Archive for August, 2015

Colorado’s Pot Problem

Marijuana Leaf 1It’s really difficult to legalize something and discourage its use all at the same time. That’s what Colorado lawmakers are learning. In a state where marijuana is legal, lawmakers are faced with a dilemma: how do they uphold and support the legality of recreational marijuana use among adults while speaking out against its use among teens? Kristen Wyatt, in an article published in The Washington Post, outlines their strategy:

Marijuana isn’t evil, but teens aren’t ready for it: That’s the theme of a new effort by Colorado to educate youths about the newly legal drug.

Colorado launched a rebranding effort Thursday that seeks to keep people under 21 away from pot. The “What’s Next” campaign aims to send the message that marijuana can keep youths from achieving their full potential.

The campaign shows kids being active and reminds them that their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 25. The ads say that pot use can make it harder for them to pass a test, land a job, or pass the exam for a driver’s license.[1]

Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you – at least according to the public service ads produced for the “What’s Next” campaign:

One ad shows a teen girl working out on a basketball court and the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of ambition.” Another ad shows a boy rocking out on a drum set with the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of passion.”

Colorado’s anxiety over the teen use of a drug that, for adults, is legal presents us with an interesting ethical conundrum. Marijuana, except in very limited cases when prescribed by a physician, is demonstrably dangerous and, in many instances, is downright deadly. But, then again, cigarette smoking is irrefutably linked to cancer, alcohol consumption impairs a person’s ability to operate a vehicle and, over the years, can also cause liver damage, and the foods we eat on a daily basis are sometimes less than nutritionally sound. Yet, these things are legal nationwide. So is it really logically responsible, or politically feasible, to support the outlawing of recreational marijuana use in Colorado?

On the one hand, we need to recognize that the moral imperative to be responsible for what we take into our bodies is impossible to legislate comprehensively. Human wisdom must play a roll. For instance, having a glass of wine with supper, which has the potential of decreasing a person’s chance of developing heart disease, is very different from guzzling a case of beer on the beach. Or, as Morgan Spurlock learned, an occasional trip to McDonald’s with the kids for a Happy Meal and a toy is very different from eating only Super Sized meals from the Golden Arches for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Even a taste of what may soon be a legal Cuban cigar is very different from a person who smokes a pack of Camels a day. Calling people to moderation in everything, as Aristotle taught in his Doctrine of the Mean,[2] is much more helpful – and, I would add, much more practical and realistic – than trying to safeguard against all potential abuses of these things by dint of legislation and regulation.

On the other hand, it is a logical error to suppose that just because legislation and regulation can’t solve every issue that affects the care of the body means that it can’t be helpful in any issue that affects the safety of a person. This is, after all, the whole reason for the existence of the Food and Drug Administration, which works tirelessly to ensure that the food we eat for meals and the medicines we take for illnesses are safe. But marijuana is not safe, which is, perhaps, why, even though it’s legal in Colorado, it’s still outlawed federally.

When I am prescribed a drug for an illness, if the list of the drug’s side effects is lengthy while its benefits are minimal, I become leery of taking it and will further consult with my physician over it. There is no doubt that the problems with marijuana far outpace its benefits.  Indeed, aside from acute medical cases, marijuana’s benefits can really only be defined in social terms. Marijuana is good for partying. And that’s about it.

It is this that leads us back to Colorado’s curious campaign to discourage teen marijuana use. The social capital associated with having, sharing, and using marijuana is deeply enticing to teenagers. After all, teenagers – at least many of them – love to party. So when Colorado makes marijuana as accessible as alcohol, does the state really think a slick public service campaign will stem the tide of teens using what is not only a dangerous drug in and of itself, but an addictive gateway drug that often leads to more serious substance abuse?

Moderation is good for many things, as Aristotle teaches. But in this instance, a little wisdom from Augustine may be in order as well. Augustine, though also a supporter of moderation, reminds us that, sometimes, complete abstinence is preferable to even perfect moderation.[3] When it comes to marijuana, we need learn how to choose between the options of abstinence and moderation wisely.

Something tells me Colorado chose poorly.

_______________________________________

[1] Kristen Wyatt, “Colorado rebrands anti-pot campaign for kids,” The Washington Post (8.20.2015).

