Archive for February, 2019

The Case of Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett

Credit: Wikipedia

An affirmation of the inherent dignity of humanity is a bedrock in any functioning society.  This is why our nation’s founders unapologetically argued, “All men are created equal.”  This is why Scripture – from front to back, from creation to restoration – celebrates and upholds the value of every life.  People are created, Scripture says, “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) and are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  The dignity of humanity is part of the reasoning behind Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).  Just as we expect to be treated with respect and esteem by virtue of our humanity, we ought to treat others likewise.

Sadly, the same human dignity the Bible upholds has been the dignity we, as humans, have violated.  Racism in the forms of sketchy shootings and startling yearbook photos has violated human dignity.  So has homophobia in the forms of bullying and lynching.  We have plenty of work to do when it comes to loving each other better.

There is a difference, however, between uncovering evidence of racist and homophobic problems and creating evidence of these problems.  This is what Jussie Smollett, an actor in the hit show “Empire,” is accused of doing.  Mr. Smollett initially claimed that, while walking home one night in Chicago, two men attacked him by wrapping a rope around his neck and pouring bleach on his face, all while shouting racist and homophobic slurs.  The story, on its face, was shocking and deeply disturbing.  No one should ever be attacked because of their race or sexual orientation.  But it didn’t take long for Mr. Smollett’s story to begin to unravel.  Prosecutors now say that Mr. Smollett staged the attack, paying these two men to jump him, and even sent himself a threatening letter laced with slurs beforehand, all in an attempt to boost his acting career and command a higher salary.  This, of course, presents us with a whole new set of problems.

In the twentieth century, there lived a self-styled archaeologist named Ron Wyatt.  Mr. Wyatt claimed to have found everything from the Ark or the Covenant to chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea, which he dated from the time of the Pharaoh during the Israelite exodus.  These would have been spectacular finds – if they were real.  But they weren’t.  To this day, people debate whether Mr. Wyatt was sincere and incompetent or a charlatan and malicious.  Either way, his fake archaeological finds, even if his intent was to bring attention to the truthfulness of Scripture, did not bolster Scripture’s credibility.  They only provided fodder for those who doubted Scripture’s accuracy.

What is true of fake archaeological finds that supposedly support the Bible is also true of staged racist and homophobic attacks.  A manufactured instance of racism and homophobia does not help the case for the reality of a broader racism and homophobia.

People often have very deep feelings, on all sides, on the current state of race relations and the treatment of those who identify as LBGTQ.  It is incumbent upon Christians to seek to understand people’s feelings and positions and to engage in sensitive, non-combative conversation, drenched in love, for the sake of mutual understanding and societal reconciliation.  But it is also okay, as a part of these conversations, to study and analyze facts around evils like racism and homophobia, as best as we can know them.  Facts are our friends.  And facts do not need our help.  Our job is not to create facts, as Mr. Smollett has done.  Our job is listen to them and learn from them.  For when we understand reality better, we can love each other deeper – both by empathizing with each other’s pain and by speaking to each other the truth, even when that truth is difficult, in the name of the One who is the truth (John 14:6).

Both our charity and our honesty are needed if we hope to move toward a better society.

February 25, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More Sexual Assault in Churches Comes to Light

Although I find my theological and confessional home in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have long been partial to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I admire its commitment to the primacy of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the need for evangelism.  This is why it disturbed me deeply when, last Sunday, the Houston Chronicle, in conjunction with the San Antonio Express-News, published a bombshell report chronicling decades of sexual abuse by hundreds of leaders inside the SBC.  The report opens with the heart-shuddering story of Debbie Vasquez:

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas.  It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

How did her church’s leadership respond when they learned she was pregnant by their pastor?

When Vasquez became pregnant, she said, leaders of her church forced her to stand in front of the congregation and ask for forgiveness without saying who had fathered the child.

She said church members were generally supportive but were never told the child was their pastor’s.  Church leadership shunned her, asked her to get an abortion and, when she said no, threatened her and her child, she said.  She moved abroad soon after. 

The reporters who worked on this story uncovered 700 victims of sexual abuse in SBC churches over a 20-year time period.  But, as the president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, noted in a blog post:  “700 is not the total number.”  He knows that for every case that has been uncovered, there is likely a case that remains under-cover.

Sexual abuse scandals in churches seem to be everywhere these days, and victims are left with lives that are shattered and, in some cases, lives that are ended.  The report goes on to tell of Heather Schneider, a 14-year old girl who:

…was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records.  Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest.  In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.

Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said.  She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.

“I never got her back,” Casados said.

This abuse is evil and it must stop.

The question, of course, is: How does it stop?  Here are three thoughts that, though by no means exhaustive, may provide a starting place to address and curb sexual abuse.

Care for victims.

