Posts tagged ‘Ethics’

Against Our Better Judgment

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Credit: Dan Mason

Yesterday, in the Bible class I teach at the church where I serve, I made the point that we can be very bad at making appropriate judgments.  We can, at times, judge incorrectly, inconsistently, or even incoherently.  This is why Jesus warns us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and the apostle Paul echoes, “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I also mentioned in my Bible class that hardly better examples of our struggle with making appropriate judgments can be found than in the realm of politics.  When an elected official is not a member of whatever party we prefer, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no right, even if they have some noble achievements or proposals.  But if a person is a member of our preferred party, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no wrong, even if they have acted wickedly and inexcusably.  We minimize what they have done simply by pointing to an opposing political ideology that, in our minds, is “even worse.”

In his daily news briefing, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, brought to my attention two op-ed pieces, both published a week ago Sunday across from each other in the opinion pages of The New York Times.  One was by the left-leaning Jennifer Weiner and titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.”  The other was by the right-leaning Ross Douthat and titled “The Pigs of Liberalism.”  Here, conveniently divided by the fold in the newspaper, is our political divide laid bare, nestled neatly in newsprint.  Ms. Weiner decried the breathtaking schizophrenia of Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who, while taking a consistently pro-life stance as a politician and voting for pro-life legislation, quietly encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she found out she was pregnant.  Mr. Douthat’s piece chronicled the all-around sliminess of Hollywood mogul and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein, who, in a bombshell piece of investigative reporting in The New York Times, was revealed to have harassed and, perhaps, even sexually assaulted dozens of women over the course of decades.

Though both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein’s actions, because of the egregiousness of their offenses, have been, thankfully, broadly and forcefully denounced regardless of their political commitments, oftentimes, excusing the inexcusable has become par for the course in many of our political debates, particularly, interestingly enough, when it comes to sexual misdeeds.  A desire to see a political ideology defeated can often eclipse a commitment to get some basic ethical principles right.

In one way, this is not surprising.  The Pew Research Center published a report earlier this month on the widening political divides in American life.  Most striking is this chart, which shows just how far apart Republicans and Democrats have drifted – or, as the case may be, run – away from each other ideologically since 1994.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 5.34.29 PMWhen political ideologies become this disparate, it is not surprising that a desire to promote your preferred ideology generally can trump and excuse the public proponents of your ideological stripe when they do not practice your ideological commitments specifically.

So, what is the way through all of our excuses, minimizations, and rationalizations of people who tout a particular political ideology publicly while, at the same time, shirking it personally?  First, we must understand that such instances of hypocrisy are not, at their root, political.  They are spiritual.  A particular political ideology that we don’t like is not our ultimate problem.  Sin is our ultimate problem.  This is why both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to vile sinfulness, as the cases of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein illustrate.  The titles of the recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Sinful Men” and “The Pigs of Depravity.”  As long as we pretend that a particular political ideology is a categorical evil to be defeated, we will only fall prey to more evil.  Political ideologies certainly have problems, but they are not, in and of themselves, the ultimate problem.  We are.

Second, we must also be careful not to conclude that because someone espouses a certain ideology while not living up to it, their ideology is ipso facto wrong.  There are many factors that can make an ideology – or an aspect of an ideology – wrong, but a failure to live up to the ideology in question is not necessarily one of them.  A pro-life ideology is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Murphy was wrong in is his actions.  A strong ideology against sexual assault and harassment is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Weinstein was wrong in his failure to live up to this strong ideology.

Third, in a culture that regularly falls short of its values, we must not fall prey to the temptation to indiscriminately shift values to excuse behavior.  Instead, we must call those who espouse certain ideological values to actually live according to them.  In other words, we need to learn how to lovingly judge people’s actions according to rigorous ethical commitments and call people to repentance instead of downplaying and downgrading ethical commitments because we’re desperate to gain or to retain some kind of power.  After all, power without ethical commitments can never be exercised well, no matter which side of the political divide exercises it, because power that is not subject to a higher moral power can, if not held accountable, quickly degenerate into tyranny.

