Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court, same-sex marriage, and the Church

Below is the text of an email I sent to the people of my church this morning. 

As many of you know by now, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 this morning that states may not deny marriage licenses to persons on the basis of their sex. That is to say, the Court ruled that same-sex couples as well as heterosexual must be issued  such a license if they request. The Court did not, as far as I have read yet, make any reference or ruling as to whether states may withhold licenses from multiple-partner requests (polygamous arrangements). However, the majority opinion consistently uses the word "couples" in its wording. The full text of the ruling is here:

The Book of Discipline of the UMC is the "church law" for the denomination. It is updated and republished every four years, after the General Conference of the UMC has made changes, if any. The GC will meet next year, so the current edition of the BOD is the 2012 edition. Here is what the BOD says relevant to the Court's ruling today.

On weddings generally: The decision to perform a wedding ceremony is the right and responsibility of the pastor.

Same-sex unions:
  1. Ceremonies of homosexual weddings or ceremonies of that nature by any other name may not be performed by UM pastors, nor may such occasions take place on UM property. 
  2. UM Pastors who do conduct such ceremonies are subject to disciplinary action that may include revocation of ordination (and hence unemployment). 
There are a number of other references in the BOD to homosexuality, however, these are the relevant parts to the Court's ruling today. Nothing in the Court's ruling affects the denomination's position.

Therefore, having rendered vows to uphold the standards of the Church, and in accordance with my own Christian convictions, I will continue to follow the rules of the Book of Discipline of the UMC and will not perform, either on or off the campus, same-sex union ceremonies by whatever name.

I would be surprised if this position is not controversial, or even wrong, to some people of our church. Unfortunately, email is a "flat" medium and not very suitable for this kind of discussion so I am not going to elaborate further here. I am open to holding a discussion session, or even a series of them, if I am advised it would be helpful.

As in all things, let us be in prayer for our Church and for the future of our nations and its leaders, that the wisdom of God and the grace of our Lord Christ envelope us completely in all we say and do.

Grace and peace.

Don Sensing

Update (to blog post only): Law Prof. Ilya Somin says that the ruling leaves the door fully open for challenges to laws forbidding polygamy:
Kennedy’s analysis of the Due Process Clause issue also tries to cabin the scope of his reasoning by emphasizing that the fundamental right to marriage is limited to a “two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.” This appears to foreclose the possibility that the right to marriage includes polygamous unions. But the basis for this limitation is not clearly explained. If fundamental rights are not “defined by who exercised them in the past,” then why should they be defined by the number of people involved in the union in question?
And Chief Justice Roberts says this explicitly in his dissent:
Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective “two” in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one. It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.

When asked about a plural marital union at oral argument, petitioners asserted that a State “doesn’t have such an institution.” But that is exactly the point: the States at issue here do not have an institution of same-sex marriage, either.
Trust me: multiple-spouse marriage is on the way, bet on it. One man and three women, three men, two men and one woman, name it. And just wait until some people discover the tax-dodge scams they can pull with no-rules marriage and we'll see 20, 30 or more people marrying one another.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The only cure for "Great Politics"

Peter Hitchens is the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the founders of the New Atheist movement whose book, God is Not Great, remains high atop the must-read list for atheists today. I myself read his non-religious works and columns eagerly and found them enlightening. C. Hitchens was indisputably a very smart man, engaging and witty.

Like Christopher, his younger brother b y two years, Peter, became an atheist. But he did not remain there. Years into adulthood, he came to confess Christ, published a rebuttal to God is Not Great and even publicly debated his brother a few times.

Here is his story:
How I found God and peace with my atheist brother: PETER HITCHENS traces his journey back to Christianity | Daily Mail Online
Being Christian is one thing. Fighting for a cause is another, and much easier to acknowledge – for in recent times it has grown clear that the Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular forces which have never been so confident.

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law.

