Posts tagged ‘Congress’

Why This Thanksgiving Should Be A Happy One

In what has become a tradition on this blog, this is the week I like to look back on a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation and take a moment to reflect on its significance. Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday, but it is a universally needed and spiritually beneficial practice. This year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1941 stood out to me:

I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate and set aside Thursday, the twentieth day of November, 1941, as a day to be observed in giving thanks to the Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings.

Our beloved country is free and strong. Our moral and physical defenses against the forces of threatened aggression are mounting daily in magnitude and effectiveness.

In the interest of our own future, we are sending succor at increasing pace to those peoples abroad who are bravely defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation.

We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts.

We are grateful to the Father of us all for the innumerable daily manifestations of His beneficent mercy in affairs both public and private, for the bounties of the harvest, for opportunities to labor and to serve, and for the continuance of those homely joys and satisfactions which enrich our lives.

Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.

On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.

There are lots of good thoughts in President Roosevelt’s proclamation. His recognition that there is a “Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings” reminds us that everything we have ultimately comes from God. His thankfulness for “opportunities to labor and to serve” reminds us that we can be thankful not only for what we have, but for what we can do. And his invitation to “reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God” is certainly well taken. Thanksgiving, at its heart, is an act of worship.

But it is the historical context that surrounds this proclamation that was especially remarkable to me. President Roosevelt issued this proclamation on November 8, 1941. A month earlier, on October 6, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day. Up to this point, the day of Thanksgiving was not officially set and different presidents chose different dates. Two months later, on December 9, the Senate amended the House resolution to fix the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth – rather than the final – Thursday of November to account for those occasions when November has five Thursdays. President Roosevelt signed the resolution into law on December 26. What makes all this so interesting is what happened in the midst of this legislative history on Monday, December 7, 1941. The United States was plunged into a second world war. And yet, even while our Armed Forces began fighting and our nation was reeling from that “date which will live in infamy,” Congress and the President still found it important to declare a time for our nation to give thanks. They recognized that giving thanks is not only important when times are good, it is also critical when times are terrible.

Though we are blessedly not embroiled in a world war, 2020 has nevertheless been a difficult year for many. This is why it is so important that we pause to give thanks. Giving thanks is not and cannot be based on how well things have gone. It must be a recognition of how gracious God is. As the Psalmist says:

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1)

God’s goodness and love remain steadfast even when this world’s brokenness shakes us to our cores. Indeed, God’s goodness and love are so steadfast that God steps into the brokenness of this world in His Son to suffer with us and for us. This is why we cannot only give thanks to the Lord, we can give thanks for the Lord, for the Lord has come for us.

This Thanksgiving, may that be our thanksgiving.

November 23, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

John Lewis: 1940-2020

John Lewis’s 80 years of life on this earth were electric. As a child, he aspired to be a preacher, practicing his sermons on the chickens on his family farm. He was ordained as a Baptist minister, but never served at a congregation. Instead, he devoted himself to the Civil Rights Movement – becoming a Freedom Rider, speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and nearly losing his life on what has become known as Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Alabama State Troopers beat demonstrators who were marching there for voting rights. Mr. Lewis had his skull fractured by the troopers, and bore a scar on his head in testimony to their brutalization of him the rest of his life. In 1987, Mr. Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served Georgia’s 5th congressional district until his death. In 2011, Mr. Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Mr. Lewis passed away July 17, 2020. His funeral was held this past week at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was honored by three past presidents and many other dignitaries. He also became the first black lawmaker to have his body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Many disagreed with his politics, especially in his later years. But people on both sides of the aisle respected his character and so many of his accomplishments.

For all of John Lewis’s accomplishments – and for all the ways he has been honored as a watershed figure in American history over these past couple of weeks – he never lost sight of his simple faith in Christ.

In his book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, he wrote:

Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done.

This, in many ways, is a summary of what it means to believe the gospel. The world around us looks broken and terrible – especially these days. We see a pandemic raging and racial tensions flaring and political coalitions clashing. It looks like sin is encroaching and death is marching and Satan is winning. But Christians believe that sin, death, and the devil – even if they look like they are triumphing – have been defeated. The cross is the declaration that the work of salvation against all evil has already been accomplished by Jesus. As Mr. Lewis would put it: “the work is already done.”

