Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 4)

The trial is over. They settled after the proceedings on Friday, but they didn’t tell us until we came in yesterday. So the jury never did get to deliberate. (After all the time we had already spent, most of us were looking forward to talking the evidence over and seeing what sense we could make of it, and since the day was lost to work anyhow, we wanted to do something constructive.)

Everyone agreed that a man was struck by a car as he crossed a four-lane road between crosswalks at night. He and two other witnesses claimed he was struck as he walked across the street. The defendant and another witness claimed he was already across the street and had come off the sidewalk. The defendant claimed he was changing from the left lane to the right lane when he struck the plaintiff; the others claimed he was never in the left lane. And, as the defense lawyer put it as he chatted with us after we were dismissed, everyone looked like they were doing their best to tell the truth. It’s probably just as well we (they, I should say, since as an alternate, I would have been excused) didn’t need to deliberate.

What to think? Both the plaintiff and the defendant were well-educated, decent guys with annual salaries over six digits, yet they couldn’t settle their differences without conscripting forty-five people who make less money than they do for one day, then keeping ten of us for three extra days. That comes out to seventy-five man-days, which at the median income of about $20 per hour is about $12,000. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the money, since it’s my boss, not I, who will pay for my time off work, but I would guess he makes less than either of the litigants, so the argument stands.) This is in addition to the judge, the tipstaffs, the security guards, the janitors, and others whose salaries and other expenses are paid for by the taxpayers. Why would decent guys cause so many people such trouble for so little?

My answer: because they can. They weighed up their options and made a rational decision to do what they thought was in their best interests. The system allows them to spread the costs of their problems to their conscripted neighbors, and we have all been taught from the time we were young that it is perfectly moral for them to do so. After three-and-a-half years of private negotiation, they still couldn’t come to an agreement. Rather than call in a third party they could both trust and agree to abide by that person’s decision, they chose to have the state conscript strangers. The folly of that decision is shown by their realization on Friday that they were better off settling than allowing us to settle for them.

The existence of the state—by which I mean a system in which some people make laws that other people have to obey but the lawmakers don’t—provides a host of immoral incentives, what others have called moral hazard. When people can act with impunity, they will do so.

What rational police officer would knock on the front door during the day to arrest a drug dealer when he is less likely to be killed if he and a dozen others kick in the doors and windows in the middle of the night?

What rational soldier will attack a building full of enemy combatants (and women and children) on foot with a gun when he can call in a tank or a “surgical” bomb strike?

What rational politician will call for spending cuts when he can convince his constituents that only other people will be paying for the programs they benefit from?

What rational laid-off worker will start looking for a new job right away when he can live comfortably for weeks on unemployment?

What rational laborer will start his own business when his union is able to use the threat of violence to provide him with above-market wages for low-skilled work?

For that matter, why should I live in stinky Philadelphia when I can live in Lansdale and commute on trains or highways subsidized by folks in western Pennsylvania (and probably western Oregon)?

“The kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Prov 12:10). Even when the state tries to do what’s right, it tramples on the rights of the most vulnerable. The only solution is to dismantle it and build a society where people are equal before the law. If you think that’s crazy, ask yourself this: Moses told his people that the king was not to be above his subjects (Deut 17:15-20), and Jesus said that his people were not to be a privileged elite like “the kings of the gentiles” but servants (Luke 22:24-26); why is it that when millions of lives are literally at stake we feel justified in building a society that goes against both of those commands?

The excuse I hear most often is, “Society is so complex today we need [standing armies and police forces, tax-funded schools, licensing, vice laws, etc.].” If indeed society is so complex that we “need” inherently oppressive institutions, that these things are “necessary evils” (What kind of God would make evil necessary? See Rom 6:1. )perhaps instead of building and supporting inherently evil institutions, we should be working to make society less complex. And the best place to start is by dismantling the state.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 3)

Both sides rested their cases shortly before noon today. The judge needs to talk over some things with the lawyers, and he wants us to be fresh before before they give their closing arguments, he charges the jury, and the jury begins deliberation, so he has sent us home for the weekend. So I can forget about the trial until then.


On Wednesday I had wondered, as the tipstaffs were shepherding (they are nice, well-intentioned people, so I won't say just "herded") us around, I wondered how much different it felt for the Jews to be (shep)herded to the "labor" camps or the Japanese in the US to their "internment centers." Obviously, my fate is not to be compared to theirs, but I had no more choice about being where I was then they had about being where they were.

