informal essays

I Have Been Dismayed And Troubled

“Recently I have been dismayed and troubled about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment”
Dr. James Dobson, radio ad for Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama senate

Oh, Dr. Dobson. Oh, church. Oh, Jesus.

Where do I begin?

I have been dismayed and troubled to see an honorable Christian man, who devoted decades of his life to raising Christian children and defending them from predators, now show more concern for a politician facing credible allegations of predatory sexual behavior than for the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of the young women he is accused of assaulting.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians dismiss these accusations as “attacks” by the “Washington establishment” or “liberal media,” when many of the stories come from local, conservative, Republican, Trump-voting Alabamans, with Mr. Moore’s interest in young girls corroborated by his co-workers, retired police officers, former mall workers, and more.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians condemn other politicians and pundits for rushing to judgment, when many waited to hear Moore’s defense, and only after his suspicious and unconvincing non-denials decided to withdraw their support.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see Mr. Moore’s evasive answers to Sean Hannity’s questions, who when asked if he dated 16-year-olds as a grown man, did not flat-out deny it but only said wasn’t his “customary behavior,” and “If I did, I’m not going to dispute anything, but I don’t remember anything like that,” and “I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother,” a telling statement for someone coming from a very traditional conservative Christian culture, where permission was generally granted through the headship of the father, suggesting that he very well may have preyed on vulnerable young women from broken single-parent homes, especially given one of the accuser’s claims that he met her while she was at the courthouse for a child custody hearing in 1991, which, by the way, was confirmed in the historical records by the media before they published the story.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians, not only downplaying and rejecting the evidence against Mr. Moore and spreading spurious fake news and unsubstantiated conspiracies in his defense, but even saying that if the accusations were true that they would still support Mr. Moore, twisting Scriptures far out of context to do so, because of the horrors of allowing anyone in the Democratic party to win an elected office.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see so many white evangelicals, who last year jumped from being the least likely to the most likely religious group to say that someone with bad personal character can be a good politician, still showing no limits to the Biblical values they will submit to the gods of political idolatry, even when the stakes are far lower than the presidency, even when the opposing candidate has been far less demonized.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see that while Hollywood, for years denigrated as the unwholesome progenitor of moral decay, raises its ethical standards and purges sexual predators from its halls, Christian Republicans continue to lower their own. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” (1 Corinthians 5:1)

And yet.

I have been comforted and encouraged to be reminded from our company with the Corinthians that this is nothing new, but that we have been dealing with these kinds of issues since the beginning of our faith.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist’s Russell Moore, taking principled and uncompromised stands against such immorality, abuse, and hypocrisy.

I have been comforted and encouraged that God is preserving a remnant that has not bowed down to Baal, that has not rejected the teachings of their fathers but will diligently seek to csrry them farther than they did, despite their flaws, even as their fathers, despite their flaws, carried them farther than their flawed fathers before them.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see that God is still at work all over the world, calling hundreds of thousands in the Middle East to himself through supernatural dreams and visions, increasing the spread of his glory through clay vessels from underground China to charismatics in Brazil, and awakening comfortable Westerners to deeper understandings of the treasures of his kingdom.

I have been comforted and encouraged to know that we do not wrestle against flesh, or blood, or Democrats, or Republicans, but against the spiritual powers and principalities of hell, which shall not prevail against God’s building of his church, or the increase of the knowledge of his glory until it fills the earth as the waters cover the seas. Praise the Lord. Amen.

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books

Review: Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg

This is a very fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam and its implications for the world’s future. The book is divided into three sections covering “Radical” terrorists, moderate “Reformers,” and “Revivalists” converting to Christianity. Joel Rosenberg has a conservative right-wing perspective that strengthens the book in some places while weakening it in others, but the book’s greatest value is the vast content derived from direct, personal correspondence with people all over the world – Muslims, Christians, US government figures, Middle Eastern leaders, and more.