The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.
He is right. As militant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche said, once God is dead, humanity will be in the service of Great Politics, which even Nietzsche knew would not be an improvement.
The point, rather, is that Nietzsche saw. However much he (usually) advocated what ought to be most abhorred, he at least recognized that true morality and Christian belief are siblings. Moreover, in tones redolent of Jeremiah he saw the consequences to civilization as a whole when its citizens lose their faith in God. For what will take the place of God will be only a passionate—and largely empty—politics:
For when truth enters the lists against the lies of millennia, we shall have convulsions, a spasm of earthquakes . . . the likes of which have never been dreamed. Then the concept of politics will be completely dissolved in a war between spirits, all authority structures of the old order will be blown into the air—one and all, they rest upon a lie; there will be wars the likes of which have never existed on earth. From my time forward earth will see Great Politics.
Such are the contradictions of atheism. With hope in progress gone, with the lessons of the twentieth century still unlearned in the twenty-first, with technology progressing, in Adorno’s words, from the slingshot to the atom bomb (a remark cited in Spe Salvi), with a resurgence of religiously motivated violence filling the headlines, all that the new atheists can manage is to hearken back to an Enlightenment-based critique of religion. But they find their way blocked, not so much by Nietzsche (whom, as we saw, they largely ignore) but by the ineluctable realities he so ruthlessly exposed. Not Nietzsche, but the history of the twentieth century has shown that godless culture is incapable of making men happier. All Nietzsche did was to point out that no civilization, however “progressive,” can dispel the terrifying character of nature; and once progress is called into question, the human condition appears in all its forsaken nakedness.
We are almost there, folks. This is why evangelism is the only critical task of the Church today.

We have to avoid the natural tendency to do withdraw into ecclesial shells, and rely instead on the supernatural authority and inspiration of God to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why the Confederate battle flag must go

By now you are probably aware of the increasing (and increasingly strident) calls for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from South Carolina's state capitol grounds (where, lest we forget, it was originally placed in 1962 by act of the almost-wholly-Democrat legislature and signed into law by then-governor, later US Senator Fritz Hollings, D.-SC.)

As a matter of federalism, of course, SC has the right to fly the flag if its representatives want. But, as Paul advised in 1 Cor. 6., just because one has the right to do something does not mean it is beneficial.

My friend Bill Hobbs linked in FB to this article about the flag kerfuffle: "The ludicrous, self-defeating hypocrisy of flying the Confederate battle flag." It's not a short read but it is worth the time. My thoughts are below.

The CSA's flags should not be displayed except in historical settings such as museums or re-enactments. 

There are some hard truths about the CSA. I am a Nashville native and grew up here. My family's roots in Middle Tenn. go back to just after the Revolutionary War. I have ancestral-family members who fought (and some died) for the CSA on both my mom's and dad's side (also for the Union on my dad's). Alexander Stephens, vice president of the CSA, was my wife's great-great grandfather's brother. My maternal grandmother's grandfather, CSA, has the singular distinction of being the only American POW, before or since, ever busted out of POW camp by his wife. He was never recaptured.

So I take no back seat to anyone for Southern heritage and upbringing.

Like probably most native Southerners of my generation, I was raised being taught that the real reasons for the Southern states' secession was to preserve states rights and that the northern economic lobby was choking the South's economy with high tariffs on Southern goods.

Slavery? Well, it was in the mix somewhere, but slavery was not the real reason for secession.

It is a lie, pure and simple.

The states rights and tariffs arguments are entirely absent from Southern apologia until after the Civil War. In 1860 and before, no one in the South was using those topics to justify secession. Furthermore, in 1860 federal tariffs on Southern goods were lower than they had been since 1816.

It was the Southern politicians who had actually attacked the concept of federalism and state rights when, some years before the Civil War, some non-slave states had started declaring that when slaves were brought into those states by the masters, they could be declared legally manumitted by state law. Southern politicians fought that tooth and nail and applauded the Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court, which denied Dred Scott, a black man, the right to sue for his freedom US courts even if he resided in a free state. (Seven of the Supreme Court's judges "had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and of these, five were from slave-holding families.") 

