Monday, March 29, 2010

Better Osama than Obama?

I wish I could find the article that suggested to me that the "Christian" North Africa of St. Augustine fell to Islam not so much because the Muslim hordes were good fighters, though such they were, but because the North Africans didn't consider their societies, governed as they were by kleptocrats and bought clergy, worth fighting for. The closest I can get to it is this, two examplary quotes therefrom being these:

Muslim conquerors neither demanded nor expected conversion initially, and the Christians of the Levant and North Africa, who were mostly heretics on the matter of who Jesus was, were happy to exchange a hostile authority with one indifferent to disputes over Christology. Conversion would come, slowly, later, and generally not by compulsion.
A Europe (one could add North America to this) prompted to inhumanity in order to save itself would not be terribly Christian, and probably not worth saving. (parentheses his)

Osama bin Laden had enviable name recognition before 9/11, and so USians, myself included, were eager to see him "brought to justice" afterward: "We don't need no stinkin' trial! Bring his head back on a pike!" I thought sending thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan to search for him was overkill, but only figuratively. Even as late as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of dead Afghans later, the most opposition I could muster to the war was, "I don't think this is a good idea." I still cringe to think that when I woke up on the morning of the invasion I turned on the TV to see the bombing broadcast live on CNN's camera in Baghdad.

All this to say I consider myself as having been "prompted to inhumanity" by the desire to save myself.

Just as New Guinean women (at least used to) tell their toddlers that if they are bad the white man will eat them, we have been told that Osama is the worst thing that could happen to our nation: "He masterminded the attack! He hates us because we're good [or rich or Christian]!"

Hold it.

Osama issued his 1998 fatwa for three reasons: US troops on Muslim land, US support for corrupt governments in Muslim lands, and US support for Israel. If I hate Uncle Sam's policy on abortion, foreign aid, education, welfare, or any of a dozen other things he does in my name with my money, Osama didn't aim that fatwa at me, now, did he? And after 9/11, when there was "dancing in the Arab street" and parents by the thousands were naming their babies Osama, he didn't say, "This is just the beginning. Watch me now." The two quotes I have heard from him are, "I didn't do it, but I'm glad someone did" and "That attack went against my Muslim beliefs." (Obviously, he would not have said both; my point is that he was not quoted as bragging about 9/11 anytime soon after it happened.) Whether he's playing coy or truly innocent, he's passing up a heaven-sent opportunity to be a hero on a planetary scale.

But let's assume he's guilty. After watching Uncle Sam kill 500,000 women and children with sanctions against Saddam in the 1990s, he knocks off 3,000 workers for the US corporate state and a few dozen military people. Look at the numbers: isn't that like having a toddler stomp on the toes of a rapist? If we add that some of the victims were military types and the WTC workers were making money off the carnage, we have the toddler wearing stiletto heels. So Osama doesn't care about life. So what? Uncle Sam doesn't care about life either. What's the difference?

And Barack Obama is Uncle Sam. It took him three days to begin the killing of women and children in their homes in Pakistan. Did Osama kill women and children? Not in their homes, he didn't. Obama has mortgaged our grandchildren's futures for the sake of Wall Street. The only money Osama has taken directly from US taxpayers he got through the Bushes, with whom his family has had connections for decades. Obama puts people in jail for activities he engaged in with impunity. I've never heard Osama accused of breaking laws he makes for others. The list goes on. If we resist his depradations forcefully enough, it will be Obama, not Osama, who will be sending the most expensively armed soldiers in the history of the world to our neighborhoods to force compliance.

You don't think federal troops would ever be given orders to shoot to kill their fellow citizens? There's a shamelessly self-labeled "temple" in Washington DC dedicated to a president who gave just such orders: Abraham Lincoln.

When we pray for the well-being of US soldiers, we are praying for those who will be treating us the way they are currently treating the "insurgents" and "unlawful combatants" of Southwest Asia. Sharia law is devilish to be sure, but it may come as a relief after years of godless "compassion."

Of course, we could sever our ties of loyalty to Uncle Sam before he turns on us, build a city on a hill while we still have the resources, and call those who hunger and thirst after justice to come to the water and drink. Or we can wait for the Muslim (or pagan Chinese) hordes to rescue us from our uniformed heroes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What's Not to Like about God?

Notes for my sermon to the residents of Meadowood Nursing Home today.

Lansdale Presbyterian Church is what is called a “creedal” church. That is, to join our church you have to believe certain things. There are some churches that say in as many words, “No creed but Christ, no law but love,” and while there are advantages to doing things that way, we have chosen to limit our membership to those who agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

As you know, the Bible is a thick book. The Confession was written in 1764 as an attempt to summarize the Bible’s teachings in a few dozen pages. The writers weren’t pretending to produce a document to equal the Bible, but they took seriously the words of James 3:1, “[those] who teach will be judged more strictly”; so they were careful about every word.