The “Radicals” section focuses on the history of Iran since the 1979 revolution and the ensuing effects on terrorist activity. There is a lot of really useful information here for anyone who wants to have a better understanding and context for current events involving Iran. That said, while I agree with Rosenberg that many dangerously underestimate the risks of Islamic terrorism, I think his bias may have overestimated the risk, which I think is borne out by the hindsight of the near decade since the book’s publication (Iran was apparently not 1-2 years away from a nuclear bomb, and the radical Ahmadinejad is no longer in power. In general I think Rosenberg’s missed expectations or interpretations may have been affected by placing too much emphasis on people’s spoken words, including some admittedly concerning poll results, rather than people’s revealed preferences through their actions, perhaps combined with potential nuances lost between languages and cultures.) Nevertheless, it’s a solid section and I learned a lot.

The “Reformers” section addresses not merely “moderate” Muslims as a general group – which Rosenberg says don’t get nearly enough attention or respect – but specifically focuses on Muslim government leaders across the Middle East and Africa, and their inspiring pro-active efforts to stamp out radical ideology and promote democratic freedoms in their countries. The king of Morocco is one such hero, but the star figure is Iraq’s first president Talabani, an experienced Kurdish Muslim seeking to unite his country’s divided groups against terrorism while building a relationship with Israel. This was the best information I’ve ever read on moderate Islam from any perspective, and it not only taught me a lot but made me very excited about the future political prospects for numerous Islamic countries. The author’s political bias shows through here with his unequivocal defense of the Iraq war, and US military interventions more generally, but he made a very compelling case for the positive outcomes of such American partnerships with Middle Eastern moderates. I don’t know if this information is so unfamiliar because the right doesn’t like to praise moderate Muslims and the left doesn’t like to praise Bush’s military adventures, but this section significantly impacted my views on the subject.

The final “Revivalists” section covers the accelerating growth of Christianity in Muslim countries. It talks about the supernatural dreams and visions that are well-known to anyone remotely familiar with this subject, and the different strategies and emphases of converted Muslim evangelists across the Middle East. The book’s earlier background about the effects of the Iranian Revolution helped me understand how the widespread disillusion among the largely nominal Muslim Iranian citizenry has created a wide-open door for the power of the Gospel, and, in contrast to some of the more fiery figures on the right, Rosenberg uses this section to highlight the crucial Christian themes of “loving your neighbor” and “loving your enemies.” The section’s primary weakness comes from trying to find too specific of connections to Biblical eschatology in current events, as the hindsight of a decade bears out. Overall, however, the section confirmed my existing optimism for the spiritual future of the Middle East.

With hundreds of pages packed full of information, this book is not a short read – but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish. If you’re interested in a solid book from a Christian conservative perspective that will greatly improve your understanding of Islam in today’s world, I highly recommend it.

books

Review: Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman

I tried to give Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the Gospel texts as unbiased a hearing as possible by listening to the audiobook of Jesus, Interrupted. Not that I am fully unbiased, but I at least feel like I’m at a place where I might be less biased about Biblical criticisms, and generally more open to progressive interpretations, than I have ever been. I made it more than halfway through but was unable to finish, after too many frustrating arguments that seemed no more enlightened than the very fundamentalism the author was critiquing.

A few notes:

