Michael Flynn, Intelligence Leaks, and Ethical Questions

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Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

When Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as National Security Advisor last week after only 24 days on the job, it marked the predictable outcome of what had become deepening concerns over some dishonest statements he made to the vice-president about the nature of a December conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the potential his conversation created for his blackmail by Russian authorities.  In a political climate where dishonesty is often dismissed out-of-hand as part of the job, Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation is a sobering reminder that character still counts.

Of course, in this story, there are not only ethical questions raised by Mr. Flynn’s clandestine conversation, there are also critical ethical questions that must be asked about the leaking of his conversation by shadowy intelligence officials to the news media.  After all, unethically leaking the fact the National Security Advisor unethically lied to vice-president seems, well, just all-around unethical.

Sadly, in our hyper-politicized climate, it is difficult not to filter this story through anything other than a political lens.  President Trump certainly filtered it this way, at least in part, when he complained on Twitter:

The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by intelligence like candy. Very un-American!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

Yes, intelligence leaks are indeed scandalous – and dangerously so.  But dishonesty by the National Security Advisor with the vice-president is also scandalous.  Both sides of this scandal need to be addressed.  Sadly, most politicians only see fit to address whichever side furthers their own political purposes.

The problem with politicizing scandals like these is that we often overlook the sins of one side conveniently while decrying the sins of the other side forcefully.  Our argument becomes not that one side is truly good, but that the other side is really bad.  In this way, we justify one side’s sins by the sins the other side.  But when we address ethical scandals like this, we only wind up creating a circular firing squad, with everyone squarely aiming their barrels at everyone else.  We settle for hurting whoever happens to be our political enemy rather than holding onto what is actually right.

Jonathan Bethune, in an article for The Federalist, captures and summarizes our political zeitgeist well when he explains:

There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points. The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

Mr. Bethune is onto something here.  He understands that a politics that is more partisan than it is principled can only become pathological.  And when this happens, politics becomes a sinister force for moral decay rather than what Aristotle envisioned politics at its best to be – a guardian of societal good.  Such pathology in our politics not only points to a problem with Mr. Flynn and with dangerous intelligence leaks, it points to a problem with us.

Perhaps it is time, then, to look not only at the news, but in the mirror.

February 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Abortion as Big Business

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Whenever the curtains are pulled back on Planned Parenthood clinics, the results never seem to turn out well.  Through an interview with two former Planned Parenthood employees, it was discovered a clinic in Storm Lake, Iowa had abortion quotas.  Sue Thayer, a former manager at Planned Parenthood, revealed:

Every center had a goal for how many abortions were done.  And centers that didn’t do abortions like mine that were family planning clinics had a goal for the number of abortion referrals.  And it was on this big grid, and if we hit our goal, our line was green.  If we were 5 percent under, it was yellow.  If we were 10 percent under, it was red.  That’s when we needed to have a corrective action plan – why we didn’t hit the goal, what we’re going to do differently next time.

Planned Parenthood, for all the assertions it makes about helping people with family planning, seems to be primarily interested in selling one service – abortions.  Mrs. Thayer went on to disclose some of the techniques her clinic would use to sell abortions:

I trained my staff the way that I was trained, which was to really encourage women to choose abortion, to have it at Planned Parenthood, because that counts as, you know, towards our goal.  We would try to get the appointment scheduled for the abortion before they left our clinic.  We would say things like, “Your pregnancy test, your visit today is X number of dollars.  How much are you going to be able to pay towards that?”  If they’d say, “I’m not able to pay today,” then we would say something like, “Well, if you can’t pay ten dollars today, how are you going to take care of a baby?  Have you priced diapers?  Do you know how much it costs to buy a car seat? … So really, don’t you think your smartest choice is termination?”

Honestly, this kind of sales pitch and posturing is difficult for me to process.  Planned Parenthood workers freely admitted in their conversations that a life in a womb is – or, at the very least, will be – a baby who will need to be cared for and fed and protected, and yet, because of the expenses involved in raising a child, there is a cold calculation at work that says it is better to abort a child than to financially invest in one.  I’m honestly not sure how else I’m supposed to interpret a calculation like this than this: for Planned Parenthood, financial burden trumps human life.