I took a class on the Confession recently, and as I was reading the section that tells who God is and what he’s like, I felt like I was being given a tray of food so big I couldn’t lift it, let alone eat it. Listen to this, the first paragraph of chapter 2:

There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

As I was reading, I was thinking of the pagans and atheists in my office and wondering what they would think if they read that. What’s not to like about this God? How can anyone read that and not think, “If there is a God, this is what I would want him to be like”? Let me take this paragraph apart and let you savor each bite.

There is but one only

Why would anyone want there to be more than one god? If there were more than one god, one would have to be “king of the hill.” Why worship any of the others? If you need some form of supernatural community, think of the doctrine of the Trinity: still one God but three persons who are always in perfect agreement and love. Or the angels, powerful beings who obey God perfectly. Who needs gods who strive with each other?


Who needs gods who can die? If you want a God who understands what it’s like to face death, we have Jesus, who not only died, but lived in our flesh, with fleas, mosquitos, and outhouses.

and true God,

Who needs gods who either don’t know the truth or who lie? What good is a god who does not really exist?

who is infinite in being and perfection,

What’s wrong with a God who is infinite and perfect? What advantage is there to a god who is finite or imperfect?

a most pure spirit,

Physical beings have limitations, as you know if you’ve ever tried to flap your arms and fly. But spiritual beings don’t have limitations. But again, if you need a physical being to worship, you have Jesus, the Son of God, who became man.

invisible, without body, parts, or passions;

God’s being invisible is a disadvantage for us, but it follows, doesn’t it, that if he is a spirit without body or parts, he is invisible? And as you probably know, the main reason he is invisible is that he is repulsed by our sin, but he promises that at the right time we will at last see him as he is.


Who needs a god who changes? If God is perfect to begin with, how can he improve? We don’t want our friends or spouses to change, certainly not to become worse.

immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty,

We are limited beings, so our minds can’t grasp the idea of infinity, and we’re bound by time, so we can’t really comprehend eternity. Think of numbers: we know that we can always add one to any number, or even square it, but eventually we speak of numbers we can’t get our minds around. So of course, if God is immense or infinite, almost by definition he’s incomprehensible. And if he’s incomprehensible, it would follow that much of what he does would be incomprehensible; that is, we would not understand it. We might not even think it was good. This may be the first part of the answer to my question about what there is not to like about God. Things happen in the world that we don’t approve of, and we think, “How could a good God allow [name the atrocity]?” He does things we don’t like, and we don’t want to believe that the best an infinite, perfect God can do is something we don’t like.

Yet he takes responsibility for these horrors. Listen to what God said to the Israelites through the prophet Amos: "I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, … I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up…People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink…Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees…I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps” (4:6-10). And he states that he does all those horrible things so his people will “return” to him. This is not how we try to win friends and influence people, and it certainly doesn’t please us to think that this is how an infinite, almighty, eternal God woos his beloved!

But let’s move on.

most wise,

Most of us would like to stand up and tell God a thing or two—Wasn’t that what Job wanted to do?—but really, what good is a god who lacks wisdom and needs people to teach him?

most holy,

Holy things are those things set apart for God alone to use. Do we want a god who can be distracted from what is best to something trivial?

most free,

Who wants a god who can’t do whatever he wants?

most absolute,

What advantage is there to a God who can be overruled?

working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory;

This idea of glory is unfamiliar to us, but it makes sense once you understand it. We all want to be told that there is something good about us. Those things about us that are praiseworthy are our glory. We give glory to God when we acknowledge his goodness 24/7. If nothing exists that is better than God, why should God want us to value anything more than we value him? Why should he tolerate any rivals? If all life comes from him, why would he approve of us looking for life anywhere but in him? Why would he want us to be deceived, let alone to prefer to be deceived rather than to acknowledge the truth and benefit from it?

most loving,

No being can love more than God can, so not only do we incur his wrath when we look for love anywhere else, we really settle for second best.

gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,

I don’t know about you, but my words so far describe a God I haven’t loved anything close to the way he deserves to be loved. But these words say that no matter how bad we are or how worthless we think we are, he is willing to forgive us. If we’ve offended a friend, do we say, “Think of all the money I’ve given you. Think of all the things I’ve done for you. You should forgive me.” Is that how we seek forgiveness? Or do we want our friends to forgive us, not because we deserve it, but just because they love us? Have you ever loved someone who has hurt you and been willing to forget everything they’ve done if they will just respond to your love? That’s what God’s about.

the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;

No one who makes a sincere effort to find God comes up empty handed. If you want his forgiveness from the bottom of your heart, you will find it.