  • Ehrman is emphatic that there are real discrepancies between the Gospels which ignorant Christians overlook by never taking the time to read passages side-by-side and notice their obvious inconsistencies. He promotes some interesting examples, but the fundamental flaw in his argument that there are irreconcilable discrepancies is that they require not just modern Christians but the original readers and compilers of the Bible to have been unaware of them. He even argues for discrepancies within the book of Luke that would have required Luke himself to be unaware of them. It has always seemed more reasonable to me that potential discrepancies are a clue, not that the texts are errant, but that we are not approaching the texts the same way the original readers did. (The book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes has certainly reinforced this idea for me.)
  • One type of alleged discrepancy regards the order of events in different tellings of the same story. Ehrman’s simplistic dismissals actually reminded me of young earth creationist (YEC) arguments alleging that there are geological layers in the wrong order, which prove the whole column is totally false. At a simple glance, the order does seem wrong in some cases, but there are more informed, nuanced explanations that account for more complexities that make sense, suggesting that certain parts can be out of order without falsifying the integrity of the total system. (In fact, there are even YEC interpretations that accept the order of the geological layers. In general, many of Ehrman’s complaints about the Bible reminded me of some forms of YEC complaints about modern science.)
  • Sometimes, Ehrman would set up straw men arguments. He would claim a discrepancy in the text, describe a bad explanation and dismiss it, while ignoring better explanations (example: Peter and the “six” crows to explain two different denial stories)
  • Some of Ehrman’s discrepancies were not event-based but claims of general thematic or theological differences. Leaving aside the question of whether thematic differences can simply be expressing different aspects of a complex truth, some of the claims simply felt like cherry-picking. Ehrman claims a discrepancy between Jesus’ anguish in Mark and his confidence in Luke – but Luke records his Gethsemane prayer, which certainly seems plenty anguished to me.
  • Ehrman’s criticisms of Paul’s letter felt no stronger. If 2 Thesslanonians is truly discrepant from 1 Thessalonians, why didn’t the early church notice it? There is an interesting point that Ephesians and Colossians seem to use different sentence structures; 10% of their sentences are “long” while Galatians and Philippians only have one each. Misreading Scripture suggests the common cultural practice of collaboration could easily account for these kinds of differences while still maintaining the truth of Paul’s direct, personal involvement.

Overall, while I believe there are many Biblical passages that may not be intended in as quite the literal, sequential, precise narrative sense that is the expectation of modern readers, I remain unconvinced that there is evidence to suggest that the texts could not have been divinely inspired or may have been subject to forgery, etc.

books

Review: Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Provides nuance to the story of mass incarceration in a way that challenges simplistic liberal and conservative narratives around racism, from the experienced perspective of a black public defense lawyer. It describes how and why punitive laws were built piece by piece throughout the country in response to drug and crime crises, specifically the role played by black leaders in majority-black cities.

The book details the growing alarm in black communities over rising crime and drug crises in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that led to an increasing willingness to endorse harsher criminal justice measures in the face of limited options. The August 1979 cover of Ebony said “Black on Black Crime: The Causes, The Consequences, The Cures.” In another instance, “Rev. Jesse Jackson… pointed out that more blacks had been killed by other blacks in one year than had been lynched throughout history.” Eric Holder was an instrumental pioneer of pretext-stop policing, which ended up disproportionately punishing blacks for minor infractions, on the hopes that it would contain gun crime.

A chapter on the history of black policing taught me that black people were not even allowed to be police officers in many cities until halfway through the 20th century, and even then faced explicit discrimination and restrictions, such as not being allowed to arrest white people, and even after explicit racist practices were removed, unofficial discrimination continued for decades.

The book ends with the somewhat bittersweet hope that the excesses of mass incarceration can be undone, over time, just as it was built, piece by painstaking piece.

books

Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.

Refugee camp in Kenya (UNHCR)
informal essays

The Heart of God Toward the Foreigner

Many Christians in the United States disagree about how to treat refugees. Many “welcomers” want to bring in as many as possible, and misread opponents as letting fear overrule clear Biblical imperatives to love our neighbors. Many “hesitaters” want to tread more carefully, and misread opponents as letting naivety and oversimplified interpretations overrule practical wisdom and discretion about genuine limits and concerns. This is my attempt to encourage understanding, first by considering the welcomers’ charge of a Biblical imperative for welcoming refugees as national policy, and second by considering the hesitaters’ charge that terrorism and specific issues related to Islam justify significant constraints on such a policy.

Have you ever studied what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees? When I do, it excites me! The overall theology of “welcoming the stranger” is not simply about wanting to be nice and help some people; it’s a core indicator of the heart of God, in contrast to the natural heart of man, and it runs through the entire Bible! While a study of Biblical principles will not give us the ultimate answers of practical application, we cannot arrive at those answers without a starting foundation.

Foreigners In The Old Testament

The Bible doesn’t use words like “immigrant” and “refugee” the way we do. But the Old Testament has a Hebrew word, ger (Strong’s H1616), which is often translated alien or sojourner, meaning a “temporary dweller” or “newcomer” with “no inherited rights.” It generally seems to indicate a person who has left another place to dwell with people of a different origin, which sounds similar to what we would call an “immigrant.” It also seems to indicate immigrants without access to land or wealth, which would have much in common with “refugees,” who are fleeing any previous land with only whatever they can carry with them.

