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Violence all Around Us

As I sit here this morning struggling to wrap my head around the recent school shootings that have taken place, it has me thinking about the violence of our society. True, when students and teachers lose their lives in what is supposed to be a place of learning, not a place of fear, it shakes you up — it has to. Yet, school shootings are not the only thing that is robbing our nation’s families of their future generations. Drugs and drug overdoses have become widespread and are plaguing our communities. Then we can talk about gangs and the crime associated with that, we can talk about how the innocence of so many young people is being robbed through rape and exploitation, and bullying has become an epidemic.

As a Christian, the simple answer, of course, is sin. Mankind is fallen, we have inherited it from our forefathers all of the way back to Adam, and the only solution is the completed work of Jesus Christ. No amount of legislation or government regulation will change this reality or will make our land less violent. Violence goes along with sin and always has — it goes back to Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel.

Yet, I don’t want to stop there because it seems to me that violence, in particularly violence performed by and against our youth, is on the rise. One might say that the rise in violence is simply the end result of there being more people in our country and in our communities, but I think that is too simplistic an answer because while we cannot change human nature, the actions we take and the principles we teach do affect the culture in which we live. And therein lies much of the problem.

While there are probably more contributors (feel free to share your thoughts here), I want to focus on two. The first of these things is that for more than a generation, young men and women have been taught that they evolved from lower life-forms. This is very obviously not consistent with a Christian world-view, but how does this promote violence? The answer is that in an evolutionary model, the main goal of a species is self-preservation and the right to breed. The phrases that most commonly gets used is “the survival of the fittest” or “the strong survive.” If one applies this mindset to humans, the one of central importance becomes the self and everyone around you exists to serve your needs. The moment they cease to benefit you, they get thrown to the side. Virtues like self-sacrifice, mercy, kindness, and chivalry are simply not a part of the “Law of the Jungle,” and thus vanishing from the worldviews of those taught in this way. I have said before, if you teach children that they are nothing more than evolved animals, do not be surprised when they behave like animals.

The second of these matters is that for more than a generation, people have been taught that they are basically good and it is society that corrupts. If this were the case, then why bother teaching moral law? If deep-down, people are good, then they are capable of following their own moral compass. And so, the teaching of absolute morality (like the Ten Commandments) has been replaced by the teaching of situational ethics. Everything is treated as relative (except for the laws of the State…funny how that works). 

The problem is that deep down, we are not good, we are sinful. In fact, Question 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks whether we can keep the Law of God perfectly. The answer is surprising to most students: “No. By nature, I tend to hate God and my neighbor.” Most of the time people don’t think of themselves as hating God or their neighbor, but what is unprovoked violence if it is not an expression of hatred? And, is not hatred the opposite of love? Jesus said that if we love him, we will be obedient to his commands (John 14:15). Do we obey the commands of God consistently or even conscientiously? Usually not. 

What is the solution? The only real and lasting solution is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, we can also change the way we teach. We can teach children that they are made in the image of God and thus have a moral obligation to imitate him and live out his law. We can teach them that deep down they are sinners in need of grace as well as that they are in need of showing grace to others. We can teach them that their moral compass is not within themselves, but is found within the revealed word of God. No, you do not create Christian children by teaching them the Law (that is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit), but you do create more of a moral community by doing so. And that is a community in which both believer and non-believer will thrive…and it is a community in which violence is greatly reduced. 

The thing that grieves me the most is that if we do not change the way we live and function as a society, things will get worse and not better.

May we Interrogate? Torture?

“He caught a young man from the men of Succoth and interrogated him. This he wrote down for him the princes of Succoth and the seventy-seven men who were elders.”

(Judges 8:14)

On the way back home, the two kings of Midian in tow, Gideon does not forget his threat to the men of the cities who opposed him. Thus, he captures a young man…perhaps one who had been working in the fields and demands to know the names of the Elders and Princes of the city. These are those whom will feel Gideon’s wrath.

The word lDaDv (sha’al) that is translated here as “interrogate” is arguably better translated as “demand.” It is often used in the context of a beggar demanding aggressively demanding money from someone on the street — intimidating the person if the person does not want to offer monies. Thus, this is not merely a matter of asking questions, but there is a sense that Gideon forcefully extracted information from this lad.

One might be tempted to ask the question about the morality of such actions. Does one have the right to interrogate with force to obtain information? Might one be permitted to use techniques of bodily harm to gain such information…things like torture? While there is no indication in the language that Gideon would have used any sort of torture device on this young man, the question rises from the text.

