Sunday, February 27, 2011

"People Wanna Be Free"?

All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just wanna be free
Listen, please listen, that's the way it should be
Peace in the valley, people got to be free.

I've been asked a few times over the last few weeks what I think of the situation in Egypt. Of course, I hope that the people in Egypt, Tunisia, the US, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and others will be better off in a year than they are now, but I don't think they will be. While the sentiments expressed by the Young Rascals in 1968 sound as wonderful now as they did when I was in junior high school, they just don't match reality.

What do people in the US mean when they say they want freedom?

Come on, you say, they mean that they want to be able to do what they want to do. You know: get a job, go to school, watch TV, go on vacation, say what they want, etc.

But, I reply, they also want to educate their children, go to the doctor, be provided for when they're unemployed, and retire at other people's expense. So they want to be free themselves, but they want others to be less free.

Ah, yes, you say, but we accept our responsibility to pay into the system even when we're not benefiting.

Fair enough, but is that really freedom? You are participating willingly, but what about those who would like the freedom to opt out of the system? Suddenly freedom isn't such a good thing, and indeed, those of us who would like to opt out of the system are few, far between, and either ignored or outright disparaged.

So what kind of freedom are the demonstrators in the Middle East calling for? They say they hate the dictators who restrict their rights, torture innocent people, and grow rich on the system of cronyism paid for by US taxpayers, and who can blame them? But what would they replace it with?

Conservative pundits decry the rise of "Islamofascism," and most of these demonstrators are indeed Muslims. Are they also fascists? Before I hazard a guess, I'd like to ask if the pot is calling the kettle black.

Textbook fascism is a social structure in which "private" businesses are an arm of the state. As Mussolini put it, "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, as it were.)

We're told that World War II was a war against fascism, yet if Rosie the Riveter worked for Boeing or Douglass, she was part of a system every bit as fascist as Hitler's Volkswagen, and so today are those who work for war materiel contractors like Boeing and Raytheon, the mercenary "contractors" of Xe (née Blackwater), and employees of government-run businesses like General Motors; so are those who work for KFC and Cinnabon at military bases overseas, and so are those who run "private-sector" prisons and charter schools. Even "private" colleges that accept students who receive loans and grants from the government can do so only as long as they accept federal restrictions on their policies; that is, they are "private" entities executing the will of the government, the embodiment of the textbook definition of fascism.

Yet most people consider it bad manners for me to talk this way. Fascism is nasty—unless it's our fascism. Then it's "freedom."

So my guess is that the demonstrators in the Middle East, like people in the US and most people in most times and most places, do not want to be free; they want a fascist state. What they want is much like what they have, but they want to join the net winners of the zero-sum game. They want to be free themselves, but they want restrictions on their neighbors.

This seems to be the natural human condition. You can probably scratch any libertarian, me included, hard enough and find a fascist.

And, as the saying goes, the leash has a slave at each end, so no, I don't think today's tyrannies will be replaced by free societies.

True freedom is Jesus, and he tells us that our worst enemies are ourselves: our hearts are so incurably deceitful that we cannot know our own evil (Je 17:9). Governments are vicious, and he tells us to avoid being like them (Lk 22:25-26), but only we can ruin our lives (Pr 19:3). He came to set us free (Jn 8:36), but that freedom is based on and can only follow repentance and a right relationship with God (Mt 4:17).

But back to the original question, if even the Black Regiment, the Protestant clergymen who played such an influential role in the American revolution, brought forth a polity in which not only were there slaves, but those in the "free" states were legally bound to return fugitive slaves to their masters, what can we expect of adherents to a religion as inherently political as Islam? Not much, I'd say: unless the person of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and true "author of liberty" is welcome in the new Middle East, the new boss will be the same as the old boss.

Though I'm open to being pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Christian Heroes of the Holocaust

My crisis of faith was deepened years ago when I read that in the years leading up to World War II Germans of my theological stripe, far from opposing Hitler, were some of his most zealous supporters. These were literate, pious people, and there's every reason to believe they read their Bibles, prayed, and heard Bible-based preaching. I still find myself asking, Why couldn't they see what was coming? Why didn't the Holy Spirit speak to them?

At least as disturbing was learning that Nazi government organizations supported Christian missions. Couldn't those in charge of the missions organizations see that the money they were receiving had been coerced from people and had not been gathered from cheerful givers (2 Co 9:7)?

Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight; if Hitler could say of the death camp system once it was fait accompli that the world would never believe such was possible, I need to cut my brethren in Christ some slack if they could not have anticipated it. But that same hindsight should enable me to look at the present and ask questions about the direction my brethren are traveling in today. While people can be forgiven for not believing the unbelievable, it's a different story when they refuse to see themselves falling into a pattern that is all too familiar. One should also look at those who bucked the tide at the time and see what it was that kept them from joining so many others in doing evil.

I saw a video the other day that showed both how easy it is to fall into horrific behavior and the courage of those who resisted doing so. Weapons of the Spirit, made in the 1990s, tells the story of Le Chambon sur Lignon, a Huguenot village in southern France, where thousands of Jews found refuge during the Holocaust. As far as I can tell, this is a documentary made by a Jew giving credit where credit is due; for that reason it is more important than it could have been had it been made by an evangelical (Pr 25:2).