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1106a26-b28.

[3] Augustine, Of the Good of Marriage 25.

August 31, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Planned Parenthood: The Scandal Continues

Planned Parenthood 2I wish I didn’t feel the need to write about this again. I wish that after the first video hit the web exposing Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of fetal organs, our society would have risen up with unified moral outrage and called for an end to such a ghastly practice. But as things often go, positions are so entrenched and worldviews are so decided that even when people are confronted with something that can be described as nothing less than reprehensible, they are more devoted to defending a cause than they are to figuring out what is right.

Such is the case with the Planned Parenthood scandal. Though some supporters have expressed new reservations in light of what has been exposed, the needle of public opinion concerning the organization remains largely unmoved. People who despise Planned Parenthood continue to despise Planned Parenthood. And people who support Planned Parenthood continue to support Planned Parenthood. But what has happened will never be truly addressed if all we do is wage another culture war where two sides, impenetrable in their positions, muster their troops and try to defeat each other. What is needed is not a war, but a thoughtful consensus on what has happened and what can change into the future. So allow me to offer a few thoughts, once again, on Planned Parenthood with the hope of fostering discussion and, ultimately, some sort of agreement.

First, when I last blogged on Planned Parenthood after the scandal initially broke, I asked, “In what world is it okay to turn a baby breech so you can smash its legs, kill it, and then harvest its organs for profit? Is there any conceivable scenario where this is okay?” In light of a newer video, I can ask similar questions: In what world is it okay to abort a baby and, while its heart is still able to beat, cut down the middle of the baby’s face to extract the brain? Is there any possible moral system that makes this acceptable? The answer can only be, “No.” This is so self-evidentially morally repugnant, the only appropriate response is utter disgust. And if we are not disgusted, we have moved far beyond an ethical issue to be discussed. We have moved into a psychopathy that needs to be treated.

Second, supporters of Planned Parenthood have trumpeted again and again the good the organization does. Consider this from Molly Redden of Mother Jones:

While its opponents tried to brand Planned Parenthood as an abortion mill, the group has stressed that abortions make up only 3 percent of its services, and STI screenings, Pap tests, and pregnancy prevention comprise the vast majority of its activities. The group, which now receives $528 million in federal funding (or 41 percent of its annual budget), also provides contraception to almost 40 percent of women who rely on public programs for family planning.[1]

Planned Parenthood’s supporters argue that the organization does so much good, that the abortions they perform – something that comprises only 3 percent of their services (which, as others have pointed out, is misleading and little more than an ethical dodge) – and the baby parts they traffic are simply not worth our intense scrutiny. We need to forget about the ethically questionable practices of Planned Parenthood and instead focus on the morally venerable services of Planned Parenthood.

But as even some abortion advocates have pointed out, to dismiss the moral problems incumbent on abortion and the sale of baby parts by simply saying, “Planned Parenthood does a lot of good stuff too,” is logically and ethically spurious. This would be much like saying, “This benevolent benefactor left millions to his extended family of 75 members and only murdered one of them, his wife – and that was because she was cheating on him! In light of all the good he has done, and because his anger at his cheating wife is understandable, any murder charges that might be brought against him should be dismissed.” Most people would say it doesn’t matter how much good he has done for the rest of his family. He needs to be held to account for taking his wife’s life. A lot of good cannot excuse this kind of bad. Likewise, Planned Parenthood’s good health services do not and must not excuse their bad abortions.

Third, supporters of Planned Parenthood, when faced with the ghastly reality of what is happening, seem willing to content themselves with the technicalities of whether or not what Planned Parenthood has done is legal, implying that as long as it’s legal, it must also be moral. In a slight variation on this theme, supporters also point to polls that show majority support for continued federal funding of some of Planned Parenthood’s services, implying that if voters are okay with Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood must, in fact, actually be okay. But one does not need to be an expert in ethics or, for that matter, history to know that what is right is not always coterminous with what is legal or popular. Slavery, after all, was once legal and popular. But we would certainly not say it was right. Morality must in some way transcend current popular human sentiment. Otherwise, historical and contemporary standards of morality collapse into a morass of relativism. Legality and popularity simply will not do when it comes to settling morality.