Nor was the North's industrial power significant at all in the secessionists' decisions. In 1860, Southern goods accounted for 75 percent of all American exports' dollar value ("King Cotton" being the main export) and the market value of the slaves across the South was greater than the entire Net Asset Value of all the industrial base of the North.

The North's industrial revolution had begun in the 1840s, but was hardly in full speed in 1860. The war great accelerated it, leaving the North economically ascendant afterward, but before the war the South was the dominant economic section of the country (and it was economically wrecked by 1865). 

Why did the states secede? To protect slavery, period.

Search for the 11 seceded states' actual acts of secession, beginning with South Carolina's, and you will see that slavery was the sole reason for secession. South Carolina's act makes this very unambiguous: protection of slavery was the only topic presented as driving secession. Same with Mississippi. And the others.

There were four sections of S.C.'s secession act. The opening section claims and justifies the right of the state  to secede in the first place. Then:
The next section asserts that the government of the United States and of states within that government had failed to uphold their obligations to South Carolina. The specific issue stated was the refusal of some states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and clauses in the U.S. Constitution protecting slavery and the federal government's perceived role in attempting to abolish slavery.

The next section states that while these problems had existed for twenty-five years, the situation had recently become unacceptable due to the election of a President (this was Abraham Lincoln although he is not mentioned by name) who was planning to outlaw slavery. The declaration states the primary reasoning behind South Carolina's declaring of secession from the Union, which is described as:
... increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery ...
Then  the final section was simply the declaration of secession. There are no issues presented to justify secession except slavery. Note the contempt of "states right" in the secession act, in its denunciation of "... the refusal of some states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act... ." The other 10 seceded states' enactments are not significantly different.

The Confederate States of America was founded to do one thing only: to preserve the power of one class of people to literally own as chattel property another class of people. There is no other reason the CSA existed.

That is the "heritage" that CSA flag defenders are really defending; I hope, truly, that most of them do not know that.

We Southerners must stop trying to defend the indefensible

To defend the Confederate States of America is to side with the abjectly, morally indefensible. To use the CSA's battle flag or national colors as a symbol of Southern pride should be deeply, deeply offensive to modern Southerners, who are the most racially harmonious people in the nation (by no means has the year of Jubilee arrived, but jeepers, just compare to practically any Union-states- heritage city).

Have we Southerners nothing to display as an emblem of regional heritage and pride but the flag of a morally corrupt and thankfully temporary regime?

God save us.

Update: This Atlantic article decisively refutes the idea that the Confederacy was founded for any reason other than preservation - indeed, expansion - of slavery, using the words of the CSA's founders themselves: "What This Cruel War Was Over."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Charleston victims wield power of forgiveness

Charleston victims wield power of forgiveness

Did you see the families of the shooting victims in Charleston, S.C., confront the accused killer at his bond hearing Friday?

Did you see the video — them pleading with Dylann Roof through tears?

They said they forgave him — the very soul who, days earlier police said, held the weight of the gun, pulled the trigger and, having seen the mess of blood spurting from one writhing victim, continued to another. And another. And another. Until nine lay dead on the seats and the floor of a Christian house of worship.

The shooter did not slow to notice; their blood was the same color as his.

And did you see? One after another, the relatives of the slain, begging Roof to turn to God. One after another, they prayed for his soul. One after another, they forgave him.

It was neither expected nor explicable, that forgiveness. Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world, is nonsensical to common human nature. Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps its most divine.
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Monday, June 15, 2015

The Civil War did not start over slavery

It's occurred to me that an awful lot of people do not understand that the reasons that Southern states seceded and the reasons the Civil War was fought are not the same.

As I have posted, the South seceded to protect and even expand the institution of slavery, and for no other reason.

