Posts tagged ‘Sin’

Mike Pence and Dining with Your Spouse

58th Presidential Inauguration

It can be fascinating to watch which stories bubble to the top of our cultural conversation.  In a news cycle where the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a battle royal over a Supreme Court nominee, questions about the surveillance of political actors, terrible chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by a feral Assad regime, and ominous sabre rattling from the North Koreans have dominated the headlines, a heated debate has arisen over a profile piece in The Washington Post on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, which cited an interview with The Hill from 2002, where the vice president, following the lead of the vaunted evangelist and pastor Billy Graham, explained that he would never eat alone with a woman who was not his wife or one of his close relatives.  Writing in a separate article for The Washington Post, Laura Turner warned:

It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them.  Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”

I agree with Ms. Turner that it is important not to confuse fleeing from temptation with fleeing from women.  Sin is what is to be feared.  Not women.  Nevertheless, because of my vocation as a husband and because of my position as a pastor, I have chosen a practice that echoes that of the vice president.  I will not dine alone with a woman who is not my wife or close family member.  I will also not meet alone with women after hours at the congregation where I serve.

Why do I maintain such a practice?

It is not primarily because I am terrified that if I were ever to be alone with a woman, I would not be able to restrain myself from sexual immorality, though I am not nearly so naïve as to believe that I could never fall prey to a compromising situation.  I know far too well from Scripture that my heart is woefully depraved and deceitful and I have seen far too many marriages and ministries wrecked by sexual immorality to believe that I am somehow so spiritually privileged to be above certain kinds of sin.  I also know that merely jettisoning private dining appointments will not expunge me of my sinful nature.  No pious-looking constraint, no matter how carefully contrived, can regenerate a sinful heart.  Only Jesus can do that.  Sin avoidance is not the primary reason I have the practice I do.

I have the practice I do primarily because I respect women, most especially my wife.  I know that if another woman were to invite me to dinner, one on one, that would make my wife – as well as me – uncomfortable.  I also know the people with whom I work well enough to know that if I were to invite a female staff member at our church to dinner one on one, that would more than likely make her feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.  I do occasionally meet privately with women in my office when personal pastoral care needs call for such meetings.  But even then, there are other staff members right outside my office door working through the daily flurry of church activities.  And I have never had any trouble meeting with everyone I need to meet with on campus with others around rather than off campus in one on one settings.

I also I maintain the practice I do because I do want to do my best to remain “above reproach,” as Scripture asks men in my vocation to be.  An unfounded accusation of immoral behavior with another person would not only compromise the credibility of my ministry, it would compromise that other person’s credibility as well.  As much as I desire to protect the integrity of my ministry, I also have a deep desire to protect the reputations of those I know and care about.  Protecting others’ reputations is simply part and parcel of being not only a colleague and a pastor, but a friend.

Ms. Turner appeals to Jesus in support of the stance she takes in her Washington Post piece:

Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including His meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet He didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that His reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.

All of this is completely true.  But evangelizing someone in broad daylight when Your disciples do not seem to be far away is a far cry from having dinner alone, away and apart from any accountability.  The latter can be a coup de grâce to one’s integrity.  The former is just a coup of grace for a weary soul.

There may indeed be times, as the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman illustrates, when it is necessary to spend time with someone of the opposite gender privately, especially for the sake of the gospel.  But there are also many more times when it is good not to, especially if a task at work can be accomplished just as well with others around.

May we have the wisdom to discern which times are which.

April 10, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

2016 in Review

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It’s difficult to believe, but another year has come and gone.  Before we chug full steam ahead into 2017, I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the year that was.  Whenever I look back over what I have written over the course of a year on this blog, I am always amazed – and a little disturbed – by how much I have forgotten.  Thus, it seems worth it to look back and linger a bit longer on 2016, lest we file away some important lessons from this year into the dusty rolodex of our fleeting historical memories too quickly.  So, here is my Year in Review for 2016.

January
The biggest Powerball jackpot ever, valued at $1.5 billion, goes up for grabs.  People across the country flock to convenience stores to buy their ticket, even though the chances of winning the jackpot stand at 1 in 292,201,338.

February
Fear of the Zika virus sweeps the nation as a woman in Dallas contracts the disease. Justice Antonin Scalia, a fierce proponent of Constitutional originalism, passes away, leaving a vacancy on the high court and an even split between more conservative and more progressive justices that remains to this day.

