Friday, May 22, 2015
Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) had an interesting story on May 13. Apparently the government of Egypt wanted to reach out to the families of the Christians beheaded by ISIS a few weeks ago, so they proposed to build a church in the home village of most of the victims and call it Church of the Martyrs.
The folks who hatched the plan were certainly well intentioned. Egypt is, don’t forget, a Muslim polity, and that Muslims would want to distance themselves from ISIS by giving tangible assistance to its victims is understandable and, in its way, commendable. But the result was not what the well-intentioned expected. Far from being met with flowers as benefactors, those who brought their good intentions to the village were met with hostility by the Muslims there and, it would seem, faint enthusiasm by the families of the victims.
Who could have imagined that Muslims would be unhappy that their tax money was being spent to build a Christian church in their village?
Fortunately, VOM heard about the situation and proposed that since clean drinking water was unobtainable in the village, they would buy water filters so both Christians and Muslims would be able to have clean water. The Muslim response was, it seems, “You gotta be kidding,” but once they realized that the offer was serious, even the tension that had existed before the government made its proposal was defused. The idea seemed to go over so well that VOM got to work putting filters in the villages of the other victims under the same terms, all paid for by voluntary contributions.
Our father Abraham learned firsthand the nature or worldly government when first the Pharaoh and then Abimelek abducted his wife instead of initiating wedding negotiations. He knew that he did not need, nor should he accept, help or reward from them in times of crisis; hence his brushoff of the king of Sodom after his rescue of Lot. We would do well to be his sons in that regard.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
What goes around comes around, and now it’s coming around. Christian florists, photographers, and caterers are being put out of business and fined because they refuse to do business with gay couples getting “married.”1 I’ve even heard rumors of homosexuals deliberately seeking out businesses that might refuse to serve them hoping that the businesses will refuse to serve them so that they can then sic the government anti–hate crime establishment on the businesses.
While this is indeed persecution of Christians by worldlings, God warns us twice to think carefully before we tear our clothes, fall on our faces, sprinkle dust on our heads, and bawl our eyes out at the turn of events (Jos 7:6-9). The first comes directly from Jesus:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:3-5)
Though Jesus is talking here about the sins of other believers, we would do well to apply it to our non-Christian neighbors as well.
The second comes from the apostle Peter: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).
Taken together, these make it clear that we need to make sure that we have given the world no cause to persecute us before we bewail our misfortunes. I would suggest that this round of persecution is in large measure simply the guns we have turned on others now being turned on us. We Christians in the US have our own set of sins to repent of.
Let’s begin with alcohol prohibition. While the Bible makes it plain that God abhors intoxication in any form, nowhere does he allow me to dictate or even desire to know what my neighbor consumes in the privacy of his own home. This seems to be a case of “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will repay’” and “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Yet Christians violated their neighbors’ property rights en masse, most famously in Carrie Nation’s raids on saloons, but also by proxy through the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Not only did they violate property rights by closing down saloons and speakeasies, they also violated the right of people peaceably to assemble.
When Prohibition ended, it was not ended to restore the people’s rights to property and assembly; it was ended to take the wind out of the sails of the crime wave that had struck the country as a direct result of Prohibition. The right of the people to own property was specifically violated within months when the war on (some) drugs was launched, again with no protest by Christians. Christians are not even known for protesting Roosevelt’s confiscation of gold. How could they, at that point, have based their argument on God’s prohibition of theft when they had so gladly violated it themselves since Prohibition and were gung ho to violate it in the drug war?
I also never recall hearing of any Christian protests against labor unionization. This is not surprising, as there are doubtless more Christians who can aspire only to be employees than there are who aspire to be entrepreneurs; union jobs tend to pay more than non-union jobs, so a Christian is likely to consider a union job a Godsend. Yet the moral system on which labor unions rest holds that those who start businesses lose their right to hire whom they will and pay what they will whenever they become large enough for the employees to vote in a union. That is, when a company becomes large enough to be taken over by a union, the rights of the owner to his property and to free assembly disappear. Where is the Christian outcry against this?
Similarly, Social Security was the plundering of future generations to fund the retirement of those who voted in the New Deal. Because of the provision that allowed a man to designate a wife as beneficiary after he died but not a homosexual lover, it was also de facto plundering of homosexuals. While I hear much just condemnation of homosexuality, I never hear homosexuals’ rights to property defended.
