level is allowed to depart from pro-choice orthodoxy (just as no Republican is allowed to raise taxes) if they don't want to be exiled by the party to electoral Siberia. But for many Democrats, their antipathy toward the Hyde Amendment comes from deeply held principle.

Take California Sen. Diane Feinstein, for instance. She grieves over vivid memories of the sentencing of women who went to abortion doctors or even mutilated themselves before abortion became legal because they believed they had no other recourse. Feinstein, like many a 1970s-era feminist (and others of later vintage), generalizes the plight of those women to half the human race. "It is our reproductive system. In a sense this has been a battle for our identity," she said in debate. "There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind."

Republicans immediately went on the defensive, believing that to give in to the Democrats' demand would grant a victory to the most radical of pro-choice partisans. Many refused to remove the Hyde Amendment on pro-life principle; seemingly all refused on the grounds that it would give the Democrats an easy victory. Accustomed to hardball, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that the confirmation of Attorney General appointee Loretta Lynch, which has already been languishing for months, will not receive a vote until the trafficking bill passes—in the far-fetched hope, presumably, that President Obama will therefore intervene to change Senate Democrats' minds.

Isn't this just like Satan. All senators oppose the oppression of slaves, so he exploits the fact that half hate the oppression of women and half hate the oppression of the unborn, with the result that all of them—women, the unborn, and most of all slaves—remain just as oppressed as they were in the first place. One can only imagine how the Evil One gets off on this stuff.

For the record, I believe that Senator Feinstein is sincere. I believe that I might even learn something from her about sexist oppression. I also believe, however, that her reasoning is morally grotesque. I fail to see how it safeguards women's reproductive systems to annihilate girls' reproductive systems (and the rest of their bodies) before they are born. I fail to see how an oppressed woman becomes liberated by oppressing the person inside her. And I fail to see how a woman (or a man, for that matter) achieves her identity by winning the power to have sex without having children. In the case of women who are forced by wicked men to have sex by blunt or subtle pressure (like sex in exchange for food), there is indeed a screaming need for liberating justice, but abortion does not accomplish it. If anything, abortion compounds the oppression.

That does not mean, however, that the GOP ought to fight Feinstein and the Democrats tooth and nail. Their fear that it gives the pro-choice lobby a victory that will make it even harder to roll back the slaughter of innocents is legitimate, but it plays right into the Devil's hands. There will not be less injustice in the world because Senate Republicans refuse to strike the Hyde Amendment. There will only be more—more women and children sold into slavery and violated in every imaginable and unimaginable way.

I think if you're a Republican senator in this situation, you vote for an amendment to remove the abortion language from the bill even while you publicly excoriate the Dems for having to do it. And I think if you're a Democratic senator, you vote for the bill as is and start looking for work for when your term ends (or try to make lots of friends by bringing home lots of pork).

You do it not because you like it and not because you can't think of plenty of reasons why it's a bad idea. You do it because you recognize a ploy of the Father of Lies when you see it and you refuse to let him win.

Friday, January 2, 2015


First, I'm back. I have written very little on 1st Corynthians for several months, because my writing capacity has been maxed out on a doctor of ministry thesis that blew way beyond what it is supposed to be. You can learn more about that project in a prior post (which does not perfectly describe either my subject or the project as it turned out, but it comes close), and I am sure that I will talk about it here at some future point(s). Meanwhile, two hundred thousand words later, I am trying to find myself again, and apparently that includes finding this blog.

I have never known how many readers I have had, but periodically I have been humbly gratified to get positive feedback from someone. If I have been useful to regular readers, please accept my sincere apology for the silence, if there's anyone still out there. We'll see how much I put out in 2015.

Enough of that. During my desperate struggle to finish my thesis I put off many things large and small. One of the small ones was deciding what to do with a free six-month subscription to Christianity Today. Now, many people (I assume or at least hope) read CT to get out of it . . . well, whatever good things they get out of it. I don't really know, because historically the main thing that I get out of it is a prodigious catalog of successful American evangelicals whose abiding flaw is that none of them is myself.