John Lewis continued his meditation on faith by writing:

Even if you do not live to see it come to pass, you know without one doubt that it will be. That is faith.

John Lewis saw many things come to pass. Just five months after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But, of course, there are still many things for which we are still looking to be. There are still many problems that we face, not the least of which is the hatred and vitriol that has come to mark so much of our public discourse. But to quote the congressman again:

Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.

These are words we need now more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for leaving them to us. Rest in peace until the resurrection of all flesh.

August 3, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes To Washington

Mark Zuckerberg

Credit: NBC News

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the hot seat as he faced Congress, who, as The New York Times reports, turned their interview with him into:

…something of a pointed gripe session, with both Democratic and Republican senators attacking Facebook for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether Facebook should be more heavily regulated.

Along with broad calls for heavier regulations for the sake of people’s privacy came concerns that Facebook might also regulate people’s posts, especially in light of the many contested “fake news” posts that circulated during the 2016 presidential election on social media.  Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska highlighted this concern, telling Mr. Zuckerberg:

Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America may be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform … Adults need to engage in vigorous debates.

At issue for Senator Sasse is whether or not a corporation like Facebook will be able to responsibly regulate all kinds of posts that, regardless of their intellectual and logical quality, are politically, though not necessarily corporately, protected under the First Amendment.  Senator Sasse is concerned that Facebook may simply begin regulating speech with which Facebook management does not agree.  The senator offered the example the abortion debate as a potential flashpoint if social media speech regulations were to be instituted:

There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion view on your platform?

Mr. Zuckerberg responded that he “certainly would not want that to be the case.”

Corporate regulation of speech is indeed a concern, for even the best regulatory intentions often come with unintended – and sometimes awful – consequences.  At the same time, for Christians, a devotion to free speech must never become an excuse for reckless speech, for reckless speech can be dangerously damaging.  As Jesus’ brother, James, reminds us:

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  (James 3:5-6)

Thus, with this in mind, it is worth it to reflect for a moment on how we exercise our tongues – on social media, and in all circumstances.  In our speech – and in our posts – Scripture calls us to two things.

First, we must love the truth. 

When the apostle Paul writes to a pastor named Timothy, he exhorts him:

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

The Greek verb that Paul uses for “guard” is philasso, from which we get the English word “philosophy.”  “Philosophy” is a word that, etymologically, translates as “love of truth.”  As Christians, we are called to love the truth.  We do this by expecting the truth from ourselves, by defending the truth when we see lies, and by seeking the truth so we are not duped by deceit.  In the sometimes wild world of social media, do we tell the truth about ourselves, or do we paint an intentionally deceptive portrait of ourselves with carefully curated posts?  Do we defend the truth when we see others being defamed, or do we pile on because we find certain insults humorous?  Do we seek the truth before we post, or do we pass on what we read indiscriminately because it fits our preconceived biases?  As people who follow the One who calls Himself “the truth,” we must love the truth.

Second, we must speak with grace.

Not only is what we say important, how we say it is important as well.  The apostle Paul explains it like this: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).  There are times when communicating the truth can be difficult.  But even in these times, we must be careful to apply the truth as a scalpel and not swing it as a club.  The truth is best used when it cuts for the sake of healing instead of when it bludgeons for the thrill of winning.  This is what it means to speak the truth with grace.  Paul is clear that he wants the truth proclaimed “clearly” (Colossians 4:4), but part of being clear is being careful.  When anger, hyperbole, and self-righteousness become hallmarks of “telling it like it is,” we can be sure that we are no longer actually “telling it like it is.”  Instead, we are obfuscating the truth under a layer of vitriol and rash rants.

Facebook has a lot to answer for as investigations into its handling of people’s privacy continue.  It appears as though the company may not have been completely forthcoming in how it operates.  And their deceit in this regard is getting them into trouble.  Let’s make sure we don’t fall into the same trap.  Let’s be people of the truth – on social media and everywhere.