By the 1960s, with Social Security and the war on drugs, public schools and transportation, and dozens of other violations of property established as legitimate in the minds of US citizens, the Civil Rights movement had no trouble pushing government to further expropriate the private property of businesses by forcing them to serve customers they would otherwise not have served. The reasoning was simple: just as municipal bus systems should not discriminate against black riders, private restaurants should not discriminate against black customers. The difference between a tax-funded bus system (funded coercively through taxes and ruled by political power) and a private restaurant (voluntary, peaceable assembly on private property) was ignored. And again, Christians – including yours truly at that point – went along with the crowd.
I should say here that property and assembly are innate human rights, but they are not positive rights. I don’t have any positive right to food, clothing, or shelter. Instead, I have the right to die and go to hell (Rom 3:23; 6:23). But if I am able to accumulate property through peaceable exchange with others, I have the right to keep that property because no one has the right to take it from me. In the same way, I have the right to peaceable assembly on my property only because no one has the right to take it away from me.
So foreign is the idea of property rights to US Christians that they couched their objection to the persecution when these bizarre cases first started coming down in terms of religious freedom. “You can’t make civil rights laws that force people to violate their religious freedoms.” Instead of couching the argument in terms of the common human right to property, they put themselves in a special class of people whose religion needed to be protected.
I suppose that could be defended as a strategic move: a culture that acknowledges no objective standard of right and wrong will likely not be impressed by an appeal to the innate rights to property and assembly. But it seems counterproductive to try to fight violations of innate rights that are spelled out in Scripture by formulating a new “right” that is not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus said, “‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20), and the apostle Paul said, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ); to say we have the right not to have our religious freedom violated seems to have little basis in Scripture.
It seems to me that it would have been simpler – and I know of no Scripture that contradicts this – to say to the Prohibitionists “God nowhere gives me the right to snoop on people’s private lives. If drunks wreck others’ property or assault people on their own property, then that’s a separate issue we can deal with.” And unless one is going to lead off with calling for homosexuals to be executed (and thorough domestic spying to make sure no one can stay in the closet), what would be wrong with saying, “Who lives with whom under what circumstances is none of my concern”?
Would minding our own business have overcome the deep need homosexuals have to be accepted as completely normal? Probably not. But we would more likely have been able to let our gentleness be known to all (Phil 4:5) and as much as it lies with us live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18) – thereby opening doors for the gospel, or at least not shutting them – if we had defended their property rights as well as ours by working to end plunder that especially affected them even as we refused to profit from their “marriage” ceremonies. As it is, of course, now that the powers that be, ordained of God, have determined that gay marriage is the law of the land, we are now subsidizing it with our Social Security taxes, being castigated for being intolerant, and being persecuted for not willingly being part of it.
The road out of this mess begins with acknowledging the image of God in all people – boozers, druggies, and queers as much as anyone – and defending the rights to life, property, reputation, and truth we all share. It is hard enough for the world to get its head around the idea that we who belong to Christ have been chosen from before the foundation of the world. If we truly believe that God’s election has nothing to do with our inherent goodness, we need to treat those yet uncalled as our equals, especially in ways that can be objectively measured.
1For the purposes of this essay, marriage (without scare quotes) will be restricted to arrangements found in the Bible: a husband, who must be male, and at least one wife, who must be female. I will acknowledge common modern usages of the word by putting them in scare quotes.
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Saturday, May 2, 2015
The return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon would have been an emotionally fraught time for all concerned. The elderly would have remembered the former temple – not only how grand it was on the outside, but also how corrupt the whole political and religious system had become – and how it was on orders from God that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it, and how horrible the fall of Jerusalem had been.
Ezra left Babylon with items that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the first temple, intending to use them in the yet-unbuilt new temple, knowing that they would be tempting targets for bandits, but he refused to ask the king for an armed escort, choosing instead to trust that God wanted the temple built and would protect them (Ezra 8:22).
The operation began well enough.
In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. … The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God. (Ezra 6:3-5)
Cyrus quite properly took what he had plundered from the Babylon his Persia had conquered and restored to the Jews what the Babylonians had stolen from them. After a few years, however, “lesser magistrates” of the Persian empire stopped the work on the new temple. It was not until the reign of Darius that construction was able to start again. Unfortunately, Darius’ generosity got the better of godly justice:
Moreover, I [Darius] hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed – young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem – must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons. (Ezra 6:8-10)
When Darius decreed that the worship at the temple was to be financed “from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates [i.e., what had once been Israel and Judah],” he thereby established what we today would call a state church. Those who would have provided “the revenues” would not have been Jews, at least not all of them, and they would have had no opportunity to refuse to pay for it. The Jews would have been offering sacrifices that cost them nothing, contra 2 Sam 24:24.
