Archive for October, 2016

The ISIS Atrocities You Probably Haven’t Heard About

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ISIS must be stopped.  It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion when story after story of the group’s atrocities continue to pour in.  In a horrifying iteration of violence that has become ISIS’s trademark, a woman named Alice Assaf recounted how when jihadis marched into her town over two years ago, they killed her son for refusing to disown his faith in Christ, murdered at least six men by baking them alive in ovens, and killed 250 children by massacring them in dough kneading machines at a local bakery.

Are you sick to your stomach yet?  I certainly was when I read the news story.

But too many people have not read this story.  Stories about emails and Tweets among the two major party presidential candidates have relegated ISIS’s atrocities to the background.  Certainly, this year’s presidential election with all of its crazy ups and downs is important.  But when many people lose track of, or, I fear, even lose interest in ISIS’s activities, something has gone tragically wrong.

Just last August, it was being argued that we should ignore, or at least downplay, ISIS’s crimes.  During an official visit to Bangladesh, Secretary of State John Kerry explained:

No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.[1]

The Secretary of State was arguing that by featuring terror attacks in the headlines, we are only emboldening the terrorists by giving them what they want – free publicity, which leads to more recruiting power, which leads to more killings.  As it turns out, however, even as ISIS’s publicity retreats, the atrocities continue.  A lack of headlines does not seem to temper ISIS’s bloodlust.

We must understand that what drives ISIS, ultimately, is not a desire for fame, for land, or for money.  A theology is what drives the group.  I am sympathetic to Muslim theologians who argue that ISIS’s theology is not Islamic or representative of Allah in any meaningful or traditional sense, but even if this is the case, ISIS nevertheless has a theology.  It has a conception of a god who calls and commands its adherents to do the things they do.  And the things this god calls and commands them to do are horrifying.  But they will continue to do them, whether or not the world is watching, because they think their god is watching – and is pleased with them.

This is why we must continue to pay attention.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who does not order the execution of the oppressed, but cares about the plight of the oppressed and invites us to do the same.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who hates injustice and promises to confront it and conquer it with righteousness.

Perhaps what was most shocking to me about the article I read outlining ISIS’s bakery massacre was the headlines in the “Related Stories” column of the website I was visiting:

All of these articles carried datelines of August and September of this year.  ISIS is still on the loose, even if we don’t see it or know it.  Perhaps it’s time to see and notice once again.  After all, the blood of those it has slaughtered is crying out.

Are we listening?

____________________________

[1] Jeryl Bier, “Kerry in Bangladesh: Media Should Cover Terrorism Less,” The Weekly Standard (8.29.2016).

October 31, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Standing for Life

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I grew up in the first state in our union to legalize physician-assisted suicide.  When Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act in 1997, which allowed a terminally ill patient to administer lethal drugs to him or her self under the direction of a doctor, it stirred a lot of controversy.  Though other states and regions have since followed suit, even nearly twenty years later, laws like the Death with Dignity Act still stir a lot of controversy and concern.

Our nation’s capital is now joining the fray of this debate with the D.C. Council readying themselves to vote tomorrow on legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill people. Fenit Nirappil of The Washington Post explains:

A majority of D.C. Council members say they plan to vote for the bill when it comes before them Tuesday.

But chances for enactment are unclear. The council will have to vote on the bill twice more by the end of the year.  Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has not indicated whether she will sign the legislation, although her health director has testified against it, saying it violates the Hippocratic oath. It is not certain that proponents have enough votes for an override. And Congress could also strike down the legislation.[1]

Many in the African-American community of Washington D.C. strongly oppose the legislation.  The charge against the legislation is being led by Rev. Eugene Rivers III, who is leading a group called No DC Suicide.  Rev. Rivers calls the legislation “back end eugenics,” and believes it is aimed at eliminating poor blacks.  Leona Redmond, a community activist, echoes Rev. Rivers’ sentiment, saying, “It’s really aimed at old black people. It really is.”  Proponents of the law have made countless assurances that there is no racial component to the legislation.  Donna Smith, herself an African-American and the organizer for Compassion and Choices, argues, “This just isn’t a ‘white’ issue.  This issue is for everyone who’s facing unbearable suffering at the end of life.”