As we were sitting in the courtroom waiting for the jury to be chosen and I was trying to make the best of the situation, the old post-Holocaust cry "Never again!" came to mind. It occurred to me that I didn't know how to say that in Hebrew. I realized I could probably find the phrase in Genesis, where God says he will "never again" destroy the earth with a flood, but I wanted to know then. So I looked around: who looked Jewish? One of the lady tipstaffs had a dark complexion and black hair, but the hair was obviously a miracle of modern chemistry, so I was only half inclined to see if she could help me. Not a minute later, juror number 35, a fair, sixty-something lady, asked me to explain one of the answers I had given to a general question asked earlier. We talked for a while about geography and languages, and she told me she was from Argentina, which surprised me because I'd pegged her accent for Eastern Europe. However, I realized I'd found my ... prey? ... when she said she knew Yiddish.

"How's your Hebrew?" I asked.


You got that right, Lady! "So how do you say 'never again' in Hebrew?"

It doesn't sound the way I would expect it to only having seen it written, but she eventually got it into my brain: Le`olam lo'!

Any system that steals property (taxes) and time ("civic duty") from people before doing anything good is fundamentally unjust, and no "justice" it administers can make up for that evil. I don't know how I'll avoid being part of the injustice next time, and I write this blog to do my part to see that the system is brought down, but God helping me, jury duty, le `olam lo'!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 2)

What’d I tell you?

The tipstaff, the fellow who leads the jury in and out of the courtroom, overheard one of our jurors today recite the woes she was experiencing with missing work and finding caregivers for her three single-digit-aged kids and wondering if she was going to have to do it again on Monday as well as tomorrow.

He chimed in with a story of a jury that had occupied that very room. Their deliberation lasted well into one Friday evening, and they were thinking they might be there all night. The judge sent word that if they didn’t reach a verdict before 10 pm, they would have to return on Monday. Then, with a cat-that-just-ate-the-bird smile, the tipstaff added, “They were done within half an hour.”

Part 1
Part 3
Part 4

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 1)

I should have known better.

When my jury summons arrived, even after publishing this article, I still had hopes of being involved in the administration of justice. So off I trotted yesterday, summons in hand, to do my civic duty. I hoped I wasn't going to be dealing with a drug trial, but a robbery or murder or even a civil case, that would be OK. I didn't expect to be so thoroughly aghast at being snookered into an system that is evil from the get-go.

Now the folks in the system worked efficiently and did much to make the experience bearable. Instructions to get to the marshalling room from the (free) parking garage were clear, They kept the line moving as they scanned our summonses and seated us in the marshalling room, which sat maybe 135 of us not quite elbow to elbow either in rows or around the side and rear walls. The lady MC was effortlessly pleasant as she explained how to find our juror numbers on our badges, as was the judge who introduced the video (a dandy collaboration between Comcast and the county justice people) that told us what we could expect to go through that day. They had wired the vending machine lounge outside the marshalling room and allowed us to trade our drivers’ licenses for Internet cables so we could surf while we waited. The judge who presided over the jury selection process had the accessible demeanor you’d want in your girlfriend’s father, and even the lawyers didn’t have fangs or claws.

It wasn’t until after lunch that the injustice struck me. We had been told in the morning that there were three trials beginning that day and that we were free to roam around the building provided we made ourselves available to return to the marshalling room “at a moment’s notice” when the trials reached the jury selection stage. None of them reached that stage in the two hours before lunch, but they called us in immediately after lunch and began empanelling us. As the MC called out our juror numbers, she joked, “You can’t win at Lotto, but you can win here. Sorry!” At that point, I flashed back to the spring day on which some of my fellow college freshmen found out that they would be spending the next winter in Vietnam.

I was juror number 25 of forty-five empanelled for a civil trial. They lined us up in order, allowing us to keep pretty much only the clothes we were wearing, and the tipstaff escorted us up to the courtroom, gave us sheets of paper imprinted with large numbers, and seated us. We filled the jury box and the spectator area of a room that was smaller than I expected, though not quite cramped. That took about fifteen minutes, after which the judge entered (there really is a guy that says, “Oyez, oyez” to start things off) and read us a spiel about how important we were to democracy and civilization and how we were discharging a sacred duty. Then the lawyers asked questions about our ability to render fair decisions; we were to raise our numbers if we, for example, knew the plaintiff or the defendant. After the questions were asked, the judge and the lawyers retreated to the jury room and began asking people to come in one by one for specific questioning.