Historians tell us that Darius was happy to allow all people in his empire to worship their own gods, so it isn’t as though he had adopted the God of the Jews as his own: he was simply allowing all of his subjects to pray to their own gods “for the well-being of the king and his sons.”
This joint venture between the church and the state probably seemed like a great idea to the Jews of Ezra’s day. The temple worship system was expensive, and what better way to defray the expenses than to get help from the tax man! And as when Cyrus had supplied the returning exiles of his day with the items taken from the first temple, the Jews may have felt like they were getting back what had been stolen from them to begin with.
So how did it work out? I would suggest that just as the descendants of Jacob and his sons who lived privileged lives in Egypt were horribly enslaved by that same Egypt, the descendants of Ezra’s generation ended up being afflicted by the same system that plundered their neighbors for them. In fact, Ezra himself summarizes the situation well when he laments, “Today we are slaves here in the land of plenty that you gave to our ancestors! We are slaves among all this abundance!” (Neh 9:36).
He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the abundance didn’t last. The Jews never shed the yoke of bondage. After the Persians came the Greeks, then the Romans. Judah during the second temple period was in constant social upheaval. There was no time of which it could be said, as it was in the time of the Judges, that the land was at peace for forty years (Jdg 3:11; 5:31; 8:28), let alone eighty years (Jdg 3:30).
The state church didn’t work in Ezra’s day, and state churches don’t work today.
When World War II ended, almost all of the schools and hospitals in what is now Papua New Guinea were run by churches. The missions, for all their faults, had a credible witness, and even though their emphasis on externals and failure to understand the local languages and cultures resulted in heathen practices going underground rather than being repented of, missionized towns and villages tended to be just, peaceful, and prosperous, students were learning and hospitals were healing in the name of Christ, and the name of Christ was respected and spreading.
By the 1980s the churches had taken the bait of tax funding and almost all education and health care were done by state functionaries. Even “church-run” schools were financed by the state. There was “religious education” in the schools and probably chaplains in the hospitals (I never saw one), but the gospel was irrelevant at best in the daily lives of most Papua New Guinean students and medical workers, and indeed in the lives of the average Papua New Guinean. In the two decades that I was in PNG, the common lament was that schools and hospitals, even those run ostensibly by churches, were getting worse all the time. As one would expect, the church was losing ground, and towns and villages became increasingly violent and the people increasingly alienated from God, their families, and peaceable society. The last I knew, the entire country was on the way to becoming a slum.
The church in the United States has followed a similar path. It sold its birthright long ago to the Progressive ideal of tax-funded schools. While I never heard the Bible read in school growing up, many of my contemporaries tell me it was read in their schools, but now some schools forbid it to be carried openly, let alone read out loud. The church was slower to surrender health care, but once private property and free association walked into the ambush in the madness that was Prohibition, the adversary could wait until more targets came into the zone before pulling the trigger with Medicare; ObamaCare is simply another organ shutting down as the body dies. The gospel is at best irrelevant to US education and medical care.
I’ve spent thirty years losing friends by telling them the church needs to be known for education and health care; I’ve only been losing friends for a decade by expanding that mandate to peacekeeping. We’ve relied on the tax man to educate our kids; now we’re spending first-world money to give kids third-world educations. We’re spending first-world money on a medical establishment better known for abortions than for effective (let alone affordable) health care. We’re spending trillions of dollars on police and military whose success at bringing peace at home and abroad is modest at best.
It may be too late for us to Jacob (“supplant”) the Progressive Edomites by building our own networks of peace keeping, education, health care, and other forms of relief. (One example in the area of health care is Samaritan Ministries, which is doing a Jacob on ObamaCare.) But it wouldn’t hurt to do what we can while we can to give a vision of Christ-centered societies to our grandchildren. If they survive the disaster that awaits our present society, they will have the vision and skills to build a city on a hill that will lift Jesus up and draw all men to him.
Monday, April 6, 2015
If you’re like me, you’ve spent many hours and a lot of money over the last few weeks accounting for every dollar you’ve dealt with over the last year. If you own a business, you’ve also done the same thing four other times during the year. I should think you’d be in the market for a better way to get things done.
When you go to buy bread or to the circus, the grocer and the venue owner don’t ask you to account for the money you don’t give them. The grocer doesn’t force you to buy mopheads or gossip magazines, and the circus master doesn’t tell you whom you may and may not invite to parties at your home.
If Auto Zone and NAPA were competing for customers for their roads, I don’t think they’d have speed traps or demand money from people who park with the driver’s side of the car next to the curb. If ADT or State Farm were my first and only line of protection against burglars and terrorists—yours might be ADS or GEICO, and chances are they’d be working with my guys on some things—I would expect them to make sure I didn’t let my three-year-old kill his mother with my shotgun. If Walmart or Lt. Uhura down the street ran the nearest school, they would get my money only if I wanted to give it to them.