Certainly, any move by any group to end people’s lives based on their race is repulsive.  Indeed, if this legislation is enacted and, even if unintentionally, disproportionately affects a particular race, serious questions will need to be asked and stern objections will need to be raised.  The problem for the Christian, however, extends beyond the boundaries of race to the dignity of humanity itself.

In the third article of the Nicene Creed, Christians confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.”  Fundamental to what we confess as Christians is that God is the giver of life.  When the apostle Peter is preaching a sermon on Pentecost day, he says to those assembled, “You killed the author of life, but God raised Him from the dead” (Acts 3:15).  Because God is the author of life, Christians believe that life is a sacred gift from God to us and ought to be stewarded carefully and lovingly by us.  This is why orthodox Christianity has consistently stood against the taking of life whether that be through abortion at life’s beginning or through physician-assisted suicide as life may be nearing its end.  Both of these practices treat life not as a gift to be stewarded, but as burden to be manipulated and, ultimately, destroyed.

It is true that life can sometimes become burdensome.  But when a young lady becomes terrified at the specter of an unexpected pregnancy, or when a person is suffering through the throes of a terminal illness, we must remind ourselves that life itself is not the culprit in these types of tragic situations.  A world broken by sin is the culprit.  So attacking life itself doesn’t relieve the burden.  Instead, attacking life actually succumbs to the burden because it capitulates to what sin wants, which is always ultimately death.  To fight against sin, therefore, is to fight for life.

As Christians fight for life, it is very important that they fight for all of life and not just certain moments in life.  All too often, Christians have been concerned with fighting for those at the beginning of life as they stand against abortion, or fighting for those who may be nearing the end of life as they stand against physician-assisted suicide.  But there is so much more to life than just its beginning and its end.  Christians should be fighting against human trafficking, which treats lives as commodities to be traded rather than as souls to be cherished.  Christians should be fighting against racism, which trades the beauty of a shared humanity for the dreadfulness of discriminatory distinctions.  Christians should be concerned with genocide in places like Aleppo, as Syria’s army continues to launch indiscriminate military strikes against its own citizens with horrifying results.  To celebrate life means to celebrate all of life – from the moment of conception to the moment of death and everything in between.   

So let’s stand for and celebrate life.  After all, after this life comes everlasting life through faith in Christ.  Life will win out in the end.  So we might as well surrender to and celebrate life now.

______________________________

[1] Fenit Nirappil, “Right-to-die law faces skepticism in nation’s capital: ‘It’s really aimed at old black people,’” The Washington Post (10.17.2016).

October 24, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Election Day Fear

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Credit: CNN

Last week, I was driving back to my office after teaching a Bible study at a local business.  I happened to be listening to a radio talk show when a lady called who took my breath away.  She was nearly in tears.  She had just seen a movie forecasting what would happen if a particular candidate was elected President of the United States.  She told the talk show host:

I am scared to death.  I don’t sleep. I’m an absolute basket case. I want what’s good for my children, my grandchildren, my family.  It’s all going down the tubes because, after watching that movie last night, all I saw was what’s coming down, what’s next, what they have planned.

Wow.  What palpable fear.  What genuine terror.  What a heartbreaking phone call.  Fear can wreak a lot of havoc in a person’s heart and life.

I know this caller is not the only one frightened right now.  It seems as though every time a presidential election comes around, people’s fear becomes more and more acute.  So here’s a gentle reminder:  fear is not helpful.  There is a reason why the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a reason Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).  Fear is like an infection.  Left unchecked, it can destroy people spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.  So if you’re tempted toward fear, especially as it pertains to this upcoming election, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Fear tends toward hyperbole.

