Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the day we commemorate those who made America possible. As I've said before, America to me is the idea that each individual is equal to every other in value and individuals have rights that no one can take away. From that we infer that the individual is more important than the collective; that is, his life, property, and freedom cannot be justly taken away by majority vote any more than they can be justly taken away directly or by fraud. As a result, Americans treat their neighbors as they would want to be treated and even go the extra mile to be generous and compassionate.

Americans are thus the opposite of politicians. Where politicians say, "Do what I say or I'll kill you," Americans say, "What's yours is yours and what's mine is mine. Let's make a deal. How can I help you?"

By this definition America is wherever Americans live. While America is not the Kingdom of God, Americans make good neighbors. So I would like to join today's Americans in celebrating biblical heroes we have in common.

The first of those heroes is Abraham, the father of the faithful. He left the politics of Ur for the life of a nomad. No rabble rouser, when he was oppressed by Pharaoh and Abimelek, he lived peaceably, told the truth, and watched God deliver him mightily. When his nephew Lot was kidnapped as collateral damage in an imperialist war, Abraham limited his participation in the conflict to securing justice for Lot. When the king of Sodom tried to enlist him as an ally, he refused to take so much as a shoelace. Like any true American, he wanted nothing to do with politics.

The next American heroes on my list are the Hebrew midwives in Egypt before the Exodus. Rather than enforce Pharaoh's genocidal laws, they resisted quietly and were rewarded for it. It was their example that Moses' parents' followed, earning a place in the Hebrews Hall of Faith.

Moses not only resisted Pharaoh, he carried his resistance into palace. At a time when the Pharaoh's whim was sufficient to consign subjects to torture and death, walking into the throne room and demanding his people's release was an act of true courage. Such acts are not to be undertaken lightly or ill advisedly, but only by those secure in the knowledge that God will back up their words.

Next are the warriors of Israel who took over the Promised Land. The giants their parents had feared were still in the land, as were the sheer numbers of enemy soldiers. But after forty years of fire, cloud, and manna they knew God was with them and so obeyed his command to take that land.

Rahab, the first shopkeeping entrepreneur named in the Bible, acted on what little she knew of the God of Israel and his people and so played a crucial role in the destruction of what was likely an immoral city ruled over by a tyrant and his gang of thugs.

Gideon's band was an elite group of volunteers that faced certain death as they took on a vastly superior army. Yet they proved that God will indeed conquer all his foes "not by might, nor by power, but by [his] Spirit."

Jotham, Gideon's youngest son, was my kind of hero, an orator rather than a fighter. When Abimelek, an Israelite judge with a Philistine name and world view, declared himself king, Jotham proclaimed the moral superiority of commerce over politics and lived to see Abimelek's end.

David's companions stood with Israel's true king against the impostor's army. When their families were kidnaped by raiders, they didn't appeal to a sitting king; instead, even though they felt like stoning David, they trusted in David and David's God and were rewarded. They were God's tools for bringing David to power.

Uriah the Hittite is a fallen hero appropriately remembered today. A better man drunk than his king was sober, he refused legitimate comforts when his fellow soldiers were in danger. He also exemplifies the blind obedience that can snare the most honorable soldiers: by the time of Uriah's last battle, the David who had been a spiritual giant as a nameless shepherd and a fugitive from injustice was now worse than a dirty old man. "A wise man sees danger coming and turns aside, but a simpleton keeps going and suffers for it." Where David's degeneration shows that the perverse incentives inherent in politics are more than even a man after God's own heart can resist, Uriah's naïveté serves as a warning to those who judge their authority structure by its heritage rather than by its current spiritual condition.

The people of Israel did not repeat Uriah's mistake after Solomon died. When Rehoboam spurned his godly advisors, the Israelites, perhaps mindful of God's promise to Jeroboam, refused to submit to his tyranny and declared their independence. Their subsequent preference for Jeroboam over the God who had freed them from Rehoboam warns us how easy it is to worship the creature, the agent or mediator of God's blessings, instead of the creator, and so squander the benefits of liberty.

Jehoiada the priest of Judah and Obadiah of Israel, like Moses' parents, hid fugitives from injustice at the risk of their lives and helped bring down tyrants.