God gave the Israelites numerous commands about how to treat the sojourners living among them.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21 ESV)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9 NIV)

God seemed aware that such foreigners, having no land, wealth, or inheritance, along with their visible differences from the native population, were at risk of being oppressed, just as the Israelites had been in Egypt. God often identified them with other needy people such as orphans and widows, and he promised blessing if Israel obeyed his commands to provide for them:

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ESV)

Notice how God did not merely forbid active injustice against the needy but made explicit rules to help with their provision. Ruth was such a sojourner who famously participated in one such practice:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22 ESV)

In fact, God even elevated the sojourner as being deserving of the same rights and love as the native Israelite:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34 ESV)

God felt so strongly about the treatment of sojourners that he not only promised blessing to those who used their tithe to feed them with other disadvantaged groups (see Deuteronomy 14:29 above), but he also promised a curse on those who would unjustly treat them:

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

Note that all of these passages refer to treatment of foreigners already living with the Israelites. On the one hand, it could be argued that while they clearly describe a concern for foreigners already living in a nation, they say nothing about an obligation to invite more foreigners who are not already present. On the other hand, it could also be argued that there doesn’t seem to be anything about restricting foreigners, either. The text does seem to assume the dwelling foreigners are a relative minority, but it doesn’t seem too concerned about how they’re arriving at all, only about how to treat them once they’ve arrived.

On that point, at least, the text seems clear. God knew that sojourners among the Israelites were needy people at risk of oppression, and he made numerous commands to prevent injustice against them.

When Israel later disobeyed God’s commands, and God spoke warning and judgment through the prophets, he made it clear that oppression of the sojourner was part of the disobedience that had brought the promised curses upon them:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow… then I will let you dwell in this place (Jeremiah 7:5-7 ESV)

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:29 ESV)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart… But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear… Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts..and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations… (Zechariah 7)

This all set the stage for Jesus to come and take things up a notch…

Foreigners In The New Testament

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29 ESV)

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes I think this story is so familiar to us, yet so removed from the original context, that we miss how radical it was!

The Samaritans were the descendants of some Israelites who had remained in the land during the exile, intermarrying with Gentile immigrants and incorporating pagan practices into their worship. When Jews returned from the exile, the differences between the groups led to much conflict over who truly belonged to the land and who was worshipping God in the right way – both groups claimed to be following the original Pentateuch and worshipping at the original location.

Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. During the New Testament period, although the tensions went unrecognized by Roman authorities, Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century. (Wikipedia)

In this context, Jesus tells the story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Note how when Jesus asked who was a neighbor to the man, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” but simply “The one who showed him mercy.”)

It would have been radical enough if the assaulted man was a Samaritan who was being helped by a Jew! But to make the Samaritan the one that was the helper? The one that had the wrong religious beliefs? The one that belonged to a group that committed violence against his group? Now that’s really radical!

In one fell swoop, Jesus not only challenged the Jew to love the negatively-viewed outsider as much as his local neighbors, he also challenged the Jew to have a more positive view of that outsider!

And yet this should have come as no surprise! The quote from the law to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, the same chapter where we saw the commands to love the sojourner as yourself (v.34)! The heart of God has always been to love both your “neighbor” and the “foreigner” as yourself.

On the one hand, Jesus was only telling a provocative story to explicitly make a connection that had been there all along! On the other hand, Jesus was making the connection even stronger and more radical! Unlike some of the original sojourners, who were living among the Israelites and entering into covenant with them, the Samaritans were completely separated, following a corrupted religion, and even fighting violently with the Jews! And yet Jesus was still calling the lawyer to love them as himself.

The Heart of Evangelism

After all, Jesus loved the Samaritan. He wanted them to follow him just as much as the Jews, and he went out of his way to spend time with them. (Recall Jesus’s declaration to the Samaritan woman at the well about the true worship that “the Father is seeking,” John 4).