Jesus famously said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  It is time for us to look beyond the surface of our political divides and peer into the character of our culture.  What we find there will probably unsettle us, but it will also call us to some sober reflection and compel us to want something better for ourselves and for our society.  I pray we have the wherewithal for such reflection.

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October 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Michael Flynn, Intelligence Leaks, and Ethical Questions

michael-flynn

Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

When Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as National Security Advisor last week after only 24 days on the job, it marked the predictable outcome of what had become deepening concerns over some dishonest statements he made to the vice-president about the nature of a December conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the potential his conversation created for his blackmail by Russian authorities.  In a political climate where dishonesty is often dismissed out-of-hand as part of the job, Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation is a sobering reminder that character still counts.

Of course, in this story, there are not only ethical questions raised by Mr. Flynn’s clandestine conversation, there are also critical ethical questions that must be asked about the leaking of his conversation by shadowy intelligence officials to the news media.  After all, unethically leaking the fact the National Security Advisor unethically lied to vice-president seems, well, just all-around unethical.

Sadly, in our hyper-politicized climate, it is difficult not to filter this story through anything other than a political lens.  President Trump certainly filtered it this way, at least in part, when he complained on Twitter:

The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by intelligence like candy. Very un-American!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

Yes, intelligence leaks are indeed scandalous – and dangerously so.  But dishonesty by the National Security Advisor with the vice-president is also scandalous.  Both sides of this scandal need to be addressed.  Sadly, most politicians only see fit to address whichever side furthers their own political purposes.

The problem with politicizing scandals like these is that we often overlook the sins of one side conveniently while decrying the sins of the other side forcefully.  Our argument becomes not that one side is truly good, but that the other side is really bad.  In this way, we justify one side’s sins by the sins the other side.  But when we address ethical scandals like this, we only wind up creating a circular firing squad, with everyone squarely aiming their barrels at everyone else.  We settle for hurting whoever happens to be our political enemy rather than holding onto what is actually right.

Jonathan Bethune, in an article for The Federalist, captures and summarizes our political zeitgeist well when he explains:

There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points. The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

Mr. Bethune is onto something here.  He understands that a politics that is more partisan than it is principled can only become pathological.  And when this happens, politics becomes a sinister force for moral decay rather than what Aristotle envisioned politics at its best to be – a guardian of societal good.  Such pathology in our politics not only points to a problem with Mr. Flynn and with dangerous intelligence leaks, it points to a problem with us.

Perhaps it is time, then, to look not only at the news, but in the mirror.

February 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Target, Transgenderism, and Bathroom Brouhahas

Target

Two weeks ago, when Target announced it would continue “to stand for inclusivity” by welcoming “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity,”[1] fuel was added to the fire of what was already a raging debate.  “More than 700,000 pledge to boycott Target over transgender bathroom policy,” a headline in USA Today thundered.  The Daily Beast countered the boycott with its headline: “All the Things You Can No Longer Buy if You’re Really Boycotting Trans-Friendly Businesses.”

It’s a bathroom brouhaha.  So where does this big story leave Christians?

In one way, the fight over bathrooms only serves to mask larger questions about gender and identity.  The transgender movement as a whole seems locked into a form of Platonic dualism.  According to this philosophy, each physical form has a corresponding higher non-corporeal ideal.  So, for instance, a chair here on earth corresponds to a perfect non-corporeal chair in a higher realm.  Key to understanding Plato’s theory of correspondence between the physical and the non-corporeal is that the higher non-corporeal form is always determinative of and better than the lower physical form.  This is why Platonism’s final goal is for a person to escape this realm of lower physical forms and ascend to the realm of higher non-corporeal ideals.  Thus, in Platonism, the non-corporeal is always given preference over the corporeal, even as it pertains to our very bodies.  As Socrates, Plato’s mentor, put it:

The soul is immortal, and ‘tis not possession of thine own, but of Providence; and after the body is wasted away, like a swift horse freed from its traces, it lightly leaps forward and mingles itself with the light air, loathing the spell of harsh and painful servitude which it has endured.[2]

For Socrates, the body is a prison of “harsh and painful servitude” to be loathed.  Why?  Because it is physical.  The soul, however, is non-corporeal.  Therefore, the soul is to be preferred to and determinative of the body.

