Sunday, July 31, 2022

Freedom is Choosing Rightly

Thirty years ago my family and I lived in Virginia. We had a friend who was a dietician. She once told of waiting in line in a cafeteria, where there was, of course, a wide variety of foods to choose from. A young teenager was just ahead of her in line with his mother. He was eyeing the serving line eagerly. "Can I get whatever I want?" he asked his mom. ""Yes," his mom replied, "you can get whatever you want."

So, being a dietician, our friend observed what food choices the teenager made. He started off with a Caesar salad with extra dressing, then got fried chicken tenders. As side dishes he got french fries and macaroni and cheese. For dessert he got chocolate cream pie and to drink sweet tea.

Our friend told us, "Cafeterias give you lots of choices, but the rules of healthy eating are always in effect. If you make bad choices of what to eat you will pay the price down the road."

Good choices yield good results, bad choices yield bad results. In the truly important things, what is good and what is bad are not just matters of personal opinion. Life has rules. There is a definite relationship between making good choices and the rules. Both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, for example, have a law. The Boy Scout law has twelve commandments, that a Scout is Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. Adhering to the Scout law is what makes you a Scout. Simply joining a troop, pack or den does not make you a Scout. Just wearing a Scout uniform does not make you a Scout. Those things are only choices. But living according to the law is much more than a choice because the law sets standards that Scouts have to follow if they want to be a Scout rather than just pretend to be one.

So let’s look at the relationship between law and choice and freedom. My kickoff passage is a brief one from the Gospel of John, 8:31-32. Jesus said to the people who had believed him, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Now, we’re all for freedom. But we need to ask ourselves, freedom from what and freedom for what?

Freedom is one of the central themes of both the old and new testaments. The story of the children of Israel being freed from chattel bondage in Egypt is still the formative story of the Jews around the world. Yet simply leaving Egypt did not give them freedom although it did relieve them of the lash.

The children of Israel came to understand that they became free only when they received the Law at Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law that followed. When Jesus, a faithful Jew, said that holding to the truth about his teachings would make his followers free, he was not talking about being freed from the law. Christian people often believe, erroneously, that we are freed from the Law because we have a new covenant in Jesus Christ. After all, we have a "New Testament" while the Jews, who do not confess Christ, are still stuck with the old one. So we tell ourselves.

But it's not so. First, it’s not clear that Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant is terribly different from the covenant made concrete at Sinai and explained in the books of Moses. Jesus claimed the New Covenant as his own, embodied by him personally, at the Last Supper. But morally and ethically, there is no difference between the covenant at Sinai and the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

Second, Jesus said explicitly in Matthew 5.17-20,

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not a letter or a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Seems clear. Paul picks up on this theme, especially in Romans, by insisting that the Law is freedom because it is through the Law that he – and we, too – understand what sin is because the Law explains it. "If it had not been for the law," Paul wrote, "I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’" For Paul, the great benefit of the Law was that it revealed the greatest means of the grace of God, and that is Jesus. So for Paul, knowing the Law meant knowing what is right and what is wrong and being able to perceive the meaning of Jesus.

I want to hammer this point home some. The Law of Moses that Jesus fulfilled was revealed to humanity. We did not make it up. So far removed from these events are we that we think that morality, as we understand it, is the natural way that people live together. Few people today know that the societies around the ancient Jews and early Christians was brutal. The Romans considered mercy, charity, and forgiveness to be vices, evidence of weakness, not virtues. Human morality absent divine commandment is base and filled with vice.

Morally, our capacities are weighted toward the negative side of the scale. We intend greater good than we ever achieve. Treaties, alliances, aid organizations, political parties, civic groups, even churches – all begun for good reasons to accomplish good things, and all fall short of what their founders intended. And, as Paul said, we often achieve evil even while trying to do good. In fact, we even have a name for it, the "law of unintended consequences."

 Hence is the necessity of God giving the moral law. My friend Rabbi Daniel Jackson wrote, "There are obvious logical elements of the Law of Sinai that might be deduced logically (or rationally). Yet, much of the Scriptures is based on directives and rules ‘that we would not have known’ if the Scriptures did not tell us so."

What we think of a normal morality has been revealed to us by God. The freedom of God’s Law is freedom from the baser demons of our being so that we may discover the better angels of our nature.

