Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Why can’t we be colorblind?

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In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind.  The idea sounded noble enough.  After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me.  Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality.  I get and affirm that.

However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity.  Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion.  Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful.  The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight.  They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations.  We are not monochromatic but polychromatic.  To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.

So far, so good.  But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art.  Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community.  There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.

Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance.  We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.

This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history.  Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing.  But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation.  In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world.  They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.

But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece.  It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others.  Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.

As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity.  It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity.  People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves.  As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.

So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create?  First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another.  People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another.  Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.

There’s a catch, of course.  We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations.  Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders.  They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial.  This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns.  Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal.  These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.

Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice.  For example, how can we genuinely care for one another?  How can we empower and protect minorities?  How can we check and limit the powers of the elite?  And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom?  Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.

Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity.  Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.

Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice.  These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present.  Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident.  Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling.  In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis.  Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times.  Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.

In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values.  Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies.  What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed.  These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm.  Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced.  The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision?  Whose will?  And why?

Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being.  Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations.  As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . .  To this day, there is no alternative to it.”

Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time.  Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.

This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.

From Heroic to Demonic: The Defacement and Destruction of Memorials

56401737af6c43a89576d1b493c59027_18In recent days, we have seen widespread defacing and destroying of many local and national statues and monuments.  It would seem that many names and faces of the past are being subjected to a barrage of contemporary scorn, derision, and opposition.

To be sure, some of these memorials have enshrined people and ideals that probably should never have been celebrated in the first place.  They are, in many ways, reminders of a time of racist oppression and godless subjugation.  As such, an honest admission of wrongly hallowing past evil-doers and the need for corrective action to be taken are positive signs of repentance and restitution.  Perhaps some could be moved to museums and we could learn from their wrongdoings and shortcomings, while still recognizing their positive societal contributions.

But having said this, just how stringent should our standards of enshrinement and retention be?  And when past heroes become disgraced by the changing winds of time, what contemporary criteria are we using to disgrace and discredit them?  One problem with judging the past through the lens of the present is that the blind spots of our age can become the embarrassments and sources of shame in the generations that follow.

One example comes quickly to mind: How will future generations judge our confused obsessions with gender and sexuality?  I suspect, for example, that many of the things we find so noble and defensible in these arenas might well be deemed downright decadent and devious by future generations.

Judging the past with criteria from the present is not wholly illegitimate, but it should always be done with circumspect humility and caution versus a bold and reckless sense of self-righteous indignation.  The standards with which we judge the past will often come back to haunt us in the future.  Our contemporary heroes can just as easily be weighed and found wanting in the scales of future generations since many of the standards are based on the ever-changing spirit of the age.  As such, what is considered heroic in one era is often deemed demonic in the next.

All of this highlights the fact that we should be careful and calculated when we start defacing and destroying long-standing historical monuments.  In a recent example, the Black Student Union and the (rather ironically named) Student Inclusion Coalition are now calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  To be fair, Lincoln was not a perfect man and he only became a Christian later in life.  He had to make hard decisions and compromise politically to preserve a fragile union that all Americans (regardless of race) still benefit from today.  Over the course of his life and career, there was plenty to find offensive and questionable.  After all, we are all deficient and if scrutinized closely enough, will be crushed by the demand for perfection.  The only ones who can stand up to the standard of flawlessness are figments of our own imaginations.  And even these figments will compete with one another if they are not grounded in a transcendent standard of determining who or what is truly perfect.

So, if you are looking for dirt on someone, rest assured, look hard and long enough and you will find it since we are all sinners.  No one but Jesus has led a perfect life, and even He gets a bad rap for the misuse and abuse of His name amongst His followers.

In the end, people are not perfect, but they can add value and teach us important lessons, nonetheless. There is a limit here, of course.  We cannot and should not immortalize just anyone at all.  But we can appreciate those whose lives were worthy of emulation and appreciation for the ways they helped change the world for the better, even if there were things for which they should be ashamed.

It is widely known, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer.  His honorable work for civil rights, however, overshadows this immoral aspect of his life.  It doesn’t hurt him much right now since adultery (and fornication, I might add) is not currently considered especially immoral when weighed against the sins of racism and racially-motivated murder, for example.  Every generation has its pet moral outrages regarding certain sins and its blind spots and passes toward others.  In our time, extra-marital sexual expression is deemed more akin to authenticity and normalcy than it is to unfaithfulness and betrayal.