Many in the transgender movement seem to Platonically privilege non-corporeal inclinations over at least some of the clearer markers of physical biology.  People who come out as transgender are, in essence, declaring, “There is another form of me gender-wise than what my biological sex indicates.  My biological sex has subjected me to a ‘harsh and painful servitude,’ above which I intend to rise.” Jane Clark Scharl, in an article for the National Review, puts it well when she writes:

The … rhetoric used to be about liberating us from the moral and cultural limits on bodies, so that we could do whatever we wanted with them. Presumably that didn’t make us happy, because today, it’s about liberating us from our bodies altogether, by telling us that we can define ourselves however we want regardless of our biology.[3]

Being liberated from the body and its biology is a quintessentially Platonic – and, I would add, theologically problematic – notion.

I do understand that certain biological anomalies – anomalies in the sense that they are statistically rare – can occur in certain individuals.  I am also aware that there are questions over whether there are subtle differences in a transgender person’s brain.  But these questions do not negate the fact that gender dysphoria, the oft-cited trigger of transgenderism, is regularly presented and thought of as a conflict between a person’s physical biology and a person’s non-corporeal gender identity.  To quote the Oxford Dictionary: gender dysphoria is “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.”  Notice how, according to this definition, gender dysphoria is rooted in “one’s emotional and psychological identity” being in conflict with one’s biological sex.  In other words, barring a worldview that reduces emotions and psychology to nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain, there is a conflict between the non-corporeal part of a person and the physical part of person who experiences gender dysphoria.  To state the matter simply, there is a conflict between what may be referred to as a person’s soul and one’s body. And many people in the transgender movement assume the soul should win this conflict. But the Bible reminds us that even the non-corporeal parts of us are deeply flawed and should not be blindly trusted.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus notes, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mark 7:21).  Is it any wonder that the prophets, when addressing human corruption, say things like, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)?  For us to address any anxiety – whether it be in our gender, in our sexuality, or even in some medical ailment – we can’t just deal in the physical.  We must consider – and yes, even confront and be converted in – the non-corporeal.

It should be pointed out that it’s not just people in the transgender movement who assume a Platonic view of the physical.  Many Christians do too.  Ask the average Christian which part of a person is more important – the body or the soul – and he will more than likely respond, “The soul.”  But this is not the case, at least according to Scripture.  The fact that the bodies of those who are dead will be raised on the Last Day reminds us that both bodies and souls are important.  After all, both are created by God. The goal for the Christian, then, is never to somehow rise above the body or to let the non-corporeal determine the physical.  Rather, the hope of the Christian is to be eschatalogically redeemed in the body by the resurrection of all flesh.

It is important for Christians to defend and promote a telic view of the body – that the body is fundamental to who we are and is created with a purpose and point.  A person can either steward the body according to the purpose and point for which it was created or work against the purpose and point for which the body was created.  Working against the purpose and point of the body, however, comes with consequences.  Just ask those who suffer all sorts of health problems because they abuse their bodies with, let’s say, junk food rather than fueling their bodies with a balanced diet.  We should not despise our bodies.