And finally, of course, the King of Kings himself eschewed earthly power and personified servanthood, leading his people into a new relationship to injustice and its agents: speaking truth to power though it cost him his life. He was soon followed by the martyrs Stephen and James and the writings of the apostle John, and, after the closing of the canon, Peter and Paul. In subsequent centuries dozens, if not thousands, of Christian warriors proved with their lives that while their persecutors were indeed powerful, that power was being used for nothing more noble than murder, theft, lies, and hypocrisy.

It was from this soil that the idea of America sprouted. I'm not convinced that many of the Founding Fathers could have qualified for membership in Bible-believing churches—as Aslan would say, their stories are not mine to know—but by God's common grace the truth is the truth, and they made much of the truth that all men are created equal and no one can justly take men's lives, liberty, or property from them: not monarchs, not legislators, not presidents, and not judges. Their solution to the problem of human evil was not to grant power, authority, and privilege to corruptible human beings; it was rather to preserve the rights of individuals to act in their own legitimate interests. And the world is a better place for all people because they did.

Thank you, God, for America, and for those who have kept the idea alive and made it in some sense a reality. May your people remember their examples, far exceed the American vision, and live as worthy subjects of your kingdom.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Flak from Both Sides

I think I know how the fellow who wanted to see the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest felt. I've realized that unless I'm right about the wars overseas and the War on Drugs at home, I'm on the bad sides of both God and the devil.

I found myself asking what makes people think that George H. W. Bush, Mr. New World Order himself, put the New World Order on hold when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Or was the Coalition of the Willing a step in the New World Order's direction? And if the latter, is God on the side of the New World Order? Or did they just have a common purpose that was so important that God decided to call a truce for those few weeks so he and the New World Order could deal with a common enemy? And if he didn't call a truce, why did almost no Bible-believing Christians oppose that war? Do you know any who opposed Desert Storm then, or have second thoughts about it now, for that matter?

I know I didn't oppose it then and I know personally almost no evangelical or Reformed Christians who wish now they had opposed it then. So I have to conclude either that I wasn't listening to the Holy Spirit then or that I'm not listening now. If God through the church considers Desert Storm a good thing and I oppose it now, and if the devil is behind the New World Order and I oppose that, then I've got no friends on the other side of the Styx.

The same is true, of course, of subsequent wars. Did Bill Clinton put the New World Order on hold when he put US soldiers under the command of the United Nations for the operation in Kosovo? I have a good (Republican!) friend who says that "we [were] the good guys" there because people who otherwise would have died in the internecene fighting were able to find refuge in the US. Or was that operation undertaken primarily to strengthen the New World Order by giving legitimacy to the United Nations?

Is the War on Drugs really supposed to protect us from all those nasty substances? Or is its true purpose to get us used to arbitrary searches, checkpoints, government intervention in our personal lives—basically the absence of freedom Christians used to attribute to the Mark of the Beast? I find it interesting that the same Christians who made Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins rich(er?) by buying the Left Behind series, a look at life in the Beast's omnipresent police state, think nothing of enlisting and encouraging others to enlist in the New World Order's military or the police who will enforce the surveillance and regimentation that's coming our way (think "click it or ticket").

I got the idea for this post because I was wondering where in the world I could go to avoid being implanted with an RFID chip, and I remembered that there are supernaturalists who oppose the New World Order. You won't find them in the Orient, or in Europe, or in the hotbeds of the New Age. And, as I've just said, you won't find them in Reformed or evangelical circles, where it is actually considered "God's call" (I heard this during a congregational prayer) to serve the New World Order (well, OK, it was Uncle Sam's army, but the two are almost synonymous).

No, you'll find them in the Islamic Crescent.

Now I'm really depressed. I have been outnumbered at home by females since 1985. Women outnumber men at my office. I like women, don't get me wrong, but the idea of being outnumbered 72 to 1 for the rest of eternity, even by nymphomaniac virgins, is not my idea of fun.

It's enough to make a guy scared of dying.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reply to Andy

Andy commented on an earlier post; my reply was longer than the allowed length, so I've posted it here.


Hi, Andy,

Good to hear from you again. Reasonable questions, as always. Let's see if I can give you reasonable answers.

Do we know that Osama "goes out of his way to kill noncomabants"? I've never heard him take credit for 9/11. The two versions I've heard are "I don't know who did it, but I'm glad they did" and "I regret the loss of innocent life—this kind of murder goes against my Muslim beliefs." And every explication of the reason behind his fatwa(s) in the 1990s had to do with the US being in the Mideast, killing Palestinians and Iraqis and occupying Saudi Arabia, not with Madonna's degeneracy or Bill Gates' wealth.