Finally, for all the concerns I have outlined with those who support Planned Parenthood, I should also point out that if you’re against Planned Parenthood, you must be known not only for what you’re against, but who you’re for. You need to be for life. And you need to be for the moms who carry new life.

On Facebook the other day, I came across a faux, but helpful, conversation that captures the anxiety that often surrounds birth and abortion:

Question: I’m pregnant. What should I do?
Answer: Keep the baby!
Question: Okay! Can I have prenatal vitamins?
Answer: What?
Question: Can I have financial help for doctor appointments?
Answer: Ummm…
Question: Can I at least get paid maternity leave?
Answer: Excuse me?

The point of the conversation is well taken. To support life means to support those who are carrying new life. So if you are pregnant and scared, before you call Planned Parenthood, get help from someone who is committed to supporting the new life in you because they love you and want what’s best not only ethically for society, but for you personally.

Perhaps the saddest part of these continued Planned Parenthood exposés is that, with the release of each video, public interest continues to wane. This is why I decided to write another blog on this ongoing, even if mutedly so, scandal. This is something that deserves our attention and our moral conviction. This is something that demands our voices and our efforts. Will you lend your voice and hand to help?

Lives are at stake.

___________________________________

[1] Molly Redden, “Pro-Choicers Are Actually Freaked Out About These Planned Parenthood Sting Videos,” Mother Jones (7.23.2015).

August 24, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Little Lesson on Divine Providence

Feel free to use this image, just link to www.SeniorLiving.Org

Credit: SeniorLiving.org

Last week, in my personal devotions, I read through Numbers 26, which recounts a census taken near the end of Israel’s 40 year wandering through the wilderness. Here’s a taste of the bean counting:

The descendants of Gad by their clans were: through Zephon, the Zephonite clan; through Haggi, the Haggite clan; through Shuni, the Shunite clan; through Ozni, the Oznite clan; through Eri, the Erite clan; through Arodi, the Arodite clan; through Areli, the Arelite clan. These were the clans of Gad; those numbered were 40,500. Er and Onan were sons of Judah, but they died in Canaan. The descendants of Judah by their clans were: through Shelah, the Shelanite clan; through Perez, the Perezite clan; through Zerah, the Zerahite clan. The descendants of Perez were: through Hezron, the Hezronite clan; through Hamul, the Hamulite clan. These were the clans of Judah; those numbered were 76,500. (Numbers 26:15-22)

I won’t blame you if you found yourself skimming over these verses. Biblical censuses and genealogies are items we tend to skip so we can get to the good stuff. Names we don’t know and numbers we don’t care about can quickly lull us to sleep. But as snooze inducing as these stilted sections of Scripture might sometimes feel, my commitment to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible still calls me to see God’s merciful hand at work. And God’s merciful hand is indeed at work in Numbers 26.

Numbers 26 represents the second census in this book. The first one is in Numbers 1, near the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. From Numbers 1 to Numbers 26, approximately 38 years have passed. These years, it should be noted, have not been particularly pleasant ones. There has been grumbling (Numbers 11:1-6; 14:1-4), dissension among Israel’s leaders (Numbers 12), a refusal to enter the land God had promised to Israel (Numbers 13), defeats in battle (Numbers 14:40-45), rebellions (Numbers 16), and plagues (Numbers 21:4-9; 25). This is in addition to the natural and normal difficulties that come with camping out in a desert for decades on end. Yet, by the time all is said and done, the population of Israel between the first census in Numbers 1 and this census in Numbers 26 has remained remarkably stable. The population has decreased by only .3 percent. It turns out that for all the hardship Israel experienced and for all the sin they committed, God, out of His providence, took good care of His people. They endured even when, by all accounts, they should not have.

As remarkable as God’s providential care for Israel over 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was, it pales in comparison to God’s providential care for His Church. Through persecutions, hostilities, scandals, and political and intellectual assaults, the Church has not only endured, it has grown. As this map elegantly visualizes, what began as a band of twelve now claims nearly a third of the world’s population. Forget a .3 percent decrease. How about an 18.3 billion percent increase?