This takes us back to Target’s restrooms.  One of the difficulties in demanding that a person use the restroom that matches his or her sex biologically is that there may be a person who identifies as and looks very much like a male going into a female restroom and person who identifies as and looks very much like a female going into a male restroom.  This is sure to make patrons uncomfortable.  On the other hand, stories have already surfaced of predators who are using policies like Target’s to take advantage of unknowing victims.  Depending on how common these horrifying incidents become, Target could find itself regularly grappling with basic issues of of customer safety.  In other words, no matter what restroom policy Target adopts and enforces, it will probably land the company in some kind of legal, cultural, and public relations battle.  Indeed, it seems like the only way to address the restroom needs of a culture where gender is increasingly presumed to be fluid may be to build banks of private unisex restrooms, which could prove terribly costly for businesses that currently offer larger public restrooms.

Though the debate over bathrooms is interesting, ultimately, as Christians, we are called to concern ourselves with how to love all our neighbors – including those who are transgender.  This is why our first questions in this bathroom battle should not be, “Is this policy good for me?”  Or, “How do I feel about transgender people being able to choose their bathroom?”  Instead, our first questions should be, “Is transgenderism good for people?”  And, “Is it good to deny a created physical order for the sake of what is perceived to be a higher non-corporeal understanding of one’s self?” If the answer to these questions is, “No,” we have more than just bathrooms to worry about.  We have people to worry about.

No matter what laws are enacted pertaining to who can use which bathrooms, there will be problems.  But if we devote ourselves to making a winsome, gentle, and truthful case for how God has lovingly, tenderly, and wisely created humanity as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) that leads people to rejoice in God’s ordering of sex and gender, that strikes me as a better outcome than any restroom regulations could ever offer.

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[1]Continuing to Stand for Inclusivity,” A Bullseye View (4.19.2016).

[2] Socrates in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 75.

[3] Jane Clark Scharl, “The New Sexual Ideology Wins Another Skirmish,” National Review (4.22.2016).

May 2, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Wrong and Wrong-er

Candidates

Credit:  Huffington Post

Recently, I read a blog by a well known pastor who expressed concern over the lack of civility in this year’s presidential election cycle.  In his blog, he singled out one candidate who caused him particular concern.  Although I do not think it is always inappropriate to discuss a particular candidate in a blog (I myself have done so), I do believe that a pastor should enter into such discussions with more than a fair share of fear and finesse.  Political figures are notoriously hard to critique in a way that leads people to listen to and engage with the critique because these figures tend to engender reflexive emotions long before they inspire extended thought.  Such was the case with this pastor’s blog.  There were many commenters who were appreciative of this pastor’s words.  Others were deeply offended and even furious that a pastor would critique, even if gently, a presidential candidate.  Some argued that it is never appropriate for a pastor to critique political candidates.  Others, like this commenter, argued against this pastor’s critique like this:

Cute hit piece on [my candidate]. Now lets talk about letting [another candidate] in the White House … who wouldnt know the truth if [this other candidate] saw it.

This is a fascinating argument because it basically runs like this: “My candidate may not be all that great, but this other candidate is worse!  Therefore, I will support my candidate and will attack anyone who tries to point out a concern with my candidate, even if the concern is legitimate.”  In other words, this commenter is trying to excuse bad behavior from her candidate by pointing out what is – at least in her mind – worse behavior from another candidate.

It’s not just angry social media commenters who makes these kinds of arguments.  Professional pundits do as well.  Consider this from John O’Sullivan of National Review:

[One candidate] tells falsehoods loosely and spontaneously in a sort of stream-of-consciousness lying to boost his prospects, win over doubters, crush opponents, and save his face. Details can be found all over the Internet. Most of them strike me as trivial. But none of the [leading candidates] have been exactly models of truth-telling in this campaign. So the relevant question then becomes “Compared with whom?” Let’s compare [this candidate’s] boastful and evasive untruths with the very different lies of [another candidate] on various immigration bills he has tried to sell.[1]

Mr. O’Sullivan explicitly and unashamedly justifies one candidate’s lies by pointing to another candidate’s lies.  Since when did lying become okay at all?  How does the fact that presidential candidates lie make anything better?  Did Mr. O’Sullivan ever stop to think that it might be best – rather than excusing a preferred political candidate for his bad behavior by pointing to some other bad behavior – to argue and ask for better behavior?

