Archive for March, 2018

The Austin Bombings Come To An End

The city of Austin is breathing a sigh of relief.  After a total of five explosions spread over 19 days, the man responsible for planting nail-filled bombs wrapped in innocent looking parcels on porches and sidewalks all over the city blew himself up as police officers were closing in to apprehend him near a northside Austin hotel in the early morning hours of last Wednesday.

The bomber turned out to be 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt from Pflugerville – a northeastern suburb of Austin.  According to his grandmother, he came from a tight-knit family, was homeschooled, and later attended Austin Community College, but did not graduate.

His family is shocked by his crimes and released a statement that reads, in part:

We are devastated and broken at the news that our family could be involved in such an awful way. We had no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in … Right now our prayers are for those families that have lost loved ones, for those impacted in any way, and for the soul of our Mark. We are grieving and we are in shock.

There is no other word to describe Mark Conditt’s actions but “evil.”  Human depravity was on full display in this man’s attacks.  Thus, as our nation grapples with this sickening spate of bombings, it is worth it for us to reflect on the dangers of and collateral from human sin.  Here, then, are three thoughts on sin and its consequences.

Sin defies logic.

Following the Las Vegas shooting, when the motive of the gunman began to elude – and, to this day, still eludes – investigators, I wrote:

The questions of “why” will always be, in some sense, unanswerable – even if a motive is discovered and a record of the assailant’s thinking is uncovered … Sin never leads people to act sanely.

What was true then is still true now.  Even as law enforcement officials continue to try to untangle this bomber’s motives, it remains unfathomable how any grievance, any grudge, or any goal could drive anyone to commit these kinds of monstrous, and seemingly random, crimes.  And yet, what feels utterly inscrutable has a strange way of becoming tragically possible when the darkness of human depravity collides with the astounding faculties of our God-given rationality.  Sin corrupts and darkens minds.  It makes the unthinkable, reasonable and the ghastly, justifiable.  Mark Conditt’s actions are a consummate case-in-point.

Sin desires death.

The apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  We can be tempted to excuse the apostle’s words here as a bit of hyperbole until we are confronted with a case like this.  The bomber’s sin took the lives of two innocent people and, ultimately, his sin cost him his own life.  Sin has a cunning way of leading us down a corridor to catastrophe before we even realize what is happening.  The alcoholic who poisons his liver, the reckless driver who is killed in an accident, and the despot who commits genocide against his own people are only a few examples of just how slippery the slope can be from sin to death.  And it’s awfully tough to stop ourselves halfway down the slope.  This is why it’s best not even to start down it.  The Psalmist says of God’s righteousness: “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains” (Psalm 36:6).  Let’s stay on the summit and off of the slopes.

Sin doesn’t succeed. 

This bomber saw five of his devilish devices detonated.  He did not succeed, however, in taking five lives.  This bomber thought he could perpetually terrorize a city.  His plans were frustrated, however, by law enforcement officials who deserve our gratitude.  This bomber’s sin got cut off and cut short again and again.  He did not succeed – at least not as much as he wanted to.

Sadly, the fact remains that two lives are still lost because of Mark Conditt. There is a 39-year-old father, Anthony Stephan House, who won’t be coming home to his 8-year-old daughter because of this bomber.  There is a 17-year-old aspiring musician, Draylen Mason, who will never get to experience college life at the University of Texas because of this bomber.

Even in these tragic cases, however, sin’s victory is tenuously temporary.  The Christian Church will celebrate this Sunday that Christ has conquered death.  And because Christ is risen, we too will rise.  To quote, once again, the apostle Paul: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  Nails on a cross could not hold Christ down.  And by faith in Him, nails from a bomb cannot take victims out.

This week, we can take comfort in these words:  Christ is risen.

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March 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Down Syndrome, Life, and Death

Baby Feet

When Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she declares, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:1).  With these words, Eve acknowledges a fundamental reality about conception, birth, and life in general:  without God, the creation and sustentation of life is impossible. Each life is a miracle of God and a gift from God.

Sadly, this reality has become lost on far too many.  Life is no longer hailed as something God gives, but is instead touted as something we can create and, even more disturbingly, control.  The latest example of this kind of thinking comes in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Ruth Marcus, the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, titled, “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.”  Ms. Marcus explains:

I have had two children; I was old enough, when I became pregnant, that it made sense to do the testing for Down syndrome.  Back then, it was amniocentesis, performed after 15 weeks; now, chorionic villus sampling can provide a conclusive determination as early as nine weeks.  I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive.  I would have grieved the loss and moved on.

