Posts tagged ‘Wall Street Journal’

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Suicide Rates Keep Climbing

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Credit: cocoparisienne from Pixabay 

Suicide has become a national mental health crisis. Story after story bears this out. Take this, for instance, from Brianna Abbott of The Wall Street Journal:

The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … Around 2010, the death rate of suicides among adolescents and young adults surpassed the rate of homicide deaths, according to the report.

This spike in suicides comes after a period of relatively stable suicide deaths between 2000 and 2007.  And it’s not just young people who are taking their own lives at an exponentially increasing rate. Ms. Abbott goes on to note:

Suicide rates in general have increased in the U.S. across all ages and ethnic groups, rising roughly 30% from 1999 to 2016. 

This is terrifying, especially since we can’t seem to figure out precisely why suicide rates are increasing so dramatically. EJ Dickson, also writing about the latest CDC statistics for Rolling Stone, explains:

Alarmingly, public health experts have no idea why the suicide rate for young adults is increasing so rapidly. “The truth is anyone who says they definitively know what is causing it doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington, recently told the Washington Post. “It’s a complex problem with no easy answers so far” …

Most mental health experts caution against isolating one “cause” or factor when discussing suicide. Though we know there are certain factors, such as a history of mental illness or substance use, that put teenagers at increased risk for taking their own lives, the mental health establishment simply doesn’t have enough research to draw “firm scientific conclusions” about what causes spikes in suicide, Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist and a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, previously told Rolling Stone. Regardless of what external factors may or may not be contributing, it is “much more likely there are complex things going on in society. We just don’t understand suicide well enough,” she said.

Dr. Foreman’s reference to “complex things going on in society” is ominous. We know monumental societal shifts are taking place. From the ascendency of social media, the overuse and misuse of which has been linked to depression, to the glorification of suicide itself, there are plenty of potential culprits behind these scary statistics, even if we can’t pinpoint precisely how much of a role these culprits play.

With societal shifts affecting how we see the value of our lives – even if their precise effects remain statistically vague – it has become clear that we need a way of seeing ourselves that does not shift with society, but is instead steady in spite of society. Christianity has consistently affirmed and defended the value and dignity of the human person and human life. Our value and dignity are not derived from our status, our income, or even our own feelings about our own selves. Instead, they are grounded in our Creator who, when He created us, called us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Jesus affirms the value of humanity with a small, but powerful analogy:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

“If God takes good care of the sparrows,” Jesus says, “it should be self-evident that He will take great care of you. After all, if the sparrows are valuable to Him, imagine how much more valuable you are to Him.”

Indeed.

So, if you are feeling worthless or like life is not worthwhile, Jesus invites you to drop the societal estimations of your value and find your value – and hope – in Him. He has given you a life worth living.

October 28, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Real Truth About Fake News

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Recently, I came across a New York Times feature piece bemoaning the increase of what are deemed “fake news sites.”  These are websites that purport to share what which is newsworthy, but regularly play fast and loose with the facts, usually to further a particular political agenda.  For instance, days before the election, a news story from The Denver Guardian received hundreds of thousands of shares on social media:  “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”  It sounded salacious – and terrifying.  There was only only problem:  it was completely fabricated.  For starters, The Denver Guardian did not exist before this year.  Moreover, the article contained misspellings and demonstrably untrue details, such as a reference to the “Walkerville Police Department” in Maryland.  Walkersville does not have a police department.  It should also be noted that no other noted news outlets picked up this story, which, if true, would have caused a stir among at least certain corners of the media.  Still, this article was shared more than half a million times on Facebook alone.

Of course, fake news is nothing new.  Tabloids have been around for a long time and have managed to prove very profitable precisely because they are more concerned with feeding readers titillating stories than true ones.  Indeed, each year, Oxford Dictionaries names a “word of the year.”  This year’s word is “post-truth,” because it seems “to capture the English-speaking public’s mood and preoccupations…where people lived through divisive, populist upheavals that often seemed to prize passion above all else – including facts.”

This particular surge of fake news fury seems to have been fueled not only by political passion, but, at least in part, by what many perceive to be the bias of traditional news outlets.  For example, the Pulitzer Prize winning website politifact.com has been widely panned because, though it purports to check the truthfulness of what politicians say in public forums, it has been shown to rate what some politicians say – especially those who are more conservative – as “false” even though some of the statements in question could reasonably be considered as true.  In other words, a website that claims to be devoted to uncovering the truth has been shown to be, in some instances, clouding it.