Maybe it was because one of the articles I’d read that morning was about public school pep rallies, but as I looked around at the others who were waiting their turns during the two hours of individual questioning, I was reminded of the “they can make me come here but they can’t make me take it seriously” attitude of those pep rallies. Then I heard juror number 34 tell her neighbor that her husband was at home awaiting a liver transplant. I remembered that she had gotten up right away in the morning session when the MC had instructed anyone who faced hardship “besides work and child care concerns” (which aren’t eligible hardships—think “single mom with a McJob” and see if you agree). They had taken away her cell phone to bring her to the courtroom. If her husband were to receive a call that a liver was available, he would have two hours to be driven to downtown Philadelphia, which during peak hour can be two hours from our courthouse; if he couldn’t make it, they would call the next person on the list. Number 36 was a painter working for a shoestring operation. For that matter, neither number 25 nor his boss can afford him to be away from work. Our stories were repeated forty-five times in that room. And whether the other trials called juries or not, there were ninety other people just sitting around waiting.

Despite their pleasant demeanor, our time really meant nothing to our captors. Money can be recovered, but lost time is gone forever, and that system took away almost eleven hundred man-hours that day. Those who went home lost a day they could never get back. We who were empanelled—I am first alternate—will lose more. Number 34, mercifully, was sent home; I hope her husband didn’t lose his place in line for a liver as she waited.

And those who were seated? We are conscripts. And just as in war, men fight less for their country than to protect their buddies, I predict that our jury will render a verdict in the interests less of justice than of getting fellow jurors back into productive life. We shall see.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Prostitution

I have four daughters, and I would hate to see any of them become prostitutes. The Bible uses the prostitute as a symbol of the worst kind of evil, the turning of God’s people away from him, and warns the godly man that the temptation he will find hardest to resist is the immoral woman. Sexual intimacy is the means by which people fulfill the first commandment God gave them, to be fruitful and multiply. We can therefore expect that if the devil wants to make people miserable, he will lure them into perverse sexual practices, of which prostitution is certainly one. A sexually immoral society pollutes the land it occupies, as the Bible says, and it eventually transmogrifies into a violent society, as we have seen in the US, as the free love generation of the 1960s has come to support an unlimited police and surveillance state at home and unending war overseas. And along with the prostitution culture seem to come the drug culture and the gang warfare culture. So how can one who claims to advocate biblical neighborliness call for prostitutes to be treated like farmers at a farmers’ market?

The first reason is that the Bible nowhere calls for prostitutes to be jailed. When the daughters of priests were sexually immoral, they were to be burned alive; they had violated a ceremonial boundary. But if the women of any of the other eleven tribes became prostitutes, they came under no explicit regulation. Remember, the Torah tells women how to act during their menstruation and men how to deal with nocturnal emissions, so it isn’t as though God is bashful about bringing up the subject. We can safely say that for most women prostitution was not a crime.

If you need a positive example, let’s take the one time God’s appointed political authority confronted a prostitute: Solomon’s arbitration of the dispute between two prostitutes.

He did not treat them as criminals; he treated them as ordinary citizens. And note what the Bible says after describing his actions: “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice” (1 Kgs 3:16). Solomon later did a lot of things that showed he was a sinner, a failure at fulfilling God’s job definition for a king, but here he seems to have gotten it right: this event is the only event recorded between God’s promise to give Solomon a wise and discerning heart and the narrator’s claim that Solomon had wisdom from God. His treatment of a prostitute as an ordinary citizen showed that he was the wisest man who ever lived. In the face of that, how dare we take that woman’s son away from her, give him to the Child Welfare Service bureaucrats, and put her in jail?

What would it take for my daughters to become prostitutes? While almost anyone can find women who don’t care who sees them naked or involved in what used to be termed private behavior, which makes me think there are hookers who enjoy the work, I can’t imagine what would lead my girls, or anyone I care about, for that matter, into prostitution. I expect that most are like Fantine, reduced to it by misfortune, self-inflicted or otherwise, and the bawdy women (“Lovely Ladies”) who introduce the prostitution theme in Les Mis are laughing to keep from crying.

Does hauling a prostitute off to jail deal with the problem that reduced her to prostitution in the first place? Once she gets out, what does she have? She will leave jail penniless. Who will hire a woman with a criminal record? (“Prostitution, eh? And you want to work here?”) If her family wouldn’t or couldn’t help her avoid prostitution, are they going to aid her now? I would say that jailing prostitutes is the loudest possible testimony that famine and nakedness can indeed separate us from the love of Christ.