I realize that in our day and age, the remarkable story of Christ’s Church can sometimes be hard to recognize and remember. I was talking to a friend just the other day who wanted to know what we, as Christians, needed to do to beat back the encroachment of secularism. I understand his concern. If you’re not at least a little unsettled by the state and trajectory of our culture, you’re not paying attention. Still, I think secularism has a lot more to worry about than Christianity. After all, secularism can’t claim the history, the increase, or, for that matter, the truth that Christianity can.

In Luke 4, Jesus is preaching in His hometown of Nazareth. His text for the day is from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jews of Jesus’ day understood Isaiah’s words eschatologically. The believed God would set right what was wrong with the world on the Last Day. This is why, immediately after Isaiah talks about “the year of the LORD’s favor,” he speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Judgment Day, Isaiah says, is coming. But Jesus, when He preached on these words, interpreted them in a way no one expected.  After reading from Isaiah, Jesus announces, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Huh? How could this be?  Judgment Day had not yet come.  The world had not yet been set right.  The poor had not been made rich. Broken hearts remained. Israel was still under captivity to the Romans. Prisons were still open. And the Lord’s favor, though it may have been touted by the Jewish religious leaders as a theological truism, still felt distant as a practical reality. How could Jesus say Isaiah’s words had been fulfilled right then and there? Because Jesus knew the census numbers from Numbers 1 and Numbers 26. Jesus knew that God was taking care of His people even when life felt like a wilderness wandering. Jesus took the long view of history and saw God’s fingerprints all over it. Jesus knew God’s providence. And Jesus knew the setbacks and sin of this world are no match for the promises of God.

May we know what Jesus knew. After all, what Jesus knew not only gives perspective when the world feels tempestuous and hostile, it gives hope.

August 17, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Ashley Madison, Morality, and Legality

Broken MarriageSex sells. Or so the old advertising cliché tells us. But even if it’s cliché, it also happens to be true. And no company knows this truth better than Ashley Madison. They have built their business on appealing to those who want to cheat on their spouses. Their slogan, “Life is short; have an affair,” sums up their business model. They promise would-be cheaters the ability to discretely find each other online, meet up, and break their wedding vows, all the while hiding their infidelity from their spouses. But last month, the security of Ashley Madison’s secretive sex services was dealt a blow. The New York Times reports:

The company behind Ashley Madison, a popular online dating service marketed to people trying to cheat on their spouses, said on Monday that the site had been breached by hackers who may have obtained personal data about the service’s millions of members.

The group of hackers behind the attack, going by the name Impact Team, said they had stolen information on the 37 million members of Ashley Madison. To prevent the data from being released, the hackers said, the company needed to shut down the site entirely.[1]

This story is fascinating on many fronts. First, it is fascinating that the Times refers to Ashley Madison as “a popular online dating service.” Truthfully, it is nothing of the sort. Dating is not the same as hooking up. Ashley Madison is not particularly interested in promoting healthy, stable, long-term relationships. They are interested in helping people scratch their lustful itches.

Second, it is fascinating how Noel Biderman, the CEO of Avid Life Media, the parent company of Ashley Madison, is characterizing this breach of security: “Like us or not, this is still a criminal act.”[2] Mr. Biderman characterizes what has happened to his company only in legal terms. He does not say what the hackers did was wrong. He does not talk about the ethical problems that accompany invading someone’s privacy. He does not cast anything in terms of good or bad, right or wrong.

Of course, Mr. Biderman’s moral ambivalence at this security breach is inescapably necessary. After all, his whole company is devoted to encouraging and enabling that which is deeply immoral. Thus, his only recourse to denounce anything is legal. But when the technicalities of legality displace the standards of morality, humans are left with nothing but depravity. For humans will inevitably bend the law to satisfy and justify their own desires – even when those desires are categorically evil. Legislation cannot fix – and very often has trouble even restraining – human sinfulness.

Third, Mr. Biderman’s characterization of what has happened to his company in strictly legal terms aside, what has happened to Ashley Madison does represent a supreme moral irony. Ashley Madison is a company that has built its reputation and fortune on deceit – on providing people a way to cover up their sexual dalliances. Now, a group calling themselves the Impact Team, who some security experts have suggested may be a group of insiders, has deceived the masters of deceit by managing to hack into Ashley Madison’s most sensitive information. Deceit has been laid bare by deceit. And what the hackers will do with this information next is the source of great apprehension.