It is a choice to obey God’s law or not. And yes, we frequently fail because of our own inability or giving in to temptations. Every choice to depart from God’s Law chips away at our integrity as persons belonging to Jesus. But there is no good reason to do a bad thing. Integrity matters!

During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt and one of his cowpunchers lassoed a maverick steer, lit a fire, and put a branding iron in it to heat. The part of the range they were on was actually owned by Gregor Lang, one of Roosevelt's neighbors. According to the cattleman's rule, the steer therefore belonged to Lang. Roosevelt saw his employee, the cowboy, raise the glowing branding iron toward the steer, but it was Roosevelt's brand. "Wait, it should be Lang's brand," he said.

"That's all right, boss," said the cowboy. "Lang will never know."

"Drop that iron," Roosevelt demanded, "and get back to the ranch, get your things and get out." Roosevelt later explained, "A man who will steal for me will steal from me."

Integrity, says Webster’s, is "adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty." And that takes the willingness and ability to cleave to a standard, whether you call it the law or a code or something else. Roosevelt knew that integrity is a cloth woven from the whole of a person's life. To break that trust anywhere cheapens whatever good one might do elsewhere.

It does not work to make up your own code of conduct and think that integrity will follow. When I was in the Army, I heard another officer described this way: "He fails to achieve even the low standards he sets for himself." Rare is the man or woman who does not fall short of even their own standards even though many people set their own bar pretty low. Even if we do meet our own standards, we still fail to become what God intends us to be. Perhaps that's why poet Robert Browning asked, "Oh that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?"

Choices matter, and the choices we make are not isolated from one another. Charles Swindoll told the story of a fellow in Long Beach, California, who went inside a fried chicken place and bought two chicken dinners for himself and his lady friend late one afternoon. The woman working the counter accidentally gave him a bag containing the day's cash proceeds instead of his bag of fried chicken.

After driving to their picnic site, the man and woman opened the bag and discovered more than $800! The man quickly put the money back in the bag. They got back into the car and drove all the way back to the store. He walked into the chicken store, where the manager and counter girl were searching frantically for the money. The customer handed the manager the bag and said, "I came here to get a couple of chicken dinners and wound up with all this money. Here, take it back."

The manager was thrilled to death. He said, "Oh, let me call the newspaper. I'm gonna have your picture put in the local newspaper. You're the most honest man I've heard of." To which they guy quickly responded, "Oh no, no, don't do that!" Then he leaned closer and whispered, "You see, the woman with me is somebody else's wife."

The man did the right thing to return the money, but was he really a man of integrity? I report, you decide. 

It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.

The issue is more acute for young people than for our generation. It sounds trite to say but it’s nonetheless true that I grew up in a different time than they. The advice to "do your own thing" was unknown to us and we would never have even thought of agreeing that something may be right for you and wrong for me, or vice-versa, depending on our own inclinations, points of view and what we simply want to believe.

I think the heart of the problem today is that to be a modern man or woman of today’s culture is to believe in nothing. Or more accurately, to believe in nothing in particular. Modernity prizes personal autonomy so much that the spirit of this age gleefully embraces that nothing underlies fundamental reality, making, in the words of David Hart, "a fertile void in which all things are [claimed] possible, from which arises no impediment" to our desires – and therefore we may decide for ourselves what is right or wrong and what we choose.[1]

Which is to say that modern America as a whole no longer believes that there is an objective criterion by which to judge our choices because there can be no higher good than being able to make a choice in the first place. Therefore, all judgment, whether divine or human, infringes on choosing – and being able to choose apart from any standards but one’s own exercises "an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns."

This is a purely an idea of our day. In centuries past, even before Jesus was born, true human freedom was emancipation "from whatever constrains us from living a life of rational virtue" and that led to our intellectual and spiritual flourishing. Freedom was the ability to overcome "our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices."

"In this view of things [wrote Hart], we are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented ... and whatever separates us from that end – even if it comes from our own wills – is a form of bondage. We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well."

For to choose poorly is to enslave ourselves to the impermanent, the irrational and eventually the destructive. Simply choosing, unconnected from divine guidance and godly standards, is to choose ultimately to reject freedom, to be enslaved to the bondage of the self, to what Paul called the body of death, and finally to choose to perish rather than attain everlasting life.