March
Terror strikes Brussels, Belgium as two coordinated attacks – one at the airport and another on a subway – are carried out simultaneously, killing 32.

April
A bathroom brouhaha erupts as retail giant Target announces it will allow “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.”  Massive boycotts of the chain ensue and concerns are raised over the misuse of the policy by predators.

May
Art Briles, head coach of the Baylor Bears football team, is dismissed after he is implicated in cover-ups of sexual assaults by his players.  The University’s president, Ken Starr, also leaves the institution in connection with the mishandling of the assaults.

June
Omar Mateen opens fire in an LGBT-frequented Orlando nightclub, killing 50 and injuring 50 more.  In a stunning electoral surprise, Britons vote to leave the European Union 52% to 48% in what has popularly become known as “Brexit.”

July
Police officers shoot black men in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul and five police officers are killed in Dallas by people protesting these shootings.  The next week, 84 people are killed when a terrorist drives a large, white paneled truck into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, 290 people are killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, and three more police officers are killed in Baton Rouge by a sniper.

August
More than 50 people are killed in Istanbul when a 14-year-old suicide bomber walks into a wedding party and blows himself up.

September
Nicholas Kristof pens a column in The New York Times issuing a call to rethink Christianity as a faith free from many of its traditional beliefs, such as opposition to abortion and an affirmation that marriage is between a man and woman.

October
After decimating Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Matthew strikes Florida and slowly moves up the eastern seaboard.  About 1,600 people are killed by the massive storm.

November
Donald Trump wins the presidential election over Hillary Clinton after taking many of the so-called “rust belt” states that, for the past several election cycles, have traditionally gone to Democratic candidates.

December
Fidel Castro, the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, dies.  The Russian ambassador to Turkey is shot by a Turkish police officer in Istanbul while, on the same day, a Tunisian refugee drives a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve.

As I look back over the list of stories I blogged on this year, a few thoughts come to mind.  First, the violence of this past year has been horrifying.  From terrorist attacks to assassinations to sexual assaults, there is no shortage of violent acts in our world.  Indeed, this new year has already brought new violence with a New Year’s Eve terrorist attack in Istanbul that killed 39 and injured many more.  Second, the political season of 2016 has been a thing to behold.  On this blog alone, I wrote about issues pertaining to this year’s presidential election here, here, here, here, and here.  Politics was certainly front of mind for many.

What strikes me about these two themes in particular is that whether the stories were about violence or politics, these themes shared a common denominator – that of power.  In the case of violence, acts of terrorism, for instance, seek to gain power by striking fear into the hearts of societies.  People live on edge, never knowing when, where, and how a terrorist will strike.  The terrorists gain power by “getting inside the heads,” as it were, of communities and nations.  In the case of politics, it is obvious that the United States is painfully divided.  Whether it is cast as a division between red states and blue states, the seaboards and middle America, or traditional America and progressive America, there is a pitched battle to define this nation, with each side fiercely fighting for its own interests.

As I wrote on this blog last weekend, power is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be used badly.  Rightly used, power is a gift from God to be stewarded.  But we all too often assume it’s a weapon of our own to be wielded.  In other words, we are called to use whatever power we may be given to first serve others instead of serving ourselves.  If the stories from 2016 are any indication, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to stewarding power appropriately.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the stories from this past year is how impotent our potency ultimately proves to be.  The spread of the Zika virus and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew are sobering reminders that there is still much we do not and cannot control.  What is true of these disasters is also true of the future.  We cannot control what 2017 will bring.  So perhaps the best posture to take as we head into a new year is one of humility toward the future and faith in the One who holds the future.  He knows what is in store for us.  And He will take care of us.

January 2, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Abortion, Absolution, and Pope Francis

francis

In a letter dated Sunday, November 20, Pope Francis announced that any woman who has had an abortion can now be forgiven for that sin by a priest.  This move toward priestly absolution for abortion began a full year ago when the pope announced a “Year of Mercy.”  Before this special year, only ecclesiastical higher ups could absolve someone of an abortion unless a particular region gave special disposition to its local priests to absolve this sin, which the Catholic Church in the United States had already done.  The pope’s announcement of a Year of Mercy gave this right to priests worldwide.  And now the pope has extended this right into perpetuity.  In his missive, the pope explained:

We have celebrated an intense Jubilee Year in which we have received the grace of mercy in abundance. Like a gusting but wholesome wind, the Lord’s goodness and mercy have swept through the entire world. Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives…

Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

When the pope first announced his Year of Mercy, The New York Times ran an editorial by Jill Filipovic titled, “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”  In her piece, Ms. Filipovic decries the idea that those who had obtained an abortion should need forgiveness.  She writes:

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

At issue for Ms. Filipovic is the fact that abortion would be classified as a sin at all.  For her, forgiveness for an abortion is neither needed nor desirable.  What is needed is a wholehearted endorsement and promotion of abortion itself.