And even if he was responsible for 9/11, he wouldn't be the first in the exchange to shed noncombatants' blood; the Bush-Clinton sanctions against Iraq killed over 150 times as many Iraqi noncombatants as Americans died in 9/11. You're right that two wrongs don't make a right, but you can't consider someone who can't fight City Hall totally unreasonable for peeing on the steps.

The three recent almost-bombings have some interesting things in common, incompetence the most: why set your shoe on fire in your seat, where people can stop you, when you can do it in the bathroom in secret? Same with the underwear bomber. Had none of them heard of doing a dry run before trying the real thing? Why was the underwear bomber allowed on board the plane to begin with, let alone without going through security, when he didn't have the proper paperwork and he was on the watch list? Finally, either forty is younger than I think or the guy they arrested for the Times Square attempt is too young to be the guy described as the one who left the car there.

Both the Michigan "militia" and the New Jersey "homegrown terrorists" were given the idea for their would-be bombings by government agents who infiltrated the groups. "Hey, let's not sit here bitching. I can get you a bomb." "A bomb? I don't know." "Come on, I can show you how to use it. I have some great ideas where we can set it off. "Well, OK." Dud. "You're under arrest."

We've become accustomed to government agents lying people into crime because of the wars on vice—our friendly neighborhood hooker or dope dealer might really be an undercover agent. Hey, if it works for johns, it'll work for malcontents. Anything to be able to say "We're doing something about the situation, and if you just give up more of your money and freedoms, nothing bad will happen." I don't think it's unreasonable to think 9/11 was a false flag operation. Calvin Coolidge authorized the poisoning of US citizens during Prohibition and the CIA's Operation Northwoods would have included the killing of US citizens by false flag terrorists if Kennedy hadn't nixed the idea.

I don't believe the Taliban were righteous, though I was persuaded to believe in their cause back when they were the heroic mujahadeen (note the radicals for "jihad" in that word) fighting against the evil Soviets. (My point was that "righteous" Lot was no less wayward in his way than the Taliban is in theirs.) They were harboring a man who was accused of murdering noncombatants—accused by a government that has murdered far more than died on 9/11 and who today incarcerates and tortures far more innocent people than those it can even charge with a crime. Osama had already been found guilty in the press; what jury would ever acquit him?

It's one thing to say, "We'll never let you get to him," which is not what they said. It's something else entirely to say, "You prove to us that he will be given a fair trial and we'll hand him over to someone who can honor both your interests and his." If that's not what they said, then my sources were wrong, but given the moral state of our government and nation, I'm inclined to believe they did. If they thought they could protect a murderer from Uncle Sam, they were sadly mistaken; they couldn't even protect their own noncombatant citizens.

I'm glad you brought up Babylon and Judah. I think we are in an analogous position today. I don't know if our Babylonians are the Muslims or the Chinese, but our Baal is definitely Uncle Sam. Pins with both crosses and flags are ubiquitous, as are such institutionsa as God and Country Press, crosses draped with the flag, and other equations of Uncle Sam with God. I know a church that prays regularly and in great detail for "our men and women in the military" but only sporadically and generally for the missionaries they support. It's exaggeration, but not untrue, that if you want to engage a US Christian in an earnest discussion about eternal matters, you can tell him you're an atheist; if you want him to walk off in a huff, tell him you think Uncle Sam is a murderer and a liar.

I'd frankly love to preach to the Babylonians. Please, God, let some al-Qaedista put a bag over my head and take me their camp, not tell me where I am or their real names, and let me tell them that the God they need to learn to fear also has some bad news for Uncle Sam's lovers. But, like Jeremiah, I'm stuck in Jerusalem, and whatever the Babylonians do to my fellow Jerusalemites they will do to me. Meantime, I try to open my brethren's eyes by contrasting Uncle Sam's ways with God's.

And the lost aren't only overseas. I read authoritarian and libertarian atheist authors and bloggers who base their view that Christians are completely divorced from reality on Christians' refusal to recognize Uncle Sam's evil. And most of the time, they're objecting to Christians' support for unbiblical policies. For example, the left fears conservative Christians who want to keep certain teachings about sex or history out of the schools; they rightly don't want to pay taxes for schools that teach against their worldview. (That they're perfectly willing to make Christians pay for schools that teach against their worldview doesn't seem to bother them.) My question is, where does the Bible authorize us to vote tax money out of our neighbors' pockets to educate our children? Wouldn't we be better off to say to our neighbors "What's yours is yours; keep your money and educate your children as you see fit, and leave me to do the same"? But most Christians would rather go the political route. And the lost seem to be getting loster.