These kinds of arguments, it should be pointed out, are not only the stuff of election year politics.  They are also the arguments of nearly everyone who desperately wants to excuse some bad behavior.  “Yes, I may have stolen that dress, but it’s not like I’m Bernie Madoff!”  “Yes, I may have had an emotional affair, but that’s completely different from a physical affair!”  “Yes, I may be a drunkard, but at least I’m not a self-righteous religious person!”

Whenever I hear these kinds of arguments, I’m led to ask:  so what?  What do these kinds of arguments accomplish?  What do they prove?  Does pointing out someone else’s wrong somehow make you right?  My mother used to tell me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”  Do two wrongs of perceived unequal wrongness somehow make one wrong right?

The answer to the above question, of course, is, “No.”  One cannot right a wrong by comparing it to another wrong-er wrong.  All such a comparison does is inevitably lower all moral standards because it points only to that which is below it rather than aspiring to that which is above it.  And when a comparison only looks down, where else is there to go but down?  Thus, this comparison inevitably drags those who make it down into deeper immorality rather than spurring them on to a more carefully considered higher ethic.

It is impossible to make a wrong right by comparing it to something else that is wrong.  This is why, when He wanted to make us right with Him, God didn’t just send someone who wasn’t quite as bad as we were, He sent someone who was truly good because He was fully perfect.  Our Savior raised the bar of morality all the way to perfection and then gave us His perfection by being raised on a tree for our salvation.  From His perfect morality comes not only a way of salvation apart from our merits, but a way for daily living that is to declare His merits.

So whether we are a candidate for President of the United States or an everyday citizen working a job and raising a family, let’s look to Christ’s standard of morality rather than wallowing around in the mud of someone else’s immorality.  Let’s aspire to that.  Let’s hold each other to that – not because we can ever attain that by our own merits, but because we should actually want that.  To settle for anything less is just plain wrong.

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[1] John O’Sullivan, “The Rise of the Undocumented Republicans,” National Review (2.26.2016).

 

February 29, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

How Starbucks (Didn’t) Steal Christmas

Credit: Starbucks

Credit: Starbucks

It was the coffee kerfuffle that wasn’t. When a story about Christian outrage over Starbucks’ plain red holiday cups began trending on social media, something about it seemed off to me. Sure, there was a video of a self-styled evangelist shoving a red Starbucks cup into the camera and shouting about how Starbucks employees are not allowed to say Merry Christmas and explaining in a Facebook post that “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” And sure, there were the stories about all the controversy it was igniting in the Twittersphere. But as I checked my own social media feeds, what I saw was not Christian outrage over the Starbucks’ minimalist holiday cups, but outrage over the fact that there was so much outrage over something as inane as a coffee cup. Outrage over outrage. Is it just me, or does this all seem, well, outrageous?

I have a funny feeling that the evangelist who opined his offense at Starbucks’ holiday cups on Facebook may have done so more for clicks and shares than out of earnest conviction. In my opinion, this is little more than a shoddily manufactured controversy. But even if I am right and this controversy is manufactured, I am grateful that commentary by Christians on the controversy has been largely thoughtful. Take this from Ed Stetzer:

Folks, we really need to calm down. If you’ve posted an outraged Facebook update, take it down.

Starbucks cups are red because of the Christmas season. Starbucks is not persecuting you. Starbucks may be attempting to respect those who don’t celebrate Christmas – and that’s OK. That’s their choice. They’re a business that exists to serve all customers without preference, regardless of what winter holidays they do or do not celebrate. If they choose to do that by means of a plain, red cup, that’s their call …

Here’s what I would say – this is the wrong fight and being done in the wrong way. And, it’s just making Christians look silly, like so many of these fake controversies do.

We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage. So let’s tell it. It’s not the job of your barista to share the gospel. It’s your job to share the gospel.[1]

Ed Stetzer is exactly right. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing when a man trying to start a faux movement to protest red coffee cups gets more attention than the Church who has been charged to be an ongoing movement to spread the gospel.