The role of God’s law is to enable human beings to be released from the shackles of spiritual and mental bondage that prevent us from being saved in this life and the next. Through the teachings of the so-called "Old" Testament, we are guided to the divine goodness, which we can then perceive embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s advice of Romans 12 holds true: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Jesus understood that a life of choosing rightly is not easy. "Enter through the narrow gate," he said, "for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."

It’s not easy to live rightly to remain free. It is bondage to death and sin that is easy. But we can break those chains if we hold fast to Jesus’ teachings. Live up to God’s law. Then we will be free indeed.

[1]David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 21.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

China sits back to enjoy our decline

 Foreign Policy is one of the two main "trade journals" of international affairs. The other is Foreign Affairs. It cost $200 per year to subscribe to FP, so posting a link to this article would do no good. But the full text is online elsewhere and I have pasted it below. The article is by Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University.

Here is the text:

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falters, Moscow has many opponents and few backers. Even China, Moscow’s closest diplomatic partner other than Belarus, maintains a studied distance—on the one hand blaming the West for its supposed threat to Russian security and condemning the United States for imposing sanctions while on the other hand reaffirming its principled support for the territorial integrity of sovereign states and calling for a negotiated resolution of what it calls “the Ukraine crisis.” Why does China neither endorse nor condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war?

The answer lies in what has become the first principle of Chinese foreign policy: distrust of the United States. For decades, China has embarked on a quest to assume what it regards as its historically mandated position as the dominant power in Asia. As strategic realists, Chinese leaders always expected the United States to push back, seeking to protect its legacy status as the region’s dominant power. And in Beijing’s view, the United States has done just that. As China’s power and ambitions have burgeoned, Beijing assesses that Washington has assaulted the Chinese Communist Party on ideological and human rights grounds; sought to undermine Chinese control of peripheral territories like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong; perpetuated the division of Taiwan from the mainland; opposed China’s assertion of its rights in the South China Sea; colluded with U.S. allies and partners in thinly disguised coalitions to contain China, such as the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and used tariffs to try to force China to open its economy and change what the Communist Party views as its successful economic model.

But China remains steadily on course. Despite a host of challenges—exacerbated by recent draconian COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities—the ruling party remains confident that it can build a “great modern socialist country [that is] prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful” by the 100th anniversary of China’s founding in 2049.

They are equally sure that the United States is locked in an irreversible process of decline that will gradually eliminate it as a serious rival in Asia. Their confidence is based partly in Marxist theory, which says that a mature capitalist economy like that of the United States must encounter financial crises and class conflicts that will drag it down from the heights of prosperity. And it is based partly in their understanding of recent history, as events in the United States seem to unfold in the ways that theory predicts. Chinese confidence was boosted by the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, when Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan famously told then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson, “[Y]ou were our teacher—and our teacher doesn’t look very smart!” Next came what Beijing viewed as an indecisive Obama administration; the vicious 2016 presidential election, when then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton responded to electoral pressures by abandoning a prime strategic asset against China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; the Trump administration’s trashing of U.S. relations with its allies; the disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on Capitol Hill; the catastrophic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the political paralysis and widening polarization of the Biden era—all while the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Ocean complained that it did not have enough ships to deter China, and the American share of global GDP declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2019.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine might have contributed to this decline by exposing U.S. indecision and the fragility of its alliances. Instead, it reversed the process—though, China believes, temporarily. The war created a rare consensus in U.S. domestic politics, strengthened the U.S. alliance system, and consolidated Washington’s view of relations with Russia and China as an existential conflict of values and systems. Putin’s war has given the United States an excuse to put increased pressure on China, demand more cooperation from its Asian allies, and pressure India to reduce economic ties with Russia. Worst of all, it has strengthened the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan.

In this context, China’s strategic priority is to avoid doing anything that would interrupt the process of U.S. decline. China deeply resents American moral posturing, claiming to stand up for what is right and lawful, telling Beijing what is in China’s interest and how it will be punished if it does not comply. Although the American side is sincere about these attitudes, to China, they look like hypocrisy or (at best) self-delusion because it believes that American actions always reflect hard interests. As Beijing sees it, moral posturing is the way in which the United States has always legitimized its numerous political dominations and military interventions—what Beijing calls U.S. hegemony. Now, the United States would like to harvest additional benefits from Putin’s war by splitting China from Russia.