The first thing that must be pointed out here, though, is that Gideon is acting with governmental authority, thus he is given the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). Thus, Gideon can act in ways that you or I do not have the authority to act. Yet, if we are going to extrapolate from the idea of the penalty suiting the crime (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20), then one can make the argument that extent to which the official presses for the information must suit the importance of the information to be gotten. This would make the question of how far one might intimidate a person, demanding information, a question that would have to be tackled on a case by case basis.

In any case, this young man has been caught by seasoned soldiers and brought back to Gideon. I doubt that it would have taken much prying to get this young man to open his mouth about who the leaders of Succoth were. Vengeance will follow.

An Open Letter to President Obama, Governor McCrory, and other Interested Parties: Bathrooms and the Strange Legacy of Sartre

Presuppositions govern our perspectives on life and until we recognize that, we tend toward intellectual dishonesty at best and our debates tend more toward sophism than truth. Once we recognize that, we can engage with much more humility in honest conversation…that is, if we are willing. Sadly, honest and civil conversation around politics and religion, I am told, is a rare thing in our current society. People prefer to yell rather than to earn the right to whisper. My hope for this letter is to whisper.

To do that, I must be up front as to where my presuppositions lie. If you have read much of my blog, that ought to be obvious, but in case this is new to you, know that I am a Christian pastor in an old German-Reformed congregation. I consider the Bible to be the true revelation from God, with every word inspired through many authors across many generations, but all by one God. Thus, I affirm doctrines like that of inerrancy and infallibility when it comes to the Bible. That puts me amongst a group that are often labeled as “fundamentalists,” and that may be accurate, but if it is, my fundamentalism is much more akin to that of Gresham Machen than to that of Pat Robertson. I value intelligent dialogue, not mere rhetoric to gain influence.

As I said, my hope is to whisper, but perhaps it is more than that, my hope is also to interject a perspective into the conversation that I have not heard much of in the news that has covered the debates around bathrooms and who uses them.

The Simple Solution

Of course, I ought to note that there are simple solutions to the question at hand, yet simple solutions are often not what people strive for in American politics. One solution, which would favor the view of the political right would be to change the labeling of bathroom doors from “men” or “women” to “XX” or “XY.” Chromosomes are things with which we are born and they do not change as a result of a “gender identity” decision or even as a result of gender reassignment surgery. The chromosomes with which you are born are chromosomes with which you will die.

The other option, which would favor the political left would simply be to convert all bathrooms to single-use bathrooms to be used by anyone when the need arises. This is certainly how the vast majority of us live when we are in our homes, we could certainly adapt to that in public institutions without that much grief, though obviously there would need to be some remodeling work done to achieve this end. A variation on this can be found in many places in Europe where there are common restrooms for both men and women. In these areas, there are private stalls for use, but common sinks that both men and women share. I confess that as an American raised in the conservative countryside of rural Maryland, the first time I encountered a bathroom such as this, it took some getting used to, but it still wasn’t long before I adapted.

But we don’t want Simple Solutions, do we?

The reality is, this is not really a question about bathrooms, is it? While I do not know the current statistics, I would imagine that the population in America that would identify as transgender is relatively small. That does not mean that the question of how to accommodate those who are “transitioning” should not be taken seriously, it rightly should. But it seems odd that so great a battle has been waged on this matter in our culture. Surely there are overall relatively few people “challenging” which bathroom to enter. As to the other side of the debate, I would imagine that a male who presented himself as a female would receive little attention (if any) for using the ladies room in a public place. I would suggest that the same would apply to a woman who presented herself as a man.

Presuppositions and Principles?

Permit me to suggest that the real question behind the matter of bathrooms is the question of public acceptance. Will we, or will we not, accept the notion of gender choice in our society. Those who are proponents of the LGBT community would say that society as a whole must accept their lifestyle choices as legitimate and thus bathrooms and other public accommodations must be made. Those, particularly, like myself on the Christian right, would say that gender is not fluid, but is tied to biological sexuality (remember the Chromosomes above?). This is the real question at hand, though I suppose it might be easier to fight over bathrooms than to tackle the question seriously (and yes, that is a rebuke of both sides).

Lewis or Sartre?

So, which comes first? In Sartre’s work, Existentialism is a Humanism, he argues that at the heart of the existentialist perspective is the notion that existence precedes essence. In other words, we first come into being and then we are given the awful freedom and responsibility of giving meaning to that existence. Even so, according to Sartre, giving meaning belongs primarily to the individual. Applied to gender, the cultural grandchildren of Sartre would state that defining their own gender identity is part of giving meaning to one’s own existence.