Prostitution is not a victimless activity, but neither is watching TV. I can remember seeing men put their arms around women’s waists on Lawrence Welk or other innocuous shows else long before I knew where babies came from, and all I could think was it looked like fun and I couldn’t wait to try it myself. (And then there was the kissing—ohhhhhhhhhh!) After seeing Tonto get bonked on the head with a gun in act 2 of the Lone Ranger every week and seeing him return to help save the day in act 3, I knew exactly what to do when my friend Bob took my place in line during a game of cowboys and Indians. Do we really want to treat television, evil as it is, as a criminal activity?

Or let’s take another non-victimless activity: taverns. Men (mostly) spend their hard-earned money on overpriced alcohol and lose time they can never regain playing pool or flirting with the barflies or just talking about things we wouldn’t want our kids to participate in; they get drunk and go home and abuse their wives and children, who don’t have the material resources they would have otherwise because the money has gone to liquor.

Realizing that, Carrie Nation and her gang of thugs crusaded to close down taverns and eventually succeeded. The taverns were indeed closed down, but the underground liquor trade that replaced it was more profitable than the legal trade had ever been, at least for those at the top of the pile, and those with minimal intelligence could still get alcohol. Because the trade in alcohol was illegal, the only way to protect one’s turf was with a gun, which brought about the organized crime gangs that still plague us today. Tomato sellers at farmers’ markets are in competition, but they don’t kill each other. Why not? Because tomatoes are legal. Marijuana and cocaine dealers do kill each other, as do pimps. Why? Because there is no legal or socially acceptable way for them to protect their lives and property. Stop jailing prostitutes and druggies, allow them the same access to protection the rest of us have, and the incentives for violence disappear.

Again, my guess is that very few women want to go into prostitution; the vast majority would rather be moms, nurses, lawyers, or astronauts. If we really want to stop prostitution, we love these women before they are reduced to selling their bodies. We teach their parents to use money wisely and not to abuse their daughters; we take these womean into our homes when they have nowhere else to go. We help them start their own businesses that cater to what’s best in their neighbors. It’s not an easy road, but the way of the cross never is. Simply throwing prostitutes in jail and dusting off our hands is easy, but it is not biblical, loving, or ultimately in our best interests or that of the gospel. It’s not how we love our neighbors.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

And Five Little Stones He Took

My Sunday school teacher gave us an assignment last week: Why did David take five stones, not some other number, to his encounter with Goliath?

So I got up this morning, grabbed the old Strong's concordance, and looked for how the number five is used in Scripture. What a treasure trove for this anarchist! I concluded that as seven is the biblical number for godly perfection, five is the number for thuggery.

There were five kings in the Dead Sea Valley, one of which, the king of Sodom, so evil that Abraham refused to accept his generosity. Five Midianite kings opposed Israel in the days of Moses and Balaam, and five Amorite kings opposed Joshua; all of them were likely thugs like Adoni-Bezek, who cut the thumbs and toes off his victims. Perhaps more important to David at the moment, the Philistines had five “lords” over their five main towns, and David may have been announcing his intention to conquer all of Philistia, beginning with Goliath. David, as the anointed of the Lord, was declaring war on the thuggery of the kings of the gentiles, who lord it over their subjects, and their bureaucrats, who call themselves benefactors. David eventually became another thug, but he owned up to it, repented, and was forgiven.

But the clincher for me came when I saw that it was exactly five men from Dan who consulted Micah’s abominable priest on their way to destroy Laish. They were attacking it precisely because it was a city of peace-loving people who minded their own business: quill pigs, as it were.

I also remembered that five has an occult significance. I don’t know what the occult pentangle signifies, but you can see one on the cover of any book on the occult. I find it interesting that military generals mark their rank with pentangle-shaped “stars,” though those stars lack the internal pentagon of the pentangle. But US military operations are coordinated from the Pentagon, the groundbreaking for which just happened to take place on September 11, 1941. Let that date sink in: it was sixty years to the day before 9-11. Within three months, Roosevelt had maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, a support base for US imperialist operations in Asia. (What besides imperialism would station thousands of US soldiers in China in the 1930s?) Since the Pentagon was built, the US has been at war almost continually and (arguably) never defensively.

Power doesn’t corrupt, but it removes the checks against it and allows it to spread. So it is that with the exception of Hezekiah, all kings mentioned in the Bible resort to thuggery at one time or another. Jesus, however, calls his people to lead by service and sacrifice, a much less attractive road, but one that leads to justice, peace, and prosperity.

Biblical Anarchy

This is a quick revision of a letter I sent to a respected brother who trashed anarchy in a Sunday school class. In a subsequent discussion, we decided that we were using different definitions of the word, he the connotation of antinomian chaos, I the etymological definition, e.g., “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups” (Webster’s Online). As I often call myself an anarchist, I think it’s important that my readers know what I mean and why I think it’s biblical.