I don't suppose—no, I do, I just feel guilty for supposing—that the magazine exists to define a list of important people by making them subjects of articles and interviews, quoted sources, and bylines. To me, however, CT (and a lot of other things) becomes what my beloved friend Ted Kluck calls "ego porn"—perfect artifices that excite covetous lust, fantasies not to be realized in one's own life. One masturbates to it by posting something in the comment feed that everyone will love or by tweeting to one of the important people hoping for a response. Like masturbation, it doesn't "work," and even when it does, there is no substance and no afterglow, only an empty hunger for more.

Not that I know from experience or anything.

I got to thinking about greatness today, specifically about where I would wish to be great if I could. I remembered something about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven, so I decided to check into that again.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." So if I really want to be great, my ambition must be to do everything the Bible says as Jesus and his apostles frame it for "the Israel of God" and to teach others to do the same. Interesting.

Later in Matthew (11:11-12) Jesus talks about John the Immerser and calls him at least as great as anyone else "born of women"—pretty impressive, since the greatest person in that category is Jesus himself. But then Jesus points out (as I translate it) that John is so great "although the one who is inferior in Heaven's government is greater than he is."

This isn't a remark about John being the best of the Old Covenant, but the least participant in the New Covenant is better than he is, although many have interpreted it this way. Rather, it is a sad observation that as lofty as John is in God's government, people who are of no importance in the coming age appear to be superior to him in today's ranking system. That is why, Jesus goes on, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it." People are the kingdom, and those in so-called high places forcibly took away the kingdom when they threw John in prison and led Jesus to the cross and persecute our brothers and sisters around the world today.

Point? Human beings are horrible judges of greatness. This disturbs me about American evangelicalism. (Note that by the modifier "American" I am referring to a sociocultural entity, not the abstract beliefs and values that this group shares in common with other groups.)

The evangelical subculture's proximity to the center of cultural power in my country has fluctuated over the centuries. Evangelicals have never quite dominated (although in the 1840s and '50s they came close), and therefore big shots in the evangelical subculture have rarely been big-time in the wider culture. According to what Jesus says about greatness, that's quite all right.

But, people being people, it comes naturally to us on the periphery of cultural influence to form an alternate, ingrown pecking order centered on basically the same things that the world values—power, reach, comeliness, charisma, and close acquaintance with others who have them—instead of obedience. That's not to say that the people whom we consider important are not obedient—I hope and (want to) assume that they are. It's just that their obedience is not why we consider them important.

The overwhelming ease with which humans do this comes home to me in Jesus' third remark about greatness in Matthew. "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (18:1-4). The phrase "turn around" is actually passive—you are turned around, or as the NASB renders it, "converted." You have to be turned into a little child even to enter the kingdom of heaven, much less to become great.

I automatically think of my youngest child, a four-year-old, when I read this. Don't misunderstand: he is not a moral role model. He can be willful, destructive, and violent. But in one area he is perfect: he is utterly unpretentious. He is totally unaware of who the greatest is and he never thinks about it, and he certainly does not wish to be the greatest himself.

And that is where I am stuck, because I am acutely aware of greatness and have oodles of ambition to be the greatest. Jesus tells me that if I want to slake my thirst for greatness, I must be so altered that I am unconscious of greatness. And then, when greatness is foreign to my psyche, when I don't care or even much notice, then I will become great in the one valuation that matters, that of the kingdom of heaven.

I haven't decided yet whether to get Christianity Today (and I don't want advice about it, by the way). But I know that if I was like a little child it would be an easier decision to make, since it would be neither a trap nor a training. It might just be a great magazine, and I might just be great.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (5)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's, the last one, comes from my friend Jeremy. The first, second, third, and fourth posts are here.

Thanks, Cory.

One of the things that troubles me so much about the proliferation of guns is that even people that you might ordinarily consider the "good" guys have bad days, or more likely moments of bad judgment. Just a couple examples from Florida recently: the former cop in the movie theater who killed the young father sitting front if him for texting . . . during the previews. Here was a guy who had trained and practiced for his entire career who had a serious lapse in judgment. And, unlike a lapse if judgment when you're playing baseball, when guns are involved there is a loss of human life. The other case was the guy at the gas station who confronted some kids about their music, thought he saw something, and unloaded a weapon into the car. No gun was found in the car, but more people were dead. I think it's just too great a responsibility to expect people to make life-and-death decisions in a split second depending on if they "feel threatened." In the home is a different matter: except if someone believes in Santa, I can't think of a good reason that someone would be trying to break into another person's house. The idea of keeping the military in check is one that doesn't really resonate with me (maybe I need to watch Red Dawn). I always assumed that if the military really felt like it, they possess weapons so far beyond what the average person can acquire that resistance would be an exercise in futility. A friend of mine who is at Penn State worked on some naval projects a few years back and told me that if I knew what the military had, I would be freaked out. If it ever got to that point, I think we'd all be up the proverbial creek.