And for sure none of them would make dealing with them so difficult that I’d need to hire an accountant to get me through the paperwork.
As sure as ends never justify means, such a society would be better than what we’ve got, let alone the one we’re headed for. I’m not sure how to get there from here, but there’s no point finding out as long as you’re happy to have the taxman help himself to your money, your time, and your private life.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Brian announced in church that there would be a work day on Saturday and put out a list of things that needed to be done for people to sign up. Somewhere along the line, Ken and I got the idea that we were in charge of cooking breakfast before the work started. Then we found out that Tom and Rich were in charge of breakfast. So I wrote Tom to let him know that I’d help him, but he said he would be going out of town that day. Meantime, Rich, who hadn’t heard anything, said he’d be happy to head up breakfast, which was fine with us because he can put together wonderful meals in his sleep. Then he went to Costco and bought enough food for twice the number that eventually showed up—a week early. Oops.
Ken and I showed up at 6:30 to cook breakfast. No Rich. Neither of us had a key. Wait—didn’t we see a car come in? Sure enough, it was Tom, who opened the church, unlocked all the doors, and went on his way out of town.
We looked in the kitchen: no eggs, no bacon, no Bisquick, only frozen hash browns, and we didn’t know how those should be cooked. So we set up the tables and chairs. Then Rich showed up. He’d had to dig his wheelbarrow out of his shed for the work day.
Apart from Rich telling us how we should cook the eggs and bacon and hash browns, we pretty much worked in silence. Eventually everything was ready to eat, the people showed up, and the food got eaten—well, most of it.
Daniel and Kim had brought their kids, and while Daniel went to work on Brian’s to-do list, Kim and the girls cleaned up the kitchen while I struck the makeshift dining room. The kitchen crew discovered that half of the bacon had never been taken out of the oven and was now completely charred. Oops.
At that point, I had to leave to chase the buck, but as I drove off, I saw everyone hard at work—even the slight lady who first came to our church a few weeks ago and her son, who looked to be about six years old. And when I came to church the next morning, everything was shipshape.
No surprise. This is the way God designed the system.
Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and be wise! Even though they have no prince, governor, or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. (Prov 6:6-8)
One of the greatest blessings of common grace, the goodness God bestows on everyone, his foes as well as his friends, is what I call the market: as an old song put it, “You must die to live / You must give to gain / You must lose to win.” A corollary of this is that people who desire a common goal will gladly work together to reach it. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a willing worker.
It is true that some people willingly work together to reach ungodly goals. Every person alive has probably done so at some point. This is why we need God’s wisdom—written in his Word and imparted by the Holy Spirit and godly counselors—to keep godly goals always before us.
It’s also true that some will pursue selfish ends instead of working for the common good.
But if a bunch of nobodies can whip a church facility into shape in a few hours without coercion and really without leadership that goes beyond setting the goals and teaching the ignorant how to reach them, there’s every reason to believe that the church can bring justice and prosperity to any society by peaceful means.
Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men order their people around, and yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.”
If we are to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord cover the earth like the water covers the seas, we need to live up to the name of Jacob, “the supplanter,” supplanting the coercive institutions of the state with voluntary, service-based institutions as individuals, families, churches, and larger societies. If we build a city on a hill that truly reflects Jesus, burned bacon and all, people will come and surrender to him, and if they don’t they will have no cause to charge us with mistreating our neighbors.
Monday, March 23, 2015
I became a loyal listener to Rush Limbaugh in the fall of 1991, when his star was still rising and he had the patina of a supporter of the free market despite his support for the War on Drugs. This was when “free market,” “big business,” and even “Nazi” were synonymous in the minds of most Americans, and despite my strong and radical disagreement with him now, I have to hand it to him: back then he was bucking the tide of popular opinion.
Part of the Limbaugh brand has always been over-the-top humor. The most memorable example from that first year came in the spring of 1992, after a kerfluffle at a veterans’ hospital in Cincinnati in which an orderly got into trouble for using iodine to paint smiley faces on the ends of the penises of anesthetized patients. After reading a news report about the incident, Rush said, “I thought I’d see what the problem was, so I painted a face on the end of my penis. When I got to work, someone said, ‘Hey Rush—why the long face?’”