A common denominator in so many of today’s sexual abuse stories is that victims, rather than being supported and cared for, are dismissed, or worse, blamed.  A congregation grappling with a sexual abuse scandal becomes so focused on protecting itself as an institution that it forgets about its people.

Jesus’ care for sexually broken situations can serve as our model when we are confronted with cases of sexual assault.  In John 8, a group of religious leaders drag a woman before Jesus who has been “caught in adultery” (John 8:3).  Even if her encounter with this man was consensual, as it seems to be, the fact that the religious leaders do not bring the man to stand trial with her speaks volumes.  In a patriarchal culture such as this one, men could engage in sexual exploits and conquests, often, without repercussion.  It was, in fact, a boys’ club.  This case is no exception.  The “boy” is nowhere to be found while the religious leaders are howling for this lady to be stoned.  Jesus, however, sees through the religious leaders’ hypocrisy and cares for this accused woman by protecting her and ultimately rescuing her from her would-be executioners (John 8:7-11).

If this is how Jesus addresses a situation where a woman seems to have had some willful role in a sexual encounter, how much more should we seek to protect and rescue those who have had no willful role, as in cases of sexual abuse?

Bring darkness to light.

Sexual abuse continues because it is allowed to remain under the cover of darkness – many times for decades on end.  Bringing it to light may be the single greatest strategy to stop sexual abuse before it starts.  It sends a clear and present warning to any abuser that they will be brought to justice.  President Greear’s invitation to victims to “get help” is supremely important.  His list of crisis hotlines is worth reposting here:

  • The National Hotline for Domestic Violence number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
  • The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-422-4453.
  • The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network number is 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Again, Jesus can serve as our model for what bringing dark hurt into the light looks like.  In Mark 5, when a woman who suffers from a form of hemophilia seeks to secretly steal a healing from Jesus by touching the edge of His cloak, Jesus will not let her remain in the shadows.  He wants to speak to her in her pain.  He wants her to come into the light.  So, He seeks her out and, after she reveals herself, He tenderly calls her, “Daughter” (Mark 5:34).  May the victims among us be met with the same tenderness as they bring their darkest secret hurts into the light of open truth.

Recommit ourselves to a biblical sexual ethic.

There is no way around it:  the hypocrisy between what we who attend church say about sexuality and what we live out in our own sexualities is sometimes stunning.  The Christian sexual ethic is good.  It exalts commitment.  It encourages tenderness.  It dignifies humanity.  Sadly, many in our churches have spent so much time criticizing what happens sexually “out there” in the world that we overlook the sexual assault happening “in here” among our congregations.  Let’s remove the redwood-sized sin from our own eyes before trying to help others with the sawdust-sized sin in theirs (Matthew 7:3-5).  Each one of us in the church should be asking ourselves:  How am I falling short sexually?  How am I tempted sexually?  How can I get help?

The apostle Paul says that Jesus treats His Church like His bride (Ephesians 5:25).  What does this mean?  It means He loves her.  It means He is faithful to her.  It means He honors her.  It means He exalts her.  It means He seeks her purity.  It means He is willing even to die for her.

To address and defeat sexual abuse, go and do likewise.

February 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Moral Lessons from Virginia

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for the political leadership in the state of Virginia.  The state’s lieutenant governor seems to be in the most peril after he was accused by two women of sexual assault.  His colleagues are now considering whether or not to impeach him.  The state’s attorney general is embroiled in a scandal of his own after he admitted to dressing up in blackface at a party in 1980.  But all the trouble began with the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.  His name first hit national news after he ran interference on a local radio show for Virginia House Bill 2491, introduced by Virginia delegate Kathy Tran, which, according to the delegate herself, might theoretically allow for a baby to be aborted while a woman was in the process of giving birth.  This sparked national outrage, with many arguing that the governor was defending nothing less than infanticide.  But more trouble was on the way for the governor.  Two Fridays ago, a website published a personal yearbook page of his from 1984, which featured one man in blackface alongside another man in Ku Klux Klan garb.  When the photo came to light, the governor first apologized for the photo and then denied he was in the photo.

Many progressives remain supportive of the governor’s position on abortion, but stand aghast at the picture in which he, ostensibly at least, appeared.   I have also read some conservatives who are outraged at his stance on abortion while remaining more agnostic about how offensive the explicitly racist photo on his yearbook page is.

The issue, morally, in both of these scandals surrounding Ralph Northam is, at root, the same:  a person, either because they are in the womb or because of the color of their skin, is not worthy of the same status and security as they otherwise would be.  A pregnancy can be terminated right up to the point of birth because the will of a person who is pregnant outweighs and outranks the life of the baby she is carrying.  A portrayal of black person that uses explicit symbols of hatred, lynching, and murder can be chalked up to an awkward joke at a college party.