One last thing: we do have a real life example of a one-time gun-owning society that went cold turkey. Australia severely restricted gun ownership and require everyone to register their guns after what I think was a school shooting in the 90's. The only result has been that Aussie kids don't have to practice lockdown drills. I know that would never fly here, but I wonder if the death toll will ever change people's minds.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (4)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The first, second, and third posts are here.

I agree with you overall and with most of the details. I think that background checks should be universal. There are probably other policy adjustments that ought to be made that people better informed than I am know about. But there are still some sticky points.

Your analogy here . . .
Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol.
. . . is powerful. That is, it’s powerful to me, but that’s because I, like you, am comfortable looking at the big picture, at the undifferentiated mass of guns floating in the undifferentiated mass of society, and I agree that things have run amok. But that argument will never work with the people who need to be persuaded.

The answer I always hear to this argument is, in essence, “But how will keeping me from getting another gun prevent someone else from committing a homicide?” You either have to give a clear and compelling explanation of how that will work, or you have to convince the person that he or she (or his or her live-in family member) is the one who is likely to commit the homicide with his or her gun. Unless you can persuasively explain how the policy adjustment will save lives on an individual, personal level, many people simply will not believe it. And that frame of mind is not going away.

You are right that sinfulness is pervasive, of course, and also that for very many—probably overwhelmingly most—Americans, “freedom” boils down to an unalienable right to gratify greed, lust, or power on a tiny scale. The freedom to bear arms is no exception.

But this principle operates on two planes. It operates at the level of the individual, self-reliant, power-drunk gun owner, and it also operates at the level of the corporate, institution-reliant, power-drunk governmental security force. The philosophical question is, where do you expect sinful power and violence to be more manifest: among armed-to-the-teeth individuals or in armed-to-the-teeth governments?

Philosophically, my answer is, neither—sin is equally likely to manifest itself at both levels. But that leads to the practical question, are each presently able to keep the other in check, or is one more liable to run away with sinful power than the other?

I really don’t know the answer to that question right now. I wish I did.

Obviously the government is not all-powerful, because it’s unable to stop or deter fully the terrible number of criminal homicides that Americans commit every year.

On the other hand, let’s think again about this analogy:
weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.
No doubt. However, the musket that the average American farmer owned was more or less equal in power to the muskets that the most advanced armies in the world armed their infantry with. Otherwise the Revolution would never have happened. The Founders knew this.

Is there any comparison to today? Is even the most powerful weaponry on the market today anything like the firepower that our military and even the state police have at their disposal?

Don’t get me wrong—I DON’T WANT civilians to be able to arm themselves like the 82nd Airborne! I don’t know how a citizenry like that could be held accountable for their use of their weapons without free-for-all massacres. We’d be Somalia. Indeed, your observation about how we’re inadvertently arming Mexican druglords shows how poor our accountability is already.

And yet, and yet . . . I find myself increasingly doubtful that the democratic governments of a nation this large can be held accountable either. (At least at the state and federal level here; municipally here and perhaps all over in Canada they are more manageable.) I am more and more uneasy that our electoral process is a sort of mass participatory theater that yields outcomes tightly delimited by a silent few elites (and a mammoth bureaucracy) that are far more powerful than voting citizens—the legal system likewise. Does this constitutional democracy work well enough to prevent the government from abusing its lethal power? I am skeptical.

Does that mean that our military should be scaled way back, that not only the citizenry but the government should be disarmed? Certain liberals (including peace-loving Christians) strongly argue for this, and I think that they have great points. The industry and culture of violence is of a piece on both individual and governmental levels.

On the other hand, to the extent that our national government is already taking small steps in the direction of disarmament and withdrawal, we seem to be persuading Putin that the time is ripe to employ Hitler’s foreign policy strategy of the 1930s. Who knows how far he’ll take it.