Again, regardless of how you assess his sexual lifestyle, Martin Luther King, Jr. was so much more than that.  He was a hero for his moral courage, his persistent vision of equality, his brilliant wisdom in organizing and standing up peacefully and non-violently against the vicious racism of his time, alongside his willingness to suffer and die for what he knew was right.  We should not overlook his serious flaws, but neither should we overlook his many virtues simply because he was also an imperfect sinner.

One of the beautiful features of scripture is its deep honesty about the multifaceted character of its heroes.  The Apostle Peter was a loud-mouthed, boastful, and cowardly betrayer.  King David was a murderer and adulterer.  But the Bible also tells us what these men (and many more like them) became through the process of humble repentance and glorious redemption.  Their colossal failures did not end up defining them wholesale.  God was able to not just see beyond their sins but transform them for His greater glory.

The irony of all this is that no matter who we choose to glorify and remember, every statue and monument will ultimately fall prey to the eroding sands of time.  Percy Shelley’s haunting poem, “Ozymandias,” poignantly remind us of this:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell its sculpture that well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rest assured, time will pulverize into powder every attempt to immortalize the merely momentary.  And yet, there is hope.  You will be permanently remembered if you surrender your life to the Risen One who was nailed to a cross to die for your sins and your failures.  And when you trust in Him, He will forgive you and transform your life.  Not only that, at the end of the age He “will also give [you] a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).  That stone and that name will never fade away and are reserved throughout eternity for all who love and trust in Jesus.

Am I a racist?

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Growing up in the USA in the 1960’s, because of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a lot of talk about racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement.  I’m deeply grateful that my parents and the church we attended repeatedly and insistently taught that all people are made in God’s image and are of infinite value and fully (not separately) equal.  More than fifty years later, it’s easy to forget that those were also times of deep anger, unrest, and social upheaval.  Looking back now, it feels like in some ways like we have made real progress while in others, we have only come full circle.

No matter how you assess the contemporary situation, racism is much more than conceptual, theoretical, and systemic.  For many, it is deeply emotional and personal.  Sadly, when talking about racism, one of the first things that must be done is to define it since some increasingly popular definitions are not only unhelpful and unproductive, they are downright deceptive and dangerous.

For example, many today suggest it is impossible to be a racist if you live in a context of poverty, oppression, and discrimination.  The assumption is that racism is inherently tied to power, and only those with social power and influence can possibly be racist in the truest sense of the term.

In response, I would suggest that while it is certainly easier for the powerful to express and uphold certain aspects of racism, especially systemic ones, this does not mean that racism, properly understood, is confined to social systems and influential segments of society alone.  Racism involves more significant moral elements like attitudes of moral superiority, hatred, and distrust.  Mindsets like these are not confined solely to those who are influential and well-connected.

Pride in anyone leads to and reinforces a sense of moral superiority.  For example, it is just as easy to believe, “I am morally better than them because although I am colored, poor, oppressed, and powerless, they are immoral because they are rich, oppressive, powerful, and white,” as it is to claim, “I am morally better than them because I am white, smart, and hard-working, and ambitious while they are they are colored, lazy, stupid, and unenterprising.”  One glories in their victimhood and difficulties, the other in their white privilege, but neither can claim an absence of racial or classist pride.

In addition, hatred gives anyone and everyone a sense of power and ability to vilify and reject those who are different than themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic or political situation.  To suggest that the poor and oppressed are merely innocent victims of the powerful, unable to exercise any personal and social influence at all, is not only to dehumanize them but also to obscure the potential for racism that cuts across all social lines and lurks within the soul of every human being.  It’s also a sure-fire way to harbor and justify self-righteous feelings of resentment and ill-will toward any and all who are different, especially those possessing greater power, opportunity, and authority.

Ultimately, feelings of hatred and suspicion lead to a deep sense of moral superiority as well as an active rejection of those who are different from oneself.  Again, racism among the powerful and privileged is much more noticeable and systemically impactful, and that’s an enormous problem that must be actively addressed and redressed.  But if those with less obvious positions of power refuse to recognize the potential presence of pride and hatred in their own hearts, the opportunity for real change at all levels of society will ultimately be lost because at its heart, the solution to racism is both theological and societal.  The reason is that while societal structures and systems must be reviewed and revised, racism can only be holistically eradicated through an active pursuit of reconciled relationships characterized by mutual forgiveness, love, and respect, values that are deeply theological.