Christians have long held the truth in high regard.  We do, after all, follow a man who not only claims to “tell the truth,” but actually to “be the truth.”  This is why it is so incumbent on us to watch what we say, what we write, what we teach, and, yes, what we post on social media.  We have not always been the best at the this.  For instance, have ever you heard it claimed that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians? This may sound alarming.  But it shouldn’t be.  Because it’s not true.

One interesting trend in churches is that of fact-checking sermons.  Many folks will now Google a statistic that a pastor cites or a publicly available anecdote that a pastor shares to check whether or not it is true.  Can you imagine the damage done to the Christian witness if a pew-sitter finds that some of what a pastor is saying is not, in fact, true?

A willingness to be less than concerned with the truth can often be symptomatic of a deeper disease.  On the one hand, it can be symptomatic of an intellectual laziness.  With so many competing facts and figures floating around, sometimes it takes time to chase down what is accurate and what is not. Some people simply do not want to be bothered.  It’s easier to take the first thing you find and run with it.  But if you want to put in a little extra work to verify what you read, this terrific (and funny) article by Matt Masur offers some simple suggestions on how to fact check that Facebook post that raises your hackles.

A lack of concern with the truth can also be a symptom of a desperate desire to bolster a particular argument, even if that comes at the cost of the integrity of reality.  That is, whether it is posting a cagey news story on social media or citing a suspect statistic in a sermon, some people simply cannot resist the kind of “slam-dunk” affirmations these kinds of stories and statistics provide.  Unfortunately, once they are shown to be false, they can actually undermine the very argument they seek to make.

If we truly believe in whatever arguments we make, the truthful versions of these arguments ought to be persuasive enough.  If we don’t think they are, we don’t need a sensationalistic zinger to make our case.  We need different arguments.  After all, Jesus is quite clear that deceit comes from only one place – a place that is the antithesis of the kingdom of God.  The truth is enough.  So let’s stick with the truth, celebrate the truth, and traffic in the truth.

November 21, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

On Edge…About Everything

FearLast Wednesday morning was an unexpectedly frenzied one. Within the scope of a few hours, all United Airlines planes were grounded, the website for the Wall Street Journal went dark, and trading at the New York Stock Exchange grinded to a screeching halt. The problem in each instance? Computer glitches.

It didn’t take long for people to begin to fear that we under some sort of cyber attack. Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, opened the newscast that night with an honest acknowledgement of the anxiety so many were feeling:

A lot of us got that uneasy feeling today when within hours of each other separate computer outages grounded all United Airlines flights and halted trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Uneasy feeling, indeed. What happened was so startling, it got the attention of Homeland Security.

In the end, it was discovered that United’s problems stemmed from “a failed computer network router that disrupted its reservation system.” Trading on the New York Stock Exchange went down because of a “botched software upgrade” the night before. As for the Wall Street Journal, though no definitive explanation has been offered for its problems, some are speculating that the trouble at the Stock Exchange drove people to the Wall Street Journal for updates, which, in turn, crashed the website. Cyber terrorism had nothing to do with anything. We had no need to fear. But we did.

Fear is plentiful these days. It doesn’t take much to make us apprehensive. Sadly, fear is just as prevalent – if not more so – in the Church as it is in wider society. I have talked to Christians who are wringing their hands over what could very well be an erosion of our religious liberty. I have talked to Christians who are terrified by what is happening oversees – and, for that matter, close to home – with ISIS. I have talked to Christians who are anxious about our nation’s economic path. I have talked to Christians who are frightened by just about everything.

For Christians who are full of fear, this description of who we are as the Church from Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as timely:

Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness? Is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of His mingling with the misery of sin to the point where He actually seems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectations of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love – love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the filth of the world, in order thus to overcome it?[1]

This is an impressively clear, cogent, and, I should affirm, broadly, even if not comprehensively, correct ecclesiological statement from the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church, Benedict reminds us, is incarnational in her character and missional in her charter. She goes to places no one else would dare to darken – filthy places, impoverished places, wicked places, sinful places. As the Church ministers in sinful places like these, she, like Jesus, in the words of the former pope, can “actually seem to sink under [sin’s] weight.” But, of course, when Jesus sank, He didn’t sink for long. Three days is all sin got of Him. So it is with Christ’s Church. “The gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18), Jesus promises. Sin may attack the Church, but it will not overcome her.