Every four years, I hear the same refrain from candidates and political pundits alike: “This is the most important election of our lifetimes.”  Of course it is.  That is, until the next election comes along.  This claim, of course, is usually accompanied with dire predictions of what will happen if the wrong candidates get into political office.  Of course factually, this claim cannot stand up under scrutiny because logically, this claim cannot be true more than once in a generation.  And yet, it is assumed as true every four years.  How can we believe a claim that is so logically ludicrous?  Because we are afraid.  And fear tends to look toward a certain point in time, such as an election, and wonder with worry:  Is this the moment that will serve as the linchpin for the rest of history?  Is this the moment when everything changes?

Christians have a confident answer to these questions.  And our answer is “no.”  We know that history’s linchpin moment has already come with Christ.  No moment or election can even come close to comparing with Him.  Indeed, I find it interesting that the primary way we know about political figures from the first century such as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and even Caesar Augustus is through Scripture.  But all of these men serve as paltry footnotes to the story of Jesus.  It turns out they weren’t as important as everyone thought they were back then.  Perhaps our leaders won’t be as important as we think they are right now.  So why are we afraid?

Fear fosters self-righteousness.

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote:

Political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners.  It ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable concomitant of all human conflict.[1]

Niebuhr notes that, in politics, no party is completely right because no person is completely righteous.  So we ought to be humbly honest about our sins rather arrogantly defensive in a smug self-righteousness.  The problem with fear is that it tempts us to overlook the sins of ourselves and our party while gleefully pointing out the sins of the other party. Or worse, fear will justify the sins of our party by pointing to the purportedly worse sins of the other party.  In this way, fear surrenders moral credibility because it puts itself through all sorts of intellectual and ethical contortions to make that which is self-evidentially wrong look right.  This, by definition, is self-righteousness – something that Jesus unequivocally condemns.  If Jesus condemns it, we should stay away from it.  So do not let fear lead you into it. 

Fear clouds decision-making.

Psychologists have long noted that fear is a great motivator.  But fear has a funny way of impairing judgment.  Just ask any deer who has been paralyzed by the two big lights that are barrelling toward him at a rapid rate of speed.  Fear may promise to lead to rescue and safety, but, in the end, it leads to death.  So why would we settle for election cycles that are continuously driven by fear?

Decisions made out of fear tend to be Consequentialist in nature.  Consequentialism is a theory of ethics that says an act is good if it brings the least harm to the most people.  The problem with Consequentialism, however, is twofold.  First, because no one can fully predict the future, decisions based on future predictions, including the future predictions fueled by fear, usually have unintended – and often undesirable – consequences.  Second, Consequentialism tends to degenerate into deep sinfulness as people become willing to excuse increasingly terrible acts to achieve some desired result.  Consequentialism, then, may go after one good thing, but, in the process, it surrenders to and sanctions a bunch of bad things.

Decisions are much better made on principle rather than out of fear.  Decisions made on principle allow the one making them to look at all facets of a decision rather than just an end result.  They also place a high value on integrity rather than wantonly sacrificing that which is right for that which is expedient.  Decisions made on principle are, ultimately, better decisions.

I know that eschewing fearfulness is much easier said than done.  But fear must be fought – especially as it pertains to this upcoming election.  Fear about this election and about the future solves nothing.  It only manages to make the present miserable.  So take heart and remember:

The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?  (Psalm 118:6)

Mortals cannot do nearly as much as we sometimes think they can, even if one of them becomes President of the United States.  Things really will be okay, even if sinfulness does its worst.

Do not be afraid.

______________________

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr:  Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed. (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1991), 248.

October 17, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Comfort in Stormy Times: Reflections on Hurricane Matthew

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The people of Florida are picking up the pieces.  Along with the people of Georgia.  And the people of the Carolinas.  And the people of Cuba.  And the people of Haiti.  As Hurricane Matthew churned its way through the Caribbean and up the east coast, it left a path of destruction in its wake.  In Florida, mandatory evacuations were issued before the storm.  Grocery store shelves were stripped bare.  Gas stations were pumped dry.