So Russia, North Korea, and Iran are threats, so therefore we have a colossally powerful military to protect us (and everyone else) from those threats, and then (in the eyes of some) we have a rifle-toting populace to protect us from the threat of our powerful military. It’s madness. But I don’t know a way out of the madness until the millennium.

Meantime, we balance one threat against another. Which threat is the most threatening is not always an easy judgment to make. You may be right that our governments are less threatening and more responsible with their lethal power than private citizens are. I used to be confident of that. I don’t deny it yet, but I’m just not sure anymore.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (3)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from my friend Jeremy. The first and second posts are here.

Hi Cory,

Thanks for the thoughtful reply and the link to that article. The issue of gun control (or the nearly complete lack thereof) is one that riles me up a bit. While understanding the significantly differing cultural views towards violence helps to make sense of why there have been no real changes in gun laws (and why there won't be for the foreseeable future) except to actually make guns more prevalent in public, I think that the "more guns as deterrent" idea simply goes against reason. The US is already, by a good margin, the most heavily armed country in the world (the runner-up is that other beacon of democracy and freedom: Yemen). Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol. To me, the overarching problem is accessibility. I think I read that something like 40% of gun purchases are at shows where background checks are famously not required, allowing anyone, convicted felons included, to purchase weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.

There's also the issues of stand your ground laws (which seem to me to simply allow an aggressor to claim victimhood and then rub out the only potential witness to a murder) and the fact that so many easily obtained US guns are being used in the Mexican drug wars (a link I will try to dig up is about US weapons being melted down, turned into musical instruments, and toured with, performed on by Mexican musicians). Ahh, easy guns and border security wrapped up in one, but this is a rabbit hole that gets deep and twisty so I'll stop.

None of this has anything to do with hunting and home defense, which I think are perfectly legitimate functions for guns. But the way the floodgates have opened up in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas are disturbing.  I think the Charlton Heston quote provides a window in to why gun control is so necessary but also unobtainable: when he talks about the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes from gun ownership, I think he really means the intoxication that comes with the realization of possession of power, wrapped up in wood and blue steel. And two things I think are 100% certain in life are man's basic sinfulness, and how power corrupts people. Open-carry + stand-your-ground + average-sleep-deprived-American = I'm not sure, but I don't think it's good.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (2)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The previous post is here.

This is very interesting. Thanks for sending it. I think that there’s a lot of truth to what he says, but I think that the two most important elements of the story of how the U.S. got to where it is with guns is missing from the author’s narrative, except obliquely. Those elements are American regional cultures and technology as symbol.

This must-read article describes numerous regional cultures in North America and their contrasting attitudes toward guns. These cultures were planted by colonial settlers from different places in Europe (including different places in Britain alone) with different objectives, different values, and different ways-of-being. Some of these American cultures became seedbeds that synthesized with each other in the Western United States to spawn second-generation cultures.

There were and are two predominant cultures in the American South, one in the lowland and one in the upland. They are pronouncedly different from one another, but one thing they have in common is a tolerance for individual violence. The Lowland South was settled by proud men with big egos and a fierce determination to defend their honor. Dueling was prevalent. The Upland South was settled by despised, exploited, paranoid people with thick family ties and profound suspicion of outsiders. Feuds were prevalent. The Lowland elite ruled their families and slaves like on manorial estates like kings and set that example for the Lowland poor. Most Uplanders were terribly poor but fiercely protective of their right to do what they wanted on their own land.

The North also had two predominant cultures (notwithstanding the outsized cultural power of Greater New York that skyrocketed through the nineteenth century to the present). Yankees and Middlers were and are also profoundly different from each other. But one thing they have in common is a strong disinclination toward violent personal revenge.

Today, persistent violence is unsurprising in the Lowland South, where colonial and antebellum elites set the standards for the rest of society. These men fought in single combat to avenge public disrespect and used savage beatings to impose their will on subjugated people.

As for Appalachia and its westward settlements, it is indeed a violent place per capita. But it has also been shown that if you manage to avoid committing adultery, it is as safe a region as any other in the United States with the added bonus that there is almost no personal theft, so you can leave your door unlocked when you’re not at home.