April 16, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When Politics Leads to Bloodshed

When 66-year old James Hodgkinson opened fire on a ball field in Alexandria, Virginia this past Wednesday, he seemed to be targeting Republican members of Congress, who were engaged in a friendly game of baseball.  Shortly before the shooting, the suspect asked two representatives if the congressional members playing that day were Republicans or Democrats.  When they responded that they were Republicans, he left.  But when he returned, he came toting a rifle, which he used to wound four people, including the majority whip for the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise, who sustained severe injuries.  He remains in critical condition at an area hospital.

Following the shooting, investigators sprang into action and quickly discovered that Hodgkinson had a sharp disdain for Republicans, posting many virulently anti-Republican messages on social media.

This is where we are.  Our nation has become so bifurcated politically that a difference in party can become a motive for attempted murder.

In general, recent times have not proven to be good ones for political discourse in our country.  From a magazine cover depicting a comedian holding a severed, bloodied head bearing a curious resemblance to the president’s head, to a modernized telling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a New York park that portrays the assassination of someone who, again, appears strikingly similar to the president, to the president himself joking during his campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and shoot someone and his voters would still support him, political discourse has, to put it mildly, taken a nosedive.

So often, such reckless political flame-throwing is defended on the grounds of the blessed freedom of speech that we enjoy in our country.  “If we can say it, we will say it,” the thinking goes.  Indeed, no matter what political views you may hold, it is likely that some in your political camp have said things about opposing political factions that, though they might be legal according to the standards of free speech, are certainly not moral according to the guidances of God’s good Word.  Free speech does not always equate to appropriate speech.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves not only, “Can I say this?” but, “Should I say this?”

Part of the problem with our political discourse is that so often, so many seem to be so content with ridiculing the other side that they forget to offer cogent arguments for the benefits of their side.  But when we define ourselves by how we belittle our opponent, we turn our opponents into nothing short of evil monsters.  We stop disagreeing with them and begin hating them.  And our political discourse turns toxic.

President John F. Kennedy, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, gave a commencement address at American University where he called for a recognition of and an appreciation for the humanity we share even in the midst of stark political differences.  He said:

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.  As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity.  But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements – in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage …

So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.  For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy had no qualms about vigorously defending American democracy against the dangers and evils of Soviet communism.  But he also never forgot that communists – yes, even communists – are people too.

The tragedy of this past Wednesday is a stark and dark reminder of what happens when we forget that our political adversaries are still our brothers and sisters in humanity.  To put it in uniquely theological terms:  our political adversaries are still God’s image-bearers.  This means a Republican has never met a Democrat who is not made in God’s image.  And a Democrat has never met a Republican who is not the same.  So may we guard our actions, guard our tongues, and, above all, guard our hearts as we engage those with whom we disagree.  After all, our hearts were made not to hate our opponents, but to love them.

Let’s use our hearts as God intended.

June 19, 2017 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Pope Francis and What’s Most Important

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

The New York Times may have called him “the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics,” but it seemed nearly impossible for journalists and pundits to filter Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which wrapped up last night in Philadelphia, through anything but a political lens. After an obligatory nod to his spiritual status, the Times went on to report about the Pope’s address to a joint session of Congress:

While he checked boxes in calling for religious liberty and defending the family, the heart of his address, and the most time, was dedicated to aspects of Catholic teaching embraced by progressives, especially the overriding need to help the poor and destitute. He was at his most passionate in embracing immigration, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina, where he was born …

He also warned of the excesses of globalization, though in far more measured tones than he has in the past, when he used fiery language and the memorable phrase “dung of the devil” to describe unbridled capitalism.[1]

“Religious liberty.” “The excesses of globalization.” “Unbridled capitalism.” Though these things certainly have theological implications, as the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed would remind us, in our society, they are cast first and foremost as political concerns. Indeed, the Times ultimately concluded:

In the end, both sides could walk away citing parts of his message. But the liberal agenda items in his speech were explicit and clear while the conservative ones were more veiled.

Apparently, the real value of Francis’ speech, according to the Times, lies in how politicians will be able to leverage it and not in the theology that was contained in it.

Filtering theology through political policy is fraught with danger. In such a system, orthodox doctrine all too often gets sacrificed to Machiavellian expediency and a Savior who died gets turned into a political operative who just happens to hate all the same people we do.