But South Carolina did not fire on Fort Sumter to protect slavery. After the CSA was formed in Feb 1861, "Its conservative government, with Mississippian Jefferson Davis as president, sought a peaceful separation, but the United States refused to acquiesce in the secession," according to

Had the war not broke out in Charleston harbor, President Lincoln would have made sure it broke out somewhere. His correspondence and public utterances make it clear that he was absolutely determined, even including war, that the Union would not be sundered.

There was at the time, and remained for three or four years after the Sumter battle, a substantial peace movement in the North that urged the Southern states be permitted to depart in peace. Lincoln adamantly refused this position, stating that the Union of states was unalterable and no state, once admitted, could separate itself from the Union. (This was, btw, explicitly contrary to the position of one Thomas Jefferson, but let it pass.)

In his First Inaugural address, after the CSA had been formed, Lincoln made this explicitly plain:
I therefore consider that. . . the Union is unbroken; and. . . I shall take care that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend, and maintain itself.
But of course this was a threat, raw and naked, and all his contemporaries understood it that way.

South Carolina seceded on Dec. 24, 1860. Why did they wait until April 12, 1861, to fire on the fort? Because they did not want war. Jeff Davis even sent a delegation to see Lincoln to negotiate the transfer of Fort Sumter to the CSA. The delegates were authorized to set an amount to pay the US government for the fort. Lincoln refused to see them and sent them home.

As late as the day before the battle, Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker directed that if Anderson and his men evacuated the fort, they would not be hindered by force. Anderson actually told CSA military emissaries on April 11 that he intended to evacuate on April 15, a date that was accepted by the Confederate commander. (Anderson also admitted that he had only a few days' provisions on hand.)

But with a US Navy task force to reinforce and resupply Sumter having arrived and sitting at the harbor's entrance, Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beuaregard knew that dates and timetables meant nothing any more. He sent word to Anderson that the fort would be fired on beginning at 4.30 a.m. the next morning.

By no stretch of the most active imagination can it be credibly maintained that the South fired on Fort Sumter to protect slavery. Having declared itself to be part of an independent nation, S.C. worked for four months to convince the Union to abandon a fortress sitting in command of the harbor's approaches. The state and its new nation would either be sovereign over its territories or they would not. And as long as the fort was staffed by Union troops, they would not. This is how the CSA's leaders understood the situation. They could no more accept a Union-garrisoned fort in Charleston harbor that George Washington would have agreed to permit a British fort in New York harbor after 1781.

There is a widely accepted, though not universally agreed-on analysis of April 1861 that,
... the situation at Sumter presented Lincoln with a series of dilemmas. If he took action to maintain the fort, he would lose the border South and a large segment of northern opinion which wanted to conciliate the South. If he abandoned the fort, he jeopardized the Union by legitimizing the Confederacy. Lincoln also hazarded losing the support of a substantial portion of his own Republican Party, and risked appearing a weak and ineffective leader.

Lincoln could escape these predicaments, however, if he could induce southerners to attack Sumter, "to assume the aggressive and thus put themselves in the wrong in the eyes of the North and of the world." By sending a relief expedition, ostensibly to provide bread to a hungry garrison, Lincoln turned the tables on the Confederates, forcing them to choose whether to permit the fort to be strengthened, or to act as the aggressor. By this "astute strategy," Lincoln maneuvered the South into firing the first shot.
Even in the North, there was widespread acknowledgment that Lincoln was the one who began the war, including among members of Congress (many of whom approved). After the battle, The New York Evening Day-Book editorialized:
We have no doubt, and all the circumstances prove, that it was a cunningly devised scheme, contrived with all due attention to scenic display and intended to arouse, and, if possible, exasperate the northern people against the South…. We venture to say a more gigantic conspiracy against the principles of human liberty and freedom has never been concocted. Who but a fiend could have thought of sacrificing the gallant Major Anderson and his little band in order to carry out a political game? Yet there he was compelled to stand for thirty-six hours amid a torrent of fire and shell, while the fleet sent to assist him, coolly looked at his flag of distress and moved not to his assistance! Why did they not? Perhaps the archives in Washington will yet tell the tale of this strange proceeding…. Pause then, and consider before you endorse these mad men who are now, under pretense of preserving the Union, doing the very thing that must forever divide it.
The Civil War began because of the singular determination one man, Abraham Lincoln.