But it goes beyond that.  For Planned Parenthood, financial gain also trumps human life.  For those clinics that reached their abortion quotas, Mrs. Thayer explained:

We would have things like pizza parties.  Occasionally, they would say, “You can two hours of paid time off.”  If your center consistently hit goal and you were green all the time, you know, like, three months in a row, you might be center manager of the month and go to Des Moines and have lunch, you know, with the upper management, or something … It sounds kind of crazy, but pizza is a motivator.

Planned Parenthood is so devoted to selling abortions that they offer pizza parties as an incentive to their clinics to sell a lot of them.  It turns out that they also hand out awards to clinics that increase the number of abortions they perform year over year.

The moral questions such practices raise are inescapable.  Are the lives of babies who are born into lower financial means more disposable than the lives of babies who are born into more affluent families?  Should the future of a life be subject to a financial litmus test – if a life can be afforded, it should be nurtured, and if it cannot, it should be ended?  Should expectant mothers, who often have nagging doubts and deep moral misgivings about whether or not they should have an abortion, be pressured into a procedure to add to a company’s bottom line?

Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics chair at Princeton, has been widely decried, and rightly so, for his crassly utilitarian view of human life.  He has claimed, for instance, “that a human’s life is not necessarily more sacred than a dog’s, and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled, unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.”  For Singer, the worth of a life can be coolly calculated by a set of criteria.  If a life meets the criteria, it should be nurtured and protected.  If it does not, it can be ended, even if it is a human life.  It is difficult to see how Planned Parenthood’s financial criteria to determine a human life’s value differs all that much from Professor Singer’s method.

It must be said that a Christian cannot endorse or endure such a view of human life.  Human life is not valuable because it meets certain criteria. It is valuable, according to Scripture, because of its origin and its unique reflection of its Creator.  Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice, echoes this sentiment using a Constitutional lens when he writes:

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all persons; this guarantee is replicated in Article 14 of the European Convention and in the constitutions and declarations of rights of many other countries. This profound social and political commitment to human equality is grounded on, and an expression of, the belief that all persons innately have dignity and are worthy of respect without regard to their perceived value based on some instrumental scale of usefulness or merit. We treat people as worthy of equal respect because of their status as human beings and without regard to their looks, gender, race, creed, or any other incidental trait – because, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, we hold it as ‘self-evident’ that ‘all men (and women) are created equal’ and enjoy ‘certain unalienable Rights,’ and ‘that among these are Life.’

What is “self-evident” to the framers of the Declaration of Independence is apparently not so self-evident to Planned Parenthood.  May we never allow the inherent value of human life to be anything less than self-evident to us.

February 13, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

An Executive Order and an Immigration Debate

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When President Trump issued an executive order two Saturdays ago putting a 90-day moratorium on all foreigners entering the United States from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen and a 120-day ban on all refugee admissions, the reaction was swift and splenetic.  Protests erupted at airports across the country.  Democratic politicians decried – and, quite literally, cried at – Mr. Trump’s executive order.  And now, a federal judge in Washington has temporarily blocked enforcement of the president’s immigration stay.

Though much could be saidand has been said – from a policy standpoint about the president’s executive order and the heated debates that have ensued, it is worth it for us, as Christians, to use this moment as an opportunity step back and consider how Scripture frames the broader issues involved.  After all, long after the embers of the fight over this particular executive order have cooled, the contentious disagreements that have bubbled to the top in this debate will remain.  So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Safety and Sojourners

One of the roles of any government is to protect its people by punishing wrong and standing up for what is right.  This is part of the reason Joshua led a conquest through the land of Canaan.  This is also why the apostle Paul writes:

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  (Romans 3:4)

The preamble to our Constitution echoes this sentiment when it explains the very need for such a document thusly:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Likewise, President Trump, when his executive order was met with fiery backlash, defended it by saying that his order was about “terror and keeping our country safe.”

Safety is indeed a noble goal.  But Scripture also has much to say about welcoming and helping sojourners.  God commands the Israelites:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

One of Jesus’ most famous stories – the Parable of the Good Samaritan – has as its centerpiece a call to be kind to foreigners.  In this day, for a Jew to talk about a “good Samaritan” would have sounded oxymoronic.  The Samaritans, after all, were the ones who broke into the Jewish temple during Passover and desecrated it by scattering human bones through it.  Jews did not consider Samaritans “safe.” But in Jesus’ story, a Samaritan ends up saving the life of a Jew.