On the one hand, Francis seemed to defy such bare politicization of the papacy, as Peter Johnson points out in his article for The Federalist, “10 Stories The Media Won’t Tell You About The Pope’s USA Visit.” Mr. Johnson explains how the Pope has taken on both liberal and conservative concerns – everything from climate change and immigration to government overreach and the dangers inherent in the Affordable Care Act. Such political schizophrenia is inherent in Christian ethics, which has the pesky habit of refusing to conform to both the liberal and conservative party platforms. Christianity can, at times, annoy both the left and the right.

On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to understand why the Pope’s address to Congress has been interpreted politically rather than theologically. After all, in a speech that lasted for nearly an hour before a joint session of Congress, the Pope, while covering a whole range of geopolitical and ethical issues, failed to mention Jesus – even once! This seems odd and, honestly, downright disturbing for the leader of a body of whom the apostle Paul noted is at its best when it resolves “to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

In one sense, the domination of the geopolitical and the ethical at the expense of the Christological in the Pope’s words is understandable both in terms of the ecclesiology and the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecclesiologically, popes have historically laid claim not only to spiritual authority, but to temporal power as well. Such power was crystalized in 800 on Christmas Day when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the emperor of Rome. A spiritual authority, on that day, crowned a political one. These days, though the Pope’s temporal power formally extends only as far as Vatican City – and even that authority is largely titular – the papacy’s interest in and influence over temporal affairs lingers. So it comes as no surprise that Francis would seek to shape geopolitical events.  In some ways, I welcome such an effort.  Our geopolitics needs all the sanctified wisdom it can get. But when geopolitical concerns drown out any mention of Christ in a major address from a man who claims to be the head of Christ’s Church, I begin to get a little nervous.

Soteriologically, Roman Catholicism’s view of righteousness and its relationship to salvation lends itself to Francis’ deep concern over ethical issues. As a Lutheran Christian, I will often speak of two kinds of righteousness. The first kind of righteousness is that which is imputed to me from God in Christ by faith. In the words of the apostle Paul:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)

Christ’s perfect righteousness is a righteousness that leads to my salvation quite apart from anything I have done or ever will do. This righteousness is not an ethical task, but a sheer gift, not based on my actions, but based on Christ’s action for me on the cross. The second kind of righteousness involves the good deeds that I do for my neighbor. I am called to love, serve, and help my neighbor, as Jesus explains forcefully in His Parable of the Good Samaritan. When I do these things, I am acting in the way of righteousness. But such a righteousness does not save me. It simply helps others.

In the Roman Catholic system of theology, these two kinds of righteousness are collapsed into one. The righteous acts we do for our neighbor are righteous acts that are also taken into account when we receive salvation from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear enough:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.[2]

The Catechism baldly asserts that my righteousness cooperates with Christ’s righteousness so that I may attain eternal life. All the good things of which the Pope spoke in his speech, then, pertain to salvation because our good works on these good things aid in our salvation. It’s no wonder, then, that Francis would be especially concerned with our good works, even as the good work of Christ went missing in his words to Congress.

For all the excitement Francis’ visit and words generated, I fear that we managed to overlook what is the most important business of the Church:  to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness for sinners. This, to borrow a phrase from Paul, is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). All of the things the Pope addressed in his speech to Congress are important and should be discussed, but they are not most important.

Mollie Hemmingway puts the situation well when she writes:

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.[3]

This is most certainly true. We can get excited over and become passionate about geopolitical issues. We can strongly advocate for ethical issues. I do all the time on this very blog. But our deepest commitment must be to Jesus. Our first proclamation must be of Him. For long after the concerns of this age fade way – indeed, long after this visit from this Pope is forgotten – Jesus will remain. The best thing this Pope can do, then, is invite us to turn our attention – and our hearts – to Him.

__________________________________

[1] Peter Baker & Jim Yardley, “Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woes,” The New York Times (9.24.2015).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN: 1994), § 2010.

[3] Mollie Hemmingway, “The Pope Francis Effect: Enthusiasm, But To What End?The Federalist (9.25.2015).

September 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 6 comments


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