Setting coffee cups aside for a moment, it is important to understand that this kind of unhelpful outrage has implications far beyond the clear-cut inanity of supposedly, but not really, offensive coffee cups. Far more serious ethical and cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor have ignited no small amount of outrage. And make no mistake about it: we, as Christians, should have plenty to say about these issues. But if we become so embroiled in outrage over these issues that we lose sight of the joy of sharing the gospel of Christ’s death for sinners, we have become lovers of issues rather than people. And when this happens, we lose sight of the gospel.

It is interesting to me that for all the well-documented differences between conservative and liberal Christians, they can both often fall into the same trap. Sure, more conservative-leaning Christians may beat the drum about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage (and they should) while more liberal-leaning may beat the drum about issues like stewardship of creation and treatment of the poor (and they also should). But in both instances, each side can easily wind up becoming so obsessed with current ethical and cultural issues that they lose sight of the evangelical and soteriological cross of Christ. In this regard, both sides, whether conservative or liberal, have traded Billy Graham for Walter Rauschenbusch. The soteriological gospel has been sacrificed to the social gospel.

It is this that takes us back to the Starbucks, ahem, brew-haha. The evangelist who posted his now viral Facebook tirade suggested that customers tell baristas their name is “Merry Christmas” so servers will be forced to write “Merry Christmas” on their holiday symbol-less cups. Besides the fact that I am pretty sure that this will do little to nothing to shift cultural sentiment concerning Christmas and what it represents, I am even surer that it adds nothing to the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. Thankfully, most Christians already know this. That’s why they have rejected his strategy.

So let’s take this lesson from a bout of Starbucks silliness about what’s most important and use it to keep our priorities straight as we engage our world on much more pressing topics. Our witness to the world on these topics must never be only ethical and cultural. It must be first and foremost evangelical and soteriological. For without Christ and Him crucified, ethics and culture become nothing because they save no one.

Crux sola est nostra theologia.

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[1] Ed Stetzer, “When We Love Outrage More Than People: Starbucks Cups and You,” Christianity Today (11.9.2015).

November 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

What If Planned Parenthood Is Sincere?

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Last week, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, announced in a letter to the National Institutes of Health that the organization she heads will no longer be accepting reimbursements of any kind for its disbursements of fetal tissue:

Our Federation has decided, going forward, that any Planned Parenthood health center that is involved in donating tissue after an abortion for medical research will follow the model already in place at one of our two affiliates currently facilitating donations for fetal tissue research. That affiliate accepts no reimbursement for its reasonable expenses – even though reimbursement is fully permitted … Going forward, all of our health centers will follow the same policy, even if it means they will not recover reimbursements permitted.[1]

This new policy comes on the heels of a firestorm over whether or not Planned Parenthood has been illegally selling aborted baby parts for profit. A series of undercover videos published by the Center for Medical Progress appears to show Planned Parenthood officials admitting that they do, in fact, make money off the sale of fetal tissue, even if such profit is minimal. Profit from the sale of fetal tissue is a federal offense.

Upon the release of this new policy, abortion opponents were quick to react with cynicism, asking why, if Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong as it has been claiming throughout this controversy, the organization would need to change their current policy at all. Bre Payton, writing for The Federalist, opines, “Despite its previous claims of innocence, Planned Parenthood’s announcement today suggests that the organization knew its activities were almost certainly illegal.”[2]

Ms. Payton may be right. It may be that Planned Parenthood knew that what it was doing was illegal and was simply gaming the system. But I’m not so sure. Planned Parenthood’s statement may actually be sincere.

If I was to be accused of some wrongdoing – let’s say, financial mismanagement – not only would I adamantly maintain my innocence if I believed I had done nothing wrong, I would take extra precautionary measures to guard against further accusations. So, using the example I cited above, I may institute an annual independent audit of my income and expenses and share the results with key people in my life to make sure I am held financially accountable. But this would not be an admission I had done something wrong. Rather, it would be an attempt to be above reproach in my finances so that all could see I was committed to doing right.