We must be clear.  These things are wrong.  These things are inexcusable.  These things rob people of their dignity and have robbed people of their very lives.

I do not doubt that many people sincerely believe that abortion is a moral good because it is presented as empowering to women.  I also do not doubt that students in their twenties in the eighties may have not fully understood how what they perceived as a bit of tomfoolery was really a deeply entrenched cruelty.  This is why it is so important that we continue to describe and define the barbarous realities behind abortion and racism.  More people must know.  More people must understand.

Thankfully, there is a reflexive revulsion on the part of many to the idea of abortion in general and late-term abortion in specific as well as to the dismissive and diminishing attitudes involved in racism.  We should heed what our reflexes are trying to tell us.  In an article on the ethical entailments of human cloning, Leon R. Kass describes the importance of the human “gag reflex” in determining what is moral and what is not:

Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it … It revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous and rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Theologically, we would say that our gut-level moral disgust at certain things is triggered by the requirements of God’s law, which Scripture says are written on every human heart (Romans 2:14-15).  In this way, our guts can give us valuable insights into transcendent moral realities.  But, as Leon Kass so critically notes:

Repugnance need not stand naked before the bar of reason.

Moral feelings are often astute, but they can also sometimes mislead us.  We must check our moral feelings against the bar of moral reasoning.  We can study the development of a baby in utero and we can draw reasoned conclusions about the life of a child.  We can watch anyone of any race erupt in laughter, burst into tears, tremble in fear, or sacrifice for love, and we can draw reasoned conclusions about their humanity.

The hard question that stands before us, then, is this:  have we really so clouded our hearts and minds by political ravings and selfish cravings that we have become blinded to what ails us?  Are we overlooking what should be morally obvious?

Perhaps Ralph Northam’s blunders can remind us of what we should already know:  that life is precious – be it the life of a baby in the womb, or the life of a person of any race.  And perhaps, if we reflected on that moral reality for a while, we’d see more pictures of ultrasounds and fewer pictures in yearbooks.

That certainly sounds like a better world to me.


February 11, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Old, the New, and Andy Stanley

It’s not easy leading in a church.  And when a church has an average of almost 40,000 people a weekend in attendance, the challenges of leadership become utterly unique.  Yet, these are the challenges that Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia, is faced with on a day-to-day basis.  In this church are not only people who are firm in their faith, but people who are questioning faith or even people who have no faith at all – at least in Jesus.

Reaching people who are on the outskirts of faith is Andy Stanley’s passion and a big motivating factor behind why he wrote his latest book, Irresistible.  In it, he explains:

The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of the New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the nones underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now.  Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed.  These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. (17)

Stanley’s desire is to make Christianity defensible and, as the title of his book declares, even irresistible to a modern’s ears.  It is a noble desire and one which he and I share.  Indeed, I have learned a lot from Stanley and have a great deal of respect for him and for all he has given the church-at-large.  I do, however, have some concerns with – and have received some questions about – his book.  His central claim, in his own words, is that:

…our current versions of the Christian faith need to be stripped of a variety of old covenant leftovers … We are dragging along a litany of old covenant concepts and assumptions that slow us down, divide us up, and confuse those standing on the outside peering in. (92)

In other words, out with the Old (Testament), and in with the New (Testament).

Stanley does not lack boldness in his proposal.  He claims:

The church fathers…immediately went to work harmonizing the old covenant with the new to make it play nice with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  The reinterpreted, allegorized, and rebranded them to make them line up with developing Christian thought and theology. (155)

The church fathers are certainly not infallible.  Some of their interpretative moves are questionable.  But to dismiss their collective wisdom on how the Old and New Testaments work together in favor of some long-lost insight you have just recently discovered strikes me as awfully dangerous.  Stanley goes on:

The church fathers’ primary interest in the Jewish Scriptures was neither historical nor cultural.  Their primary interest was Christological.  They were convinced the Jews did not recognize and thus accept Jesus as Messiah because they didn’t know how to interpret their own prophets.  No surprise, the church fathers had little interest in the interpretation of Jewish Scriptures.  So they went looking for Jesus.

And they found Him.

Everywhere.  (155)

This is true.  The church fathers did have a habit of finding Jesus under every rock.  Kind of like the apostle Paul:

The Israelites all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Wait.  What?  Christ was with the Israelites in the desert as they wandered on their way to the Promised Land?  If you believe Paul, He was.  The church fathers were simply doing what Paul had already done.

It is also true that the church fathers thought the Jews did not know how to interpret their own Scriptures.  Kind of like Jesus:  “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).  Maybe the church fathers were on to something.