Beijing is not about to fall into that trap. Instead, it seeks to preserve whatever remains of its only substantial partner (aside from North Korea) in its efforts to check U.S. arrogance. The tie that binds China and Russia is antagonism to the United States. The two leaders exaggerated the state of their relationship at their last face-to-face meeting before the war, when they described the partnership as one with “no limits.” In fact, Russia has no interest in China’s primary security issues in Taiwan and the South China Sea, and China has no interest in Russia’s primary security issue of Western encroachment in Eastern Europe. Even though the last of the two countries’ border disputes was settled in 2008, China has not forgotten what it regards as Russian historical aggression, and Russia remains chronically anxious about the influx of Chinese workers into the lightly populated Russian Far East. The two countries forged cooperative security policies through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, but continue to compete for influence over the four Central Asian members of that organization. China buys oil and gas from Russia but drives a hard bargain on price. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideology is a version of atheist socialism; Putin’s is a form of Christian kleptocratic capitalism.

Despite all these differences, Chinese strategists live in the world as they find it, not as they wish it to be. No doubt Putin has rendered Russia a much-diminished strategic asset. Its military is degraded, its leverage over Western Europe through energy sales is disappearing, and its diplomatic credibility is bankrupt. China does not appreciate Moscow’s mishandling of the situation, its misestimation of Ukrainian resistance, Euro-American determination, and its own military prowess. Nor do they like that Russia is wrecking a valued trade partner of China: Ukraine. Yet barring a collapse of the Putin regime, even a diminished Russia will remain an asset in China’s resistance to U.S. hegemony. China is not about to throw away its main strategic partner.

But neither does China want Putin to drag it into a premature confrontation with the West. China prefers to let history take its predetermined course, with China gradually rising and the United States gradually declining, without the United States taking flight and adopting an outright containment policy toward China. For all the boilerplate flavor of his remarks, Xi was not misrepresenting Chinese views when he told then-U.S. President Donald Trump in April 2017, “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship a success,” or when he told U.S. President Joe Biden in November 2021, “A sound and steady China-U.S. relationship is required for advancing our two countries’ respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment. … China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation.” Keeping the United States and its allies calm has been a hard enough strategy to pursue as China’s reach for influence has generated inevitable backlash not only in Washington but even in many of its client countries. But for Beijing now to fall in line with Putin’s failing war would only harden resistance to Chinese influence and reduce Chinese access to Western markets, capital, and technology.

These complex calculations explain why China has threaded a middle position in both its rhetoric and its actions. It blames the United States for putting Putin in a position where he needed to defend Russian security, but it asks for an end to the war and respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It trades with Russia (and will get some good deals on oil and gas), only to the extent that it does not run afoul of international sanctions.

U.S. policymakers seem to understand this careful strategy and are willing to accept it. In his video conference with Xi on March 18, Biden tacitly gave room for China to pursue this middle position by limiting U.S. threats to China’s provision of what Biden called “material support” for Russia. The term is ambiguous but probably refers to supplying Moscow with weapons or backfilling against sanctions without banning normal commerce. China will remain on the sidelines as the drama in Europe unfolds, and when the dust settles, it hopes to resume its long march toward preeminence in Asia.

End text

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Good Samaritan and Problem of Evil

Gustave Dore, The Good Samaritan

One of the greatest obstacles of inviting people to Christian faith is the problem of evil in the world. Some people cannot reconcile an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God with the violence our own planet wreaks upon itself and humankind. Yet the tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes that lay waste to cities and destroy lives usually don't present nearly the challenge to faith presented by the evil men and women do to one another.

Those who find the problem of evil a major challenge to faith are right to take the issue so seriously. The longest book of the Bible, Job, is entirely concerned with nothing else. Human evil is a prominent theme of Jonah, one of the shortest books. An enormous amount of Jesus' teachings and deeds were oriented on good and evil, and Jesus' own people, the Jews, were formed by hundreds of years in chattel slavery in Egypt, finally delivered by God's hand. 

Jesus told a parable of a farmer who sowed good seed in his field, but an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. By the time the farmer knew his field had been polluted, tearing up the weeds would have torn up the wheat as well. He told his workers, to let them grow together until the harvest; then at harvest to collect the weeds first and burn them but store the wheat in the barn. 