When calls for solutions to racism are made, I frequently hear that racism is both systemic and learned. While undeniably true, a centrally important third aspect frequently gets left out, namely the natural or innate aspect.  In short, because of sin, racism is inherently easy for each and every one of us, regardless of our race or socioeconomic status.  Thus, racism manifests itself both socially and personally.  It is both learned and intrinsic, external and internal.  Failure to admit and recognize all (and not just some) of these aspects will ultimately result in incomplete solutions to a larger set of problems.

Far beyond the systemic and learned aspects of racism, we naturally gravitate toward and are most comfortable spending time with people who look, act, think, and talk like us.  Taking the time and making the effort to understand and befriend those who are different—simply because we are all human beings made in God’s image possessing infinite value—involves constant sacrifice, inconvenience, risk, and discomfort.  It is something we must remind ourselves and others of continually.  And we also must actively and intentionally move toward, listen to, and even embrace those with whom we disagree and who are very different from us.  As we do, in the midst of the difficulties and discomforts, we will find deep joy and mutual enrichment as new friendships are forged, new understandings are found, and new pathways of growth and change are fashioned.

Throughout this process, each and every one of us should be willing to keep honestly asking this hard but important question: Am I a racist?  The possibility of being or becoming one is always there beneath the surface, whether we are rich or poor, black or white, powerful or weak.  Why?  Because we all have the capacity and tendency to hate, belittle, and diminish the value of those who are different from us and strongly prefer the ones most like us.  Self-admission of this is a helpful place to begin in the process of actively moving toward real solutions to racism.  In this way, people can not only be taught against racism, they can also work with tirelessly humility toward reconciliation and reparation at all levels of society—social, political, economic, educational, and personal.  But reconciliation is fundamentally a theological concept with a theological grounding.  It takes people transformed by the gospel of Jesus who have first been reconciled to God to model that radical reconciliation with one another.

Thus, the goal for Christians is not mere recognition and affirmation of equality for all but the vigorous pursuit and realization of interracial community and communion.  And this can only happen if we first humbly listen and seek to understand, entering into the pain, anger, and grief of those who have suffered from the ravages of racism.  After that, we can more compassionately join in and work for viable solutions and lasting change together.  Without true compassion and participation, we tend to only feel pity and attempt to alleviate our guilt by making token overtures that cost us very little and involve us only minimally.  Real and lasting change requires getting our hands dirty, making real sacrifices, and taking genuine risks for the sake of the greater wellbeing of others.  If Christians are unwilling to make these kinds of sacrificial choices, others will, but they will do so in promotion of very different visions for what justice and change should look like and how they should be brought about.

In closing, I often hear the phrase, “But we’ve come so far already.”  And I think we can affirm that real progress has been made, but have we come far enough?  One of the great myths of enlightenment rational liberalism is that social progress is cumulative, unidirectional, and inevitable.  Real social progress is never any of these things.  It takes constant work and intentional effort to push against the ever-swelling tides of racism, classism, tribalism, and all kinds of other sinful “isms” that are present not only in the hearts of the powerful but also in the heart of every man, woman, and child.  These are the things that tear us and our societies apart, and unfortunately, are still at work in our midst.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Racial injustice, inequality, and discrimination remain to this day both within and around us.  And as long as they remain, we have still not come far enough.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?

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I just watched the film, “Tortured for Christ,” and many years ago read the book of the same title.  It’s about Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand.  Opposing the Communist regime, he was imprisoned for fourteen years and repeatedly and brutally beaten for his refusal to forsake his Christian faith.

In his own words, “It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners.  It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating.  A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists’] terms.  It was a deal; we preached and they beat us.  We were happy preaching.  They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.”

While watching the film, I was deeply convicted that I have suffered almost nothing in order to follow Jesus Christ.  When Jesus told us to make disciples, He did not tell us to build large buildings and put on entertaining services so that we could fill them with passive pew-sitters.  He told us to go and make disciples everywhere we went.  And before that, He called us to be disciples ourselves, not considering our lives as precious, but giving them away and pouring them out in service of Him for His greater honor and glory.

I have to ask myself often and honestly, am I really and truly a disciple of Jesus?  The reality is, being His disciple, as well as making disciples, is extremely difficult.  It is backbreaking, heart-rending, self-effacing work.  And following Jesus involves more than theoretical sacrifice.  It involves making concrete commitments and costly choices to follow that might result in becoming uncomfortable, being fired, straining relationships, and losing popularity.  For some, it could even mean far more—a significant loss of freedom and/or the forfeiture of one’s life.