When we, as the Church, become afraid of the sinfulness in our world, we stop acting as the Church should for our world. We become so scared of sinners because of what they might to do to us that we forget to love sinners as Christ has loved us. The fearfulness of the faithful, it turns out, can be just as dangerous to the Church as the sinfulness of the world, for it stymies the Church in her mission.

In 1931, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén published Christus Victor where he wrote of how Christ “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering.”[2] To this day, his book is a standard-bearer for discussions about Christ’s work and accomplishments on the cross. But we must always remember that Christ’s victory is also our victory. Christus Victor is the promise of Ecclesia Victor.

Do not, then, be afraid. Instead, be the Church. The world needs us.

______________________________

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 342.

[2] Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, A.G. Hebert, trans. (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 4.

July 13, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sex That Shouldn’t Sell…But It Does

It may be a cliché, but it is most certainly true:  sex sells.  Just ask Barnes and Noble.  Jeffrey Trachtenberg of The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the quarterly sales of the last remaining brick and mortar chain bookstore giant and noted that the numbers of its retail stores were up – 2% to $1.1 billion.  Trachtenberg cites two reasons for this impressive growth.  First, Barnes and Noble is reaping the benefits of the recent bankruptcy and closure of Borders.  Apparently, many Borders’ customers have found their way to Barnes and Noble.  But the second cause has nothing to do with corporate competition.  Instead, it has everything to do with sexual infatuation.  E.L. James’ bestselling hotly erotic trilogy with its flagship novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, is cited by the company in a public report as “a key revenue driver at its retail stores.”[1]  A racy trilogy is singlehandedly driving sales at a major book retailer…way up.  And that book retailer explains in an official ccorporate report that a racy trilogy is driving its sales way up…gladly.

This report from Barnes and Noble is sadly indicative of the spirit of our society.  It is not just that we are fascinated by sex, it is that we are fascinated by that which has been traditionally sexually forbidden.  The racier and the raunchier something is, the more piqued our collective cultural curiosity becomes.

What is especially notable about Fifty Shades is that it is erotica aimed at women.   Traditionally, pornography has been marketed to men, with stunningly and sadly successful results.  Indeed, pornography addiction has been generally considered to be a male problem rather than a female one.   With the Fifty Shades trilogy, however, we learn that women seem to be just as vulnerable to the pornography industry, though instead of featuring lewd pictures, this pornography finds its hook in spicy storylines.

Now more than ever, Christian believers must stand up for a biblical sexual ethic – and not because we can self-righteously claim to be free from sexual sin, for Jesus makes it clear in His Sermon on the Mount that none of us are innocent of sexual immorality (cf. Matthew 5:27-28), but because the Christian sexual ethic tells the truth about human sexuality.  Contrary to the vulgar verbal voyeurism encouraged by explicit bestselling novels, sex is more than biological arousal and satisfaction.  Instead, it is meant to be an expression of fidelity and unity, blessing husbands and wives with the gift of not only pleasure, but children.  Sex is meant to be a valuable gift rather than a cheap thrill.  And it is supposed to honor human dignity rather than degrade it (cf. Romans 1:24).

Perhaps the heart and soul of the Bible’s sexual ethic is best summed up in a single verb:  “know.”  Time and time again, the Bible uses this verb as a euphemistic way to refer to sexual intimacy:

  • “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1).
  • “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Genesis 4:17).
  • “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her” (1 Samuel 1:19).

This verb reminds us that sex is meant for husbands and wives to know each other more deeply and connect to each other more intimately.  It is not meant for near strangers to grope each other in quest of some cut-rate erotic fantasy.  Sex is far more valuable than that.  And so are the people who engage in it.  Will you stand up for the value of sex and for the dignity of the people whom God has created as sexual beings?


[1] Jeffrey Trachtenberg, “‘Fifty Shades’ of Books” (The Wall Street Journal, 8.21.12).

August 27, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Facebook Follies

“Does Facebook Wreck Marriages?”  So asked the provocative title of Quentin Fottrell’s blog for the Wall Street Journal.[1]  Of course, we know that Facebook in and of itself is not responsible for the breakdown of wedded bliss; rather, it is the way people use Facebook that damages marriages.  Still, the statistics cited in Fottrell’s article are staggering:

  • More than a third of divorce filings last year contained the word “Facebook.”
  • Over 80% of U.S. divorce attorneys say they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases using social networking.
  • Of the fifteen cases Gary Traystman, a divorce attorney in New London, Connecticut, handles per year where computer history, texts, and emails are admitted as evidence, 60% involve Facebook exclusively.