Anarchy, not what we think of as centralized or government authority, is the model for biblical society. God delegates responsibility to the moon, the stars, and eventually to man, including the duty and privilege of replicating God’s image on the earth (Gn 1). No king is to consider himself above his brothers (i.e., able to do things others cannot, which I would take to include taxation, let alone drug laws); even execution is a function of the community, not the king (Dt 17:6-7, 18-20). We are to be independent and self-motivated, not conformist followers (Pr 6:6-8; Ro 12:1-2). Leaders are servants, not masters (Lk 22:24-26); anyone (or anything) we have to obey is our master (2Pe 2:19), and we are specifically not to allow ourselves to be slaves of men (1Co 7:23). Government as we know it is a violation of all these principles.

The Bible’s first mention of kings (melek; though Nimrod had a kingdom, malkut) is in Gn 14. Note that Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” was subject to no king. He foreshadows Christ by rescuing Lot from the latter’s own sin from outside the world government system: he had no earthly authority for what he did. And whenever he did place himself under the authority of an earthly king (Pharaoh, Abimelek), he had trouble. It was earthly authorities who murdered Uriah the Hittite, Naboth, Uriah son of Shemaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, James, Peter, and Paul. In fact, of all the kings named in the Bible, only of Hezekiah is there no evidence that he died with innocent blood on his hands.

I can think of no “anarchic” situation that is nearly as deadly as the everyday evil of archy, like US slavery and Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, Sherman’s and Sheridan’s marches through the South, Wounded Knee, the bankster bailout, the ethanol food shortage, and the imperialist carnage in Iraqistan, let alone the mass murders in 1920s Russia, 1940s Germany, 1960s China, 1970s Cambodia, 1994 Rwanda, 1980-1996 Iraq. A hoodlum can kill a few people, but to make millions miserable requires archy.

The lesson of Israel’s history from Judges through 2 Kings is that if God’s people reject him, they will worship idols, most especially the state, which will oppress them. The only solution is a heart that is God’s alone: commitment to Christ, filling with the Spirit, and submission to the written Word of God. To the degree that we have that, we have anarchy.

On Neighbors

Let’s say you’ve just moved into a new neighborhood, and you now live between Mr. Grau and Mr. Farber.

Mr. Grau is not particularly friendly, though he is always looking for a deal. He’s constantly hailing you as you work in your yard or walking past his house: “Hey, can we make a deal? I notice you have two of X. I have two of Y. Could I get an X for my extra Y?” And generosity doesn’t seem to be his strong suit. When you need to borrow things, he’ll usually say, “No, but I can rent it to you,” and on those occasions when he loans or gives you things, you have the feeling that he’s just softening you up for the next deal. On the other hand, he is completely trustworthy and honest, and every time you trade with him, you’re either satisfied or the deal is off.

Mr. Farber is much friendlier. He’ll loan you things whenever you ask. He’ll even give you things you don’t ask for. He knows he doesn’t need to knock when he visits your house, which he does quite often, giving you advice you ignore at your peril on how to be safer and healthier and cleaning the surplus cash out of your drawers, wallet, and bank and investment accounts. You know you can always depend on him to be there for you and that no one successfully resists his way of winning friends and influencing people.

Now, if you had to choose, would you prefer Mr. Grau to move out and be replaced by another Mr. Farber, or would you prefer Mr. Farber to be replaced by another Mr. Grau? If you’d prefer the former, please comment and let me know why.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbors by being good neighbors to them. I think specifically of gays, drug addicts, and prostitutes as neighbors to whom Jesus sends us with an invitation to repent (as we need to repent), be forgiven through the blood of Jesus, and receive eternal life. How will they ever want to listen to us, let alone believe, if we look more like Mr. Farber than like Mr. Gray?

The situation with gays is complicated enough to require a separate post, but our society’s jailing of druggies and prostitutes is so obviously unbiblical I don’t understand why the Holy Spirit hasn’t stirred up more passion among his people to fight it. Where does the Bible prescribe jail for any activity? Where does it prescribe any force to be exercised against those who deal in substances? With the exception of daughters of priests, where does it prescribe force against prostitutes? Do gays, druggies, or prostitutes look on us as those who love them as they are despite our grief over their lifestyles? Or do they think we only want to put them in jail—or worse? And if they know that the Bible nowhere prescribes jail for anything, will they think we’re submitting ourselves to the Bible or trying to get the Bible to submit to us?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jake the Snake?