When Peter and the apostles were arrested and questioned by the Pharisees for sharing the good news about Jesus, Acts 5:40-42 tells us that the Pharisees “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”  They were willing to suffer and even die for Jesus because they trusted, loved, and wanted to honor Him.  Any difficulties endured for His sake were a privilege to thank God for, not a hardship or humiliation to be avoided at all cost.  And as they obeyed Him, they experienced deep and genuine joy.

While I know in theory (and by limited experience) that there is great joy and fulfillment in following Jesus, no matter the risk or cost, I am still constantly tempted to make my life more comfortable, less arduous, and inoffensive.  I often love the world more than God, because I do not really believe he deeply cares for me and is a loving, gracious God.  I constantly think I know better how to live my life because I do not really believe God is wiser than I.  I repeatedly give myself over to sin because I do not really believe that the holiness of God is what I was designed to reflect and exhibit in this world.  And ultimately, I continue to fear hardship, suffering, and death because I love the things of this life more than the eternal things of God.  I don’t really believe that heaven will be magnificently, indescribably better than even the sweetest and most joyous moments in this life.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?  In the broadest sense of that term, I hope I can answer yes.  But in the concrete daily struggle to be faithful, I must admit, I am a continuous and consummate failure.  And yet, in His grace, He still offers the promise that He is with me always, even to the end of the age.  For all my foibles, failures, fears, and faithlessness, He remains faithful and promises that He will never leave or forsake me.  He is still in the process of making me His disciple and, praise God, the journey toward joy is only just beginning!

Lament and Imprecation: Feeling with the God Who Feels

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In my recent journey through the Psalms, I’ve been struck by the frequency of both deep laments as well as harsh and angry expressions made by some of the writers.  I’ve also been contemplating many of the gross injustices of our world today and find myself frequently sad, angry, and disgusted by some of the morally repugnant attitudes and actions of our age, but also the ones I see deep within in my own heart and soul.

Psalmic laments (expressions of deep sadness) are fairly well-known, as when David in Psalm 6:6 cries, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.”

Something perhaps less well-known but just as important are the Psalmic imprecations.  The word, “imprecate,” means to invoke evil upon or to curse, and there are at least 18 imprecatory Psalms.  They include major portions where the author calls upon God to do something terrible to the wicked and ungodly.

Consider these examples:

Psalm 10:12, 15: “Arise, O Lord; O God . . . .  Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.”

Psalm 52:5, “But God will break you [the wicked] down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.”

Psalm 58:6-8: “O God, break the teeth in their mouths . . . O Lord!  Let them vanish like water that runs away . . . .  Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.”

Psalm 83:16-17: “Fill their faces with shame . . . O Lord.  Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.”

Psalm 139:19: “O that You would slay the wicked, O God.”

Growing up in evangelicalism, there seemed (at least to me) to be a predisposition in our worship and scripture readings toward celebration and praise.  And that’s all fine and good.  God is certainly worthy of celebratory praise, but I’ve increasingly come to realize that while celebration, praise, and thanksgiving are centrally important to a healthy Christian life, some other important aspects were neglected or even ignored.

I somehow got the impression that being sad, upset, and outraged by morally reprehensible views, attitudes, and acts was more of an “Old Testament state of mind.”  Jesus had instituted a happier, kinder, and gentler era.  We were told to “consider it all joy,” “turn the other cheek,” “overcome evil with good,” and “bless those who persecute us.”  Of course, all of these responses have their place in Christian living, and vengeance is properly delegated to God alone since He has all the information necessary to make just judgments.  Still, it remains appropriate and healthy for Christians to grieve and be angry at what sin is and does in our time, seeking to be part of a movement toward bringing about the justice of the kingdom of God.

I think a reluctance to respond with raw and honest emotion to the ravages of evil gives at least a partial explanation for some of the mass exodus (some estimates suggest nearly 80%) from church by the current generation of youth raised in evangelicalism.  Many were raised in a culture of brokenness and pain.  In church, however, they only experienced a culture of superficial happiness and celebration that did not seem willing or even able to explore the depths of anguish, anger, and injustice that have become a daily experience for many in our world today.  Because they found no culture of genuine brokenness, distress, and compassion, they turned away to the world around them, a place where there was a willingness to openly admit and express imperfection, anger, and grief.