Thanks again for reading and for writing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lot and the Taliban

A recent Sunday school lesson discussed Lot’s situation in Sodom and the pickle he was in when the men of Sodom came by with hostile intentions. I have always faulted Lot for offering his daughters to the attackers, but his actions became more understandable, however inexcusable, once I understood that in the culture of the day, one protected one’s guest even if it went against the best interests of one’s family. They would no more cough up a guest to an attacker than we would...well, offer our daughters to them for sex to save our own skins.

Innocent people died on 9/11, and I was among those who were calling for Muslim blood. When, after the invasion of Afghanistan, Jeff Katz, a local talk-radio host, defended the carnage at a wrongly identified wedding party by saying, “You know what? Our lives are more valuable than theirs are,” the only response I could muster was a feeble “I’m not so sure.” And when Don Imus’ morning radio program ridiculed the Afghan resistance, I was chuckling right along with him. After all, those damned Afghans were hiding Osama bin Laden. They deserved what they got.

There was another side to the story, I have since been told, and it would appear that the Taliban was acting more honorably than Uncle Sam. Imagine Uncle Sam as the men of Sodom—look at the covers of the magazines and tabloids at your local grocery store, or watch TV or listen to radio on random channels for an hour and you won’t think that’s such a far-fetched idea—and the Taliban as Lot (whose character was as far off the straight and narrow in one direction as the Taliban’s is in the other). Uncle Sam comes to the Taliban and demands—Uncle Sam never requests, as you know if you’ve been audited by the IRS—that the Taliban turn Osama over to him. Apparently the Taliban offered to see that the situation was mediated, but they would not simply turn him over, as Uncle Sam demanded.

Remember, the US, from Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the servant girl grinding grain was out for blood. What kind of host would turn over a guest to a mob that angry? We wouldn’t respect any jailor who turned his prisoner over to a mob, even if all knew his prisoner was guilty but would be released on a technicality. But we’re “better than they are.” Yeah, right.

So instead of agreeing to having the accused meet his accusers in a neutral court, we invaded. We didn’t even follow the Constitution’s mechanism of letters of marque and reprisal. We didn’t send in a few dozen special ops guys to find Osama and bring him to justice, even to a kangaroo court. Instead, we launched a full-scale invasion, killed thousands of innocent people, and turned already woefully impoverished communities to rubble. And after almost nine years, the US military still there and the stated objective of the original invasion has not been realized: Osama has not been found.

So what?

My atheist libertarian friends are often characterized as libertines because they believe that people should be free to choose what they read, what pictures they look at, and what substances they put in their bodies. They’re considered irresponsible because they don’t consider the secondary effects of legal narcotics, pornography, and the like.

Their response—our response, since I agree with them totally—is that it’s my responsibility as a parent to keep my kids from drugs and pornography just as much as it is my responsibility to stay away from these things myself. I’ve said before that I’ve made some stupid decisions in my life, but I can’t blame the purveyors of vice for them. Secretly lacing a free sample of pomegranate juice with cocaine is criminal, and those who do so need to make restitution (not go to jail); advertising hot babes on a Web site or magazine cover isn’t. The newsstand has an exit, the Web browser has a close button, and I can walk past the heroin, cocaine, and marijuana shelves in the grocery store. And if I don’t take advantage of these means of escape and teach my children to do the same, I have only myself to blame and my own resources to draw on to undo the damage.

But the folks in Afghanistan can’t just walk away from the war. They have no choice about living with the consequences, and if things go horribly wrong, they can’t look to the supporters of the war here at home to help them. The folks who support the war don’t have to pay for the damage. If the war doesn’t accomplish its stated ends, they don’t suffer. They’re only out their taxes. (Everyone who opposed the war is out their taxes, too, but the supporters don’t have to pay them back.) And speaking of the wars on vice, those who lock purveyors up are blissfully free of responsibility for the butt rape and other forms of assault and indignities that are an integral part of prison life, though of course, being decent people, they wouldn’t inflict those injuries themselves.