As Christians, then, we are called to be concerned both with the safety and security of our families and nation as well as with the plights of others, such as Syrian refugees, doing whatever we can to welcome and care for those who need our help.  A concern for safety and a love for sojourners are to go hand in hand.

Local and Global

Donald Trump’s short tenure as president has been marked by the theme of putting America first.  In what was perhaps the most memorable line of his inauguration address, the president declared, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

Addressing concerns and challenges close to home is important.  Charity, the old saw says, begins at home.  Scripture echoes this theme when the apostle Paul encourages believers to take care of those closest to them: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  In this same letter, Paul also wonders out loud how a pastor who “does not know how to manage his own family…can…take care of God’s church” (1 Timothy 3:5).  At issue here is a principle of subsidiarity, which encourages a focus on local affairs first.

But once again, as important as local affairs are, they are not the only concerns we should have.  President Trump’s call of “America first” must never become that of “America only.”

Rodney Stark, in his seminal work The Triumph of Christianity, notes that Christianity is unique not only because it is:

…the largest religion in the world, [but because] it also is the least regionalized.  There are only trivial numbers of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere and in Eastern Asia, but there is no region without significant numbers of Christians – even in the Arab region of North Africa.[1]

Christianity is decentralized because the faith’s founder gave His disciples a global mission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  In the book of Acts, Christ encourages the Church to have both a local and a global vision for mission: “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

As Christians, then, though we are to tend to the affairs of our families, communities, and country, these cannot be our sole concerns.  A world that is hurting is a world that needs our compassion, interest, and engagement.  We are called to have eyes for both that which is local and for things which are global.

Government and Church

As Christians, we must remember that the affairs of the government are not always coterminous with the mission of the Church.  Governments have a specific role to play.  They are God’s servants, on a civic level, to promote and defend that which is right and to dissuade and punish that which is wrong.  Likewise, the Church has a specific mission to carry out – to reach the world, in both word and deed, with the gospel on a personal level.  Thus, while a government may seek to protect a nation, the Church continues to go forth to reach the nations.

As Christians, then, we live in two worlds.  We are both members of Christ’s body, the Church, and citizens of an earthly nation.  In such a politically-heated environment, however, it can be tempting to exalt the partisanship of politics over the community of the congregation.  Indeed, one of the saddest aspects of our current crisis is that the millions of Syrian refugees who have been displaced from their homes and families have become, in the words of Pete Spiliakos:

…footballs in our partisan scrimmages. We insist on certain standards of hospitality to refugees, making those standards a test of “who we are,” opportunistically – when it is useful to our side.

In other words, we do not charitably welcome refugees while carefully stewarding our own national interests because it is right thing to do, we pick either the reasonable concerns of our nation or the sad plight of international refugees and turn one into a cause célèbre at the expense of the other because it is politically expedient.  This is wrong both civically and ecclesiologically because it reduces people to pawns in a game of thrones.  We are less concerned with doing justice and more concerned with wielding power.

In a debate that has become increasingly either/or, we, as Christians, have a message that is both/and.  We can both seek the safety of our nation and be hospitable to sojourners.  We can both address our local contexts and keep an eye on global crises.  We can both live as responsible citizens and work as members of Christ’s body.  One thing does not need to trump the other thing because, ultimately, over everything is Christ.  He is the One who ultimately both keeps us safe and welcomes us into His kingdom as sojourners from this corrupt age.  He is the One who both loves each of us locally and dies for the world globally.  He is the One who both rules all rulers and is the head of His body, the Church.  He is the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

As we seek to process today’s troubles, then, let us never forget who we are.  We are not merely useful political plodders.  We are the children of God in Christ, which means that we trust in Him, live with Him, and love like Him – both those who are near and those who are halfway across the world.

___________________________

[1] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 392.

February 6, 2017 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Marching for Life

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This past Friday, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington D.C. for the 43rd annual March for Life.  The march finds its origin in a decision handed down by the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973, which legalized abortion in all 50 states.  From its outset, the ruling was controversial, as can be seen in a dissenting opinion from one of the justices on the Court at the time, Justice Byron White:

With all due respect, I dissent. I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand.

Justice White frames his dissent in a couple of ways.  First, he frames it in terms of states’ rights.  At the time of Roe v. Wade, four states had legalized abortion on demand while thirteen states had legalized abortion in cases of rape, incest, and endangerment to a woman’s health.  Justice White is concerned that the high court’s federal ruling runs roughshod over decisions that rightly belong to the states.  But that’s not all he’s concerned about.  He also frames his dissent around the morality of deciding “the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand.”  This moral quandary is the one that remains and rages to this day.  The question is this:  is the fetus important?  Should a fetus be protected in some way, shape, form, or fashion because of what the fetus is – a baby in utero?