The biblical position on abortion and forgiveness undermines both the Roman Catholic Church’s strange view of absolution, especially before this recent papal pronouncement, along with the secularist’s cynicism toward the sinfulness of abortion.  The secular view of abortion and forgiveness is inadequate precisely because the emotions of “shame and guilt,” contrary to Ms. Filipovic’s assertion, should be the affective outcome of any sin, including abortion.  Our sin should make us feel bad – at least if we take what God commands seriously.  Only God’s gospel can remedy our shame and guilt as it releases our sins to Christ on the cross.  Abortion cannot be excused and explained away.  It can only be forgiven.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on abortion and forgiveness also will not do.  The now former restriction on priestly absolution for abortion seems to have been largely meant as a threatening deterrent against particularly grievous sins, as is explained in the Baltimore Catechism:

The absolution from some sins is reserved to the pope or bishop to deter or prevent, by this special restriction, persons from committing them, either on account of the greatness of the sin itself or on account of its evil consequences.

This restriction overlooks the fact that, theologically speaking, every sin is an affront against all divine law, therefore making any sin damnable.  It also overlooks the fact that to make forgiveness difficult to obtain via a barrage of ecclesiastical red tape takes what is meant to be a gift from God and perverts it into a work of man.  This makes the forgiveness spoken of here antithetical to the gospel rather than the center of the gospel, for the gospel is never about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us here:  if you are a woman who has had an abortion, there is hope beyond shame, release beyond burden, and wholeness beyond brokenness.  Not because there shouldn’t be any shame, any burden, or any brokenness.  And not because you can somehow claw your way out shame, burden, and brokenness by a work, even if that work is a work of self-debasing sorrow before a bishop or a priest. No, there is hope and release and wholeness because of Jesus.  After all, He suffered death to conquer death, which means, even if a life has been lost to abortion, that life can be recovered too.  And your life can be made new.

That’s the promise abortion needs.

November 28, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More on Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a police officer in Baton Rouge.  You’ve been called to a convenience store where a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling has been reported to have recently threatened another man with a gun.  You approach Mr. Sterling and pin him to the ground when someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!  Gun!”  Fear takes over.  Shots are fired.  And Alton Sterling lies dead.

Now imagine you’re a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  You pull over a vehicle that has a broken taillight.  The man inside, Philando Castile, dutifully explains that he has a concealed carry permit and has a firearm in the vehicle.  When Mr. Castile reaches for his license and registration, however, you think he’s reaching for his gun.  Fear takes over.  Four shots are fired.  And Mr. Castile dies in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter.

Finally, imagine you’re a 25-year-old black man named Micah Xavier Johnson who has watched other black men be shot and killed in altercations with the police under suspicious circumstances time and time again.  You see protest after protest against these shootings by Black Lives Matter, but in your mind, these protests do not equate to real action.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge and St. Paul unfold, you seize on these moments to exact revenge.  At a protest in Dallas, you, with anger coursing through your veins, aim your arsenal of firearms at twelve officers, killing five of them, only to finally be taken down yourself by law enforcement officials.

Are you still with me?

Now, let’s do a little math.

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

At this point, I need to include some caveats.

First, don’t misunderstand the intent of my thought experiment.  I am not trying to exonerate bad behavior by asking us to imagine ourselves in each of these men’s shoes – by asking us to empathize with them.  Empathy never tries to excuse sin, but it does try to understand people because, when we understand people better, we can understand what leads to a week like the one we just experienced better and, hopefully, take steps to prevent another week like this one from happening again – ever.

Second, the facts in all these cases are still unfolding.  When 49 people were shot and killed by a terrorist at an Orlando nightclub, I offered an encouragement on this blog for people to patiently wait for the facts rather than jumping to conclusions about the shooter’s motives.  The same caution applies here.  It could be that one or both of these officers in Baton Rouge were animated by naked racial animus and shot and killed one or both of these men in cold blood.  If this were the case, the equation above would still hold, albeit on the anger side rather than on the fear side.  It could also be that, as more facts surface, one or both of these officers were not animated by fear, but by a legitimate concern for self-defense.  Turning to Dallas, it could be that Mr. Johnson was clinically insane and not in his right mind when he carried out these horrific attacks.  If this were the case, what he did still could not be excused, and his anger and hatred would still loom large, but it might be understood a little differently.  Carefully sorting through the facts – and being patient enough to do so – is incredibly important in tragedies like these.