In contrast to Sartre, C.S. Lewis, who is oftentimes claimed by Existentialists as one of their own (though I would disagree with that claim), when discussing gender and sexuality in the novel, Perelandra, describes sexuality as an outward expression of an inward reality (the inward reality being gender). Thus, existence and essence are inextricably bound together, but with essence preceding existence — borrowing the notion of St. Augustine that essence begins in the mind of God.

So, who is right? Clearly, I lean toward Lewis. To be fair, our culture leans toward Sartre. I appeal to the Bible as my ultimate authority; our culture tends to appeal to experience and personal expression as its ultimate authority. Which is right? I suppose that both sides of the conversation are equally committed to their position, but while I have been known in other contexts to vigorously debate the rationality of appealing to the Bible as one’s ultimate authority and in turn, submitting to its precepts, I promised that I would whisper, so I will only point out the different starting points that each side of the debate holds.

Confounding Terms

I will say, though, that one of the problems in the conversation is that terms have not been well defined and are often confounded with one another. Sexuality and Gender are prime culprits. Sexuality deals with one’s biology. This includes, but is not limited to genitalia. It also includes inner organs that are germane to males or females respectively as well as those pesky chromosomes. As chromosomes do not change nor do the actual organs a person has in their body, “gender reassignment” ought not be referred to as a “sex-change” though that is often the term that is applied.

In contrast to sexuality, gender is defined more by societal norms than it is by one’s biology. This deals with our roles, our manner of dress, and the way we interact with one another.  Historically, gender has largely been tied to biology (as Lewis would affirm), but in today’s world, the question that is being raised (largely thanks to Sartre and our Existential culture) is whether we must bind them together or if they can be treated seperately. Curiously, if one separates the idea of gender from that of sexuality, gender then becomes solely a matter of self-expression, and the idea of “gender-reassignment surgery” becomes as much of a misnomer as the phrase “sex-change surgery.” The surgery itself becomes nothing more than a cosmetic modification to make it easier to appear as the gender of one’s choice.

Laws

Laws have two purposes. The first purpose is to punish wrong-doing. The second purpose is to discourage people from behavior that is immoral. Herein lies another point of debate. How is immoral behavior defined. Clearly, I would appeal to the Bible. Society seems to appeal to social expectations, a view that I believe is fraught with danger given the fickle nature of said expectations and the sinful nature of man. Each law, though, at its very core, must answer the question, “How am I rewarding moral behavior and punishing behavior that is immoral?” And yes, with that in mind, every law legislates someone’s morality on some level.

From My Point of View

Given that I have already shared my presuppositions, it should be obvious as to where my point of view lies. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is immoral in the first place and it seems to me that much of the draw of Transgenderism is the notion of making homosexual desires more acceptable in the eyes of the culture. Even if not overtly intended to be a gateway into homosexual behavior, living life in gender roles different than those which would normally be bound to one’s sex is a form of deception, which, too, is an immoral action according to the Bible.

Whispering and the Conversation in Front of Us

The real question is whether or not we can have a dialogue on this matter in a productive way while still whispering and not raising our voices or our fists. Personally, I am very concerned that the opening up of bathrooms is little more than a first step — a minor skirmish in a larger campaign — towards something that not only will radically change the nature of the culture around us, but will also invite young men and women to express themselves and their urges in even greater immorality. I fear too, that it will be the loudest voice and not the most sound argument that will win the day and the whispers of truth will be drowned out and forgotten.

The Ethic of Authenticity

“You are the light of the world; it is not possible for a city established on a mountaintop to hide.  Nor does one light a lamp and set it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, thus it illuminates the whole house.  In this way, shine your light before mankind so they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.”

(Matthew 5:14-16)

When we talk about ethics, usually questions of morality come to mind.  The dictionary defines ethics in terms of moral principles that guide a person’s or a group’s behavior.  It also refers to a study of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any given action.  This rightness or wrongness ultimately is determined by a standard of some sort—for many, it is society (which leads to despotism) or their own preferences (which leads to chaos and anarchy), for the Christian, the standard is the Bible and specifically the Ten Commandments (along with Jesus’ summary of the 10 Commandments, that we are to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves).

As Christians, we are pretty used to hearing the language of moral norms and guidelines, though oftentimes, we approach them in practice more as practical suggestions than as absolute laws.  God commands us to make no idols, yet we idolize celebrities; we are called not to use the Lord’s name for vain purposes, yet many use church or their Christian profession simply as a way to generate more business.  We are called to keep the Sabbath holy, yet treat it as we would any other day.  We speak of a high moral calling in every area of life, yet often live it out half-heartedly and the world is watching us the whole time.  When a non-believer watches a Christian whose walk does not match his talk, there is a term that they rightfully use: “hypocrite.”