The answer from those who participate in the March to Life each year to these moral questions has been a resounding “yes.”  And Christianity’s answer to these questions has been a resounding “yes” as well.  Indeed, the story of Christianity can be summed up quite accurately as a war on death.  Ever since Adam’s fall into sin brought death into the world, God has been working to undo death’s grimly efficient accomplishments.  God’s war on death, of course, finds its climax and consummation in Easter, but all throughout Scripture we see that death gets cheated as a warning to death that it will ultimately be defeated.  Death gets cheated when God leads the children of Israel through the Red Sea, rescuing them from Pharaoh’s sword.  Death gets cheated when the prophet Elijah raises a widow’s son back to life.  Death gets cheated when a king of Israel, Hezekiah, falls ill, but God adds fifteen years to his life.  And death gets cheated all throughout Jesus’ ministry, where the terminal are treated, the reposed are raised, and the graves are gutted.  Yes, the Scriptures tell the story of God’s war on death.

Of course, we know that, in a pluralistic democracy, Scriptural theology doesn’t always translate into broad public policy.  Nevertheless, even from the vantage point of a pluralistic democracy, concerns about life must be addressed.  Questions of anthropology, such as whether life matters and whose life matters, demand our time and attention if we are to have any sort of a functioning and orderly society.  The March for Life dares to raise these questions.  And for that, it should be commended.

One of the criticisms I have heard of the pro-life movement is that though it seeks to defend the lives of the unborn, if often turns a deaf ear to the lives of the already born – the economically oppressed, minorities, and the socially marginalized.  I agree.  I agree that it is hypocritical to defend some life while turning a blind eye to other life.  But I also believe it is tragic to privilege the desires of one life at the expense of another life.  Yet, this is precisely the argument abortion proponents regularly make.  One abortion proponent explained it like this:

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal…A fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always…

I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time – even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.

This is a chilling – and, dare I say, downright evil – rationalization for abortion.

To speak out against abortion is to understand that it is awfully difficult to defend the lives of the economically oppressed, minorities, and the socially marginalized if those lives are never allowed to leave the womb alive because they are aborted.  And studies have shown they are abortedagain and again.  It is because of that reality that I am thankful for the March for Life.

Life matters – whether it is in the womb, on this earth, or with Jesus in eternity.  And that’s something worth marching for.

January 30, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump

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Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s official.  As of last Friday, just after noon Eastern Standard Time, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.

Though our nation has a new president, old partisan divides and rancor remain.  Representative John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s election and promised to boycott his inauguration, which prompted a fiery response from the president via his Twitter account.  Project Veritas uncovered the aspirations of a radical protest organization to detonate a butyric acid bomb at the inaugural ball.  And then there were the protests just blocks away from the inauguration parade that erupted into riots.  Indeed, there is no shortage of division in our society.

At this watershed moment in American history, it is worth it to take a moment and remind ourselves how we, as Christians, are to conduct ourselves in a world full of violence, threats, political infighting, and social media rants.  So, as a new man settles into the world’s most powerful position, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Rulers come and rulers go.

Last week, a friend sent me a picture of the “Donald Trump Out of Office Countdown Wall Calendar.”  It extends to 2021.  Apparently, the calendar is not only counting down Mr. Trump’s term in office, but making a prediction about the next presidential election.  Whatever you may think of the new president, and regardless of whether or not you hope he is elected to another term, this wall calendar provides an important reminder:  Mr. Trump’s presidency will not last forever, just like all the presidencies before his did not last forever.  Indeed, it is always interesting to hear discussions of how “history is being made” every time a new president is elected and inaugurated.  We seem to know, even if only intuitively, that the present is only the present for a split second.  It quickly becomes history – a past that is no longer pressing.

If you are concerned about Mr. Trump’s presidency, then, remember:  it will not last forever.  And if you are ecstatic about Mr. Trump’s presidency, remember:  it will not last forever.   This is why the Psalmist instructs us not to put our “trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4).  The reign of any earthly ruler never lasts.  Every reign ends; every ruler dies – that is, except for One.