It could have been worse.  They eye of Hurricane Matthew skirted much of the eastern seaboard, sparing these regions from what could have been even greater damage.  But even if things were not as bad as they could have been, this storm was still a whopper.  For a brief time, Hurricane Matthew reached Category 5 status, making it the first storm to reach a hurricane’s most powerful potential since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

Whenever a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, it presents a unique set of struggles and questions.  When we suffer a man-made disaster in a shooting or in an accident or even in a terrorist attack, we can point to the source of the calamity and explain that the person who created the catastrophe is unstable or incompetent or even evil.  When a hurricane strikes however, there is no one from whom we can demand a mea culpa, save nature and nature’s God.  And such a mea culpa is tough to come by.

So how are we to process this disaster?  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

We cannot control everything.

In an election year such as this one, it is easy to live under the illusion that we wield a great amount of power and authority.  We do, after all, have a say – even if it is a small one – in who the leader of the free world should be.  But for every bit of control we think we have, there are so many things that simply fall outside our hands.  Hurricanes are one of these things.  We can forecast them, but we cannot steer them.  They strike where they may.  They strike with the energy that water temperatures give to them.  The smallness of our power when compared to the scope of something like the weather should lead us to marvel at the bigness of God’s creation.  There is still so much we cannot tame.

We can help others.

Though we do not have power over all things, this does not mean that we can help in some things – like in hurricane relief.   My congregation, Concordia Lutheran in San Antonio, has set up a relief fund to help those in Haiti.  We are exploring opportunities to help those in other areas as well.  You can donate by clicking here.  Part of our calling as Christians is to be a neighbor to those in need.  Being neighborly need not be constrained by proximity, nationality, economy, or any other earthly barrier.  To help others is to love Christ!  Rolling up our sleeves by opening up our pocketbooks is a great way to get involved.

There is someone who is in control.

In a world that seems shaky, it is important that we remind ourselves that just because we are not in control does not mean that everything is out of control.  Christian theologians will often describe God as omnipotent, a word that means “all power.”  In other words, God has all control.  When a storm like Matthew strikes, it serves us well to consider the many instances in Scripture that remind us that God, quite literally, guides the weather.  In the case of His disciples, Jesus saves them from a storm on the Sea of Galilee by calming it with just a word.  In the case of Jonah, God saves him with a storm that forces some sailors he is with to toss him overboard so God can send a giant fish to take the prophet where he needs to be.  In the words of the Psalmist, God can also save people through storms as they seek refuge in Him:  “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2).  God, then, does not use storms in the same way in every instance.  Sometimes, He saves us from storms as weather patterns change.  Other times, he saves us with storms as these trials turn us toward Him.  Still other times, He gives us strength to make it through storms, even if they hit us straight on.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that no matter what storms – whether they be literal or figurative – this world may bring, we have assurance in them because of Christ.  When Christ was on the cross, the Gospel writers tell us that “darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  In other words, it stormed.  But what looked like a storm of death became a storm that gave way to life three days later.   Jesus overcame the storm of the cross so that we would never be lost to the storms caused by sin.  For even if a storm takes lives, as did Hurricane Matthew, we can be assured that those who die in Christ go to a place where there is “a sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Revelation 4:6).  In other words, in heaven, the weather is a flat calm.  There, every storm has been conquered by Christ.

With the extent of the damage from Hurricane Matthew just now becoming clear, there is still a lot – economically, emotionally, and theologically – to sort through.  But this much is clear:  God does not abandon us in storms like these.  He is there.  And He cares.

October 10, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Politics, Power, and Sacrifice

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Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to watch last Monday’s presidential debate.  But my curiosity got the best of me, so I turned on the TV.  I have seen many on social media bemoan the state of our politics in this presidential election and, I suppose, I would sympathize with their chorus.  The tone of this election is grating.  The discussion about this election often borders on and even ventures into the banal.  And the goal of this election appears to be little more than an undisguised race for power.  People across all points on our political spectrum are desperate to see their person in power so their interests can be furthered while others’ interests are overlooked, or, in some instances, even crushed.