It should be noted that Upland Southerners were the predominant bloc of settlers in Texas and Arizona. The linkage of lethal weapons and racist anti-foreigner sentiment didn’t start after NAFTA. Some of these people hated and feared invading Northerners during the Civil War. At least as many hated and feared Confederate state governments and fought for the Union! They hated and feared invasive British during the War of 1812 and the Revolution, and before that coastal British Americans. And before that they hated and feared the distant kings of England and Scotland who savagely used and abused them as pawns in their political machinations. And all along each clan hated and feared the clan that lived over the next hill.

You’ll note that these two Southern cultures are by far more evangelical than the two Northern cultures and Greater New York. How that came to be is an even more complex story, as it was not so until after the Civil War. But rather than tell that story I want to make my other point, and that is about technology as the bearer of symbolic meaning.

I’ve lived in Dorchester, Mass., an African-American- and Irish-dominated neighborhood of Boston. One morning I woke up to discover that a teenager was shot dead by a rival at a corner two houses away from where I lived. My pastor had a long history of crusading to get guns off the street, dissolve gangs, and dispel drug dealers.

I now live in Blair County, PA. School is closed on the first day of buck season. And targets are shot with as much enthusiasm as game. One Sunday morning the demure, 100-pound-soaking-wet church pianist came in giddy with excitement. She found out that her husband was getting her her own AK-47 for Christmas. He already had one.

Unfortunately, most Americans have not had my experience. They have not been privileged to see firsthand how guns mean different things to people in different cultures in different places. This is true of all technology: it is morally neutral, but it can bear awesome meaning and shape people’s minds and hearts. If it didn’t, 80% of advertising agencies would go out of business.

Furthermore, technology is a huge component of culture, both shaping it and being shaped by it. Naturally then, different cultures define the same technological implement in different ways.

In Canada, a gun is a tool for a hobby or an economical means to harvest meat. In a Northern city, like on an antebellum or colonial plantation, a gun is a means to protect one’s reputation by asserting power over others. In Appalachia and its westward dispersion, a gun is a defiant totem of cultural integrity for a people whom distant elites despise, mock, and exploit and rapacious strangers invade. It is one physical object, but its meaning is wildly relative.

These Southern cultures are not mine—I am Middler-bred and Yankee-reared. Nevertheless—and this may be the Middler in me—I have sympathy toward Appalachian people. Part of it is proximity, as I live where Middle America and Appalachia coalesce. But there are other reasons too. I cannot read about what their ancestors suffered on the border between England and Scotland, going for centuries devastated by war every generation or two, without acknowledging that the sad reasonableness of their inherited xenophobia. I hate that “rednecks” are the only cultural group in our politically correct age that may be reviled without mercy—in fact, bigotry toward them is viewed a sign of enlightenment.

I also find myself increasingly admitting that paranoid, government-hating Upland Southerners have a point: it is good for us that so many of them were trained in the military, and that the government knows that there are lots of guns in public hands but does not know who has them. As many of the Founders believed, a government over such people would think twice before imposing its will on the mass of its citizens by force.

On the one hand, I felt sick when I learned that local gun stores here sold out of their ammo when Barack Obama was reeelected. On the other hand, his administration’s campaign to force Christians into uniformity with the national current by paying for abortifacients and laying track for similar pressure vis-à-vis same-sex marriage makes me think that before I die I and others like me will be considered public enemies. How “paranoid” Upland Southerns and Westerners seem has much to do with one’s faith in government to stay within certain boundaries and do the right thing. I think that they truly are paranoid because they think that no government will. But I sympathize with them because I fear that this particular government won’t.

Also, I am more liberal on immigration than any other issue, and I deplore the xenophobia of Upland Southerners. I appreciate their cultural baggage but that doesn’t make it right or reasonable for present circumstances. Non-stop, knee-jerk anxiety is dysfunctional even if it’s explainable. And I think that an interpretation of the Second Amendment that does not have to do with organized, drilled citizen-soldiers is a ridiculous violation of the principle of authorial intent that Supreme Court conservatives claim to revere. But it doesn’t mean that Upland Southerners are completely out to lunch with respect to guns, especially within the inner logic of their own communities.

In the end, the answer to the Post writer’s question of why there isn’t a similar gun-fetish in Canada is fairly simple: American Southerners don’t live there.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (1)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's is the first, from Jeremy.

This actually comes from the conservative national newspaper in Canada. Aside from the of linking gun-love and Evangelicalism at the end, it nearly had me break into a spontaneous chorus of "O, Canada."


