Saturday, July 25, 2009

Got Guys?

My church's vacation Bible school finished last night. I think a good time was had by all, but, never one to be content with such as I have, I was still disturbed by something. And this morning, as I sent my daughter off on the church youth group missions trip, I got hit again with the same unease.

Our Bible school made the Beach Boys' Surf City ("two girls for every boy") look like Boys' Town. The ratio of girls to boys was more like four or five to one. On the missions trip the ratio was five or six to one.

Where are the boys?

(My church is not alone in this situation. This is true of every summer program I've been part of, which is why I'm writing here and not in a personal letter to my church elders.)

Our Wednesday night Pioneer Clubs over the winter were mostly girls, but not overwhelmingly so. After it was over, I wrote Mrs. Kay, who organized both the Pioneers and later the VBS, and suggested that maybe one way to get more boys involved would be to have men more visible in the clubs. I was afraid she'd consider it just another of my rants, but to my surprise, she agreed.

Kids of single-digit age wake up to Mom, Dad having gone off to work. They either go to school, where they are taught primarily by women in an atmosphere that as early as 1969 feminist Patricia Cayo Sexton wrote was an unhealthy "feminizing" atmosphere for boys (The Feminized Male [New York: Random House], 1969). Or they are home schooled by Mom. Those from broken homes usually live with their mothers. Sunday school teachers for that age are usually women.

Where do boys find a masculine atmosphere? They can watch sports, go fishing, or work around the house with Dad. They can play video games or Recreation Department sports or form music groups with their male friends. They can join gangs or do substances. They can cruise in hopes of finding their own Surf City. But church? It's just another girl thing. Would we want our boys to look forward to hanging out with the girls? And as good as Mrs. Kay was as MC at Pioneers and Mrs. Oh at VBS—and no man could have done better—they were still not men.

Y-chromosomes alone in the teachers won't cure the ailment. I gave my Pioneer boys too much "Let's have it quiet in here" and too few dead arms and high fives. We need masculine men who can not only teach the Bible effectively but mix it up in fun, convey the dignity of sweat, and model respectful treatment of women.

Three white-collar men are accompanying a gaggle of females on our church's missions trip this week. Their target people group is the children of blue-collar Latins. I'm curious: what will the male-to-female ratio of their attendees be? Is God still interested in reaching boys for Christ? Are all his future missionaries to be female?

And, yes, I'm once again the pot calling the kettle black. Though my daughter is one of those missionaries, I'm staying home. My excuse? I need to chase the dollar. "Well done, good and faithful servant." Right. Servant of whom?

It's not too early to plan for next year.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Regulating Business

For the last five years you’ve worked extra hours and lived beyond your means so you can stop working for someone else and start working for yourself. You’ve come in early, stayed late, worked through breaks, and skipped vacations. You’ve stayed home and played cards and vacationed at the local state park instead of buying a home entertainment system and going to the movies or Disney World. You’ve bought the house brands and the cheap meats instead of the designer foods and prime cuts. You’ve made the house paint and the car last longer than the salesmen promised they would. You’ve put the money you didn’t spend into the safest interest- and dividend-bearing accounts you could find, even if they didn’t yield as much as the riskier ones. You’ve spent time surveying the market and giving samples of your work to potential customers at a steep discount or even for free.

And now you’re ready to set up shop. You’ve put down a lease on a building. You’ve bought the best equipment available for your core activities and the best you could afford for the rest, the inventory you need to serve your customers, and the advertising you need to attract new customers. And you’ve hired workers. In the space of a few weeks, the money you spent five years accumulating is gone.

If your business fails, you might be able to sell your equipment for enough to pay off the loans. and if it succeeds, you’ll be working no fewer hours for no more money than you were as an employee. You’ve asked no favors from anyone and essentially bet your life that you can satisfy your customers better than anyone else out there.

At this point, someone who doesn’t know your name, who doesn’t care how much work you’ve put in or whether you stay in business, whose life will be unaffected by your success or failure, steps in and wants to tell you who will and will not be your customers, what you will and won’t sell to them, what you may charge, whom you may hire and what you may require from them, how much you will pay them, how your facilities will be laid out, and—the list is endless.