Third, I am not a law enforcement official.  I know some law enforcement officials, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them.  Honestly, if I had to walk in their shoes, I’m not sure that the altercations with Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile would have gone down any differently.  I can imagine myself becoming very frightened very quickly.  The fact that so many law enforcement officials keep their cool when tensions are high is a testimony to the character and competence of so many of these men and women.

Fourth, I am not a black man.  I have heard enough stories of incipient and systemic racism against black men, however, that my heart breaks.  I would not want to live under a cloud of such constant suspicion.  I would not want to have to teach my son the lessons of what little slights, sideways glances, and clinched purses could mean.  If I had to endure that day after day, I would be angry too.  And if someone was to needlessly take the life of someone that I loved, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to exact an eye for an eye.  The fact that so many African-Americans keep their protests peaceful and focused on change rather than turning them into opportunities for revenge is a testimony to the character and compassion of so many of these men and women.

What has happened this week, then, is not an indictment of the masses, but the fruits of a few.

But…

Even though what happened this week was not by our hands, this is not to say it couldn’t have been by our hands.  Remember the equation?

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

Have you let fear take over your heart any time this week?  How about anger?  Is anything from the way you manage money to the way you treat your family to the friends you avoid to the grudges you hold to the politics you have that is driven by fear or anger? The results of your fear and anger may not be eight dead, but are the results in any way good?  Let’s adjust the equation a little bit.

Fear + Anger = Plenty That Is Not Good

Is this true of you?

Fear and anger are part of the human condition and are devastatingly etched into the annals of human history.  One needs to look no further than the night before Jesus’ death.  When Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, Peter goes from being so angry at what is about to beset his Master that he cuts off the ear of a man in the mob that has come to arrest Jesus to being so fearful at what is transpiring with his Master that, just hours later, when a servant girl asks him if he knows Jesus, he denies his Savior and friend.  Fear and anger coalesce into one necrotic night.

The truth is this: there’s plenty of fear and anger to go around – among the masses and, if we’re brutally honest, in our hearts.  The equation holds true for us all.

So, on the heels of a terribly tragic week, let me conclude with two gentle reminders:

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).

And…

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (Psalm 37:8).

Think on these things.

July 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

True Confessions

Confesson 1I love to read all sorts of things. Theological tomes. Biographies.  Histories.  The Bible.  I love to read op-ed pieces in newspapers and long form journalism – an art form I am concerned is all too quickly disappearing – in newsmagazines.

I love to read. But I don’t always like what I read about.

Case in point. This past week, I was scrolling through my newsfeed when up popped a story about a pastor who had to resign from his church because of serious ongoing turpitude. I wish I could say I’m surprised. But I’m not. I’m not surprised because I’ve seen far too many of these kinds of stories for them to shock me.  I’m not surprised because I know the human heart can be a dark place, leading people to do dark things. I’m not surprised because I know my heart can be a dark place, leading me to do dark things.  I’m not surprised.  But I am heartbroken. I am heartbroken when I think about the pain, regret, and fear this brother in Christ must be experiencing. I am heartbroken by how his story is being talked about on social media.  An Internet mob has predictably descended on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and comment walls to attack and destroy this man in a sickening display of schadenfreude. This man is in my prayers and, if I can be so bold, he should be in yours.

It is out of my heartbreak that I want to sound a warning not only to my brother pastors, but also to all Christians: Satan hates you and is out to destroy you. This is why Revelation 9:11 calls Satan “the Destroyer.” Satan wants to destroy you along with all the people you love and all the people who love you. Indeed, the sin of this pastor has not only compromised his security and livelihood, it has also deeply wounded his congregation – exposing them to ridicule in the hot spotlight of a nationally trending news story – as well as, I’m sure, emotionally devastating his family.

A few years back, in The Asbury Journal, David Werner asked an important question: “How is your doing?” He asked this question in the spirit of John Wesley, who took great care always to connect “how one was doing internally (in one’s soul) … to what one did, or how one lived out the Christian life externally (in one’s actions).”[1] In other words, Wesley wanted Christians to seriously consider how well their actions comported with their words and worldview.