Whatever comes of the hacked data, this much is sure: Ashley Madison needs to change their slogan. They may tell you “life is short” so you can “have an affair,” but when your spouse catches you, the havoc you will have wreaked in your marriage won’t feel short. It’ll feel like an eternity. And that’s why you ought to think long and hard before you log on to Ashley Madison. Because if you do, you won’t. And that would be good.

___________________________________

[1] Dino Grandoni, “Ashley Madison, a Dating Website, Says Hackers May Have Data on Millions,” The New York Times (7.20.2015).

[2] Wilborn P. Nobles III, “After hackers expose cheaters, AshleyMadison hookup site offers ‘full delete’ option,” The Washington Post (7.20.2015).

August 10, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Strategy of Love

Credit:  New York Times via The Associated Press

Credit: New York Times via The Associated Press

It was a day law enforcement officials were dreading. On the same day, during the same hours, two groups whose worldviews could not be farther apart planned to hold rallies for their respective causes on the same grounds – the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol. One group, Black Educators for Justice, which has ties to the Black Panthers, held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and chanted “black power.” The other group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, waved Confederate flags while chanting “white power.”

This has not been a good season for race relations in America. The latest round of racial tension began with a horrific racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church. This sparked a debate over displaying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House that became so fierce that a black man named Anthony Hervey who often dressed in Confederate regalia and waved the state flag of Mississippi, which contains the Confederate flag in its design, in an attempt to honor African-Americans who served with the Confederacy during the Civil War was allegedly run off the road by another vehicle full of people angry at his demonstrations. Then there was 43-year-old James Dubose, a black man, who was shot and killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer after being pulled over for not having a front license plate on his vehicle. The officer is charged with murder. Although authorities do not yet know precisely what precipitated this shooting, the episode has certainly exacerbated race relations in that community.

Now, there are these dueling rallies between two self-identified racially distinctive groups at the State House in South Carolina. The New York Times reports that though there were some scuffles between the groups and some demonstrators were arrested, because the groups were on opposite ends of the State House and their contact with each other was minimal, thankfully, no major fights erupted.

Perhaps the point of contact that was most noteworthy in these demonstrations was not a point of contention between these two groups with each other, but a point of grace that an officer had with a Klan member.

Officer Leroy Smith is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He was at the State House the day of the demonstrations, working crowd control. In the midst of his duties, he spotted an elderly man who was part of the Klan rally, donning a t-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, who looked sickly and weak as he protested in the hot South Carolina sun. What did Officer Smith do?   He took him by the arm and led him up the steps of the State Capitol into the air-conditioned building.

Did I mention Officer Smith was black?

Just days before, Officer Smith had watched as state troopers lowered the Confederate flag from its perch atop the capitol grounds for the final time. The symbolism of the moment sent chills up his spine. But lowering a flag that is widely associated with racial tension cannot kill hatred. It cannot kill suspicion. It cannot kill resentment. It cannot kill self-absorption. Indeed, all of these things were on display the day of the demonstrations. But then one man decided to show love.

The Klan did not volunteer the name of the man Officer Smith helped up the steps of the State House. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this one scene – this one act – is what will be remembered out of an otherwise frightful day in Charleston. This one scene – this one act – is what wound up overshadowing all the expressions of dismay, distrust, and disunity.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). When we read these words, we can be tempted to relegate them to the realm of nice sentiment rather than practical reality. Enemies, our street smarts tell us, need to be defeated, not loved. But then one man decided to love someone who, by all accounts, was his enemy. And his love devastated the divisive strategies of literally thousands of protesters. Jesus’ strategy of love, it turns out, made a much stronger impression than any human strategy of malcontent.

What will be remembered the most from that day in Charleston is the love of an officer for a man who, morally, holds repugnant views. As Christians, what will be remembered of us? Will we be remembered for loving those who others – and, if we’re honest, we ourselves – would find it far easier to hate? If our lives are marked by anything other than Jesus’ strategy of love, it’s time to change our strategies.  After all, Jesus’ strategy is better. And His strategy really does work. In fact, more than that, His strategy really can transform prejudices and people.  Just ask Officer Smith.

August 3, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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