Every time he issues an order, it costs you time and money not only to comply but to prove to him that you have complied, and if he lodges an accusation with the authorities, you are considered guilty unless you can prove your innocence. Remember, this person isn’t responding to complaints by employees, customers, or neighbors, he’s simply enforcing regulations—“just following orders.”

If you knew nothing about Jesus and this regulator were to tell you he was placing this load on you in Jesus’ name, would you want to know more about this Jesus?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Basics 3: Loving Mercy

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

Three passages encapsulate the biblical view of compassion: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And the parable of the Good Samaritan: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said” (Luke 10:34–35)

In each case, one (a) motivated by love gave (b) his own resources (c) for the (eternal) benefit of another. All three aspects are important. God looks at the heart, and anyone who gives out of selfish motives is sinning (1 Cor 13:3). The Good Samaritan could have caught the priest or the Levite and forced them to take care of the mugging victim, but Jesus makes a point of emphasizing that the man used “his own” donkey (and so presumably his own oil, wine, and silver coins, not to mention his time and effort). Finally, God sent his Son, not so we could build a Christian America or live our present lives under our own vines and fig trees, but so that we would know eternal life even if it meant an early death.

Given that definition of compassion, can government be compassionate? Can a government love? Individuals in government can love, but the government itself is an abstraction and so is incapable of love.

Can loving individuals, acting as government officials, give of their own resources? “Ah,” you say, “that’s what taxes are all about: giving loving government officials the resources to give others.”

But apart from an official designation as a government official, what makes collecting taxes for redistribution different from the Good Samaritan putting a gun in the belly of the Levite and telling him to take care of the mugging victim?

“But Romans 13:6 says specifically that that’s what taxation is all about.”

I have two problems with that. The first is an analogy. Romans 13:4 says that the ruler “is God's servant to do you good. … He does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Reading the Naboth incident through the lens of a strict reading of Romans 13 gives every reason to believe that Naboth was a wrongdoer. He was, after all, convicted on the testimony of “two or three witnesses” (Deut 17:6) who were presumably the first to throw the stones that killed him (1 Kgs 21:13). Yet the larger context of the story tells us that Naboth was murdered. If Romans 13 needs to be understood loosely in regard to justice, it probably also needs to be understood loosely in regard to charity.

The second objection has to do with method. Jesus calls us to be servants: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26). Even kings are not to consider themselves above commoners (Deut 17:20). How can we pass school levies by outvoting our neighbors without thereby lording it over them? How can we take money from our neighbors’ grandchildren—or our employers, for that matter—to fund our retirement and health care without thereby considering ourselves as better than they are? In both cases, are we not doing to them what we wouldn’t want them to do to us, that is, treating them unjustly?

The argument that we wouldn’t be able to care for the poor or the weak without government compassion is a classic end-justifies-the-means argument: how do we know which ends justify which means? If means are ends in themselves, then Christian compassion has to be based on justice; if we need to violate people’s bodies or property to do it, it’s not compassion, it’s injustice. When we expect the government to be our agent of compassion, we are basing our care for the poor and weak on injustice.

If we are acting unjustly, is it any wonder the world doesn’t look at Christians as good neighbors?

Basics 2: Doing Justice

Part 1 is here.

Justice is simple. It’s the first thing we find we need to teach our toddlers when they get around other kids: Don’t hit. Don’t take their stuff. Don’t lie. Don’t call names. This is the essence of doing justice: keeping your hands to yourself and telling the truth.

Looked at another way, how do we want people to obey the Golden Rule with us? Do they know what kind of music, or food, or clothes, or home interior design we like? Probably not. So we don’t expect them to shower us with gifts. But we know we don’t like people messing with our bodies or our property. That much anyone can do for us. The other side of the coin is that there is no harm people can do to us apart from harming our bodies, our property, or our reputations.

Is this idea biblical? I got it from reading Calvin’s exposition of the Ten Commandments in his Institutes. He points out that “do not murder” doesn’t mean we can beat people within an inch of their lives with impunity. It means that murder is the worst thing we can do to a person’s body; we should be going as far away from that pole as possible, not only not harming their bodies, but working for their benefit. Theft is similarly the worst thing we can do to people’s property; we should not only avoid vandalism, we should be helping people acquire the things they need for life. Adultery is the worst form of fraud; our yes should be yes in all situations, even when we wish we hadn’t committed ourselves. And perjury is the worst form of slander; character assassination is bad enough in the nursery, but it can be lethal in court.