Why does Facebook play such a key role in so many connubial collapses?  Fottrell brings in an expert for keen insights:

“Affairs happen with a lightning speed on Facebook,” says K. Jason Krafsky, who authored the book Facebook and Your Marriage with his wife Kelli. In the real world, he says, office romances and out-of-town trysts can take months or even years to develop. “On Facebook,” he says, “they happen in just a few clicks.” The social network is different from most social networks or dating sites in that it both re-connects old flames and allows people to “friend” someone they may only met once in passing. “It puts temptation in the path of people who would never in a million years risk having an affair,” he says.

Krafsky’s last line is key:  “It puts temptation in the path of people.”

Jesus knew how readily people can fall to temptation when it is placed even peripherally in their path.  This is why He warns His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Mark 14:38).  Jesus’ caution against temptation and His diagnosis of the flesh’s relative spiritual strength, or rather, its lack thereof, ought to be taken seriously.

When a marriage is in disarray, Facebook can provide an all too easily accessible foray into the arena of temptation.  Its appeal lies at two opposing poles.  On the one side, Facebook provides a public forum for a scorned spouse to spout off about how he or she has been wronged and receive eager and many times blind support from friends who are, at best, only partially informed about the situation.  On the other side, though Facebook is public, it deceptively feels private.  After all, it’s only “friends” who can see what you are posting – that is, until a divorce attorney subpoenas records from your Facebook account and presents them in court as incriminating evidence.

Both the public and private faculties of Facebook make its appeal to those in rocky relationships almost irresistible.  But when Facebook is used to arbitrate an unsettled union, it inevitably leads to ruin.  For it allows couples to steep themselves in the sometimes rotten advice from friends or the sometimes illicit advances of lovers while avoiding conversation with the person they need to be talking with the most – the other spouse.

So, how can a couple use Facebook to connect with friends – old and new alike – while steering clear of its more seedy enticements?  A few practical, common sense safeguards can go a long way to protecting your integrity – and your marriage.

  • First, make sure your spouse has access to your Facebook account.  There is no reason why your spouse should not know what you’re posting online.  If you’re trying to surprise him or her using a little help from your Facebook friends, find another way.  Sustained trust trumps an occasional need for the secrecy of a surprise.
  • Second, if your marriage is troubled, personal details are not Facebook appropriate.  You don’t need uneven advice from partial pals, you need professional guidance from a licensed therapist.  Facebook is a great place to post thought-provoking quotes, interesting articles, and even pictures of your Memorial Day backyard barbeque or your newborn bouncing baby boy.  It is not an appropriate place, however, to air your, or someone else’s, dirty laundry.  Falstaff, though he was a shameful coward in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, proved to be wise beyond his actions when he said, “The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have sav’d my life.”[2]  Discretion on Facebook may just save your marriage.
  • Third, be discerning.  Believe it or not, regardless of a person’s Facebook classification as your “friend,” not everyone you communicate with on social networking sites has your best interest at heart.  And not everyone who proffers advice via the internet knows what he or she talking about, or, as the case may be, “posting” about.  This means that you should not set yourself up to get bad advice from your Facebook friends by posting sordid details of your life gone awry, nor should you insert yourself via public posts into someone else’s messy Facebook spectacle.  If you’re truly concerned about someone, a face-to-face conversation, or, if that is impossible, a private conversation by some other means, works much better than a public posting.

Finally, a sober estimation of your own sinful desires and weaknesses may be the best safeguard against the wily relational entrapments that internet social networking can bring.  No matter how strong you may think your marriage is, all it takes is one click or keystroke to lead it down the road to ruin.  And so we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13).


[1] Quentin Fottrell, “Does Facebook Wreck Marriages?The Wall Street Journal (5.21.12).

[2] William Shakespeare, Henry the Fourth (Part 1, Act 5, Scene 4).