If that isn’t libertinism, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jake the Snake? (Part 2)

In my first post on this thread, I concluded that Jacob son of Isaac was a true hero of the faith and worthy of emulation, even in the early phase of his life, for which most Christians disparage him. This time we’ll look at his the second phase of his life, when he supposedly gets his come-uppance from Uncle Laban and is converted to true faith at Mahanaim. Jacob substituted himself for Esau, so the thinking goes, and so having Laban substitute Leah for Rachel was God’s way of making turnabout fair play and driving Jacob to the conversion that prompted God to name him Israel.

This argument is more difficult to refute than criticisms of Jacob’s actions per se, relying as it does on literary device rather than an ethical evaluation of Laban’s treatment of Jacob. So first we must establish that Laban was a beast like Esau, a true son of the father of lies.

Laban knew that Jacob wanted to marry Rachel only, and he agreed to give him Rachel only for the work of the first seven years (Gn 29:18-19). While sharp attorneys might get government judges to rule that Laban’s words in Gn 29:19 do not constitute a commitment to give only Rachel, no private arbitrator who wanted to be engaged in the future by people of good will would so rule.

Laban also cheated Jacob by taking from him the sheep he had just agreed would be Jacob’s (Ge 30:35, cf. v. 32). Jacob showed his godliness not only by offering to take the least valuable sheep (cf. 1 Co 1:26–27) but by making sure the system was one he couldn’t cheat. Yet Laban cheated him.

“But that’s the point,” you say, “Jacob cheated Isaac and Esau, and so God gave him a dose of his own medicine.”

Not so fast. If it’s possible to make statistics say whatever you want, surely the same can be said of literary devices. We need to view literary devices in their contexts, and the bigger the context, the less Laban’s actions look like fair play.

Remember that Jacob is one of only two people in Scripture called iš tam; the other is Job, about whom the phrase is taken to mean that he was a “righteous man.” What is the main theological point made by the book of Job? Is it not that the righteous often undergo the same experiences we consider just recompense to the wicked? that we cannot infer from others’ sufferings that they have committed heinous sins?

Job, of course, is a type of Christ, and the christological purpose behind the book of Job is to demonstrate that Jesus could undergo persecution and death despite never having sinned (and that in the end he would be resurrected). The stories of Job, Jacob, and Jesus follow the same trajectory: an iš tam endures the suffering of the wicked (see Heb 5:8; 12:5-11) and comes out better off than when he started. If the prologue to Job’s story establishes that his suffering was the suffering of one whom God considered righteous, why could the story of Jacob not begin with the same phrase, iš tam, for the same reason?

Finally, let’s look at Jacob’s “conversion” experience. This pericope forms an inclusio with another misinterpreted incident, Jacob’s vision at Luz of the stairway or ladder from which God reassures Jacob that he is indeed still the heir to the covenant with Abraham. The Sunday school version is that Jacob, ever the trickster and shyster, is trying to make a deal with God: “If [and only if] God will ... then [and only then] I will....”

But there’s a big problem with that view: God wasn’t making an offer. He was stating a fact. If you tell someone, “I’m going to give you this $500 you see in my hand,” and if they say, “If you give me that money, I’ll take you to dinner,” won’t you assume that they are expressing gratitude? If they were dickering with you (“Hey, nice money! Would you give it to me if I took you to dinner?”), you wouldn’t consider them ungrateful as much as crazy: “No, listen carefully this time. I’m going to give it to you. It’s yours. You don’t have to take me to dinner to get it.” That is what God was saying to Jacob.

Ah, you say, but Jacob couldn’t see the fulfillment of the promise, so he thought he had to dicker. Do you blame him? He’s rescued the promise from Isaac and Esau and for his trouble been run not only out of his home but out of the Promised Land. That’s why God appeared to him: to assure him that the promise was his. There is not a syllable of rebuke in the Lord’s words, only blessing. Jacob was not trying to dicker; he was expressing his gratitude.

Now we can look at Jacob’s “conversion experience,” which comes after he has suffered for twenty years under Laban. He is again alone and facing an uncertain future, again God takes the initiative to meet him, and again there is only blessing in God’s discourse. I will show that in this scene God says, in effect, “People call you a heel-grabber [deceiver, Jacob], but I call you Israel.”

What is meant by “Israel” is somewhat enigmatic because of the use of both the root śrh and the preposition `im “with.” What activity does the verb denote? How does the preposition relate the verb to its object?