In fact, God’s heart towards loving foreigners has always been inseparable from his heart to save them. While sojourners were apparently not required to”enter into the covenant with the LORD” (Deuteronomy 29:10-13), it seems clear that their positive treatment by the Israelite was intended to encourage this. When King Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:

When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43 ESV)

This was all a foreshadowing of Gentile inclusion in the Gospel – including Rahab’s and Ruth’s integration into the very line of Christ. While there was some initial wrestling with the details of this inclusion (did Gentiles need to be circumcised??), there was no doubt about its significance. Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). He has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we look forward to the time when we shall see “every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7)

If we truly believe that hell awaits the unsaved, and that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), then we should especially rejoice at the opportunity for a nation with millions of Christians to welcome immigrants from “closed countries” to a land of religious freedom. Surely even just an increased chance that even one refugee might come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (and I know many who have done just that!) is worth a great deal.

Our hearts naturally turn inward toward our own ethnic groups! The heart of God naturally turns outward toward all ethnic groups! Thus I think it is fair to say that diversity is the heart of God.

Diversity Is The Heart of God

We are still not ready to address practical questions about constraints, but I want to pause to address a challenge to the more general position. There is a growing belief in some corners of the Internet that the celebration of “diversity” is nothing more than a liberal utopia, that there are fundamental differences between different groups of people and it’s better for them all to live separately in their own places. Many of these proponents desire a total or almost total restriction of immigration.

I believe this is kind of “ethnic nationalism” is a false view that is contrary to the heart of God. In fact, I would even like to speculate that to entertain such a view is to reject the blessing of God and invite his curse. It is true that the natural inward inclinations of our sinful hearts can lead to conflicts between ethnic groups, but our sinful hearts also lead to conflicts within our ethnic groups! God desires to redeem us and bring us all together.

There are certainly legitimate national concerns relating to integration and sustainability. I believe the current European backlash against immigration partially reflects a negative heart towards foreigners, but I also believe that heart is partially a reaction to immigration-related concerns being dismissed and shamed rather than acknowledged. However, to condemn immigration as a whole seems foolhardy, even if there are no spiritual consequences and only the effects of natural economics.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, came to America when his family fled Jewish persecution in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, both companies were co-founded partnerships of native-born and first- or second-generation immigrants. The quintessential American story of arriving on new shores with nothing, and finding a way up through hard work and opportunity, is still being told today. In fact, more than 200 of the companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. (In addition to job-creating entrepreneurs, it can be argued that the mathematical reality is we’re going to need more immigrants to make up for our declining native birth rates and support Social Security for all the retiring natives.)

Diversity can make a country stronger. Is this part of the reason the great melting pot of America has been such a great nation? Considering that many of our ancestors were themselves immigrants, many fleeing persecution or famine or misfortune and seeking a better life, I cannot help but note the parallels to God’s reasoning for his original commands to the Israelites. Do not oppress the refugee, for you yourselves were refugees from Europe…

Due to the focus on seven specific countries, many are unaware that President Trump’s executive order attempted to shut down the entire refugee program (the actual text says, “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.”) Seven countries were singled out for blocking all travelers, in addition to refugees, but refugees from all countries were suspended, without warning, and without evidence of any specific risks from any of those countries, for the first time since the program was established in 1980. As the program has undergone numerous changes since its inception, including security improvements, without a sudden, prolonged halt, the justification for halting the entire program seems unclear. In addition to the immediate effects on numerous families, many welcomers are concerned that this signals a shift in a more general anti-immigrant direction, especially given reports that the order was largely influenced by Steve Bannon, who is known to have more radical views on the subject.

But is all of this political discussion still a theological issue?

Individuals or Nations?

A common criticism of “welcomers” is that they are misinterpreting Biblical commands for individuals as commands for nations. It is important to consider this distinction. Many New Testament instructions are more naturally understood as applying to individuals under the New Covenant compared to the Old Testament theocracy. In addition, the United States political ideals of democracy and freedom have a more natural application for individual charity compared to government coercion, especially given freedom of religion and the rights of other citizens to choose not to participate in such charity. There are also arguments about the superiority of individual charity as it relates to the benefits of personal relationship along with accountability and practical effectiveness.