June 4, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Civic Law: Why It Matters To Christians

God’s law is external to us and internal in us all at the same time.  On the one hand, it is external to us.  God, quite apart from our opinions and objections, has clearly revealed His law in His Word.  And regardless of cultural sentiments, sensibilities, or sensitivities, and oftentimes in direct opposition to these, God’s Word stands.  As the prophet Isaiah declares, “The word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  On the other hand, God’s law is also internal in us.  In Romans 1 and 2, the apostle Paul discuses how those who do not have God’s external, revealed law, as given in Holy Scripture, nevertheless know right from wrong.  This is his conclusion:

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to the gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)

Thus, even if someone is not a biblical scholar, he can still know right from wrong and righteousness from wickedness, for God has gone to the trouble of sketching and etching His law on every individual’s heart.  This is why, when we fall prey to immorality, an innate twinge of guilt wells up inside of us.

In doctrinal parlance, we call the sketching and etching of God’s law on each human heart the doctrine of “natural law.”  Because human beings are created by God, human beings know, by nature, what God’s law requires.

The theological principle of God’s natural, moral law, and the way it is sketched and etched on every human heart, has long been foundational in understanding our nation’s legal, civic law.  Traditionally, in order for a person to be convicted of a crime, they have to be found to have a mens rea, a Latin legal term meaning “a guilty mind.”  Under our nation’s legal system, it is generally assumed that a person must know he is committing a crime in order for him to be found guilty of that crime.  This is why if a dog, for instance, mauls a postal worker, though we may put the dog down, we do not put the dog in jail.  For he does not have “a guilty mind.”  He does not know that what he has done is wrong.  But this principle of mens rea is changing.

Yesterday, in The Wall Street Journal, Gary Fields and John Emshwiller published an article titled, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines.”[1]  They note, “What once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time.”  The authors go on to explain that in order to convict a person of a crime, prosecutors no longer have to prove that a defendant has a mens rae.  One especially disturbing incident cited by the authors involves the 1998 case of Dane A. Yirkovsky. While doing some remodeling work, Mr. Yirkovsky found a .22 caliber bullet underneath a carpet, which he subsequently put in a box in his room.  Though he did not think he was doing anything wrong, because he had a criminal record, federal officials contended that possessing even a single bullet violated a federal law prohibiting felons from having firearms.  He is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence.

Part of the problem, Fields and Emshwiller note, is the rapid proliferation of federal laws.  The article states:

Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.

With so many new laws on the books, it’s no wonder people can commit crimes utterly unaware that what they’re doing is illegal!  And these days, it doesn’t matter whether or not a person is aware that what he’s doing is illegal.  A person can be tried and convicted quite apart from the principle of mens rea.

Why should Christians be concerned with the deterioration of mens rea?  Because it marks the divorce of our nation’s civic law from God’s internally inscribed natural law.  For decades, our legal codes were generally tied to overriding and undergirding moral concerns, internally ingrained into humans by their Creator.   Even something as seemingly morally arbitrary as the speed limit was connected to a moral concern – that of human safety.  But as our civic law has become more and more divorced from its moral counterpart, our civic law now permits things like abortion, something that clearly defies moral law, for it involves the deliberate taking of a human’s life in the name of human choice.  When this kind of activity is permitted by civic law, it not only makes civic law confusing, because it has no natural rhyme or reason but is instead bureaucratically and politically driven, it also diminishes natural, moral law.  For when something permitted by civic law contradicts natural, moral law, people often use the civic code to bludgeon and silence their consciences which testify to God’s natural, moral law.  This, in turn, radically alters even Christians’ attitudes toward basic moral and ethical issues.  For example, in a survey conducted by the Barna group, researchers found among people aged twenty-three to forty-one, 59 percent thought cohabitation between unmarried persons was morally acceptable, 44 percent considered sex before marriage to be morally permitted, and 32 percent thought abortion was a moral option for an unwanted pregnancy.[2]  Our civic permissions are changing our God-given moral sensibilities.

Finally, when people rebel against God’s natural, moral law, they walk down a road, even if this road is paved by civic permissions, to deep pain and suffering.  And this should break our hearts and, kind of ironically, trouble our consciences.

Civic law that contradicts moral law is immoral.  And because God has inscribed His moral law into the natural, and thereby universal, realm, we, as Christians, should lovingly and steadfastly stand up for that which God has given, even when our civics contradict it.  It’s only natural.


[1] Gary Fields & John R. Emshwiller, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines,” The Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2011).

[2] Cited in David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity And Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) 53.

September 28, 2011 at 11:40 am Leave a comment


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