What I didn’t know when I became what I thought of as a dittohead with some reservations was that a year or so before, during or in the run up to Desert Storm, Rush had been playing a takeoff on the Beach Boys’ famous song “Barbara Ann,” which begins “Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara Ann … Take my hand.” Rush’s version was “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iraq … Take Kuwait back.” However—true confessions time—I thought it was a hoot when I did hear it
It was Rush’s groundbreaking work that John McCain—the darling of American evangelicals in that election—took to a new level in 2008 with his infamous “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” quip.
Fast forward to last week. A friend told me about an interview with an Iranian Christian he had heard on Focus on the Family, so I read the transcript of the interview and was not disappointed. Naghmeh Abedini was born to an Iranian family that immigrated to the United States. Appalled by the moral degradation they saw in California, the parents moved the family to Boise, where Naghmeh and her brother became Christians while still in grade school. Years later, she visited Iran, met Saeed, a Muslim-background Christian man, and married him, and the couple began planting house churches and opening orphanages.
What do you think of their wedding?
They allowed us our wedding certificate says, "Muslim born, but Christian Protestant." And we had this amazing, in the middle of Tehran, there was a church called Central Assembly. Right in front of one of the largest mosques, by Tehran University, we had a huge celebration of our wedding. But it was really much, much of a[n] Evangelical crusade. We passed out 300 Jesus films and Bibles.
Makes mine look pretty tame.
Persecution broke out when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad became president, so they emigrated from Iran, but they returned periodically to strengthen local believers and help with the orphanages. On one of those visits Saeed was arrested and is currently in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence. Life for him is both tough and fruitful in ways it has never been for me:
But the first four or five months was the hardest, was when he was interrogated and beaten and told to deny Christ, which he hasn’t. And of course, over the last few years, he’s led people to Christ. He was leading people to Christ in Evin prison, so they exiled him to another prison …. He was in the lion’s den there. He was fighting for his life. He was covered with lice and just sick and he was just really sick. He was hurting. He was bleeding, internal bleeding. And people were trying to take his life. But interesting enough, the rough guys in the prison had dreams about this Jesus. And they came and asked Saeed, “Can you tell us?”
And so, Saeed wasn’t even the first one initiating. They asked about Jesus. They accepted Jesus and they start[ed] protecting him. They became his guards.
How does Naghmeh view her husband’s persecutors?
Jim [Daly]: It’s hard for us to think of that in terms of ISIS and what they’re doing. But literally, God can change people that are perpetrating these horrible acts. He can change their heart, can’t He?
Naghmeh: He can. You know, we should want justice, because there’s people that are defenseless and we should act as the body of Christ and around those that are persecuted and around the ones who are hurting them.
But even if they are our enemy, what are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to wash their feet and love them and pray for them. And it is such an balance, what Jesus did on the cross. There’s the justice of God that has to be paid and then there’s the mercy. And as Christians, we have to have both.
Our president says that “all options are on the table” as far as dealing with Iran. Take a look at this and think of what an atomic blast would mean for the church Naghmeh was married in, for the orphans in the orphanages she helped found, and probably for her husband in prison.
Then again, maybe it won’t be an atomic attack. That would mean the collateral damage could still smile afterwards.
Is anything we do as Christians worth unleashing this kind of hell on our neighbors? I don’t grant that the Great War of 1917-1945 was just, but even if I did, that means that this year is the seventieth anniversary of the last good major war. The big ones since—Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terror—have at best failed to achieve peace and safety and have unarguably left us worse off than if we had done nothing.
We had no dog in the fight in Korea: thousands died on both sides, and even with (or, more likely, because of) conscription, South Korea cannot (or will not or is not being permitted to) defend itself. Millions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost needlessly, and it’s not over yet.
When Saigon fell in 1975, the effect was the same as if it had fallen in 1955: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were communist, and Christians were persecuted; the difference was that a million or so Vietnamese had died violent deaths and millions more had been maimed by atrocities committed by both sides, much of the land was poisoned by Agent Orange, and the victors were angry and vengeful. Billions of dollars and countless lives had been wasted for nothing. Vietnam is no paradise today, but it is no better for the war having been fought there.
We had no interest in Kuwait when Saddam, our “ally” up to that point, invaded. The war allowed a massive propaganda coup that “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”—meaning that “my country, right or wrong” was now the American credo and “love your neighbor as yourself” was out the window—but the final result set the stage for sanctions that killed half a million innocent Iraqis and ultimately brought about 9/11. (Or maybe not. I find it interesting that both Osama and the West use the deaths-from-sanctions meme to justify killing innocent people in 9/11 and the GWOT, respectively. I’ve heard American conservative evangelicals deny the meme, but only to blame the deaths on Saddam and so justify the invasion.)