Because Jacob is wrestling with “a man,” most versions take the verb to mean “struggle.” If we go with this translation, the question becomes, does Jacob struggle “with” God the same way he struggles “with” men? To struggle or fight or wrestle with someone can mean either that the people involved are opponents or that they are allies. The parallelism of the sentence would lead one first to believe that Jacob had “struggled with” men in the same sense he “struggled with” God. This is the traditional view.

But what if śrh is meant to be constrasted with, rather than synonymous with, “wrestle”? The KJV translates the verb śrh as “to have (princely) power”for good reason: śrh is clearly related to the idea of śar (“prince”) and śrh (“Sarah, princess”). Grammarians relate śr (“prince”) to the verb śrr (“to rule”), the third radical h in the verb (not unlike the h in Sarah, which marks the presence of a vowel after the r) could reasonably be taken as a sign that śrh is derived from śr (which in turn is derived from śrr). The Septuagint, “the Bible of Paul,” uses the verb enischeuo, the root meaning of which is strength, not struggle.

The best way to test this hypothesis would be to look at other passages that use the verb. Unfortunately, the only other occurrence of śrh is in Ho 12:4, which tells us only what we already know: “as a man, Jacob śrh with God.” Even the context there is enigmatic. Jacob is clearly a symbol for the nation of Israel, which is being called to task for its spiritual adultery (12:1-2). “In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel” (12:3a) seems to be a condemnation of falsehood. But “he śrh with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor” seems to indicate that Jacob was zealous for God, in contrast to his descendants, Hosea’s hearers, who were spiritual idolaters. The question then is whether “he śrh with God” is praise, to be grouped with what follows, or chastisement, grouped with what precedes. Since “as a man” precedes “he śrh with God,” I would group this sentence with the praise that follows. (And given Esau’s character, described in my earlier post, I wouldn’t consider it impossible that “in the womb he grasped his brother’s heel” is intended as praise: see Ro 9:11-13.)

There is an interesting word play here. The verb for “wrestle,” ′qb (the first consonant being the consonant in “uh-oh”), is one point of articulation different from the verb for “take by the heel, supplant,” `qb (the first consonant being like but pronounced deeper in the throat). Of course Jacob’s name, ya`qob, is taken from the verb and its noun, `aqeb (“heel”). One could reasonably conclude that Jacob was so named because his parents, seeing him grasping his brother’s heel at birth (Gn 25:26), considered him the personification of the serpent who would strike at the heel of the Messiah (Gn 3:15). Let me flog the dead horse by noting that Isaac’s actions show that he had the wrong son pegged for the messianic line.

So we have ya`qob, Jacob, and wayye’aqeb, “he wrestled” to set the scene. But when the man speaks, he seems to put all that in the past: ““Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have śrh with God and with men and have overcome.”

And who was speaking? We don’t know for sure, but Jacob’s demand that this man bless him leads most commentators to believe that the man was some kind of theophany; certainly he spoke with divine authority. Where rebellious Isaac called the one God had told him was his chosen a “heel-grabber” and other men considered his actions deceitful, here a divine messenger calls that same man a prince with divine authority precisely because he had acted as one with divine authority, both toward God and toward man.

If we are to insist that śrh is a synonym for ′qb and Jacob was one whose relationship with men and God up until that time had been śrh—that is, negative—then the name Israel is not much of an improvement over Jacob; it’s simply another way of saying he’s a snake. Yet the basis of the blessing is that Jacob has done well. When? From the beginning.


What is there to take home from all of this? First is that no one has inherent, unalienable rights. Jacob was promised God’s favor “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad” (Ro 9:11); Isaac had no right to give God’s blessing to Esau, and neither Jacob nor Esau could claim a right to the blessing apart from God’s say-so. Laban had no right to break the terms of his deal with Jacob, either regarding his daughters or regarding the sheep. Isaac, Esau, and Laban could not get away with cheating Jacob, but that was not because Jacob deserved God’s protection; rather, God is gracious and so loves and protects his people. Jacob had no right to the blessing but got it because of God’s grace, and no one—Isaac, Esau, or Laban—had any right to take it away.

Similarly, we have the right to die and go to hell; no more, no less. Every day of life is a gift from God, as are the tangible items needed to sustain it. No one has the right to take them from us, and we have no right to take from others either directly or through deceit. This is the foundation of justice on which is built the freedom, generosity, and other graces that make life worth living.