Jacob son of Isaac was a hero of the faith, but he doesn’t seem to get any respect. The Sunday school story is basically that he was a snake until God got hold of him at Mahanaim, and then he became St. Israel. But I think highly of the young Jacob. For sure I’d rather deal with him than with Isaac, Esau, or Laban.

Take his deal with Esau. Poor Esau! There he is, out hunting for a day. Or a week. Or a month. We’re not told how long it was. Then he comes home empty handed. Well, Jacob is boiling some beans, and suddenly a guy who lives on meat can’t live without those beans. Remember, Isaac’s tent is probably in sight, and even though Mom liked Jacob best, she would certainly feed her own son; if nothing else, Dad would give him a sheep or goat from the flocks that would fill his stomach, even if it wouldn’t salve his ego. But no, he wants those beans.

And let’s back up a bit. Before Jacob and Esau are born, God tells both parents, apparently in a way they couldn’t mistake for indigestion, that Jacob will be born second but he will be the real leader. The text describes Esau as a beast (What else would supply a “hairy garment”?), but Jacob was an iš tam, a phrase the Bible uses otherwise only for Job. It is translated there “a righteous man,” but that translation is denied Jacob because—well, that would spoil the characterization of him as a snake, wouldn’t it?

Now some folks say that Jacob is cooking red beans to symbolize that he has been lying in wait to cook Esau (Edom the Red) to get the birthright. That may be true. He’s had decades to see where Esau’s priorities lie, and he knows that God’s blessing will rest on the leader of the family. Jacob probably has seen Esau trade treasure for piffle before and also knows that Esau and Isaac have both lost sight of the value of God’s blessing on their family, as we shall see. So yes, he’s lying in wait for Esau: he knows the value of the birthright and God’s attendant blessing, and he knows that Esau is clueless—not a simpleton, but a fool, one whose heart is inclined toward evil.

Anyway, the “cunning hunter” shows up hungry and says, “Give me some of them beans—the red ones.” So Jacob in effect asks a perfectly reasonable question: “What are they worth to you?” And Esau replies, “Why, I’d even trade my birthright for them,” to which Jacob says, “Deal.” The Torah says that that deal was proof that Esau “despised” his birthright; the writer of Hebrews says it was because he was “unspiritual,” proven in the Genesis account by his choice of ungodly wives. And I’d rate the deal as a slap in Isaac’s face in the same league as the lost son’s request in the parable that his dad give him his share of the inheritance so he can leave home. Yet the Sunday school version of that deal is that Jacob was a conniver—the father of shyster Jews, as it were. Now there’s a lot of Esau in me—I certainly know what it is to trade treasure for piffle—but that (alone) doesn’t make those I’ve traded with bad people. So in my book, Jacob drove a hard bargain, but if Esau ate and was satisfied, Jacob got the birthright fair and square. Though Esau later blames Jacob for his desolation, the Bible says it’s his own fault.

But Isaac, who has doubtless heard the news that his beloved Esau has despised his birthright, decides that he’ll sneak the blessing to Esau anyway. Where Esau earns a meal by treating the birthright as worthless, Isaac wants to earn a meal by treating God’s blessing as subject to his own whim: remember, it was God who told him that Jacob was to be his successor.

But Rebekah is on the ball and gives Jacob a plan that is so outrageous that it would never work apart from God’s intervention. Think for a second: Isaac wants wild game cooked according to Esau’s secret recipe. Jacob is going to take him the same domestic meat he’s eaten thousands of times. And we learn that Jacob can’t disguise his voice. On top of that, Isaac is suspicious because of the timing. But even down three strikes, Jacob gets the blessing. Why? The best answer is that God blinded Isaac. And when Isaac realizes what has happened, he trembles with terror because he realizes he has been going against God’s wishes by trying to bless Esau.

The Sunday school lesson from this phase of Jacob’s early life is usually, “Don’t be a snake like Jacob,” backed up by speculation of what would have happened if Jacob had not dealt with Esau for the birthright or chosen some more diplomatic way to get the blessing. I think the river runs deeper in the other direction.

Because we are sinners and choose to be sinners and to sin, we deserve nothing from God, not even to know the truth. In fact, everyone by nature hates the truth, so God is within his rights when he “sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Thess 2:11), as he did Isaac. Everything I’ve ever done that I’ve regretted began with believing a lie because I wanted to; every time, I’ve looked back and said, “I knew better.” God is not obliged to let us even hear the Gospel, and we who have heard it, to say nothing of those who put it into practice, are recipients of grace beyond measure.