And the GWOT needs no introduction: thousands of combatants and countless innocents dead and maimed, trillions of dollars transferred to the military-industrial complex, more jihadists recruited per week than there were in the world in 2001, and what was once the land of the free now the home of the surveilled.
So what can we expect from military action against Iran? Will the Muslims there be more or less inclined to tolerate their Christian neighbors? Do our brothers and sisters there need less tolerance?
More importantly, what about the history of the last seventy years tells you that the final result of a war will be better than no war?
“Ah,” you say, “but if we don’t act, they’ll do us dirt, first by obliterating Israel.”
So what? If we have no ally in the Middle East at all, is that worse than having an ally that makes everyone else there hate us?
“But don’t you care about the Jews”?
Of course I care about the Jews. But I’m not excited about protecting them no matter what they do if they don’t even pay taxes to Washington. If they want my tax money to protect them, let them immigrate, or at least apply for statehood and start paying taxes. We can absorb them, and most of them will be good neighbors. But if they want to live over there, let them protect themselves. They’ve got enough atomic weapons to turn Iran into glass and carte blanche from Uncle Sam to make more. Iran is no threat to them.
Given a choice between Rush Limbaugh and Naghmeh Abedini, I think we should listen to her, even if he can make us laugh. Our strategy against ISIS and Iran needs to be the weapons of the Spirit: prayer and outreach. And if we’re to have the resources for outreach, we need to stop giving them to the war machine.
Eschewing war may mean lice and beatings—and I’m the world’s worst pansy, so I’m not saying I can handle either gracefully—but that seems better to me than taking the eternal consequences of killing innocents in church.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
One of the benefits of my editing job is that I get to learn new things from my clients. Not too long ago my new tidbit was the word bildungsroman, a term that has been around long enough that Webster’s Online rates it as an English word. I guess I don’t travel in the right circles: when I looked it up, I was expecting it to be treated as a German word, but it’s not.
Anyway, for those of you who haven’t learned the term yet, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel, “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” A tragedy in that genre would, I suppose, involve a protagonist who either refused to grow up or grew up crooked. But I would guess that most bildungsromans are comedies: the protagonist learns his lesson and lives happily ever after.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The elevator-talk version of the plot is this: the protagonist, Winston Smith, a formerly married man who is becoming increasingly skeptical of the ruling authorities, and Julia, a female co-worker, another anti-authoritarian, fall in love and have a series of conjugal trysts. The authorities catch them in flagrante delicto (another word that I would have expected to be italicized) and use what would today be called “enhanced rehabilitation” to turn them against each other. After their return to society, the lovers meet, but the affair is dead, and the protagonist decides to join the side of the the authorities.
From the time I was first able to read the book and understand it in the late 1960s, I have always thought of it as a tragedy: the authorities, whose evil is limited only by their incompetence, employ torture to break Winston's will, they take away from him everything that gives his life meaning, and he ends up gladly becoming one of them.
I was not the only one who read it that way. When anyone said, “This is like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” everyone I knew or had ever even heard of would immediately know that the speaker was talking about dystopia, tyranny, evil.
But that was before the year 1984, and it was certainly before “9/11 changed everything.”
I wonder if my conservative Christian brethren would now read the book as a comedy, a triumph of good over evil. Would they not point out that Winston and Julia were involved in an extramarital affair, and if the purpose of the civil government is to punish evildoers, it was fulfilling its job by having its eyes everywhere, capturing them, and persuading them by whatever means to end that affair? Perhaps more importantly, Winston and Julia were contemptuous of authority, doing everything they could to avoid being subject to it. Doesn’t the book’s final line, “He [Winston] loved Big Brother,” describe perfectly the attitude all subjects are to have toward the powers that be, ordained of God? Aren’t those who would read the novel as a tragedy thereby glorifying sexual immorality and rebellion?
The shift in reading from tragedy to triumph may indeed indicate that the American evangelical church is maturing in Christ, that it has taken the gloves off and is urging the powers that be, ordained of God, to unsheath the sword against evildoers. But I find it not irrelevant that today’s “mature” church matches the surrounding culture (one denounced both inside and outside of churches as sexually immoral) in rates of abortion, divorce, bastardy, and fornication—not to mention plain old, garden-variety, let’s-stop-attending-church apostasy—a feat it had not achieved in the days when the book’s title was synonymous with hell on earth.