Justice is simple, but just try to live that way. Try to never steal people’s time by keeping them waiting or taking an extra minute or two of break. Try to walk through a crowd without ogling the chicks. Try to tell a story about someone you don’t like and spin the details so they look as good as possible. If you can do those things consistently, maybe you can stop reading.

I would suggest that much of the hostility Christians face from our culture is rooted in injustices we commit. May I suggest that the support for and cavalier attitude of evangelicals toward “collateral damage” in Ir-Af-Pak condones murder: God will likely be easier on us on Judgment Day if we “fight them over here”—and lose—than if we are guilty of killing innocent people. God has nowhere told us to regulate our neighbor’s diet, so supporting the FDA, let alone the War on Drugs, as well as zoning and censorship, is promoting theft, as is forbidding gays to designate their lovers as recipients of Social Security and employment-based health benefits and taxing childless people to support schools and other benefits for children.

The latter cases fall into the area of compassion and so will be discussed in the next post; for now I would suggest that if we’re to win Muslims, druggies, gays, and other victims of unjust government policies to Christ, we need to stop supporting those policies. The offense of the cross is one thing we can’t avoid giving, but “if you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.”

The church in the US needs to learn how to do justice.

Part 3 is here.

Basics 1: Walking Humbly with God

The Christian life is simple: we are to love God and to love our neighbors. Put another way, we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We can also judge our love for God by our love for our neighbors.

The Christian life is simple, but it’s also impossible, for me anyway: I find I love my sin more than I love myself. Do my sins profit me? No. So why do I fall into the same sins over and over? The only answer is that I love them more than I love myself.

If I don’t love myself, would my neighbor want me to love him as I love myself? And how can I say I love God if I don’t love my neighbor? If the promises of God are for those who love him, do I have any claim on them?

The next two posts deal with justice and mercy. They are both simple concepts. They’re also impossible to live up to, at least for me. I can name people whom I have wronged and lost track of who have good reason to think, “If Henry Whitney is going to heaven, I don’t want to be there.” Wretched man that I am, who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So I realize that in the posts to follow I will be the pot calling the kettle black. But God occasionally used those who were not his people to shame those who were (Gen 38:26; Jer 35; Luke 10:25–37; 1 Cor 5:1). May he similarly use me in what follows.

Part 2 is here

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hitler Didn’t Kill Anyone

I’ve never seen a picture of Hitler killing anyone, yet some claim he killed six million of his subjects. Yet we never hear about him pulling triggers, turning gas valves, wielding long knives, or tying ropes around people’s necks. He apparently spent the whole time in the comfort of an office.

So how did all those people die?

The autumn of 1977 saw the first television miniseries, Holocaust, about one Jewish family that suffered under Hitler. As I remember after 32 years, every German soldier was portrayed as a heartless brute. For example, the admissions officer at the concentration camp asked, “What was the name of the whore who bore you?” Heh, heh, heh.

But who were they really?

I have to guess. The only German World War II veteran I have met was as nice a guy as you could have as a friend. He devoted his empty nest years to helping Bible translators in the third world with logistics so they could concentrate on their work. I could never bring myself to ask him about his role in the war.

I do know that an 18-year-old in 1939 was born in 1921, during the Allied punishment of Germany for its part in the Great War. Between the sanctions, the inflationary policies of the (Allies-backed?) government, and the taxes imposed to pay off the war debt, that soldier could likely have grown up never knowing a full stomach or a warm bed in winter. His father might never have had a steady job.

That is, until Hitler.

People who are oppressed—and the Germans were oppressed—thirst for someone in power to identify with their suffering and do something about it. Hitler was the Barack Obama of his day, and the idea of Aryan supremacy was his call for black power. As today’s blacks look at thieving, self-righteous whites and know we’re no better than they, the Germans looked at the Allies and grated under victor’s justice.

Those who shouted “Yes, we can!” in the stadium in Nuremberg and went on to slaughter the Jews were normal, decent guys “just following orders.” They went to Bible studies (even in their Hitler youth camps), wrote poetry for their girlfriends and letters home to their mothers, played guitar and painted with oils, and, I suspect, rescued innocent people in ways that would rival anything you can read in Reader’s Digest today. They had no idea history would not treat them kindly.