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Three Kinds of Young Inquirers

In the past couple of years I have encountered several intelligent, approximately college-age people who want to talk about religion or the Bible. They have good questions, and they really appreciate and enjoy getting answers from someone who has thought their questions through. The conversations are vivacious and stimulating both to the inquirer and to the mentor, whether that is myself or someone I know. But I have learned that not all inquirers seek answers for the same purpose, and eventually that shapes where the conversations and even the relationship go.

There are at least three different kinds of religious inquirers in this stage of life.

One kind of person (I hope that this person exists) inquires because she really wants to know the truth. She is dissatisfied with what she has been told to date, and she is willing to pay a price to get the real stuff. Her stated interest in getting answers is also her actual interest.

A second kind of person already believes that she knows what is true. In fairness, she may be genuinely interested in learning more and getting confusing matters cleared up, but underlying those interests are certain core principles that she holds sincerely and is not seriously considering giving up. But she has a problem: if she expresses her settled beliefs boldly and lives accordingly, she will face criticism, tension, and even rejection from people that she loves. This might come from two sides at once from people who disagree with each other, one side taking issue with this belief and the other with that. Though she is asking questions as if to seek truth, what she is really seeking is an intellectual silver bullet that, when fired, will convince everyone in her life to affirm all her core beliefs and everything that she wants to do—and also, at least as important, to get along with each other.

A third kind of person also already believes that she knows what is true, but she is presently pretending to herself that she does not. She anxiously trying to flee what she believes to be true, because it causes her pain and/or because she is not living according to it. When she asks questions, she is only interested in answers that might quiet her own conscience, justify her departure from what she is afraid is true, or refute what she fears might be true of herself and her place in existence.

These types may not be exclusive; it is probable that a person may fit more than one description, perhaps going one way in one area and another way in another.

When these three kinds of inquirers approach me, at first they all look the same. I am an eager guy, so I naturally assume that they are all of the first kind. But if the person has the stuff of the second or third kind in them, that eventually becomes clear. We exhaust the extent of their interest in the truth for the truth's sake, and we hit a limit. Telltale signs include the same question over and over even though I've already answered it, endless debate that goes nowhere and serves no purpose, an incessant drift toward relationship problems and advice, and general staleness.

I am learning that I need to pick up on the signs earlier so that I may address the thing that the person actually wants from me even if he or she has not put it into words. This is for the inquirer's own good as well as preserving my time. I believe that for many seekers, the thing that they need first is not theological truth but to be honest with themselves about their true intentions and motives. A good deal less self-deception would go a long way. They might discover then that they are not really all that interested in what I have to say. But if they are truly interested, then what I have to reveal about God and his ways might actually do them some good.

Jesus had a knack for this. He did it with an outcast woman at a well, which went one way, and with a wealthy young community leader, which went another. Not surprisingly, he knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zeal for Your House Will Consume Me

I read these words:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME” [John 2:13-17 NASB].
I closed my eyes to picture the scene. It was blurry and tentative, because I never went to the Passover in first-century Jerusalem. But I vaguely saw the back of Jesus walking amid the press of a crowd of black- and gray-headed, beige-clad pilgrims through the Beautiful Gate. I saw the vast and crowded plaza before the monumental facade of the temple. I saw Jesus with unobtrusive determination tying together a bunch of ropes to make a flail. I heard, like a huge flock of birds, the loud chatter of customers haggling with endless rows of livestock vendors and moneychangers.

Then I heard a big crash—a table fell over. A short, startled cry and a momentary, local hush. No, the table had been thrown over. The sound of a metallic shower of coins rippled through the air. Men hopped down fearfully to scoop the coins up, but they were suddenly flogged by Jesus on their buttocks, which scattered them. Another table fell and then another. I saw his hand grip the edges and throw them one by one. The crowd’s noise alternated between silence and uproar.

Then he reached the livestock. Clouds of pigeons burst into the air as their cages were smashed. Vendors fearfully clung to them before he could break them too, and his voice thundered, “Take them away—NOW.” He threw off the bolt fastening the sheep pen. With the snap of his whip, the sheep and goats were belched from their place; they rumbled by with manic bleating. Then Jesus reached the cattle pen. Uh-oh. With a rising, bellowing rumble a stampede surged forth as oxen, four abreast, lumbered through the courtyard, crushing under hoof anyone who failed to get out of the way.

