Archive for March, 2017

Safety in a World Full of Terror

Police tapes off Parliament Square after reports of loud bangs, in London

Credit: Time Magazine

First came a ban on most electronic devices – including laptops and tablets – on flights into the United States and United Kingdom from certain Muslim-majority countries.  Then, last Wednesday, terror struck London as Khalid Masood, a British-born citizen apparently inspired by online terrorist propaganda, drove an SUV into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge, leaving four dead and forty injured.  After crashing his vehicle outside Parliament, he ran, fatally stabbing a police officer before he himself was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Certainly, weeks like these remind us of the fearful reality of the world in which we live.  With the continuous news of terror attacks and warnings, it is no surprise that when Chapman University surveyed Americans concerning their fears, 41% said they were afraid of terror attacks while another 38.5% admitted they were worried about being the victim of a terror attack.

It can be frustrating that, despite our best efforts, we cannot seem to make this world as safe as we might like it to be.  In a day and age that seems and feels scary, here are a few reminders for Christians about safety.

Safety is important. 

Mosaic law set up what were known as “cities of refuge” for ancient Israelites who stood accused of manslaughter.  The goal of these cities was “safety” for these accidental killers (Deuteronomy 19:4), because, if a man killed another man – even if unintentionally – the victim’s relatives might seek the killer’s life in revenge without due process.  Keeping people safe from those who would seek to unjustly harm them, then, was a priority in Israel.  It should be the same with us.

Whether it be the security of our homeland, or the plight of refugees halfway across the world, tending to the safety of others is part and parcel of having compassion on others.  Thus, we can be thankful for the intelligence agencies who seek to keep our nation safe along with the relief agencies who tend to the safety and even the basic survival needs of endangered peoples throughout our world.

We should pray for safety.

The biblical authors have no qualms with praying for their safety and for the safety of others.  The apostle Paul, for instance, knowing that he might encounter some opposition to his ministry in Judea, writes to the Romans, asking them to “pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31).

Martin Luther, in his morning prayer, thanked God that He had kept him “this night from all harm and danger” and, in his evening prayer, thanked God that He had “graciously kept [him] this day.”  In the same vein, an alternate version of the famous children’s bedtime prayer reads:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.

Prayers for safety abound.  Praying for our safety, the safety of our families, the safety of our nation, and safety across the world is, at its root, a holy and righteous prayer for peace.  It ought to be a regular part of any Christian’s prayer life.

Safety cannot be our only concern.

As blessed a gift as safety may be, it cannot be our only concern.  Sometimes, we are called to surrender our own safety for the sake of the gospel.  This is why Paul and Barnabas, in a letter to the Christian church at Antioch, honor those “who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  This is why each of the Twelve disciples, save one, was martyred for what he believed.  A concern for safety that refuses to take a risk for the sake of the gospel does not treat safety as a gift from God to be celebrated, but as an idol that needs to be repented of.  The concern for our own safety must never become greater than our commitment to Christ.

Perfect safety is found only in Christ.

As each terror attack reminds us, we cannot ultimately ensure our own safety.  Only God can.  The Psalmist wisely prays, “You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).   Paul similarly declares, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).  The Greek word for “safely” in this verse is sozo, the word for “salvation.”  As concerned as we might be with safety in this life, Christ is finally concerned with bringing us safely into the eternal life of salvation.  Thus, we should never become so concerned with temporary safety now that we forget about the perfect safety of salvation, won for us in Christ and given to us by the grace of Christ.  In the words of John Newton’s great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
 

The safety our eternal home is the safety we finally seek, for it is the only safety that can never be shattered.

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March 27, 2017 at 6:18 am Leave a comment

God and Country in Order

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.44.48 PM

In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

_______________________

[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

Power, Knowledge, and the C.I.A.

President George W Bush visits CIA Headquarters, March 20, 2001.

Credit: BBC

When news broke this past Tuesday that WikiLeaks had released thousands of pages of C.I.A. intelligence documents, government officials scurried anxiously to analyze what kind of danger these leaks would present. The New York Times outlined the contents of the leaked documents, which revealed that the CIA had developed extraordinarily advanced methods of spying on even state-of-the-art encrypted electronic communication:

Sophisticated software tools and techniques used by the agency [can] break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions…

In one revelation that may especially trouble the tech world if confirmed, WikiLeaks said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services have managed to compromise both Apple and Android smartphones, allowing their officers to bypass the encryption on popular services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate smartphones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

The New York Times also noted that the C.I.A. had tools at its disposal to spy on “Skype; Wi-Fi networks; documents in PDF format; and even commercial antivirus programs of the kind used by millions of people to protect their computers.”  In other words, if a person is connected in some way to the Internet, the C.I.A. can see.

Of course, the C.I.A. maintains that it uses such tools not to spy on Americans, but to gather much needed information about communications between suspected terrorists.  C.I.A. spokesman Ryan Tripani explains that the intelligence agency:

…is legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans, and C.I.A. does not do so…C.I.A.’s job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad.

The ethics of intelligence gathering have always been complex.  On the one hand, the benefits of discovering terrorist plots before they are launched cannot be overstated.  Saving lives is always preferable to responding to carnage.  On the other hand, when imperfect people – even when they are in government and are constricted by the regulations of government – get a hold of great power, the possibility always exists for corruption.  These leaks have brought this tension, once again, to the forefront of our public conversation.