Second is that truth is not an absolute good, but justice is. That is why God “the not-liar” (Ti 1:2) is just when he “sends [some people] a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Th 2:11). People have no right to know the truth.

Third is that all acts must be evaluated in their full ethical context. Jacob’s deception of Isaac was God sending Isaac a “strong delusion”—as we have seen, the ruse could not have succeeded without divine intervention—to keep him from the sin of nullifying Esau’s contempt for the birthright. In the same way, telling a potential murderer where to find his intended victim is to be an accessory to that murder and therefore not just. Rather, truth is the servant of justice. We need to know from Scripture what is and is not just and evaluate our use of truth accordingly.

Next is the assurance that Scripture is indeed consistent with itself. God told Rebekah that the older would serve the younger. The older despised his birthright and so chose to be the servant rather than the master. Though we don’t see Esau in abject servitude to Jacob, he considers himself as coming out second best to Jacob, and his descendants do indeed serve Jacob’s greatest older covenant son, David (2 Sam 8:14).

Next is that God’s ways don’t always sit well with his people. Isaac, the most famous of biblical children of promise (e.g., born miraculously of barren women), loved Esau despite God’s prophecy and Esau’s contempt for the birthright. Yet Bible-believing Christians throughout church history have sided with Esau and Isaac against Jacob. Indeed it was those who would defend God’s righteousness who “comforted” Job, and it was the most devout Jews, those who spent the most time in Bible study, who were Jesus’ most vicious opponents. The pattern is remarkably consistent.

This blog is about being good neighbors. I said at the beginning of the first post that I’d rather deal with Jacob than with Isaac, Esau, or Laban; these posts have shown that Jacob was, like Jesus, a quill pig: unsavory to his enemies (2 Co 2:15–16) but not otherwise blameworthy. He minded his own business, never took more than his due, and yet was despised and rejected.

When I was first given an explanation of how by God’s common grace human liberty works and why and how it accords better with Scripture than the soft socialism I was then espousing, I was struck first by how good the news was and then by how my worst enemy is the evil in my own heart. The subsequent three decades have only confirmed both those impressions. (I have also been astounded by the hostility people exhibit toward them!) But I’m not the only sinner in this boat.

I find it significant that almost to a man those who are quick to castigate Jacob for his bargain with Esau, let alone for his deception of Isaac, and would call Laban’s deception fair turnabout are slow to speak against Uncle Sam’s bombing of innocent people overseas and taking of money from the unborn at home. They call Jacob a snake for offering Esau a meal Esau was free to refuse but force their neighbors to pay for schools and health and retirement programs that always deliver less and cost more than they claim. They would (rightfully) deny tax transfers to single mothers but defend corporate welfare. Where the Bible calls for full responsibility, including restitution for victims of fraud, violence, and negligence, they say nothing against a “corrections” and tort system based on limited liability, retribution, and “rehabilitation.” Where the Bible calls only for us to avoid and rebuke those guilty of vice, they call for jailing them. Is it any wonder the church in the US is losing ground?

In my lifetime I have seen my fellow citizens exchange their birthright as free individuals for the pottage of serfdom to a rapacious tyranny. The process was well under way before I was born, of course, but today’s gallows was then only a pile of lumber. As a member for two decades of a Christian missions organization that openly espoused the “public-private partnership” that is the essence of fascism (and, alas, apart from that work as well), I have contributed to the decadence.

While only Jesus can atone for my sins, this blog is an attempt to bring my fellow Christians out of the mire of politics I consider myself delivered from.

In Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet, the protagonist’s life is saved by a porcupine. He becomes aware of its presence one cold night because of its stench and, not knowing what it is, kicks in the direction of the sound and is rewarded with quills in his leg. He throws his hatchet at the porcupine and misses, but he sees a spark and as a result realizes he can make fire, learns to do so, and is able to survive, even thrive, until he is rescued.

So throw your hatchets at this stinky old quill pig. You may learn something that will enable you to be doing something much better than making love to Uncle Sam when Jesus comes to take you out of this fallen world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Abraham's Intercession and Collateral Damage

The LORD said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know." Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?“

The point of this familiar passage of Scripture is that the Judge of the Earth will not sweep away the righteous with the wicked. If ten righteous people could have been found, the Lord would not have destroyed Sodom, and when the number of righteous was less than ten, he allowed them to leave unharmed.