As the Psalms plainly show, grief and anger over injustice alongside a cry for justice is a very real and legitimate way to relate to God on a deeper level.  Still, it shouldn’t stop there.  The psalms show that these expressions are ultimately tempered and redirected by the humble recognition and acceptance that it is God who must act on behalf of the victimized and oppressed.  He is the one who is continuously called upon to comfort the afflicted and right every wrong.

This does not mean we do nothing in the face of injustice and pain, but it does mean we look to God first and foremost as the One who hears our outraged cries and then enables and empowers us to labor faithfully for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Thus, as important as they are, raw expressions of emotion are not enough.  Our angst, anger, and anguish must be offered up to the God who feels with us, the God who hears and cares, the God who is angry at sin yet weeps with those who weep.  And in the deep empathy of this Holy and emotive God who became flesh and dwelt among and suffered with and for us, we find real hope, genuine healing, and the wisdom and strength to actively and intentionally make the world a better place.

 

The Critical Flaw in Critical Theory

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The recent unjust and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are truly tragic and reprehensible.  They represent a growing list of needless deaths in a culture of hate.  As individuals, communities, and a nation, our hearts should be bowed down in empathetic grief and enflamed with righteous anger.

Beyond the legitimate emotions, many are also trying to assess the reasons for the profoundly problematic social realities leading to such deaths.  Foremost are claims of oppressive and systemic racism as well as corporate greed among those in positions of power in America.  This may well be true, but at the grave risk of sounding insensitive and uncaring, I believe such appraisals remain secondary to a much deeper question, namely, the best way to solve these kinds of socially systemic issues.

Contemporary Critical Theory claims to answer the problem through three very basic means: 1) A full reversal of power, demoting previous power-brokers and putting the previously oppressed into positions of influence and authority, 2) Widespread restructuring of oppressive social systems, and 3) Compulsory redistribution of goods and services (i.e., wealth).  To be sure, all three—the redistribution of power, restructuring of systems, and reallocation of wealth—are important problems to address, but they are also very often hard to bring about in a fair and just manner.  The first and third, however, can be achieved fairly quickly, so long as those currently in power can be pushed out of the way and the wealth of those with much can be seized and given to those with significantly less.

This is why Marx and other communist theorists (who form the ideological infrastructure for Critical Theory) had no problem with social coercion and, if necessary, violent armed revolution, to accomplish the so-called “greater good” of a “more equal” society through the forcible redistribution of wealth and power.

There are many ways to argue for or against such goals and means, but one of the most critical flaws in Critical Theory is simply this: At best, it provides an inadequate and (at worst) inaccurate understanding of human nature.  Suggesting that whole classes and races of people in society are, for example, primarily victims or villains fails to admit the root problem—we are all simultaneously victims and villains, damaged and damaging, oppressed and oppressing.  Why?  Because we are all sinners: rich and poor, privileged and impoverished, strong and weak, young and old, male and female, black and white—and everyone in between.  You cannot solve social problems by changing social structures alone.  You have to change the social beings—each and every one of us—that constitute, create, perpetuate, mediate—and even deny or ignore—these unjust social systems.

In short, changing human nature is much more radical and difficult than changing social structures and inequalities.  And changing the latter is extremely hard to do at all, let alone morally and patiently.  Consequently, the proposed solutions of Critical Theory and closely related socialist ideologies consistently fail in practice primarily because the diagnosis of the problem excludes a vital aspect of human nature: No matter who we are, we are far too prone to selfishness, tribalism, and abuse of power than we care to admit.

If these internal problems of greed and hatred are not dealt with deeply at the heart-level, they will fester and grow in the lives of those with influence and resources, no matter where they started in society.  This is why when reversals and redistributions occur, even with the best of intentions, those in positions of power almost always become just like the people they previously condemned for their selfishness, tribalism, and abuses of power.

As David Gooding and John Lennox point out, “A movement, while still a minority, will clamour for the right of free speech and protest against its removal; but when that same movement becomes the majority movement, it will in turn seek to suppress all other minority movements.”

Does government need to be involved in trying to assure a fair and just system of opportunities for power and wealth acquisition as well as their distribution?  Of course.  The solution is not a libertarian divestment of all governmental intervention with the assumption that people will do what is right when big government gets its nose out of everyone’s business.  That falls into the same trap of misunderstanding sinful human nature and our need for constant external and internal regulation—something Christians call accountability.  But since those who govern, just as much as those who are governed, are prone to selfishness, greed, and abuses of power, they also must have systems of accountability—real checks and balances—in place to keep them humble, honest, just, and selfless.