Jacob was flawed like the rest of us, and we’ll talk about that later, but he knew that God had promised him a special blessing, and he was willing to risk everything to get it. It wasn’t only the ruse on Isaac that was risky; his offer to Esau was as outrageous as a guy at a McDonald’s counter offering a Happy Meal in exchange for sex. Anyone with a normal understanding of the situation would have been aghast at the proposition. (“I asked him if he was serious, and he said yes. Can you believe it?”) But Esau not only wasn’t offended, he agreed to the deal: Jacob’s wisdom was justified by her children (Luke 7:35). And in the end, Jacob really had nothing to lose and everything to gain by pursuing the blessing. If Esau hadn’t taken the bargain or his ruse hadn’t worked, what would he have lost? His father already would prefer to disobey God than to give him either the birthright or the blessing—how could being discovered and overtly cursed be worse? What looks risky to the undiscerning really isn’t. How much of God’s blessing have I done myself out of by not being willing to take lawful risks?

Jacob pursued the blessing by lawful means. His deal with Esau was gutsy but lawful. His ruse on Isaac was also lawful: it prevented Isaac from sinning against God by giving the blessing to an unspiritual beast. In the same way, helping slaves escape on the Underground Railroad and hiding Jews during the Holocaust prevented God’s appointed authorities from sinning through murder and kidnap. The Israelite midwives in Egypt and Rahab showed their faith by denying the truth to the ungodly; Judas Iscariot told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and the Bible treats him as a scoundrel. We have no obligation to tell someone a truth that will enable them to sin more effectively.

Finally, like Esau, we are naturally beasts who pursue the short-term pleasures of piffle at the cost of long-term blessing. And when we come up short, we tend to blame others, ultimately God (Prov 19:3). If we don’t want our natural desires to keep us from God’s blessings, we need to act unnaturally—or supernaturally. That’s why Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is the greatest gift we can ask for (Luke 11:13): it is the Spirit who enables us to act supernaturally.

Next post on this thread will look at Jacob’s time with Uncle Laban.

UPDATE: The second post is here.


I’m not sure how long Venita had been dishing out the likes of mashed potatoes in the basement cafeteria of my George Washington University dorm before I noticed that she was saying more to me than hello. I had a girlfriend at another school, so I wasn’t looking for one, and if I had been, I would have looked among my fellow students rather than among the cafeteria help. I don’t think she was flirting with me, but she seemed friendly, and I was certainly open to making friends. I didn’t have any black friends, and she had a pleasant smile, so I enjoyed chatting with her.

We had been exchanging a couple of sentences worth of pleasantries at every meal for a while when one day she told me she was going into the hospital for surgery. I told her I’d come to see her and for good measure gave her my phone number and told her to call me if she needed anything.

Sure enough, she called me the afternoon after her surgery and told me she was hurting. I told her there wasn’t much I could do, but anytime she wanted to talk, she should feel free to call. And she did, twice in the middle of that night and twice the next. She didn’t have much to say besides “My ass hurts,” and having been roused from sound sleep, I could manage even less of substance, but I did my best and certainly never hinted that she ought to hang up.

I also tried to go see her. The first time, I walked from the dorm at 19th and F to 8th and K Northwest, only to find that the hospital was at 8th and K Northeast, and there wasn’t time to walk the rest of the way. So I called her when I returned to my room and told her I’d take the bus over the next day. She told me what bus to ride, so I boarded the bus the next afternoon and realized too late that I was on the right bus going the wrong way. Finally, the third day I actually made it there. After hello and how are you, the conversation lagged, and I was just about to ask her if I could ask her what surgery she had gone in for when the TV started playing a commercial for a hemorrhoid medicine. When Venita covered her face with her sheet, I figured I had my answer.

I can’t think of anything I did that whole year that I’m proud of. The best I did was answering the phone for Venita, letting her tell me she hurt, and telling her she was free to call anytime.

Not long after that, I was returning from an afternoon class when out of the front door to the dorm came one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, a tall, svelte black woman with a rich afro, wearing a turquoise pantsuit. Only when she called my name did I realize it was Venita. I’d only seen her with her hair straightened and in either her uniform or at the hospital, so this was quite a surprise, and the fourteen-year-old in me was gratified that such a beauty would actually acknowledge me in public. That was the good news. The bad news was that she had found another job and wouldn’t be returning. But she gave me her telephone number, and we agreed to stay in touch.

When the semester ended, my girlfriend and I decided to go separate ways, and I had already decided to leave GWU and continue my education in Washington State. I wanted to see Venita again before I left, so I called her a few days before my departure and arranged to meet her for lunch. With visions of the afro and turquoise pantsuit dancing in my head, I walked into the shoe store she worked at and again didn’t recognize her until she called my name. This time she had cut her hair shorter than mine and was attired a step down from business casual. But she was still good company. We had a cordial lunch, and though cigarettes and vocabulary reminded me that we would never share anything more intimate than a meal and conversation, I promised to keep in touch with her from the West, and we exchanged a few letters through the autumn.