Interesting trivia:

1. The surrender ceremony was held April 14, but the barrage had lasted 34 hours. No one was killed on either side during the battle.

2. The South did not take Anderson or his men prisoner. In fact they ordered a 100-round artillery salute to be fired to honor them. But a cannon malfunctioned in firing the salute barrage, killing a cannoneer, the only fatality of the whole sad affair and the first fatality of the Civil War.

3. Maj. Anderson was himself a former slave holder. He served the rest of the war in Union service.

4. Fort Sumter was not even completed when S.C. seceded.

5. After an overnight awaiting high tides, a South Carolina vessel sailed Anderson and his men to the Union ships where they were transferred to Union hands without incident.

6. The United States flag was raised again over Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865, exactly four years after it had been lowered. The officer raising the flag was Robert Anderson, then a medically-retired major general.

7. Below, Fort Sumter as seen from The Battery in Charleston, where the CSA guns were (my photo from 2010).

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Yes, Jesus did talk about homosexuality

One of the favorite tropes of the wing of the UMC (and not just the UMC) in promoting marriage between same-sex persons, or ordination of practicing homosexuals, is that Jesus never condemned homosexuality and in fact never even mentioned it.

Well, the list of acts we today consider illegal or immoral that Jesus never mentioned is long indeed. "Arguments from silence" are logically unsupportable and inherently deficient. Jesus never talked about whether democracy was superior to monarchy, either. He never talked about whether interest should be charged on loans nor what rate would be usurious. So to say, "Jesus never said homosexuality is unacceptable" is not a serious argument.

Nor is it a true one. There are multiple answers rebutting the claim. One was explained by Vanderbilt Prof. Amy-Jill Levine, a world-class New Testament scholar (and a supporter of the pro-homosexual agenda). She explained in class one day that in both testaments, Jewish prophets spoke to issues that did not accord to obedience to the Law and didn't spend time mentioning popular conduct or attitudes that did accord with the Law. The Law, she said, was clear that homosexual acts were forbidden; Jesus's silence on the topic simply means that the first-century Judeans were not in defiance of the Law on the matter. (That is not to say that there was no one committing homosexual acts then, just that there was popular understanding and strong social mores that the acts were forbidden by the Law.)

When Jesus did speak to sexual relations between persons, it was in such a manner that excluded homosexual acts from permissibility.

Porneia is the word used in the Gospels in which Jesus explained how a husband and wife were permitted to divorce. It used to be translated simply as "adultery," but porneia actually encompasses a broader range of sexual immorality. For example, Paul used the word in 1 Cor. 5 to refer to incest. In non-biblical Greek usage, porneia was used by Greek authors to refer to a wide range of sexual conduct of both heterosexual and homosexual kind, often referring to pagan temple prostitution. But porneia definitely was used to refer to homosexual acts, though not only them.

It simply is not credible that Jesus, a faithful first-century Jew and expert on Jewish Law, would have used the word in a way that excluded homosexual acts, or that his teaching on marriage (the context in which he spoke about divorce) indicated anything but exclusion of same-sex "marriage." Example, Matthew 19:
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Jesus very clearly defined marriage solely as between a man and a woman. There is no wiggle room in his meaning. The idea that same-sex "marriage" could credibly be included in how Jesus spoke about marriage in this or other passages simply cannot be sustained. The use of porneia shows definitively that homosexual acts were proscribed by Jesus, though illicit heterosexual acts were as well.

To Jesus, sexual relations were licit only between a man and a woman who were married to one another, and no other sort of marriage was even imagined, much less implicitly endorsed.

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...