The English word, “authentic,” comes from two related Greek terms: aujqentiko/ß (authentikos), which means “original” or “genuine,” and aujqentikwvß (authentikos—with a long “o”), which refers to something that can be seen with perfect clarity (no blurry or grayed edges).  While neither word is found within the Biblical texts of either testament, the principle of being authentic is clearly portrayed.  Jesus says that we are to be lights to the world, guiding them through the darkness of this life and guiding them in such a way that the light is neither hidden nor distorted. We are to shine our light before men and in such a way that it clearly points to God and not to those doing the works.  In a very real sense, Jesus is calling us to be authentic in living out our faith.

While some would argue that the unbeliever is the real hypocrite and others would argue that churches really aren’t filled with hypocrisy, taking this tact of argumentation degenerates swiftly into an ad hominem argument and name calling is neither makes for effective evangelism nor is it the foundation for an honest relationship to be built upon.  If we as the church are to genuinely be a light that illuminates everything in the world and to do so with the aim of pointing people to God (the Great Commission), then as a church, we need to be ready to accept the honest criticism of unbelievers in this world and strive to live in an authentic way before watching eyes.  Rather than being defensive, let us strive toward authenticity in our faith, always seeking to live with integrity.  What the world wants to know is not whether our faith is better than the other alternatives this world has to offer; what the world wants to know is whether or not our faith is real and genuine.  They can live with some inconsistency; what they cannot abide with is inauthenticity.  Any Christian ethic that we might articulate will find itself entirely undermined unless it begins with the expectation that Christians live authentic—genuine—lives that are transparent and lived honestly (for good or for ill) before the world around us.  Until we live authentically and have authentic relationships with others in and out of the church, the watching world won’t be interested in what it is that we have to offer.

Does Your Location Affect Your Religion?

Recently, I heard a challenge to Christianity that was worded like this:  “The only reason you identify yourself as Christian is because you were born in America; if you had been born in Iraq, you would be Muslim and if you had been born in northern India, you would be Hindu—religion is nothing more than a cultural expression of morality.”  The person making the challenge was Richard Dawkins, a popular atheist in our culture today.  Though I had not heard that objection worded in the same basic way, I have heard this objection of Christianity before, and thought that I would like to pose a response from two perspectives.

The first perspective is purely a practical one, for I know that there are many nominal Christian parents that are essentially banking on this principle, hoping that their children will remain Christian (at least in name), while never truly training their children up in the faith.  They think that of course, America is a Christian nation, so of course, my children will remain Christians all of their life.  This not only exposes a faulty understanding of Christianity (as I will mention below), but it is a dangerous assumption, for America is becoming more and more of a secular, atheistic nation, and not a Christian one.  Thus, some are estimating that as many as 80% of teenagers leave the church when they hit their college years, often without returning.  Don’t get me wrong, many of them still think of themselves as Christian, but their Christianity has no bearing on the way they live their lives and for all practical purposes, they are secular humanists in practice and thought.

Furthermore, many of these children will openly reject Christianity because they see how self-serving, jaded, lazy, and corrupt so many churches have become.  Many embrace the atheism of their college professors, but others are embracing false religions like Islam because they are attracted to the self-discipline and rigid lifestyle that such religions offer.  We should not need to be reminded that one of the reasons that the Byzantine empire fell so easily to the Muslim expansion was due to the corruption and self-seeking nature of the church—people saw its weaknesses and rejected it as diseased and dying.  Such an observation has been made of much of the church in America.  Thus, it is not enough that we are actively pursuing the Christian faith, it is essential for us to recognize that our children must be actively pursuing the Christian faith as well.

That is the purely practical perspective, now for the theological one…  While many religions may very well be simply cultural expressions of morality, Christianity, by definition, is different.  For in Christ, we are called “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17)—in other words, we are changed from the outside in.  Christianity is not a mere self-help program, it is a total change of lifestyle that can only be accomplished if one is supernaturally changed by God—we refer to this as being “born again” (John 3:3).  This change is impossible to do for oneself, but God must effectively draw us to Christ as well (John 6:44).  God draws us from the world, God gives us new life, and God makes us a new creation.  This is more than mere morality, it is transformation.  And, it is a transformation that takes place all over the world, even in countries where you can be put to death for claiming Christ as Lord and Savior.

The sad thing is that too many Christians simply treat Christianity as a self-help program, and when that happens, they do not live like new creations and Christianity becomes nothing more than a social norm—a norm that is quickly being redefined in America.