Stanley makes other questionable claims about why we should unhitch our faith from the old covenant.  For instance, he argues that the Old Testament has no real concept of life after death:

If you asked an ancient Jew how one could know for sure they were going to heaven, they may have responded by asking you what made you think anybody went to heaven.  Most ancient Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Why?  Their Scriptures didn’t assume one.  In the Old Testament, when people died, it was assumed they went to Sheol.  But Sheol wasn’t an actual place.  It was the term used to describe the realm of the dead. (165)

It seems as though Stanley may have conflated “going to heaven when you die” with any kind of an afterlife.  Just because ancient Jews didn’t necessarily believe in “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Many of them – indeed, most of them – believed in a resurrection from death after death, à la the prophet Daniel:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Daniel 12:2)

In fact, the resurrection was a major bone of contention between two religious groups in Jesus’ day:  the Pharisees, who did believe in a resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not (cf. Acts 23:8).  So, I’m not sure how my promise of a resurrection from Jesus is better than the promise of a resurrection in Daniel.  They’re the same promise.  Probably because they were made by the same God.

Stanley spends a great deal of time arguing that Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and others argued that it was time for the old covenant to go.  But is this really what they argued?

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  (Matthew 5:17-18)

Stanley comments:

What did He mean by everything?  And what happens to the law after “everything is accomplished”?  The implication is that the law might “disappear” once everything is accomplished.  And clearly Jesus was planning to be involved in the accomplishing. (108)

This is true.  But notice the timer that Jesus sets for His final accomplishment.  Everything will be accomplished when “heaven and earth disappear,” that is, on the Last Day.  When Jesus returns, we will no longer need the law’s guidelines against sin because we will be perfected from sin.  But until that time, the law still matters.  This is why Jesus continues:

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:19)

Jesus then works through selected passages from the Old Testament and not only upholds them, but strengthens them.  He not only teaches against murder, He gets at the root of murder:  anger (Matthew 5:21-22).  He not only teaches against adultery, He attacks the foundation of adultery:  lust (Matthew 5:27-28).  He not only upholds the principle of not escalating violence, taking only “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” He encourages the de-escalation of violence, calling His disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39).

It is true that just because the Old Testament says it doesn’t mean we do it.  For example, I – and, I would guess, you – are not slaughtering and sacrificing animals in our backyards.  But this is not because the sacrificial system didn’t or doesn’t matter.  It mattered and matters supremely because of what it points to:  “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Stanley is correct that, over the years, Christians have misinterpreted and misapplied many passages from the Old Testament.  In an interview with Outreach Magazine, he rattles off a catalogue of popular misuses of Old Testament passages and principles:

Some fundamentalist preachers rail about God’s judgment against America, preaching from the Hebrew prophets. Others view tsunamis as God’s punishment of Muslims, quoting texts about His judgment of “the nations.” Teenagers graduating high school end up thinking Jeremiah 29:11’s “plans to prosper you” is a promise from God straight to them, never mind the context. They’re just being quietly set up to lose their faith when that doesn’t feel like it pans out.

God’s promises to Israel are not God’s promises to Americans.  Cherry-picking our way through the Old Testament just sets us up for problems.

This is most certainly true.  But the misapplication of the Old Testament does not equate to the non-application the Old Testament.

To use Stanley’s own metaphor, what is truly needed in our application of the Old Testament is a professional cherry-picker – someone who knows what in the law continues, what in the law has been abrogated, and what in the law was never meant for us.  Thankfully, we have a professional cherry-picker.  His name is Jesus.  Ben Witherington, in his book The Indelible Image, explains it well:

Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching.  (32)

As I have already noted, Stanley’s concern with our use of and appeal to the Old Testament is in large part an evangelical one.  The stories in the Old Testament are just so weird.  They raise so many questions and are attacked by so many scientists, philosophers, and secularists.  This is true.  But, the story of a man who rises from death is pretty weird, too.  This is why “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Eventually, we’re going to have to contend with some weird stuff and believe some weird claims.

Stanley is right when he notes that, for most people, even the objections of science, philosophy, and secularism aren’t their real objections against Christianity:

For post-Christians, science, philosophy, and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision making.  Post Christians, especially post-Christian millennials, have low to no tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions.  At the same time, like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either.  They’re on a happiness quest.  Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy.  That’s never a presenting reason.  Nobody wants to appear that shallow.  But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role.  When faith becomes an impediment to happiness, good-bye faith.  (269)

Amen and amen.  So what’s the answer?  How do we call people who are on a happiness quest to Jesus?  By unhitching our faith from the Old Testament?  I believe the answer is in calling people to faith in Jesus like Jesus:

Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Wow.  How many people today would ever take Jesus up on an invitation like this?  By last count, about 2.3 billion.

Perhaps Jesus’ invitation has a power beyond our desire for happiness.



February 4, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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