No one knew what to do. Vendors wanted to scream at him, but apoplectic rage stopped in their throats. Panting, spear-brandishing guards wanted to seize him, but they were frozen where they stood. Twenty thousand eyes rested on Jesus, standing on top of a table, and twenty thousand ears heard him cry, “STOP MAKING MY FATHER’S HOUSE A PLACE OF BUSINESS!”

I opened my eyes. Then I closed them again.

I was in the cavernous, tinted-glass-enclosed atrium of a suburban megachurch during a break between sessions of a conference. Sunlight glowed off the neutral walls, softened by the gray carpet. I saw two parallel, almost endless rows of booths from one end of the enormous room to the other. Some of them belonged to Christian colleges; they bore facades with academic crests and photos of healthy blonde kids (with one black kid), and they were fronted by healthy, blazer-wearing admissions people. Some tables were for missions organizations; these were worked by homelier folks in logo-embroidered golf shirts and worn khakis (because donors are suspicious of missionaries who look too worldly). But most tables belonged to publishers and booksellers. These were covered with books, and the books were covered with pictures, many of them pictures of the people speaking in the eager auditorium at one end of the hall. A buzzing mass of humanity swarmed among the tables. Goods, bags, and folders were in everyone’s hand. Credit cards whipped through iPads in every direction.

I walked to the first table on the left. I said to the guy there, “You should move.” He looked at me funny, not knowing how to take it. I grabbed the back of his display and threw it over, just missing him. The light fixture on top sharply popped as the bulbs shattered. A surprised gasp burst from the clientele. I strode behind the table. With a heavy shove I tipped it and with a succession of loud thuds the books hit the floor. A cry of shock.

I went from table to table, wrecking all of them, sparing none. No one knew what to do. Anger, fear, alarm, or awe were on every face. People cleared out ahead of me. Security guards ran up; I ignored them, and for some reason they did not approach me. On every side ten phones recorded my every move. Some vendors stood in my way until I shoved them aside with their own falling displays. I could not hear any speech—was it because it was silent or because the furor was deafening?

I threw the merchandise off the last table and climbed onto it. “IT IS WRITTEN,” I cried to the crowd, “MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER! BUT YOU HAVE MADE IT A DEN OF THIEVES!” I hopped down, punched the crash bar on the door at the end of the row and walked into the sunny afternoon.

I opened my eyes again. Lord, I said in awe, how did you do that? Weren’t you scared? Weren’t you afraid of being misunderstood? Wouldn’t they think that you were an insane crank or an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t you be arrested? Wouldn’t you lose all your audience, your friends distancing themselves from you, your family embarrassed by you? What message are people getting from what you did? The Passover requires a load of animals—God said so. They have to be supplied somehow, right? What did the vendor you beat have to do with it? He’s a regular Joe just trying to feed his family; he didn’t make the system. You knew his needs better than anyone else. Didn’t it matter to you what he thought of you?

The answer to all these questions was simple and obvious. Zeal for your house will consume me.

Lord, I said with a sob, I want that zeal. I want to be so obsessed with the purity of your house, your church, that I have no fear left. I want to be utterly unconcerned about being misunderstood, mislabeled, rejected. I am so afraid—I can’t picture myself doing that . . . except that I just did picture myself doing it. I don’t want to be arrested or sued. Even more, I don’t want to be hated. But if you tell me to destroy other people’s property for the sake of your house . . . (I’m so scared) . . . then I will.

St. Francis of Assisi publicly stripped off his clothes and disowned his father and then lived as a homeless beggar. John and Charles Wesley preached outdoors while mobs threw stones when churches refused them their pulpits. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched down a street and was cuffed and hauled away by police with dogs.

We revere these men; countless churches, schools, and even streets bear their names. We are the Pharisees: we build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous even though we are the children of their persecutors (Matt. 23:29-33).

We remember these men because they performed bold, infuriating, prophetic acts ready-made for misunderstanding and rebuke, even for arrest or being torn to pieces. They did these things for Jesus Christ, because he did these things.

It is hard to picture anyone doing anything like that today. We live in a skeptical age in which no one—at least no religious person—can make any moral statement without adding the caveat that “I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.” In this environment, every righteous utterance is assumed to be self-righteous, so prophetic authority is rare.