Jesus never explained why evil exists. The weeds were planted by an enemy, whom Jesus explained to his disciples was the devil, but he does not explain why there is a devil in the first place. He teaches that the time will come when God will separate evil from good, and evil-doers from the righteous. That time is not yet. Grain isn’t harvested until it is ripe, and the parable seems to teach that for God to destroy evil now would do more harm than good. We might wish for fire from heaven to take care of certain matters, but God, wise beyond our understanding, knows better. 

But time for weeds does eventually run out. At harvest the reapers saved the wheat and burned the weeds. So, wrote Peter, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives” (2 Pet 3:11). 

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Each person must decide whether he or she is wheat or weeds. Jesus pulled no punches on what difference it makes. In Matthew 7, Jesus said, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt 7:19-20). 

We each must decide to be wheat, not weeds. It does not happen by accident; and the default is weeds. And weeds get burned. This is a hard teaching, no two ways about it. But there it is. But Jesus didn’t end the parable there. The good part is the tag line: “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” 

God is much more oriented on saving the righteous than destroying the evil. It’s more important for the wheat to grow than the weeds to perish. Peter wrote in his second epistle, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9 NIV). 

Vladimir Lenin said it was better to execute 100 innocent men than to let one guilty man go free. Lenin did what he said, of course, and we can easily imagine him ripping up 100 stalks of wheat to get one weed. God doesn’t work like that. Instead, God knows that goodness is more powerful than evil, and love is more powerful than hate. Transforming weeds to wheat is something God can do. 

But change is not always something we embrace easily. Some people change when they see the light and others wait until they feel the heat. The light is better. 

Jesus didn't simply make threats or promises about the end of evil. He both showed and taught what Paul later called "a more excellent way." That’s how Jesus lived his life: befriending sinners, hanging out with hated tax collectors and other discards of society. In agriculture weeds stay weeds, no matter what, but human beings can change. There were two weedy men, thieves, nailed to crosses beside Jesus. Yet one went to paradise that day.

One day Jesus was conversing with a religious lawyer. The lawyer said to Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 

Jesus answered, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 

The lawyer said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 

Jesus told him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." 

But the lawyer wanted to make himself look good, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 

Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

"But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 

The lawyer said, "The one who showed him mercy." 

Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:25‑37).

The great English statesman Edmund Burke observed that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. In this story, a priest and a Levite did do nothing, surely because of excellent reasons in their own mind. But the Samaritan didn't do nothing. He gave first aid to the beaten traveler, carried him to an inn and paid for his lodging. Because of him, the evil done to the traveler, while real, did not triumph. He did these things even though Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other. 

None of us think of ourselves as evil men or women. Yet do we have the right to think of ourselves as good? So many of us define our goodness by what we do not do - we don't do drugs, we don't steal from our employers, we don't fight with our neighbors. But do we define our neighbors as inclusively as Jesus did? 

The Samaritan showed mercy to the beaten Jew. Why do persons such as this Samaritan exist? There are ordinary people of our communities who live decent but mostly unremarkable lives, but there are also men or women who remind us of the Samaritan, who even shame us by their example. Christ's commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is not uniquely Christian. But it is especially for Christians. Why do we not have a whole town of Christian Samaritans? After all, we see in the world that there not only Osama bin Ladens, but also Mother Teresas. 

And there are people like “Dr. David Baum, a long-time obstetrician in Highland Park,” Illinois, who last Monday,
Dr. Baum
… was attending the parade with his wife and children to watch his two-year-old grandson participate. When the shots rang out and others fled, he ran into the fray to try to help the victims. … 
Baum said there were at least three doctors, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner who joined him in treating victims.   …
In fact, “bystanders tied tourniquets and administered CPR” and 
... people from every corner of the Highland Park community sprang into action on July 4 in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Nearly a dozen people, including off-duty doctors, nurses, and a football coach, were among the first to administer lifesaving assistance to victims of the parade shooting. 
I believe that there are more good Samaritans than are known. Samaritan-hood takes many forms today and the vast majority get no headlines. 

Perhaps such inquiries help form an answer to the faith problem of evil, for if there is a problem of evil, there is also a problem of good. If the existence of sin and evil hinder faith in a loving, redemptive God, then shouldn’t the daily instances of goodness and mercy we see around us compel us to know that a loving, redemptive God is real and in the world? 