I have to at least entertain the possibility that Planned Parenthood is acting in this same way by refusing to take any sort of reimbursement for their disbursement of fetal tissue. They may simply be trying to be above approach in how they handle their fetal tissue.  If this is the case, however, it terrifies me. Here’s why.

If Planned Parenthood really is simply trying to be above reproach in their fetal tissue disbursements, this means that they truly believe that what they have done is not illegal and, even more disturbingly, not immoral. In other words, it could be that some – indeed, even many – at Planned Parenthood believe that what they are doing by offering abortions and dispersing baby parts is good, needed, and right. What is happening is not flowing out of sinister conniving, but out of genuine conviction.

I used to think people knew somewhere deep-down that abortion was a moral blight on our modern culture. As I have written before, if abortion isn’t self-evidentially morally repulsive, then nothing is. I still believe that most people do know this somewhere within the deep recesses of their souls. But after watching #ShoutYourAbortion trend on Twitter, I have come to recognize that some people do not. Consider these tweets:

I’ve never wanted to have children, so I had an abortion. I’m thriving, without guilt, without shame, without apologies. #ShoutYourAbortion (@favianna, 9.21.2015)

I had an abortion in 2008, and it was the easiest decision I ever made. Long before I got pregnant I had decided that… (Birdy Eugenie-Clark, 9.21.2015)

These women could be lying about their experiences with abortion. But, then again, they could be telling the truth.  They really could be okay with and even happy about their abortions.

Columnist Dennis Prager distinguishes between that which “feels good” and that which “does good.” These two things, he notes, are not always the same. Take, for instance, in the realm of parenting:

It feels good to give one’s children what they want, but it rarely does good. It feels good to build children’s self-esteem – giving them trophies for no achievement, for example – but when the self-esteem is unearned, it doesn’t do good. It feels good to provide one’s adult children with money and other material benefits when they should be providing for themselves, but it doesn’t do good. And it feels good to coddle children rather than discipline them. But, same deal: It’s not good for them.[3]

What is true in parenting is true also of abortion. For some people – at least as far as they will publicly admit – abortion may feel good. It may feel good because it relieves a person of the burden of having to raise an unwanted child. It may feel good because it allows a person to have sex without having to worry about its divinely designed procreative telos. It may feel good because it feels empowering. It is the ultimate way to declare, “No one will tell me what to do with my body! Not even nature and nature’s God!” The problem is that many people have made what feels good equivalent to what is good. This is why I am willing to entertain the sincerity of Planned Parenthood’s statement about the trafficking of fetal tissue even if I am not willing to entertain its objective morality. We may have genuinely come to a point in our society where people have bought into a modified version of the old adage my mother once warned me against: “If it feels good, do it!” We now say, “If it feels good, it is good!”

As Christians, we need to continually remember and proclaim that what is good objectively cannot be determined only by what feels good internally. Good needs an external regulator. Christians believe this external regulator is Scripture and, in a secondary way, God’s ordering of creation. Even if our culture flatly rejects the first regulator, they’re still left to grapple with the second. Every pregnancy, even if it ends in abortion, is proof of that.

I hope we’re there to help people grapple with what true good looks like – and to lead them to surrender. Otherwise, this letter from Planned Parenthood will only be the first in a series of sad, but sincere, attempts to be above reproach while engaging in what is morally repulsive. And that would be heartbreaking.

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[1] Cecile Richards, “Planned Parenthood Opt-Out,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America (10.13.2015).

[2] Bre Payton, “Planned Parenthood: We’re Going To Stop Doing That Thing We Said Was Totally Legal,” The Federalist (10.13.2015).

[3] Dennis Prager, “Feeling Good vs. Doing Good,” National Review (10.22.2015).

October 19, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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