While we know that Abraham was interceding specifically for Lot, whom the Scripture calls "righteous" (2 Pe 2:2) despite his questionable character (Ge 19:8, 32–36); is it unreasonable to think that he would have included under the umbrella of "the righteous" those not guilty of the specific crimes that had doomed Sodom? After all, Moses uses the term generically elsewhere to mean "innocent" (Ex 23:7; Dt 25:1), as does David (2 Sa 4:11). Could Abraham not have been referring to such people as "righteous"? Or is it only Christians who can appeal to godly justice against those who would kill them in the course of using force against aggressors? Are Christians ‹bermensch who can kill the innocent with impunity?

I would suggest that even Muslims who are "righteous" (that is, innocent of capital crimes) can claim that Christians have no right to kill them while defending themselves against perceived enemies. The Muslims will still go to hell, as that is the destiny of all outside of Christ, but judgment day will not be pleasant for those Christians who are part of the killing.

How different this is from Uncle Sam, who cavalierly dismisses the death of innocent people as "collateral damage." Whether overseas in the War on Terror, where he kills unfortunate occupants of buildings commandeered by snipers or adjoining ones that have been, or at home in the War on Drugs, where he terrorizes the occupants of houses suspected of involvement in the drug trade (and kills those who attempt to defend themselves), collateral damage is no big deal to our dear uncle.

What scares me is when those who claim to be Abraham's children and worship Abraham's God talk like Uncle Sam.

"How much more—when wicked men have killed an innocent man in his own house and on his own bed—should I not now demand his blood from your hand and rid the earth of you!" (2 Sa 4:11). As the Mogambo Guru puts it, we're freaking doomed.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Jamie Moyer

It is my pleasure today to abandon my usual rolled-in-a-ball-with-quills-out posture and talk about something really good about our society.

Last night Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch a complete-game shutout. Like the "iron men" Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken before him, Jamie Moyer is a class act, an example of natural ability, hard work, self-discipline, and sportsmanship. He doesn't have a blazing fastball, a wicked curve, or any of the other things that usually characterize a great pitcher; but there's no hint that he cheats, either.

I don't know that he trusts Jesus alone for his righteousness before God, but by at least God's common grace he is certainly an exemplary American.

I learned that he's a family man years ago, before a game in Philadelphia when he was still with the Seattle Mariners. He was chatting with someone he apparently knew apart from baseball as he was signing autographs. (He grew up within a bike ride of my home here.) He was obviously happy to accommodate the fans, unlike one of his younger teammates, a flash in the pan who was my nine-year-old's hero at the time. He is also generous with his earnings: the Jamie Moyer Foundation built a very nice Boys' and Girls' Club facility just up the road from our house, also while he was with the Mariners.

He was traded to the Phillies a couple of years ago after a disappointing season with the Mariners. I wondered if the old horse had come home to pasture, and indeed, at the end of last season, I figured the guy was about through. Late in the summer he was taken out of the starting rotation and put in the bullpen to be used to save the arms of the better pitchers when games were out of reach one way or another. The radio announcers are paid to put the best possible spin on such situations, but I believe they were telling the truth when they said he had had a positive attitude about the demotion and was determined to help out as best he could: no prima donna, he pitched in long relief arguably better than he had as a starter.

He didn't give up over the winter and ended up winning a place in the starting rotation this year. It hasn't been an easy season. Near the end of his second start, Larry Anderson, the Phillies' color announcer and another former Mariner pitcher, noted that Moyer's earned-run average for ten of his innings pitched was 0.00, but for two of them it was 45: he had given up two five-run innings. One wondered how long it would be before the team would needs to replace him with a younger, more reliable arm.

Then there was last night. Yes, the team he pitched against is in last place. Yes, he was pitching at home. And yes, in a world in which thousands of people are starving to death, and in a nation in which people are losing their futures, very little that happens on the baseball diamond is of any consequence.

But I saw a bit of America last night: a guy who loves his family and his community and humbly shows up for work and does his best got a well-deserved standing ovation from Philadelphia sports fans, who have a well-deserved reputation for nastiness.

Last fall, as the Phillies were losing the World Series to the Yankees, I was hoping the manager would put him in for an inning or two, even of a losing game, just so the fans could give him the standing O he deserves. Well, he deserved better than that, and last night he got it.