Can it happen here?

Look around. We have our Heimat, or “homeland.” Our “Gemeinnütz geht vor Eigennütz” is “Duty. Honor. Country” and “Individuals need to sacrifice for the good of the community.” We have Volkswagen in General Motors. Hyperinflation is just around the corner. The government can hold US citizens indefinitely and torture them without charging them with crimes; our Jews are Muslims and (will soon include) individualists.

What if the soldiers who herded the Jews into camps “temporarily” had been greeted with bullets? Would “just following orders” have seemed like the virtue it was to them then? It didn’t later on, when a dozen or so guns in the hands of “insurgents” kept the entire Wehrmacht out of the Warsaw ghetto for two weeks. If we wait until the camps are operating, will there be any way of resisting?

What stops the “calm heads” that prevailed under Hitler from prevailing in the face of Uncle Sam’s rapacity today?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Are All Sins Equal?

Staks has touched another nerve when he says, “The littlest sin stains the soul just as much as a large sin. Both are equally as intolerable to God …. In [hell] for a pinch, in for a pound. … If a sin is a sin is a sin, [then] why not murder and steal like crazy [?]”

I’ve asked the same question: is Christianity a caste system, where no matter how evil Christians are, they’re in, but no matter how good nonbelievers are, they’re out? It would appear so.

The difference between biblical Christianity and every other religion is this: only the Bible teaches that we join God’s team totally on God’s initiative and not on our own merit. Even the faith by which we receive God’s grace is a gift. Why God would create people who cannot help being sinful is beyond me. The closest I can get is that anyone can fall in love with the beautiful, smart, witty, and healthy, but we intuitively have special respect for one who is willing to sacrifice for the ugly, dull, sickly, and hateful, and God wants to show us that he is willing to suffer and die for the undeserving.

To which you say, Yeah, right: try to sell that to someone who could sing, “Different is nice but it sure isn’t pretty / Pretty’s what it’s all about / I never knew anyone who was ‘different’ / Who couldn’t figure that out.” On the other hand, if there is no God, then people who are ugly, weak, and otherwise undesirable are by definition inferior; the only alternative is to say, “I think they’re just as worthwhile as anyone else,” but it’s just your word against someone else’s.

We don’t go to hell because of our sins; we go because we deserve to, because of our nature, which is to love sin and reject God. We are born alienated from God, and we prefer that alienation to the forgiveness, reconciliation, discipline, and process of self-denial that becoming conformed to God’s image requires. And by “we” I mean me.

Our sins are repugnant to God, but they’re not kryptonite that renders God powerless; if it were, he couldn’t watch us sin, He doesn’t like our sin, but his preferred way of dealing with it is unlike the police surveillance state; he prefers to come as a servant and healer, as Jesus demonstrated when he was on earth. Yes, there will be time for judgment, but he’s in no hurry. He offers forgiveness as a gift.

Let’s go the “sin is like an ink stain” analogy one better. As someone hands you a drink, he says, “It got in the way of my kid peeing, but only a drop or so got in.” Will you drink it? Or would only a floating pooplet stop you? Either way, it’s no go, right? That’s the “all sins are equal” aspect to God’s justice system. Now, you’re swimming in a lake and you hear someone say, “Warm water coming!” Or someone puts their infant in the water, even in a diaper: you know what that kids going to do eventually. Do you get out? But you would get out if you saw poop floating by. That’s the “all sins aren’t equal” aspect.

That’s the best I can do. I have no airtight answers. If the universe is fundamentally personal and good, I’ll find out for sure which side I’m on on judgment day. If it’s fundamentally dead, I’ll never know for sure. I prefer to hope.

Is God a Peeping Tom?

Staks Rosch and I traded blog URLs a while back. We both have one son and wives who are so productive they don’t have time to blog, but otherwise, as his wife put it, can we be more different? He asks a lot of good questions—OK, they’re not phrased as questions—and I think it’s worth the effort to take a shot at answering them, even if he probably doesn’t care what I think.

In the first post I read, he makes the point that if there were an omniscient God, he would see us in our most private moments. What kind of God would want to be present at times when we wouldn’t want company? How does he feel about watching pretty girls take showers or ugly people have sex or anyone on the toilet?