So, let me ask you: How is your doing? Are there any “doings” that you are hiding? Is there a sin that remains secret? Now is the time to confess it, repent of it, and receive forgiveness for it. Now is the time to share it with a pastor, a counselor, or a trusted friend in Christ so you can be held appropriately accountable for it and, ultimately, be absolved of it.

The apostle Peter exhorts us to two important “doings” when he writes, “Be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8). Both parts of Peter’s admonition are critical. If you cannot control yourself, your ability to help and lead others will be inevitably compromised and, in some instances, discredited and destroyed. And if you are not continually vigilant, watching out for Satan’s tricks and traps, he will use your slumber toward righteousness to take you down before you even know what hit you. Being self-controlled and alert is key.

But even more important than Peter’s admonition is Peter’s invitation in the verse prior: “Cast all your anxiety on God because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Sin tells a sinister, but enticing, lie. It promises you that if you fall to it, it will release you from your anxiety. “Imbibing too much alcohol can help you lighten up and have fun,” whispers sin. “Misusing God’s gift of sex can give you a much needed thrill in a hard knocks world,” says sin. But, in the end, sin never helps your anxiety. Instead, it only adds to your anxiety pain, hurt, brokenness, and guilt.

Peter reminds us that only God can take our anxiety because only God has taken care of our anxiety by taking care of our sin on the cross of His Son, Jesus Christ. So lay your anxiety – and your sin – on Him. In the words of the old hymn:

I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all, and frees us
From the accursed load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus,
To wash my crimson stains
White in His blood most precious,
Till not a spot remains.

There is a chance that this man who has had to resign from his church will not serve again as a pastor.  But even if his vocation as a pastor has passed, his vocations as a husband and as a father still stand.  My prayer is that, out of his pain, this man serves in these callings from God repentantly, patiently, and lovingly and that he finds his comfort in what God has called him:  His forgiven child.

My prayer is that you find your comfort there too.

_______________________________

[1] David Werner, “John Wesley’s Question: ‘How is Your Doing?’” The Asbury Journal 65, no. 2 (2010): 68.

May 25, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

ConfusedLast week on this blog, I discussed a video showing some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant. In my analysis, I cited Byron Williams of The Huffington Post and his use of theological language to address the incident:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation …

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?[1]

Williams attaches a lot of theological freight to his analysis of this incident – and, I would argue, rightly so – with words like “original sin” and “redemption.” But I would also argue that he does not frame his theological terminology in a particularly Christian way. Williams’ description of “redemption,” for instance, is more closely aligned with AA’s call to make amends than it is with Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. To be clear, I by no means think that these students should not have to make amends. Indeed, I think such action would be extraordinarily salutary – both for the people they hurt and for the offending students themselves. I only point out Williams’ unconventional use of theological language as an example of how, while many in our culture still have strong theological instincts, such instincts are often not expressly Christian in their content or context.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Bottum frames the issue of racism and its attendant issue of white privilege, as does Williams, in the theological terminology of original sin:

“All have sinned,” writes St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, even those who have “not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” And so too are we all guilty of racism, even those who have never harbored an explicitly racist thought or said an explicitly racist word or performed an explicitly racist deed. “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood,” as Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López explains. “Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” Racisms under which we all suffer.[2]

Bottum astutely notes that for all the talk of secularism’s encroachments on Western society, our essential impulses are still spiritual. Just look at how we talk about racism as not just a set of actions, or even as a worldview, but as a blight for which we must make atonement.

But as strong as our spiritual impulses may be, something is missing:

The doctrine of original sin is probably incoherent, and certainly gloomy, in the absence of its pairing with the concept of a divine savior – and so Paul concludes Romans 5 with a turn to the Redeemer and the possibility of hope: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Think of it as a car’s engine or transmission scattered in pieces around a junkyard: The individual bits of Christian theology don’t actually work all that well when they’re broken apart from one another.

We are stuck in a societal Anfechtung, Bottum says.  For on the one hand, our culture does indeed have strong spiritual impulses.  This is why we confess and agonize over “original sins” like racism.  But on the other hand, our spiritual impulses do not lead us to the relief of Christ’s cross. Instead, our impulsive anxieties are left to stew in their own juices until they inevitably begin to search for relief and redemption in other ways – in our day, usually in the ways of our body politic. In large part, we in the West have traded the theologia crucis for legislative sausage making.