As the American evangelical church celebrates the establishment of an imperialist police state that not only makes Orwell’s nightmare seem tame by comparison but is getting to the point at which it defies parody, let me suggest that if Jesus reads Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comedy, we are on the verge of a turning to Christ in this nation that is beyond our wildest dreams as the spy state leaves evil nowhere to hide and uses enhanced methods to convince people of their need to submit to authority. Libertarians and anarchists will either become statists or be left behind, but rank-and-file Americans will turn to him in droves.
Or, if that omniscient state turns against us, we could be on the verge of persecution beyond our wildest imagination. In that case, if the saying that the church grows fastest where the persecution is the worst is true, we’re in for massive turning to Christ that way too.
But if Jesus reads the book as a tragedy, American evangelicalism has some serious thinking to do.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
There’s a story making its way around conservative circles that goes something like this:
It appears that it now takes not only a village but a country to raise a child. Which puts me in mind of an exchange some years ago between Sen. Phil Gramm and a federal bureaucrat who wanted to expand a program of government child care. Gramm opined that mothers and fathers are best equipped for child-rearing because they love their children more. The official objected, saying, “I love your children as much as you do, Senator.” To which Gramm responded, “I am very pleased to hear that. What are their names?”
This story has the ring of truth about it, and it’s a handy intro for today’s rant, so I’ll assume it is pretty close to true. I was reminded of it when I read this from Larry Tomczak:
CBS News in L.A. ran an investigative report showing adults buying marijuana, selling it to kids in broad daylight and the kids then smoking the dope just minutes after leaving school! Is our Nation’s Capital with its terrible drug problems ready for this as they’ve just legalized dope?
Am I the only one who thinks Mr. Tomczak has just put on his “It takes a village—wait, no, it takes the government—to raise a child” suit here? Is he going to tell me he loves those “kids” more than their parents do?
I can hear him protest that it’s wrong for kids to smoke dope and that any parent who would let his (more likely a her with an AWOL man) kid smoke dope doesn’t love that kid. And I would agree that such a parent could do much better.
But it is those parents, not Mr. Tomczak, who taught that kid to tie his shoes. That kid isn’t welcome at Mr. Tomczak’s refrigerator 24/7. Mr. Tomczak doesn’t listen to him cry all night or take him to the emergency room when things go wrong. He doesn’t know that kid’s name.
So no, Mr. Tomczak, I don’t believe you love those kids more than their parents do.
A parent that lets a kid get to the point where he wants to smoke dope has already failed. But the same goes for self-destructive behaviors that are presently legal. Hasn’t a parent whose children eat themselves into obesity, spend hours playing video games, or dabble in sexual behavior failed them? Is Mr. Tomczak going to crusade against grocery stores, software dealers, and every form of media in the nation?
Put another way, is everything in others’ private lives his business?
The site for which Mr. Tomczak writes is big on fighting Islam. Good for them: Islam is a false religion at best, barbarism at worst. Does Mr. Tomczak love Muslim children more than their parents do? Or is he just more concerned with kids smoking dope than with kids following their parents into Islam?
Mr. Tomczak’s position is not without irony: “Our Founding Father, George Washington once warned us, ‘An uninformed populace is easily enslaved.’ We need to awaken!” Is Mr. Tomczak informed that George Washington grew hemp?
“But the hemp he grew had only one-twentieth to one-sixtieth the amount of THC that drug Cannabis has,” he replies. That is probably true. However, proof of the wisdom of George Washington and the folly of Mr. Tomczak and his ilk is that the kind of hemp George Washington grew is just as illegal in “the land of the free” as is its more potent subspecies. “An uninformed populace”—that is to say, one “informed” by the establishment—has allowed itself to be enslaved, and that in the name of protecting the children.
“So do we just let kids smoke dope?”
In a word, yes. Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” What you feed your kid or let him do in the confines of your house is your business. Jesus commands me to make my life so attractive to you that you’ll ask me, or at least allow me to tell you, what makes it so wonderful. At that point I’ll point you to Jesus, which is necessarily away from wasting time and poisoning your body. But until I can do that, ya pays yer money, ya takes yer choice, and ya faces the Lord of the universe who will call you to account for everything you’ve done.
Any program that usurps the sovereignty of the family is by definition anti family. That some families are detrimental to their members is beyond question, as is the folly of thinking that the iron fist of the state is the best way to deal with that detriment. The War on Drugs makes the state sovereign over parents. It is for that reason anti family.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
If the powers that be have been instituted by God, does it behoove us to know who the powers that be will be in, say five years, and make sure we’re on their good side?