So to persons who feel stymied in faith by the problem of evil, I say to remember that all of us are active actors in, not passive observers of, this world and the opportunities it presents for both good and evil. The psalmist's cry to God is less a plea to him than a recognition of our duties before him: "Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” 

That’s our job, for we are the answer to that prayer. The prophet Micah put it this way: "[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" 

The problem of evil is not a problem to be solved, it is a condition to be overcome. God is working in the world both to overcome evil and redeem it, and God does not labor alone. Each one of us is called to be a coworker of God. The Bible nowhere divorces love of neighbor from love for God. They are two sides of the same coin. To be righteous before God requires both; to prevail against evil requires both. 

How shall evil be overcome? Each of us shall open our hearts to God, be filled with Christ, accept the pardon given us. And by opening our hands to our neighbors, so that they may see Christ reflected from us. J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923, 
 If we really love our fellow men, we shall never be content with [simply] binding up their wounds and pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Saviour of their souls. (Christianity and Liberalism)

End note: In 2017, a man named Stephen Paddock shot hundreds of people. killing dozens, in La Vegas. Read what might God have said about that. 

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Theology of America

There are certain occasions when events on the secular calendar give us the opportunity to pause and reflect on religion in America. The Fourth of July is an obvious occasion. I want to take this day to reflect on the religious underpinnings of our country and explain why I believe there is an actual theology of America and what it means.
I think that the theology of America was best summarized by Thomas Jefferson in his 1774 essay, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America." There he stated, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them."
Editorialist James Freeman wrote that based on the standards of our day, “Thomas Jefferson was a religious nut.”
   Jefferson was a big believer in religious liberty, but he certainly wasn't shy about mentioning God in official proceedings. In the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asks twice for God's help in creating the country. And the Declaration was not the only work of Jefferson's in which he gave credit to a higher power. . . .
   In his Notes on Virginia of 1782, Jefferson writes: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?"
If we disregard the Founders’ religious faith, we have no answer to the question, Where do our rights come from? Jefferson's religious ideas, shared by representatives from the thirteen colonies, are the reason we have a United States and the reason that We the People are in charge.

However much it is claimed that Jefferson and most of the other Founders were more secular than religious, there is no escaping that Jefferson's writings are permeated with God consciousness. It's true that Christ does not figure into his political writings, but God does, and frequently. What gave Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries the right to be so, well, revolutionary? Whence came their idea that the people should rule instead of a king or a parliament of nobles? How could they claim that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was "unalienable," meaning beyond the rightful power of any government either to grant or deny? Why did they talk about human rights to begin with and where do rights come from?
According to Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, the ultimate answer to all those questions was simple: God. Only cynics say that the religious convictions of the Founders were not central to their determination to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for a single claim: that all human beings are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights that may not be rightfully denied them. And yes, the Founders did exclude African-Americans from this claim, but let us also acknowledge that Jefferson, among others, said explicitly that God's righteous day of reckoning and judgment upon slave-owning America would come. And it did.
The whole justification for the American revolution was that the divine rights of the people trumped the divine rights of kings that European monarchs claimed to have. Human rights come from God, not government. When the British government usurped them, it was the God‑given right of the people of America to cast off the that government and form their own. That is what the Declaration of Independence says, and that is what the Founders did. Freeman wrote, "If you could sum up Jefferson's political views in one sentence, you would say: He believed that God and reason allow people to rule themselves."
One of the genius things our Founders did was create a civil society in which enormous numbers of different Christian denominations and nowadays, different religions, find a home. Our history has seen times of sectarian strife, but it never descended to open combat as it has in, say, Northern Ireland. A lot of Protestants were suspicious of whether Catholic John F. Kennedy would cleave to the Vatican rather than the Constitution, but their fears were unfounded. In 2004, orthodox Jew Joe Lieberman ran for president and then was the nominated candidate for vice president and no one worried whether he would cleave to Jerusalem rather than the Constitution.