One theme that runs through through the video is that character is developed over time; the Hollywood fantasy of the do-nothing who becomes a hero at the right time because he intensely wants to is just that—a fantasy. Rather, we are in a crisis what we've been all along. It was because David had been fighting bears and lions for years that Goliath was just another wild beast to be slain, and in the same way, Jewish refugees were nothing out of the ordinary to the people of Le Chambon because they had been taking in strangers for centuries. Of course, this disturbs me because I don't see enough of that hospitality and habitual righteousness in my own life.

Nor was the opposition of the Germans or the Vichy French government to what the Chambonais were doing anything new: when the nineteenth-century Enjolras sings in Les Misérables "the blood of the martyrs will water the fields of France," those fields had already been watered with Huguenot blood centuries before. The French had never liked the Huguenots, nor had they liked the Jews, and their participation in the Holocaust was simply an extension of who they already were, as was the resistance of the Huguenots.

I was also disturbed by the parallels I see between France and today's US. When northern France fell to the Germans, southern France was under nominally French control. It was the French who had originally built the internment camp facilities, though for refugees from the Spanish Civil war; it was the French who helped spread propaganda about the "Jewish threat"; it was French police, not German soldiers, who rounded up Jews off the street and put them in the camps; and it was the French who took them from the camps and put them on the trains to the death camps in Germany. Perhaps they felt they had no choice and were going along to get along, but I'm more inclined to think many believed the propaganda and served from their hearts.

In our own society, we have the Muslim threat, we have a military that cavalierly kills innocent people, we have the National Guard already experienced in running US citizens out of their homes and confiscating weapons, and we have refugee camps built by FEMA ready for occupants. And just as the French probably had no particular love for the occupying Germans, US conservatives have no love for the Obama administration, but they still support his wars foreign and domestic (e.g., the war on drugs). How far would they have to stretch to support the interment of Muslims or free-marketers? For that matter, how far would liberals or centrists have to stretch? If the equivalent of the Reichstag fire* were to light the fires of US patriotism (as many believe happened on 9/11), our society would be more like what it is today than it is already: blindly following the government to war against innocent people.

What side is the church in the US on? Is she used to standing for righteousness and against oppression? Is she used to defending innocent members of despised groups from persecution? Is she willing to have her blood shed that she might not shed the blood of the innocent? Does she view anyone who doesn't know Christ as a possible future brother or sister who needs to be won over by love and grace?

If you would like to see an inspiring story of Christian brethren who put themselves at mortal risk to stand against the tide, yet never considered themselves heroes or martyrs, I heartily recommend Weapons of the Spirit, which is available from It's a few bucks and ninety minutes well spent, and you might think of nonbelieving neighbors who would also be interested.

*The Reichstag fire was set not by Jews, but by the Nazis, and by blaming it on the Jews the Nazis were able to gain the support of Josef Sechspackung for what he was assured were "temporary" violations of human rights.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Joy in the House of Mourning

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Ec 7:2)

As excited as I was about the possibilities for the halftime show at tomorrow's Super Bowl, there's no way it could ever match the funeral I went to today for sheer joy.

Kim Ohanian's earthly life ended a few days ago, and hundreds of people came to our church today, not to "pay their respects" or "say goodbye," but to celebrate a life given to Jesus and transformed into triumph. Kim had given her time to our church's preschool program, and former students and their parents attended, as did many members of the church she had been active in before coming to ours and probably many whose connections with Kim I have no idea of. In the almost ten years we have been at our church, I have never seen so many people in the building at one time.

The result was an hour and a half of music, testimony, and preaching that surely brought smiles to the entire heavenly host. As my wife put it, no one could have left that service without understanding what life in Christ was all about. Even my cooling heart warmed a bit.

Her husband John gave an eloquent remembrance of the priority she had placed on the Christian mission, whether as an English teacher in Korea, as a mother and stepmother to his children, or as a member of our church's missions committee. His son and daughter spoke well of her taking over as their mother figure. My daughter and a good friend sang a duet about heaven—appropriately enough stating that we have no idea what to expect—that drew the first applause I have ever heard of occurring at a funeral.

But what brought out the tissues, at least where I was, watching the video feed to the overflow crowd in the gym, was Kim's teenage daughter Joy describing her Mama. As she listed what she remembered her mother doing for her, I asked how well I had done each with my own children. Did I encourage and model daily time in Scripture and prayer? Did I spend countless hours talking about their spiritual condition? Was the mission of the church my first priority? Is it now?

If I had needed a list of worthwhile things to do with one's time, that was it.

Apart from two of the dozens of slides in the slideshow on the screen in the gym during the after-service luncheon, there was no indication of what government Kim was subject to. I don't know if she listened to Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or read Murray Rothbard or voted Democrat. But if I hadn't known from working with her on the missions committee that she loved Jesus and wanted people—family, friends, and strangers alike—to know him, I would have had it massaged into me today.

I needed to hear it all. I have been wondering for some time whether the Bible is, for better or worse, a work of fiction. And as any three random posts on this blog will evidence, I look at the way the Christian church—and I mean sincere people who read the Bible and pray and can be generous and otherwise good neighbors—has fallen into the idolatry of nationalism and wonder "whether there be any Holy Ghost."

But today God blew on the coals by showing me someone who took what he gave her and used it for his glory alone, and I could look around at hundreds of people and see the effect she had had on their lives.

More than I did yesterday I want to do the same.