I saw her for the last time when I was visiting my parents over Christmas break. We agreed that the first Sunday I was home I would pick her up, take her with me to church, and bring her home for lunch. But when I finally found her house, I realized things weren’t as I was expecting. An older woman answered the door, looked at me suspiciously, and called back into the house, “Venita! There’s a white man here for you!”

Venita came to the door and told me she couldn’t go for some reason. But we did arrange to go on a picnic at the Washington Monument (which, despite never having left the District her entire life, she had never been up) after church the next week. (I was honored that she was game enough to agree to a picnic in January.) Again the next Sunday I drove down, and again she wasn’t able to go to church, but she told me to pick her up for the picnic after church.

So I did. Surprise! She came out the door carrying a toddler and followed by a six-year-old. It turned out that the toddler, Kwasi (which she pronounced “KWAY-see”), was her nephew, and Michael was her son. I didn’t do the math until later: she’d become a mother at sixteen. She had lived with her mother and worked at GWU and the shoe store to try to save money to start nursing school.

I guess she had decided not to come home with me or go to my church because she didn’t think the good white folks would take kindly to a black woman showing up with a couple of bastards. I think she was wrong; if she had explained her situation I would have been happy to have them come along both times. But she may have been right: a censorious expression must have come over my face when she told me, because she felt it necessary to point out that everyone makes mistakes. Still, I like to think that maybe my patience with her phone calls gave her the confidence to surprise me.

Not being one to plan much in advance, it was only after she was in the car that I considered what we would eat. I’d seen Kentucky Fried Chicken place on the way. “Would you like chicken?” I asked.

“How many black people do you know who don’t like chicken?”

“How many black people do I know?”

Chicken it was.

We arrived at the Monument grounds, spread out a blanket, and, despite overcast and 50-something degree weather, had what seemed to me a reasonably enjoyable meal. I certainly hope she was glad then that she had agreed to come along, because the rest of the day was a disaster. When we had finished eating, I realized I hadn’t remembered to pick up napkins. Fortunately, there was a roll of toilet paper in the trunk of the car, but Venita was not impressed. We joined the line to go up the Monument, but it was forty-five minutes before we made it to the door, and the clouds were starting to descend. Sure enough, by the time we exited the elevator at the top of the Monument, Kwasi was a wreck, Michael was really wanting to go home, and the clouds had totally blocked the view. So much for visiting history.

Once we were back in the car, Venita asked if there was someplace nearby where she could buy cigarettes. I knew of a drugstore close to my dorm at GWU, so we headed for it. After I parked the car, Venita said she didn’t want to go in alone. Kwasi was asleep in the back seat, and it would only take a minute, so we left him there and took Michael in. Sure enough, it only took a minute. Unfortunately, when I searched in my pocket for my keys, I realized I’d locked them in the car. This being downtown DC, there was someone standing on the corner who was expert in opening locked cars without keys, and we were soon on our way.

But enough was enough. She told me not to bother parking and simply took the boys into the house from the middle of the street. She never answered any letters after that, and when I tried calling her a few months later, her phone had been disconnected. I wish her the best—nursing school, a man who won’t abandon her, a father for Michael, eternal life—but I don’t expect ever to find out what became of her.

When Venita comes to mind, I first remember the botched attempts to visit her in the hospital and everything that went wrong at the picnic. It’s humiliating to know that you’ve let down someone who was fond of you at one time. I suppose it’s some comfort that my motivation was basically nothing to be ashamed of (though I do wonder if I’d have been so interested in her if she’d been ugly), but plain old incompetence is nothing to be proud of. Even so, though, I still smile when I remember the nighttime phone calls.

Venita, if you’re out there, feel free to call me—even if it’s just to tell me your ass hurts.

Why This Blog

Two friends have told me that I’m passionate enough about liberty—and one of them understands that I see it as a blessing ultimately rooted in the kingdom of God, the cross of Jesus—that I should start a blog, so I have decided to give it a shot. I don’t expect to be able to post every day, which is why I’ve put blogging off for so long, but I may surprise myself.

The part of blogging I look forward to most is interacting with comments. Exchanges can’t go on forever, of course, but if you think I’m all wet—and another reason I’ve procrastinated is because many people in the real world do, and strongly—you’re welcome to say so.

Thanks for stopping by—let’s have some fun.