Indeed, there are some passages about welcoming outsiders that clearly suggest a personal duty:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)

However, it could also be argued that the presence of passages regarding both individual and national action simply indicates the consistency of God’s heart towards the foreigner on both an individual and a national level, and that there is room, at least on some level, for both kinds of welcoming.

The issue of immigration, by definition, concerns national policy. We have seen that when Israel was a nation, welcoming foreigners was clearly God’s intent. We see that many Biblical characters took refuge in other nations that allowed their entrance (including David, 1 Sam. 21, and Jesus himself, Matt. 2, in yet another connection to the Israelite’s status as foreigners in Egypt). We also see some instances of cities or nations being condemned for refusing to allow or properly welcome foreigners (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19, and King Sihon of Heshbon, Deut. 2).

We see that Jesus confirmed and even expanded the idea of “loving the foreigner as yourself” to helping the foreigner when it is in your capacity to alleviate his hurting. While there is room for interpretation, it is interesting that even the quintessential passage about individual acts of charity has a reference to the “nations”:

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:32-35)

James asks what good it is to see a brother without clothes or food and not provide for those needs (James 2:15-16) . Can we say we love a refugee family as much as we love ourselves if we have the ability to welcome them into our nation, yet refuse to do so?

But Does That Mean We Need To Bring Them Here?

Some “hesitaters” agree about the Biblical imperative to love and care for refugees, while arguing that this does not imply an imperative to welcome them into our country, especially if trumped by other concerns (pun not intended). Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan’s Purse, has posted the following in response to discussion regarding Trump’s executive order:

As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan’s Purse we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We’ve provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic, and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we’re treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion.

At the same time, he says:

Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans… We have to be sure that the philosophies of those entering our country are compatible with our Constitution… I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries… We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.

I applaud Samaritan Purse’s work in this context, and I agree with some of Mr. Graham’s concerns. It does not make sense for every one of the currently estimated 65 million global refugees to migrate to countries like the United States, and it makes sense to assist many where they are, while pursuing justice through more comprehensive solutions. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”)

However, I would also ask the “hesitater” to consider that even intermittent charity in an impoverished refugee camp is hardly the life we would want for ourselves, and to consider the following scenario. What if we recognized a capacity to integrate a very small percentage of those refugees, and we were given a list of those considered most qualified for relocation to our country, whether due to a heightened vulnerability in their current location, or an existing family connection, or some other set of reasons, and we were asked us to consider accepting them, provided we reviewed their information and situation and felt comfortable with the result? I believe that, in fact, accurately describes the narrow policy scenario under discussion today.

Unavoidable Risks vs. Targeted Risks

At this point, the “hesitater” may respond with the following objection: But if we can’t be completely certain about their intentions, doesn’t the government have a responsibility to keep us safe?

If he is not afraid of being politically incorrect, he may also include a second, more specific, objection: Don’t we need to be concerned about radical Islamic terrorism? Or maybe even Islam in general?

Indeed, Mr. Graham’s posts specifically reference these concerns, which loom far greater than practical concerns about the logistical limits of relocation. What seems to be a debate between Biblical imperatives for welcoming refugees and the function of government, in my opinion, actually reflects a difference in risk perception.

There will be always be some risk in welcoming strangers, whether individually or nationally, so surely Jesus did not intend it to be a deciding factor against such action. Furthermore, loving the foreigner as ourselves means thinking not just about our own risk of harm but about the risk of harm to the crowds of peaceful refugees, both Muslim and non-Muslim, trying to flee war and terrorism themselves. Welcomers tend to perceive the risk of terrorism in this general “unavoidable” sense, built on a perception that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-threatening.

However, it can also be argued that if we ignore warning signs to take care of ourselves, we will be unable to take care of others, even if we really want to. Hesitaters tend to perceive Islam, or some parts of it, in this specific “targeted” sense, built on a perception that a true adherence to the Koran does not tolerate freedom of religion or even democracy, and that an influx of Muslims means an increased risk not just of “random” terrorism but also an advancing of Sharia law, crime against non-Muslims – even a fundamental threat to Western civilization.