The framers of the US constitution believed in the propensity of every human being to turn great possibilities for good into terrible opportunities for godlessness.  In short, they believed in the doctrine of total depravity.  It was this conviction that led them to create a tri-fold system of checks and balances—legislative, judicial, and executive—so that no one person (or class of persons) would gain too much wealth and power and have the potential to become a tyrannical mass-oppressor.

Critical Theory fails and will continue to fail for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it does not understand who we really are—all of us—as human beings.  We are, first and foremost, sinners in need of a loving Savior, not classes in need of a political revolution.  And this is why John Adams, the second president of the United States, rightly noted, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . .  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  This is why we need repentance and redemption, not merely reparation and revolution, for our lives and our world to truly change for the better.

Abortion: From a Necessary Evil to an Essential Service and a Blessing

 

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, there were many debates about abortion laws.  Some were trying to put limits in place while others argued that regulating abortion in any way was an affront to human rights, especially those of women.  Limiting abortion, they contended, was regression into the dark ages of ignorance and insensitivity toward “women’s healthcare” and the right to self-determination.

Within this spirit of “women’s healthcare,” abortion has again come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many are arguing abortion is an “essential service,” but as I read some of the online rants, one thing is exceptionally clear: No one advocating abortion as an “essential service” mentions or talks about the baby in the womb.  Instead, it is argued that women must continue to have the unrestricted right to do whatever they want with their bodies, especially in the arenas of human sexuality and reproduction.

But herein lies the rub: What is the true identity of the “product of conception” in the womb?  We cannot simply pass over that question in favor of a woman’s “right to choose,” because no one, male or female, has the unrestricted or unregulated right to do things with their bodies that intentionally inflict harm upon another human being.

It’s convenient, of course, to claim this an issue of “women’s healthcare” and call what’s in the womb a “product of conception,” “a ball of cells,” or “a blob of fetal tissue.”  But these labels only subvert and obscure the true nature of what (or better, who) resides within.  Relabeling something or someone does not fundamentally alter its true essence or nature.

From a purely medical standpoint, at six weeks, though no bigger than a pea, the fetus’ arms and legs have already begun to appear, the heart is beating, and brain waves can be detected.  By eleven weeks—less than three months into the pregnancy—the baby is completely formed with its own fingerprints, a fully functioning organ system (including circulating blood), and a nervous system that can and does feel pain.  The second and third trimesters of pregnancy are primarily periods of growth in size, not complexity.

It is deeply ironic that during the COVID-19 pandemic severe limitations have been imposed on nearly everyone planet-wide in order to save human lives, yet the “right” to terminate the life of an unborn child has simultaneously been dubbed an “essential service.”

During his presidency, Bill Clinton, like many of his time, considered abortion a “necessary evil” and hoped it would become “safe, affordable, and rare.”  To be sure, abortion is relatively safe (for the mother) and affordable, but it has never become rare.  While rates of abortion are significantly lower now than they were in the eighties and nineties, every year well over half a million babies are aborted in the United States alone.  And much of the downturn in abortion rates is simply related to a significant decrease in overall pregnancies.  In short, fewer pregnancies means fewer babies to abort.

Sadly, recent rhetoric among some pro-choice advocates has become increasingly shrill and harsh about protecting the unrestricted right of a woman to decide what to do with her “product of conception.”  In fact, a 2018 billboard campaign in downtown Cleveland proclaimed abortion to be “self-care,” “a family value,” “life-saving,” and even “a blessing.”  Rather than a necessary evil, it has become a sacramental right and an “essential” medical service.  As awful as it sounds, this makes sense from a certain point of view.  If what’s inside the womb is just an inconvenience, then who cares what becomes of it?

I would argue, however, that these babies are tragic sacrifices to the spirit of age, one that demands unaccountable sexual freedom and no unplanned and undesired interruptions to one’s self-determined lifestyle.  Somehow, in our moral confusion and hypocrisy, “selfishness” has been transformed into “self-care” instead.

In today’s moral climate, it’s difficult to imagine a publicly funded billboard campaign stating simple truths about abortion: abortion is “big business,” “brutal,” “guilt-inducing,” “traumatic,” “infanticide,” or a host of other more honest and accurate adjectives and nouns.