This isn’t “can God make a rock he can’t lift?” silliness. We all know what it’s like to have well-meaning people take more interest in us than we can stand. Even those who administer “intense interrogation” take breathers—how much worse is it to have God prying into even our thoughts?

One hero of the faith, Job, knew the feeling well: "What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?”

The most important thing to remember is that God “does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” From this we can infer that if God is watching Miss Hottie take a shower, he probably gets less erotic charge from her physical attributes than a loving parent gets watching his son or her daughter use the potty chair for the first time. And if I’m right that he’s aghast that those who claim to be his people have given unqualified support to Uncle Sam’s murder and plunder, he’s no more concerned about her physique than we are about our arm hair.

I happen to believe that God delegates a lot of routine matters to creation (see Gen 1:17-18) and so doesn’t need to guide every droplet of that shower over the more interesting (to a guy) parts of Miss Hottie’s anatomy. But even if he does, God’s statement of his own priorities leads me to believe he views the process more like a guy waxing the car he’s built from scratch than like that same guy would helping her take her shower. That is, he takes pleasure from her pleasure at the warmth of the water, not from groping her. Or maybe he places the experience closer to guiding the microbes in her digestive tract (if he hasn’t simply delegated that function) than to respond to him in love.

And really, after somewhere between six thousand and six billion years, despite variety being the spice of life, wouldn’t a holy God find peeping at girls who don’t want him around boring?

Peeping Toms do nothing for their victims, but Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” God has created us to love us, to show us that we are literally to die for. We tend to view him as an intruder on our turf rather than as the most ardent of lovers, but he’s so busy working to convince us of the truth that he doesn’t have time, let alone the inclination, for voyeurism.

I Stand Corrected

My father took exception to my calling Mr. Obama a dictator during a phone call on Sunday. He noted that Mr. Obama’s request for funding to shut down the Guantánamo prison was turned down almost unanimously. I had to read it for myself, and my search took me here. Sho nuff, Dad was right.

But any comfort I could take that Mr. Obama can still be overruled was dissolved by this:

The Guantanamo Bay facility has been sharply criticized because the vast majority of detainees have been held for years without being formally charged. Moreover, for some, the evidence of their wrongdoing is uncorroborated or was obtained by the use of harsh interrogation techniques and therefore inadmissible in civilian courts.

Let’s start with the word “harsh.” As a conservative writer pointed out when castigating Jim Wallis for calling Pol Pot “harsh,” this is a word for a high school principal who humiliates an errant student, not a torturer and murderer. If you think waterboarding and weeks of sleep deprivation is more like harsh than like murder, have a loved one do it to you and see how long you can stand it. I think I’d last about five seconds. Orwell was right: he who defines the terms dominates the argument, and when McClatchey calls our masters’ treatment of their prisoners “harsh,” they are attempting to legitimize it and vilify those who protest it.

Then there’s the holding for years without being formally charged on the basis of evidence extracted by torture. Now, I spent a short night in jail for hitchhiking on a freeway in 1973, and I couldn’t wait for my trial, if for no other reason than I was bored. What must it be like to spend years like that? And all because someone who was being tortured uttered your name to get someone to stop making him feel like he was drowning or so he could get some sleep. I’m reminded of Haralan Popov’s book Tortured for His Faith in the 1970s: this is antichrist at work.

“Inadmissible in civilian courts”: as bad as our court system is, we consider it among other things as proof that we are a just society. That evidence extracted by torture is inadmissible there is a statement that just people don’t torture.

Why would it take the $80 million the article mentions to close Guantánamo? As Ron Paul said about Iraq, “We just went in; we can just come out.” We could put all US personnel on planes and leave everything else to the prisoners to keep or sell to the Cubans as some kind of effort as restitution for their unlawful imprisonment. Including the guns and missiles, which, yes, might be used against innocent people. But they already are being used against innocent people. At least our tax money would no longer be subsidizing the injustice.

But no, when it comes to committing injustice, Congress is even willing to overrule Mr. Obama.

And not just Congress. Judging by what I hear his people say, Jesus wants his people to “fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” By that I assume he means he’d rather see innocent people over there die as collateral damage and go to hell than for innocent people over here to die and go to heaven. So much for the Great Commission.