Power is a funny thing, in part because it is such a dangerous thing.  In the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Power ought to come with a warning label: “Handle with care.”

Power, of course, isn’t always bad.  God has plenty of power – indeed, He ultimately has all power – and is quite adept at using it.  But it is also important to point out that God’s power always comes with a purpose.  He uses His power in order to sustain the world.  He uses His power in order to constrain evil.  He uses His power in order to rescue us from hell.  Power, for God, is a means to some very good ends.

The concern I have with so many in our political system is that power has become the means and the end.  Politicians want power because, well, they want power!  And this means that when they get power, they often use it in a most detrimental way – not to help others, but to help themselves.

Yoni Appelbaum discusses this reality in an article for The Atlantic titled, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate.”  The way he describes America’s situation is jarring:

Civil religion died on Monday night.

For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.[1]

He goes on to describe how traditionally Christian-esque values were not only not extolled in the first of our presidential debates, they were proudly repudiated.  Virtues, Appelbaum says, were reframed as vices.  Altruism was painted as a sucker’s game and sacrifice was left for those who are losers.  “The Clinton-Trump debate,” he concludes, “was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions – all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose.”  Yikes.  I hope he’s wrong.  But I couldn’t help but notice that not one transcendent concern made an appearance during the debate.  We, as a nation, have become so obsessed with the exercise of power in the material realm that we pay little regard to the transcendent One who gives power as a gift to be stewarded rather than as a weapon to be wielded.

When the high priest of political pragmatism sirens us into trading cherished values like altruism and sacrifice for the formidable forces of power and control, something has gone terribly wrong.  Such a trade fundamentally undermines the very purpose of power – at least in any Christian or morally traditional sense – in the first place.  Power is to be used for the sake of altruism, not to dispense with it.  Power is to be used in concert with sacrifice, not to insulate oneself from sacrifice.  Any of the men and women in our nation’s Armed Forces can tell you that. Jesus certainly expressed His power in sacrifice.  The cross was a place of no power and great power all at the same time.  On the cross, Jesus gave up all power, even power over His very life, as “He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).  But through the cross, Jesus exercised great power, conquering sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus’ power, to borrow a concept from the apostle Paul, came through weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

Political power might not involve dying on a cross, but it sure would be nice if it involved taking one up.  It sure would be nice if politicians used their power to do the right thing, even if it involved some measure of sacrifice.  It sure would be nice if politicians fashioned themselves more as public servants and less as demiurge saviors.  It sure would be nice if voters stopped cynically leveraging the power-obsessed sins of an opposing candidate to minimize and rationalize the power-obsessed sins of their own candidate.  A willingness to see sin as sin, even if it’s sin in the politician you happen to be voting for, is a first step to an honest and healthy analysis of our problems politically.

I understand that politicians are not always Christian, and I understand that non-Christians can be competent politicians.  I am also not so naïve as to think that every politician will see his or her elected office as a cross to bear rather than as a career to manage, even if they should.  I furthermore understand that the civil religion of which Appelbaum speaks in his article is not coterminous with – and in many ways is not compatible with – Christianity.  But the virtues of Christianity it promotes – charity, selflessness, and humility, among others – are good for our world even as they are good in the Church.  We need them.  We need them because, to quote another proverb from Lord Acton, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”  The curbing of despotic power may not be the ultimate reason to foster and preserve Christian virtue in our political system, but it sure is a good reason.

We the people should expect of our politicians – and of ourselves – something more than a blunt exercise of power, even if that power happens to promote our interests.  We the people should expect real virtue, both in the people we elect as well as in ourselves.  Do we?  If we don’t, there’s no better time than the present to change our expectations.  Remember, the people we elect to public office are not just products of a corrupt political system, they are reflections of the values we celebrate and the vices we tolerate.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a good, long look in the mirror.

__________________________

[1] Yoni Appelbaum, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate,” The Atlantic (9.27.2016).

October 3, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments


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