The fact that an unborn child is small, largely unseen, and even unwanted should never count against it.  This merely means it is doubly weak, vulnerable, and defenseless.  It is therefore an “essential service” to protect, care for, and nurture it in celebration of all God-given life.

 

Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.

Knowledge in a Trivial Age

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Francis Bacon claimed, “Knowledge is power.”  In an information age, this is certainly true.  But with a surplus of information sources at our fingertips, knowledge can also be a serious source of distraction since much of this knowledge, even if accurate, is trivial and ultimately doesn’t matter all that much.

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes the impact media has on us this way: “[People] no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.  They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images.  They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. . . .  When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments . . ., then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

One of the great challenges Christians have in the digital age is to resist the temptation to “be in the know” about everything.  We are tempted to keep up on the latest news, events, trends, and celebrity exploits so that others will see us “relevant” and “knowledgeable.”  We fear missing out on what everyone else already seems to know, and dread being perceived as hopelessly old-fashioned and uninformed.

We are taken in by the promise of endless entertainment and amusement—a shallow vision of joy—that keeps us from a deep and abiding relationship with God.  We somehow think that inconsequential ideas and experiences can meaningfully replace what truly matters—a growing knowledge of and intimacy with God.  We no longer have the wisdom to discern the difference between the superficial and the significant, the trivial and the momentous.  We end up only thinking and talking about the latest fads and fashions rather than the deep things of God.

Because of its antiquity and our love for all things new, we are tempted to ignore or downplay the Bible’s importance when considering the issues of our time.  Nothing, however, matters more than the word of God since nothing and no One is more relevant than God.  As the old saying goes, “Everything that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

We have to come to grips with the fact that God has made us finite.  We have only limited amounts of time and energy.  We must make wise choices in who we spend time with, as well as what we choose to know, care, and talk about with others.  And if we know more about current celebrities, sports figures, and politicians than we do about our neighbors, friends, and even the members of our own family, something has gone horribly wrong with our sense of purpose and relationship with the Lord.

So much of what passes for essential knowledge in our time is actually transitory and temporary.  The word of God, on the other hand, remains forever (Isaiah 40:8).  Jeremiah 6:16 implores us to “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.”  2 Peter 3:18 exhorts us to “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

How, then, do you spend your time and energies?  Where are you looking for real and substantial knowledge?  What do you think and talk about the most?  Who and what do you really want to know and why?

We are not in control

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Just before Jesus’ death, the disciples were marveling at the magnificence of the Herodian temple.  As Mark 13;1-2 puts it, “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”

Herod’s temple seemed impregnable.  It stood within one of the best protected cities in the ancient Near East.  In addition, it was one of the most magnificent structures of its time and at that point in history, had taken almost 50 years to build.  Even more than this, the temple was the sacred place where almighty God dwelt and was worshiped.  How, then, could it possibly be destroyed?

Less than 40 years later, the Romans set it on fire and razed it to the ground.

Not long ago, I was walking around Singapore marveling at the city’s majestic buildings, bustling economy, clean environment, and proactive government.  All seemed right with the world and I couldn’t help but wonder, what could possibly bring down such a towering edifice of human ingenuity and safeguarding as the nation-state of Singapore?  Everything seemed so carefully controlled and well thought-out.

Of course, I knew in theory that if God wanted to bring the nation down, He could do so in a moment, but that possibility seemed so utterly remote and unlikely, it felt like an implausible distant dream.  It’s amazing how a dream can become a living nightmare in just a matter of days or weeks.

It was not a military or alien invasion, nor was it a massive corruption scandal that brought Singapore and the rest of the world low.  No, it was a microscopic virus called COVID-19 that brought this grand illusion of control crashing down, shattering it into a million little pieces.  Try as we might, this intrepid microbe is finding ways to slip through the tiniest cracks of our lockdowns and quarantines, infecting and sometimes killing the rich as the poor, the great and the small, the important and the insignificant.

Try as we might, times like these remind us that we are decidedly not in control—and never really have been.  As Psalm 33:10-22 so aptly puts it, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. . . .  The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.  The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.  Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.  Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

Whatever our illusions of control may have been, COVID-19 confronts us with the fact that the God can use the very great or (in this case) the very small to bring an entire planet to its knees.  While on our knees, may we be found praying prayers of hope and faith in the only wise and sovereign God who still deeply loves and cares for each and every one of us.