So it is not enough for the welcomer to pronounce a Biblical imperative for welcoming foreigners and argue for its practical application in modern America. It is not even enough to respond to the hesitater’s charge about a Biblical imperative of a government to protect its citizens – though this is necessary to consider as well. The welcomer must also consider the hesitater’s fundamental differences in perception about Islam. Where did these different perceptions come from? Are they based in rumor or truth? In the context of American freedom, I think we need to discuss what risks we expect our government to protect us from, how big those risks really are, and how this relates to Islam. I have opinions on these matters, but as this post is getting long I think I will save them for a second post.

Partial Conclusions

Potential constraints notwithstanding, I think a strong case can be made – on Biblical theological grounds, on general humanitarian grounds, even on fundamentally American grounds – for welcoming as many refugees as practically possible, as a matter of both national policy and individual connecting. (Truly, both aspects are intertwined and neither can succeed alone.)

Above all, we should strive not to lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about numbers and statistics but real people, created in the image of God, who have suffered unimaginable oppression, whose lives we have unique opportunities to enter into and spend time with, just as Jesus spent much of his time on this Earth. And yet it is more than simply the privileged helping the underprivileged. We all have so much to learn from each other, as we actively participate in tearing down walls of hostility and let God turn our hearts from our natural, sinful inward focuses to his outward love for all humanity.

May the Lord guide us into all wisdom and understanding as we endeavor to grow in faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

(If you don’t want to miss the follow-up, sign up for an email notification at the bottom of the page.)

Some Works Cited

Pastor Kyle Rainbolt’s sermon on “The Outsiders” at St. Louis Trinity Church

A conservative blog post on immigration and the Bible

activism, informal essays

Children On The Battlefield

Brief – but jarring.

It was only a few seconds in one of the numerous firefight scenes in Star Wars: Rogue One. A little girl bawling in the middle of a battlefield, weapons firing all around her, then carried off to safety by one of the good guys.

It was jarring because the little girl felt so out of place. In our action movies, we’re not used to seeing children on the battlefields. And yet in those few seconds that little girl exposed one of the great lies of all of our cinematic glorifications of war.

Real wars have children in them.

From our fun sci-fi romps across galaxies to our grittiest, darkest looks at the horrors of historical battlefields, we shrug off the deaths of the bad guys, we mourn the losses of the good guys, we revel and recoil at the intensity of the blood and the limbs and all the other ugliness, but they’re usually adults, who sort of knew what they were getting into, whose sacrifices we can celebrate and honor…

Give us blood. Give us gore. Give us all the realistic R-rated violence we can handle.

Oh, but don’t give us children.

We don’t want to face that much reality. We want our movies to be an escape.

Not from a movie.
Not from a movie.

Nevermind the children of Aleppo who couldn’t escape from a reality we don’t even want to contemplate, as we gather for the holidays in the safety of our homes.

We should be thankful for those blessings. But if we only thank God that we have them without thinking about the people who don’t, it feels to me a little like Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14)

Oh, God, I thank you, that I am not like those other folks….

Others

I don’t have all the answers to the great political challenges of our time. But I do know that we won’t find them when we give in to our natural tendencies to fear, to dehumanize, to forget the others, the ones who aren’t like us, the ones we don’t know and can’t see…

and yet: the ones who are created in the image of God just like us, the ones who are loved by Jesus Christ just like us, the ones who will one day gather around the throne from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

I’ve met a few children who were able to escape the real war of Syria. Their father suffered a head injury from the fighting. The UN Refugee Agency recommended their family to the United States, which approved them and connected them to an institute that settled them in an apartment across from our church office.

Some of our church members visited them and got to know them. When they got a house through a Muslim connection, our church members helped them move, and we took up a donation to help them pay their first few bills. How cool is that, for this Muslim family, regardless of whatever impressions they may have had of Americans or Christians not wanting them here, to see the love of Christ demonstrated to them, after all the horrors they’ve experienced, a love that they might never have seen had they not arrived. Some of the family came to church yesterday! I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s continued work in their lives.

Action

If you want to help refugees, there are several things you can do.