But once in a great while, God requires someone to do a righteous, bold, prophetic act like this—something that saves people but destroys life as people know it—something physical that people experience and interpret as violence, even if no one gets physically hurt . . . except for the person who does it.

I have not been ordered to do something like that . . . not yet. But I have not ruled out the possibility.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Was the Civil War Just?

This question is put to the test by Harry S. Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006). The book was a game-changer for me; I do not know how a person can read it and not be affected.

Stout's intention is to provide the material that allows the reader to analyze the Civil War according to just war theory. He therefore retells the story of the Civil War in a way that brings to special prominence those events, decisions, policies, and (very importantly) administration and homefront rhetoric and rationale that are most relevant to that analysis. Stout spends fairly few pages propounding his own analysis, however, though the words he uses in the chronicle at times (like "bloodthirsty") give pretty strong hints about what he thinks. Nevertheless, the book is written in a way that allows the reader a good deal of latitude to draw their own conclusions from the story told.

This story is a gripping one, and I suspect that there are few people, including people quite knowledgable about the Civil War, who would not be surprised by it. I read of events I had never heard of before and encountered a large volume of homefront commentary, especially from clergy, that was entirely unfamiliar. Even events and decisions that were familiar to me took on a different light in Stout's portrayal.

One paragraph from this six-hundred-plus-page book sums up much of what struck me in it:
In a perverse jumble of conflicting agendas, the nation was convulsed by a war between a white, slaveholding Confederacy and a Northern Republican administration promoting emancipation to justify total war. For the administration, total war was the regrettable end and emancipation the means, while Democrats promoted conciliation with slavery and white supremacy as the end and peace the means. In a profound sense, white America was getting what it deserved [343].
Another theme that Stout persuasively lays out is his thesis that American civil religion was founded in the blood sacrifice of the Civil War. Although I am not convinced that there was no track laid to this destination through the blood sacrifice of the Revolution, I do believe that he basically proves his case. Paying attention to this tale Stout tells, one cannot escape a dawning realization of how un-Christian the national civil religion actually is, which makes it all the more pernicious since for many Americans there is no grasp that civil religion and Christianity are two different things, much less opposed to each other.

I do have a couple criticisms of Stout's book. One is that while he does a masterful job of providing the evidence by which one would judge whether there was jus in bello (justice in how the war was conducted), he shrugs off handling jus ad bellum (just cause), arguing that "secession is a moral issue with no moral criterion for a sure answer" (532). That seems to be a way of saying that we are not going to look at it because it is really tricky to figure out. But as Stout abundantly demonstrates, belief in the justice of the cause is the very thing that propelled both sides to commit all kinds of injustices. The matter cannot be blown off.

Secondly, Stout entirely ignores—does not even mention—the moral overtones of diverse approaches to Reconstruction 1863-65. This is a shame, because Reconstruction began while the war was still being fought, and crucial decisions pertaining to it were made by commanders in and around their campaigns. It also pertains to some of the very issues that Stout considers. One example of this consists of the moral and legal claims of enemy civilian property-holders versus the claim of a government to finance and supply its war effort versus the long-term social and material needs of freed slaves. Another example is whether it is moral (not to mention feasible) to annihilate a culture deliberately as a war aim when that culture is intimately bound to a socioeconomic immorality at the root of the origin of the war. I am not saying that these are easy questions; I am just saying that they are profoundly relevant.

These criticisms aside, however, this work is a triumph, especially if success is measured by how well it unsettles the reader. Last year on this blog I talked about the different ways and times that my posture has changed toward the Civil War. Reading Stout provoked the latest change on the list. Another paragraph by Stout neatly sums up why:
. . . in the process of writing this book it has become irrefutably clear to me that some moral judgments need to be made, judgments that most Americans have been reluctant to make. We have preferred a violent but glamorized and romantic Civil War. Military histories have focused on strategies and tactics and the sheer drama of battles in action. Political histories have focused—especially in the present—on slavery and emancipation, accounting the evil so complete and pervasive as to justify even murder. In this sense, Lincoln's war strategy was and remains genius. That does not make it right [535].
It is an awesome achievement that through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath slavery was abolished and African-Americans became acknowledged as Americans. But I can no longer consider the war to be just on either side nor ignore or sentimentalize the incinerated landscapes and streams of blood.