The American ideas of freedom and liberty are drawn from religion. Jefferson was saying that human liberty is inherent in the creative acts of God in bringing forth humankind to begin with. Creation was not a static event, it is a dynamic process of bringing forth the image of God in humankind and the world at large. The creation stories in the book of Genesis show that the realms of the divine and creation overlap. God is powerful, but creation has power too; a certain degree of independence and freedom is built into creation by God's very acts of creating.
In the original paradise, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the run of the garden and meaningful work to do. They were free agents of their own will. Yet there were limits. God commanded them that they could eat the fruit of any tree except one. Their freedom had its limits. When they crossed that limit, they were less free, and Genesis relates that as generations passed, humankind became steadily even less free.
Eventually the story leads to Egypt, where the Hebrews found themselves in chattel slavery to Pharaoh. They had no freedom at all.
The twin images of slavery and freedom shape the entire theology of both Jews and Christians. Always God is a liberator. The central story of the Jews is that of Moses leading the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. At their start, slavery. At their ending, freedom. But neither the slavery nor their freedom is the high point of the story. The high point is what happened at Sinai. The high point, the defining moment, was when God gave them the Law.
The Law of Moses defined freedom in two ways. On the one hand, the law defined what was forbidden. On the other, it stated what was obligatory.
There is always a tension between the forbidden and the mandatory. But the Bible seems clear that human freedom is found somewhere between the limits of what may not be done and what must be done. With no limits there is no freedom because there is no orientation on God. Without obligations there is no justice, without prohibitions there is no community. The surest way for persons or societies to fall into bondage is to ignore prohibitions and obligations. Falling into slavery is easy, staying free is hard.
The apostle Paul said that creation itself is in bondage to decay, an amazing statement for a pre‑scientific man to make. Science today confirms that the universe is running down and cosmologists now seem convinced that the universe will keep expanding forever, until the time comes when energy states will be even, and nothing will ever change.
As for we men, women and children, we are born slaves to this decay. At the end lies the grave. We know that. We fear death because our mortality looms over everything we do. Human customs and culture are shaped by the end of life in ways we cannot even uncover, to degrees we do not recognize. Such is our slavery to the fear of death.
Christians have tended to think of Jesus' gift of life as some sort of afterlife, but Christ is concerned about far more of our lives than what happens after they end. Christ frees us not only from the fear of personal death but from our slavery to a death‑shaped culture. With death overcome, the family of God is empowered to inaugurate a new order of living and a new kind of life.
Jesus explained in the Gospel of John (8:34‑36), "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."
Through Christ, we are freed from sin and from servitude to the things of this world which inhibit godly living: greed, jealousy, anger, resentment, racism, selfishness – all the hundreds of things we put under the general label of sin. We are freed from sin and the fear of death.
So liberated, we should be able to live positively in ways not possible before. Justice, the right ordering of things in human affairs, is the result of this spiritual freedom. So the fuller Law of the Hebrews recognized this fact. Deuteronomy 10:12‑13 and 17‑18 says to the nation of Israel:
12 So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well‑being. 17For the LORD your God is God of God's and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Those are some of the divine obligations people have as they live in community. Yet our nation's founding documents make no mention of the obligations and responsibilities, they seek to ensure only our rights. In fact, Jefferson wrote that the whole purpose of government is to secure the rights that God gave us. He ignored codifying the obligations God lays on us.
I think that is a good thing. I shudder to think what our civil life would be like if our Constitution required things of the people rather than limited the power of government. It is always too easy for the law, whether civil or religious, to cease being a guide and become a slave-master. George Washington warned that even democratic "Government is not reason; ... it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
In both our civil and religious life, we would do well to remember Paul's admonition to the Corinthians, 1 Cor 10:23: "‘Everything is permissible' – but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible' – but not everything is constructive.'" The absence of limits in America's founding documents is not an oversight. The Founders expected the people to understand the limits of libertine anarchy on the one hand and political slavery on the other.
John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, "We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Justice William O. Douglas wrote in a majority opinion of a Supreme Court case, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
The Constitution guarantees our rights, but not our liberty. It is our religion under the providence of the God of the Bible that secures our liberty. Liberty is maintained by faith in powers greater than government, by living out God’s call to know the truth of freedom in God’s way of life. When we make government the object of our faith, when we decide that our liberty depends on government, we will live under political bondage.
Various commentators of the American religious scene point out that America is becoming less and less religious. A lower percentage of Americans regularly attend church or synagogue than in past times.
But the fact is that Americans are still just as religious as before, it's just not Jewish or Christian religion they are practicing. Increasing numbers of people are turning to forms of spirituality that are private and personal, not public and social. These forms of religion are, at their base, selfish and self‑centered. While this is certainly their right, I fear that over time the obligations of freedom will be ignored, and the justice of our freedom will be degraded. Self‑centered persons do not prosper, and neither do self‑centered societies or nations. Paul warned the Galatian Christians (Gal 5:13‑14):

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self‑indulgence . . . For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."    
Freedom is God's will. Certain rights are God‑given and cannot be rightfully denied by human authority. God's gift of freedom carries the obligation to live godly lives under his guidance and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our rights and our obligations reinforce one another, guard one another, preserve one another. Together they comprise our freedom.