and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Why would we want God not to hate all sin? We hate sin: murder, rape, oppression, pollution, gossip, slander. But I think this is where the rest of the answer to my question of what’s not to like about God lies. We want God to hate other people’s sins, especially the sins of those who say they worship God, but we don’t like it when he hates our sins, or at least the ones we feel OK about committing. Then we start backpedaling and doubting if God is who the Bible says he is. In these cases, we’re not weighing up the evidence and deciding what the Bible says about God isn’t true. We’re not looking at the fossil record and saying, “This is incontrovertible truth that there is no god.” Rather, at these times we don’t want it to be true, and we’re looking for reasons to avoid facing the Bible’s claims. We prefer to believe that the Bible is not true than to diligently seek God. And when we couple our feelings with the Bible’s claim that God often woos his beloved by making us miserable, we often don’t care if it’s true or not, we don’t want it to be true, and so we don’t believe it.

But if you want to love a God who is good, who loves what is good, and who hates evil and will bring the wicked to justice, then you probably also know you haven’t lived up to his requirements. But there is hope for you. Again, from the Confession:

Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by [the covenant God made with Adam], the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the Covenant of Grace, whereby He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (7.3)

If you are a Christian today, it is because God has moved you by his Spirit to have faith in Christ and so to receive eternal life. You have tasted God’s goodness in this life and look forward to enjoying it forever. For those who are not Christians today, I’m here in the hope that God’s Spirit will take my words and use them to make you willing and able to believe. Amen.

Friday, March 12, 2010


A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.

—Proverbs 22:3

Adoniram was a man for our time.

His name is mentioned five times in Scripture, and each time the refrain is the same: “Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor” (1 Kg 5:14). He was a slave driver; if politics is always the use of force against people, Adoniram was the ultimate political operative.

We first meet him in the reign of David: “Adoniram was in charge of forced labor” (1 Sa 20:24). That’s all we hear, but the author may have been describing Adoniram’s character by placing his name between those of generalissimo Joab and the priests Zadok and Abiathar, all of whom were in good standing at the time but eventually met ignominious ends. But in David’s day, the only forced laborers on record were Canaanites whom God had not allowed the Israelites to exterminate (Jos 16:10; 17:13; Jdg 1: 28, 30, 33, 35), so so far so good.

Adoniram was still supervising forced labor when Solomon became king (1 Kg 4:6). But before long came the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy that Israel’s king would reduce them to slavery (1 Sa 8:11-17). No longer were Canaanites the only slaves: “King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home.” (1 Kg 5:13-14). The freedom of the golden years of David’s reign was now up for grabs—hey, it could have been worse, right?—but one thing stayed the same: “Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.”

We learn later that this forced labor was used for the Temple, certainly a violation of the principle that the offerings God values most are those voluntarily given (Mt 10:8; 2 Co 9:7) and the precedent of Moses’ day, when the people gave so much voluntarily that the leaders had to tell them to stop giving (Ex 36:6-7; ). If that weren’t bad enough, Solomon consumed twice the forced labor to build his own house that he used to build the Temple. Even the wisest man in the world became living proof that “public goods” are always the private goods of those in power. And Adoniram, ever the loyal servant, supervised the whole operation.

Eventually Solomon died, and the people held their collective breath expectantly: would Solomon’s son give them relief from the heavy load of taxation and conscription that Solomon had placed on them?

Of course not. Rehoboam figured that if his father had gotten away with demanding X, he could get away with demanding X2. More importantly, he ignored the words of the Lord’s prophet Ahijah, who had said to Jereboam, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon's hand and give you ten tribes’” (1 Kg 11:31). An ungodly, selfish king was openly defying the God who had given Israel life and whom Israel existed to glorify.

And so, when the people of Israel fulfilled the word of the Lord by seceding from Rehoboam, the limit of godly authority had been clearly drawn: Rehoboam was no longer the king of Israel, only of Judah and Benjamin. So when Rehoboam commanded Adoniram to conscript labor from Israel (1 Kg 12:18), he was openly rebelling against God. But Adoniram, whose job was not to make policy, obeyed anyway, and he was stoned for his trouble. No doubt the media of the day called him a hero, but the Bible withholds such adulation.

In our day, we have a government few call good and fewer call godly. Under the prevailing model of the “unitary executive,” we are at the mercy of a man who kills infants halfway around the world and thinks nothing of killing the unborn at home or saddling them with crushing debt, jails people for activities he admits engaging in with impunity, and breaks campaign promises one wonders if he ever intended to keep. A nation that formerly called the world to freedom and some semblance of Christian society now prides itself in perverse entertainment, as well as the preventive detention, torture, random searches, no-knock arrests, asset forfeiture, licensure, and endless taxes, forms, hearings, and other essential ingredients of the police state.

Yet the Christian church in the US still sends its children off to fight Rehoboam’s wars as though they are defending what the Bible calls freedom. And Adoniram dutifully goes off as though he were only conscripting Canaanites. And when he dies, some call him a hero.