According to her opinion piece, Ms. Marcus’ concern over whether or not a woman should be able to abort a child with Down Syndrome comes, at least in part, because of HB205, a bill introduced by Utah State Representative Karianne Lisonbee, which would ban doctors in that state from performing abortions for the sole reason of a Down Syndrome diagnosis.  Ms. Marcus passionately defends her position, going even so far as to conclude:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion.  Nearsightedness? Being short?  There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate.  But in the end, the Constitution mandates – and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores – that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Ms. Marcus admits that choosing whether to keep or abort a baby based on certain physical traits or genetic anomalies has “creepy, eugenic aspects.”  But such moral maladies are not nearly unnerving enough for her to even consider the possibility that some sort guardrail may be good for the human will when it comes to abortion.  The ability to choose an abortion, in her view, is supreme and must remain unassailable.

Ms. Marcus flatly denies what Eve once declared: “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  She has exculpated herself from the moral responsibilities intrinsic in the front phrase of Eve’s sentence and has left herself with only, “I have brought forth a man.”  She has made herself the source and sustainer of any life that comes from her womb.  And as the source and sustainer of such life, she believes that she should have the ability to decide whether the life inside of her is indeed worthy of life, or is instead better served by death.

Part of what makes Eve’s statement so intriguing is that it seems to be pious and prideful at the same time.  On the one hand, Eve acknowledges that God is the giver of life.  Indeed, Martin Luther notes that Eve may have believed her son “would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent”[1] – that is, she may have believed her son would be the Messiah God had promised in Genesis 3:15 after the fall into sin.  On the other hand, what she names her son is telling.  She names him “Cain,” which is a play on the Hebrew word for the phrase, “I have brought forth.”  Eve names her son in a way the emphasizes her action instead of God’s gift.

Countless years and 60 million American abortions later, this emphasis has not changed.  Maybe it should.  As the fall into sin reminds us, human sovereignty is never far away from human depravity, which is why our demand to be able to choose death never works as well as God’s sovereignty over life.

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[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 242.

March 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

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[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

Sharia Law and Biblical Grace

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This is the apostle Paul’s sobering summary of the human condition.  And he’s right.  Not only is there is not a person alive who lives up to God’s standards of righteousness, there is also not a person alive who lives up to the standards of righteousness he sets for himself, as any person who has ever attempted – and failed at – a New Year’s resolution can tell you.  Sin is universal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, two Christians were publicly whipped, according to the dictates of Sharia law, “for playing a game at a children’s entertainment complex in a way authorities say amounted to gambling.”  Aceh’s population is 98 percent Muslim, and people can face floggings for acts including “drinking alcohol, adultery, gay sex, gambling or having romantic relationships before marriage.”  Indeed, the province’s courts are imposing hundreds of whippings a year for acts like these.  Last January, a Christian was sentenced to 36 lashes for selling alcohol.

I do not believe that drinking or selling alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful, though I do believe that drunkenness is.  Likewise, I don’t believe that a good-natured raffle for a few laughs is inherently wicked, though I am also well aware and wary of the dangerous greed that gambling can stoke and how the gambling industry, especially in the form of state lotteries, cynically preys on the economically disadvantaged.  I do believe in a traditional sexual ethic. So, I would say, as do the courts in Aceh, that any sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage strays from what is appropriate.  In short, though I would qualify certain things, I find myself in broad agreement with Aceh’s moral concerns.  But I also find myself fundamentally at odds with Aceh’s response to these concerns.

The radicalized form of Islamic law that Aceh’s theocratically-minded courts seem to be bent on propagating addresses sin through judgment.  Each sin, in these courts’ minds, deserves a flogging.  Christianity, however, addresses sin in a whole different way.  Christianity acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of human sinfulness – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but addresses such sinfulness not with judgment, but by grace: “All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

In John 8, Jesus is famously confronted by some religious leaders who bring to Him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery.  In a breathtaking display of theocratic virtue signaling, they crow: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do You say” (John 8:5)? In their recounting of Mosaic law, the religious leaders conveniently overlook the fact that it was both the adulteress and the adulterer who were to be punished by death, as, in this case, they bring to Jesus only the adulteress. They also needlessly restrict the method of execution to that of stoning, even though Moses makes no such specification.  Nevertheless, they are broadly correct that adultery was, according to Mosaic law, punishable by death.  Jesus, however, instead of debating the finer points of where the adulterer is and what method of execution should be used, simply responds:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7, 9-11)

Here, Jesus brilliantly puts His finger on the problem with responding to sin with judgment instead of with grace.  If one responds to sin with only judgment, there will finally be no one left to mete out any judgment, because no one is without sin.  Everyone will have been stoned.  Only grace can address sin in a way that leaves anyone standing.

Christianity certainly understands and accepts the role governing authorities play to discourage wickedness by means of penalties.  But Christianity also knows that people need more than a penalty in the face of sin.  They need a Savior who does not condemn them, but forgives them.  And this is what a theocracy like Aceh’s, which plays the roles of both political and religious authorities, cannot provide.

Interestingly, the Bible does accept lashings as appropriate remuneration for sin.  But the lashes do not fall on us. They fall on God’s Son:

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

The courts of Aceh, it turns out, are lashing out far too late for it to do any good.  The lashing that was really needed already happened 2,000 years ago.

It’s time to put the whips down.

March 5, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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