Friday, July 1, 2022

What not to do under gunfire

Originally posted in May 2017

Here is security-camera video of the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport last Friday [in 2017 - DS], for which Esteban Santiago has been charged with multiple felonies. There is nothing graphic in the video, but watch what the people standing behind him do - and more importantly, do not do.

I understand that people were caught wholly by surprise and did not process what was happening very quickly. I understand that as a retired Army combat-arms officer I would recognize gunfire and its implications many times more quickly than the average civilian.

But that is of no comfort to the five people Santiago is accused of murdering or the six of wounding.

News reports say that the FBI has not ruled out a terrorism connection yet (I am doubtful) but even if not, this is the kind of thing ISIS wants its members of sympathizers to do anywhere in America they can. Can we expect more shootings like this? Almost certainly. [Update, Jan. 11: The terrorism angle may be justified, "Airport Shooter Converted to Islam, Identified as Aashiq Hammad Years Before Joining Army"]

In such a situation, you have only one rule: OODA. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. What you must not do is what the people in the video did.

No longer can you assume you are safe. No longer can you enter public places without awareness of what is going on near and far from you. You must observe what is happening! Not just with your eyes, but with your hearing and other senses, too.

This must become a habit that does not stop. When I was learning to fly, my instructor insisted that at every moment of flight, I should always have identified a place to land if my motor quit. Since the airplane was obviously moving, that meant I had to near-constantly observe for a suitable emergency set-down place.

At every moment, you must know where exits are, the fastest ways to get there, which one is best, which one is second best. You must know where to hide if escape is closed off.

In the video, the people behind the shooter did not ascertain what was happening for precious seconds. Under gunfire, this can be fatally slow. You must orient on the danger without hesitating. That means where, what, how.

No one did that when the shooting started. I am not casting blame. They just didn't. See what they did? They froze for precious seconds, which can get you killed, while trying to process what they were seeing and hearing.

Quite simply, in about a half-second you have to orient on what the danger is and decide what to do. Back to the people in the video: when they decided to move, they stepped only a few feet, then either fell straight down or huddled behind luggage. They were still targets and had gained no safety at all. Your decision must be one that will reduce your danger. It is not enough to decide to do something, you must do something effective.

Action must follow decision in less than an eyeblink of time. In almost any shooting situation, you have to run like Jesse Owens out of there. Run away and do not stop until you are behind friendly guns (cops).

You may respond that no one can outrun a bullet. That's true, but running away does two things: first, it removes you from the area of danger, of course, but second, it reduces your attractiveness as a target to the shooter. They do not shoot at distant people. They just don't, especially with a handgun and even if a shooter does he will very likely miss.

Do not run routes that you would take if nothing was happening. Go through obstacles rather than around, if possible. Go across baggage carousels for a shorter route or faster exit. If you're not in an airport the same principles apply.

What about hiding? If the only exit is on the other side of the shooter, then hiding may be your only option. There are two kinds of hiding: concealment and cover. Concealment is simply getting yourself out of sight from the shooter (but be prepared to move) but that doesn't mean he can't shoot you. If you hide behind a curtain you can still be shot! So cover is the better choice, where the shooter can neither see you nor shoot you if he tried. But remember one of Murphy's Laws of Combat: "Make it too hard for the enemy to get in, and you've made it too hard for you to get out." Your objective in taking cover or concealment is immediate safety but also finally to get the heck out of there!

Pray to God that you never encounter such a situation. But remember that "hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." Be prepared!


Also, be aware that buildings' interiors often provide limited exits, which will be fatal funnels as folks mob the door and cannot get out once the bullets start flying. Do not follow the crowd unless there is no alternative! 

Be camouflaged. That not mean wearing woodland-pattern clothing, but to be low profile, dress modestly, and use clutter and quiet movements to become a bit more ninja-like. Being flashy and glued to your smart phone is a no go. Dressing and acting bland, dull, and as unnoticeable as possible may give you an edge.

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...