For all the power C.I.A. officials have to hack into people’s communications and for all the information they are able to garner from these communications, the C.I.A. is still limited in its power and in its knowledge.  It cannot do everything or know everything.  This is why Christians can be thankful that we serve a God who has not only great power, but all power.  He is omnipotent.  And He has not only much knowledge, but all knowledge.  He is omniscient.  But frankly, all this would be cold comfort if God was as we are.  If He was imperfect, the specter of what He could – and probably would – do with His total power and knowledge would only terrify us.  Thankfully, God has not only all power and all knowledge, but all goodness as well.  He is omnibenevolent.  Thus, His power and knowledge do not come with the same concerns the C.I.A.’s do, for His power and knowledge will never be misused or abused.

The moral ineptitude that would lead WikiLeaks to fecklessly release documents that would compromise our national security should be forcefully denounced.  We did not need these illegally obtained documents to know that there are ethical concerns and quandaries when it comes to intelligence gathering.  But at the same time these ethical concerns and quandaries endure, we can be thankful that we have a God who uses both His power and knowledge perfectly.  His wise knowledge is unmatched by any nation’s intelligence.  And His protective power is better than any nation’s security.  So why we might be thankful for the generally good work of the C.I.A., we can wholly trust in a God who knows exactly what He’s doing – for us and for our world.

March 13, 2017 at 4:29 am 1 comment

An Honest Hypocrite Is Still a Hypocrite

Last January, four researchers from Yale University published a paper titled, “Why Do We Hate Hypocrites? Evidence for a Theory of False Signaling.”  In it, the researchers note that hypocrisy occupies a special spot of scorn in our society:

Consider the hypocrite – someone who condemns the moral failings of other people but behaves badly him- or herself.  Many commentators have remarked on the “peculiarly repulsive” nature of hypocrisy … What makes hypocrites especially bad is that they both commit a transgression and condemn it. But why is this combination so objectionable?

This final line is the question the researchers attempt to answer in their paper.  They theorize that hypocrites are uniquely despised because:

They dishonestly signal their moral goodness – that is, their condemnation of immoral behavior signals that they are morally upright, but they fail to act in accordance with these signals.

At issue here is what is popularly referred to as “virtue signaling.”  Though this phrase can be defined in different ways, some of which see virtue signaling as inherently and irreducibly hypocritical, the phrase, at least at its most basic level, denotes the public condemnation of a particular practice or position, which is something that most, if not all, people do – at least from time to time.  So, for instance, on this blog, I have publicly written about the dangers of racism.  People would assume, since I have written against racism, that I would expend at least some effort to root out racism in my own life.  If it turned out, however, that I harbored a disdain for a particular race, or if I wantonly turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to the plight of a particular race, people would rightly call me a hypocrite because even though I am publicly promoting one standard of behavior, I am privately living out another.

The Yale researchers continue by explaining that hypocrisy is more dangerous and misleading than what they refer to as “direct lying,” because direct liars do not engage in the moral condemnation of a practice of position.  They simply lie about what they have done, usually to avoid getting into some sort of trouble.  Hypocrites, on the other hand, go out of their way, often without prompting, to condemn the things they secretly do to make themselves look better than they really are.

The researchers found that, broadly speaking, much of our revulsion toward hypocrisy is excised when people are honestly hypocritical – that is, when they “voluntarily [disclose] their transgressions, which offsets the negative evaluation of their hypocrisy.”  Just saying you’re a hypocrite, apparently, is enough to make many people comfortable with your hypocrisy.

Certainly, hypocrisy is roundly condemned in the Scriptures generally and by Jesus specifically.  In Matthew 23, for instance, Jesus offers a series of seven woes.  To whom are His woes directed?  They are directed to hypocrites!  Christians and non-Christians alike agree that hypocrisy is bad.  What is most interesting about this study is not its assertion that hypocrisy is bad, but its revelation about how hypocrisy is addressed and rectified in our society.  Culturally, these researchers note that much of the sting of hypocrisy is salved if one is merely an honest hypocrite.  If a person simply says he doesn’t practice what he preaches, our society turns a sympathetic ear.  The difficulty with this approach, however, is that an honest hypocrite is still a hypocrite.  Hypocrisy needs more than an admission.  It needs a solution.

Christianity says that the admission of a sin like hypocrisy is only the first step in dealing with that sin.  In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains that to address sin, one must not only admit, or confess, his sins, he must receive forgiveness from them.  In other words, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as an actual sin that needs to be forgiven rather than as a mere embarrassment that only needs to be acknowledged.  In short, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as something that is actually bad.  This is why the bridge between confession and forgiveness is repentance, for repentance sees sins not just as embarrassments to be enumerated, but as spiritual dangers to be grieved.

Admitting sin does not solve sin.  Only Jesus’ forgiveness does that.  Our hypocrisy, then, needs more than a confession.  Confession only reveals who we are.  Jesus, however, changes who we are, which means that Jesus can change us hypocrites.

And really, who wants to be a hypocrite?

 

March 6, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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