In many regards, this way of theologizing is merely the inexorable upshot of the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century. As Bottum explains:

Early in the twentieth century … the main denominations of liberal American Protestantism gradually came to a new view of sin, understanding our innate failings as fundamentally social rather than personal. Crystallized by Walter Rauschenbusch’s influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Social Gospel movement saw such sins as militarism and bigotry as the forces that Christ revealed in his preaching – the social forces that crucified Him and the social forces against which He was resurrected. Not that Christ mattered all that much in the Social Gospel’s construal. Theological critics from John Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s pointed out that the Social Gospel left little for the Redeemer to do: Living after His revelation, what further use do have we of Him? Jesus may be the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder …

The Social Gospel’s loss of a strong sense of Christ facilitated the drift of congregants – particularly the elite and college-educated classes – out of the mainline that had once defined the country. Out of the churches and into a generally secularized milieu.

They did not leave empty-handed. Born in the Christian churches, the civil rights movement had focused on bigotry as the most pressing of social sins in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the mainline Protestants began to leave their denominations, they carried with them the Christian shape of social and moral ideas, however much they imagined they had rejected Christian content.

When I read Bottum’s analysis of our current situation, I can’t help but think of Rudolf Bultmann, the famed twentieth century German theologian, who sought to free Christianity from its so-called “mythical” trappings – trappings like Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ teachings, and, ultimately, Jesus’ very resurrection. I wonder if this old liberal theologian isn’t smiling down on us right now. After all, his project of demythologizing Christianity has now been completed, probably more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined. For Christianity in secular society has indeed been stripped of all its mythical trappings – including, as it turns out, Christ Himself.  We are left only with the residual ghosts of Christian morality to convict us of socially abhorrent sins without the historical cross of the resurrected Christ to comfort us in all sin.

Of course, orthodox Christians cannot accept Bultmann’s project or its outcome. But even if we cannot accept it, it is important that we understand it. For if we do not understand the theological shape of our secular society, we will perhaps miss opportunities to offer our salvific rest of the story to our society’s guilt-ridden part of the story.

And that would be a sin.

_________________________

[1] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[2] Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” The Weekly Standard (12.1.2014).

March 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Humans: Never for Sale

Credit:  texasgopvote.com

Credit: texasgopvote.com

Shortly before the new year, The New York Times published a short, heartbreaking article featuring stories from U.S. sex trafficking victims. Though there were only two stories, these were all that was needed to shock and grieve their reader. I share one of the two here:

Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.

For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them …

“I didn’t know I was in hell,” she said. “I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be.”[1]

If only Genesis’ story was unique. But it’s not. Sex trafficking is a much broader problem. Though it’s hard to track because so many victims of sex trafficking do not report their experiences, the Department of Justice estimates that as many as 300,000 children may become victims of sexual exploitation each year.[2] Even if the numbers are lower, one case of sex trafficking is one too many.

The sadness of human exploitation struck me in a new way as I was reading Revelation 18 in my devotions this past week. John is describing the fall of Babylon, a city symbolic of the world’s evil. John describes the decimation of this world’s systemic sin once and for all:

“Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. (Revelation 18:10-13)

John’s Babylon sold many things to enrich itself. But most tragically, it sold the “bodies and souls of men.”

John’s Babylon is not far from us. Every time a young lady is prostituted out to the darkest of men, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by pimps – just like in Babylon. Every time a woman performs simulated sex acts at a club for a gaggle of wide-eyed gawkers, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the adult entertainment industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a person sits hidden behind a flickering computer screen, staring at erotic images of the most carnal of acts, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the porn industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a scared woman is counseled and even cajoled to abort her baby even though everything inside of her is telling her not to, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the abortion industry – just like in Babylon.

How sick.

As heart-rending as human trafficking may be, John promises that, mercifully, this sick industry will meet its end. The “bodies and souls of men” will not be sold forever. Babylon will fall. And when Babylon does fall, the merchants who made their money off the pain of people will grieve their destruction and cry, “Woe” (Revelation 18:19)! But those who have been oppressed and sold will celebrate their liberation and shout, “Rejoice” (Revelation 18:20)!

May that day of rejoicing come quickly.

If you need help out of being trafficked, click here.

_______________________

[1] The Associated Press, “Sex Trafficking Shelter Filled With Survivor Tales,” The New York Times (12.29.2014).

[2] William Adams, Colleen Owens, and Kevonne Small, “Effects of Federal Legislation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (July 2010).

January 26, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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