Rulers have limited authority.

No matter who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania avenue, a contingent of the electorate is always apoplectic, convinced that whoever happens to be president at the time will surely spell the end of American democracy, if not world order, as we know it.  The reality of a president’s – or any ruler’s – authority is much less impressive.  Scripture reminds us that every human authority is under God’s authority.  The prophet Daniel declares that God “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21).  The apostle Paul tells masters of slaves in the ancient world that One “who is both [your slave’s] Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Ephesians 6:9).  No matter how much authority one person may have, no human authority can match God’s ultimate authority.

This should bring us peace and give us perspective.  Leaders, ultimately, do not control the world.  Instead, they simply steward, whether faithfully or poorly, whatever little corner of the world God has happened to give to them for a brief moment in time. It is never wise, therefore, to put too much faith in leaders we like or to have too much fear of leaders we don’t.  Their power is not ultimate power.

Rulers need our prayers.

When we no longer put too much faith in our leaders or have too much fear of them, this frees us up to pray for them according to Scripture’s admonition: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  I find it especially striking that making it a common practice to pray for our leaders – no matter who they might be – is commanded by Paul not only because of the effects these prayers have on our leaders, but because of the effects these prayers have on us!  When we pray for our leaders, Paul says, this leads us to peaceful and quiet lives even when the world around us feels troubled, and godly and holy lives even when the world around us seems to be careening into moral rot.  When we pray for others, God strengthens us.

As Donald Trump assumes the responsibilities of the President of the United States, he needs our prayers.  So keep President Trump and his family in your prayers.  And while you’re at it, keep other leaders, be they on the national, statewide, or local levels, in your prayers as well.  As a practical admonition, perhaps consider writing a note to one of your public servants asking how you can pray for them.  Your note just might be a big blessing to them and encourage them to become a better leader.  And that’s something our nation can always use.

January 23, 2017 at 5:15 am 5 comments

Was Jesus a Liberal or a Conservative?

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People love to claim Jesus.  This is especially true in the realm of politics.  At the beginning of the year, the Pew Research Center published a report about the faith commitments of those serving in Congress.  As it turns out, Congress is a very religious place:

The U.S. Congress is about as Christian today as it was in the early 1960s…Among members of the new, 115th Congress, 91% describe themselves as Christians. This is nearly the same percentage as in the 87th Congress (1961 to 1962, the earliest years for which comparable data are available), when 95% of members were Christian.

Among the 293 Republicans elected to serve in the new, 115th Congress, all but two identify as Christians…Democrats in Congress also are overwhelmingly Christian (80%).

In a society where people who claim Christianity are on the decline, the fact that so many members of Congress would continue to identify as “Christian” is worthy of our attention.  But claiming Christ is not always synonymous with following Christ.  Indeed, both of our nation’s two major political parties have had moments where their actions did not comport particularly well with Christ’s commands.

Regardless of what politicians and parties may say about Jesus or how they may represent Jesus, in His own day, Jesus demonstrated a persistent refusal to be co-opted by any political power.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees come to Jesus with a question about a woman who had been married seven times to seven brothers.  Their question has to do with whose wife she will be at the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day: “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her” (Matthew 22:28)?  Sadly, their question is dripping with insincerity because the Sadducees did not even believe in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day (cf. Acts 23:8).  They were too enlightened to believe in something so outlandish.  Another theological distinction of the Sadducees is that they accepted only the first five Old Testament books of Moses as canonical rather than the 39 books that other Jewish religious groups accepted.  Though I have no historical proof of this, I am pretty sure the Sadducees had these five books printed in red and called themselves “Red-Letter Jews,” claiming that the rest of the Old Testament canon did not really matter – only what Moses had written.  In today’s terms, the Sadducees would be aligned with theological liberals.

As Matthew 22 continues, on the heels of the Sadducees come the Pharisees.  If the Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day, the Pharisees would have been the theological conservatives.  They also have a question for Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36)?  This was a hotly debated theological question in the first century with no uniform answer.  More progressive teachers like Rabbi Hillel summarized the law like this: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary” (b. Shabbat 31a).  Other more conservative rabbis asserted that, because all Scripture is given by God, to try to distinguish between greater and lesser commandments in the Bible is foolish.  When the Pharisees present their question to Jesus about the law, they want to know whether He will answer liberally or conservatively.