Let’s go back forty-three years to Vietnam and say you’re a nineteen-year-old Vietnamese Christian. The assumption I’ve always operated on has been that the Viet Cong were godless, bloodthirsty communists and Christians should have fought against them if they were to join the war effort at all. But you have to admit that anyone who knew or even guessed in 19721 that Uncle Sam would not win that war would necessarily have concluded that once the war was over, the powers that be according to Romans 13 would have been the communists.2 So if you know the communists will be in power in a few years, shouldn’t you help them come to power?
It didn’t take supernatural powers to predict the outcome of the Vietnam war. I can remember standing in the middle of Willamette Avenue, Adair Air Force Station, ten miles north of Corvallis, Oregon, in the late summer or fall of 1968 with a group of fellow high school–aged Air Force brats, lamenting that it didn’t seem like our government was really interested in winning the war: if they were, wouldn’t they have won by now?3 Twelve years later, after the war was over, I heard the daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot quote her father as having said during the war that he knew how to win it single-handedly: “I should load my fighter up with bombs and rockets and drop them all on Washington, DC.” At no time between 1968 and the end of the war can I remember thinking Uncle Sam would win it.
We know that after Saigon fell, the communists made life miserable for Christians. (They still do, though non-government agents do also.) I for one have no trouble believing that an idealistic communist (or anyone who is zealous to see his version of justice realized), knowing that Christians in the US were fervently behind the war effort, would consider it his solemn duty to kill or imprison those who collaborated with the invaders who napalmed, bombed, shot, and otherwise killed and maimed his family and friends. If Christians had helped the communists come to power, might that have mitigated the backlash after the war? Could they not have been Daniel and his three friends, the mucky-mucks in a godless government that so many Christians aspire to be (or defend themselves as being)?
Let’s look at a situation in the Bible where the command is clear.
Let’s say you’re a nineteen-year-old male Jew in 586 or so BC and you hear Jeremiah say this:
Tell the people of Jerusalem that the Lord says, ‘I will give you a choice between two courses of action. One will result in life; the other will result in death. Those who stay in this city will die in battle or of starvation or disease. Those who leave the city and surrender to the Babylonians who are besieging it will live. They will escape with their lives. For I, the Lord, say that I am determined not to deliver this city but to bring disaster on it. It will be handed over to the king of Babylon and he will destroy it with fire. (21:8-11)
What do you do? If surrendering to the Babylonians is a good idea, wouldn’t joining their army be an even better idea?
After all, by that time many Judahites had been deported to Babylon. Maybe if you joined the army, you’d be allowed to stay in Judah. You might even have the chance to play Obadiah to Babylon’s Ahab and hide people in caves or otherwise protect them from the occupying army; you might keep some babies from being dashed on the rocks (Ps 137:8-9). If you become an officer, they’ll pay for your college and you can earn a pension. What could possibly go wrong? It might be your platoon that goes into the Holy of Holies and destroys the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubim, but the glory of the Lord has already departed from the temple (Ezek 11:23), so that would be no biggie.
So whether Vietnam or the Middle East, if it’s plain that Uncle Sam isn’t going to win, why not join his enemies? Or, more to the point for you, dear reader, why would a Christian fight for him?
Uncle Sam has no idea how to win the wars he is fighting today. He has no idea even what a win would look like, and hasn’t for years:
Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. "This is going to end in an argument."
The same could have been said of Iraq.
We have an economy that exports weapons, pornography, and not much else (oh, and software), with $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities, a shrinking economy, a growing proportion of the population not only net tax consumers but the least healthy we have ever seen, and we’re going to win what wars?
If ISIS ever comes over here, anyone with a long-range plan for his life will join them.
Unless the world runs on ethical dominion and not on power. Unless the voice we are to be guided by is not necessarily the voice of the person holding the most powerful weapons in the area. Unless “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10), and uniforms and badges and titles don’t change the standard by which we are judged.
The world certainly doesn’t need ISIS. It doesn’t need Uncle Sam either. What it needs is Jesus, Jesus’ body, the church, living for him only and not taking one godless side against another.
For [the church] my tears shall fall,
for her my prayers ascend,
to her my cares and toils be given,
till toils and cares shall end.
1I have chosen 1972 because it was the year I came to Christ, and it was the year my draft lottery number, somewhere in the 200s, was drawn. After coming to Christ, I spent hours at different times wondering what I would have done had I been drafted. I’m glad it didn’t happen, because I never came up with a good answer.
2Have you ever noticed that God always seems to ordain the winners of armed conflicts as the powers that be? Who says might doesn’t make right?
3There is a narrative going around to the effect that the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet offensive was a disaster for the Viet Cong and a great victory for Uncle Sam’s forces, but the US media presented it to the home folks as the exact opposite. We may or may not have known or cared about the offensive.