Whether it is the Sadducees or Pharisees who approach Him, Jesus refuses to play according to their liberal and conservative assumptions.  Contra the liberal Sadducees, Jesus affirms the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:29-32).  And contra the conservative Pharisees, Jesus says there is indeed a greatest commandment, but it is much weightier than the one postulated by Rabbi Hillel.  One should not just avoid doing injury to someone else, one should actively love that other person in the same way he loves God Himself (Matthew 22:37-40).

Ultimately, the problem with both the Sadducees and Pharisees was this:  both groups were self-assured.  They were smug in their superiority and blinded by their own self-styled orthodoxies.   And because they were so sure of themselves, they never could quite be sure of Jesus.

Of course, there is a third group of people with whom Jesus interacts.  The Pharisees derisively refer to this group of people as “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).  This group, however, out of all the groups of people with whom Jesus comes into contact, seems to get Him the best – not because the people in this group are so spiritually astute, but because they need an assurance they cannot find in themselves.  So they find it in Jesus.

Regardless of your political persuasion, Jesus asks us: “Are you so sure of yourself that you cannot find security in Me?  Are you so smug in your superiority that you cannot see the shamefulness of your own sin?”  In the Gospels, Jesus lays bare all those who trust in themselves, whether conservative or liberal.  He will not be co-opted.  But He can be trusted.  Where does your faith lie?  In you, or in Him?

January 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Torture, Facebook Live, and Racism

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It is supposed to be a platform to broadcast funny moments with family, respond to questions in real time from people who follow you on social media, and provide updates on your life.  Now it has become synonymous with torture.

When four young adults took to Facebook Live on New Year’s weekend, they did so to broadcast their torture of a mentally disabled 18-year-old man from a western suburb of Chicago.  According to Fox News, the broadcast:

Showed him cowering in a corner while someone yelled “F— white people!” and “F— Donald Trump!” At one point, the man was held at knifepoint and told to curse the president-elect.

The video also showed the man being kicked and hit repeatedly, while his scalp was cut. The group apparently forced him to drink water from a toilet.

Hate crime charges have now been filed against the four involved in the attack.  In this particular instance, the four attackers were black and the victim was white.  Reporting for The Washington Post, Mark Berman and Derek Hawkins explain:

When asked whether the hate crime charges stemmed from the 18-year-old’s mental health or his race — both of which are factors listed in the state’s hate crime statute — [Chicago Area North Detectives Commander Kevin] Duffin said: “It’s half a dozen of one, six of the other.”

Even though the Facebook Live video is still available through several outlets, I have not watched it.  Just from what I have read about its content, I’m not sure I could stomach it.  This is the kind of crime that rends any reasonable heart.

A crime like this brings to the forefront – again – issues of racism and hatred.  If the language they used on the video is any indication, these attackers seemed to be animated by a hatred for white people, a political animus for Donald Trump, and a potential disparagement of this young man’s mental capacities.

Ironically, the problem with racism of any sort is that racism always goes deeper than race.  Racism betrays a fundamental inability to see a certain group of people as actual people.  Racism ties a person’s value and dignity either to the color of their skin or to the origin of their birth rather than to the fact of their humanity.  This is why, from a Christian perspective, racism is ultimately a spiritual problem.  Scripture reminds us that, simply by virtue of being human, we are imbued with a measure of value and dignity.  Thus, when human lives are not treated with appropriate value or dignity, God’s anger is inflamed.

Certainly, there are things on a macro-scale that have been done and can continue to be done to stem the tide of racism-at-large.  Political legislation, protest movements, and dedicated activists are all important to confronting racism wherever it rears its ugly head.  But we, as individuals, can also confront racism on a micro-scale by how we treat each other.  Be honest with yourself:  do you treat every person with whom you come into contact as fully human?  Or do you see some groups of people – whether those groups be demarcated by race, socioeconomic status, or even simple personality type  – as less than human?  Treating people as less than human can manifest itself in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes, it is a declared disdain for a certain group of people based on a certain feature of that group.  More often than not, however, we treat people as less than human when we regard them as annoyances, looking past them instead of loving them.  In a micro-way, then, confronting racism can be as simple as an act of kindness that affirms a person’s humanity.

To whom can you be kind today?  Even if your kindness never gets broadcast on Facebook Live, it will be much more worthwhile than what has become the platform’s most famous – and infamous – broadcast.  And that, at least, is a place to start.

January 9, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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