If you’re in St. Louis, you can sign up at GoodNeighborSTL.com to connect with a refugee family. It’s a partnership with Oasis International, a great local ministry you can donate to. Relevant recently posted an article with several options, including ways to directly help war victims still in Syria.

No one can worry about all the problems in the world all the time. We all must focus on our callings. But maybe we can at least remember the children on the battlefield. If it means anything to love our neighbors as ourselves, maybe, for at least a brief and jarring moment, we can think about what we would try to do if our own children were suffering so, or what we would want someone to do for us, and maybe some of us can go and do likewise.

informal essays

Can Bad Character Prevent Good Leadership? A Question For Evangelical Trump Supporters

Two months ago, Amy Gannett struck a chord with thousands of Christian Millennials with her blog post “How Evangelicals Are Losing An Entire Generation.” I’ve been thinking about that post again as I watch more and more evangelical pastors and leaders from the Baby Boomer generation joining the chorus to support Donald Trump for president.

Now Christians are going to have different opinions about politics, and we need to be able to talk humbly to each other about them. I don’t claim to speak for everyone in my generation – I know many who don’t agree, and some from other generations who do – but based on countless conversations, various polls, and relentless online streams, I think this election has exposed a major generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials – a gap that will persist regardless of who wins in November – a gap we need to be talking about.

This is not a criticism.

It’s a cry for help.

American Evangelical Millennials. We’ve grown up in a strange world. Bill Clinton’s sex scandal is the first major political event many of us remember. We all didn’t understand what sex was, but we got the impression that what Clinton did was bad and it was another symptom of how the country was getting worse and how everything would have been better if a Republican had been in office. Evangelical leaders like James Dobson called out Clinton’s adultery, and his lying about it, as evidence of his fundamental lack of character for such an important leadership position:

What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no…

I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior?

What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men?

We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil.

Now we see those very same leaders turning around and defending a man who has committed adultery in multiple marriages, a man whose lies repeatedly try to rewrite the history of his past positions as if we have no memory, who claims he never said things when there is clear footage that he did, who attacked an opponent with baseless allegations from the National Enquirer and even lied about what that tabloid said about it, a man who lies so consistently, so brazenly, so unrepentantly that he makes Hillary Clinton look honest.

We are so confused.

Why does it seem like our evangelical leaders hold partisan politics more constant than what they say the Bible teaches about those politics?

This is something that matters deeply to us. Many of us have friends who have left the faith in large part due to disillusionment with the hypocritical joining of American Republicans and religion. We don’t want to run away with them. But we understand how they feel.

Our evangelical leaders criticized a Democrat’s moral failures, and when people said, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he’s doing a good job with the economy, our leaders said, No, character is fundamental to leadership, you can’t make good decisions without it. Now we have a Republican candidate with arguably far worse moral failures, and we’re saying, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he might be good for the economy?

Can bad character prevent good leadership? Or not?

This is more than just a rude guy saying some mean things. Doesn’t Proverbs say “a lying tongue” is one of God’s seven abominations (Prov. 6:17)? If “the Lord detests dishonest scales,” (Prov 11:1) should we be concerned about one who shortchanges his contractors? If safety comes from a “multitude of counselors,” (Prov. 11:14) should we be concerned about one who prides himself on his own instincts, gets bored when advisors try to prepare him for a debate and chides them when they to correct his delusion that he won it anyway? If “he who restrains his lips is wise,” (Prov. 10:19) should we concerned about one who recklessly spreads rumors about sex tapes of women after already doubling-down on criticizing their weight?

If Trump is the “wrecking ball” we need to overthrow the corrupt government, how do we know we won’t end up like the man who expelled an unclean spirit but didn’t replace it with anything good and ended up in a “last state” that was worse than the “first”? (Matt 12:43-45)

Are we really saying the character of the most powerful leader in the world does not matter a single iota regarding the powerful decisions they will make as long as they run with an (R) after their name and claim they’ll appoint some other leaders we’ll probably like?

Of course no one is perfect. But imperfect people with integrity can be good leaders. And imperfect people without integrity cannot.

Or at least that’s what every evangelical influence told us for years and years.

The teaching we thought we received from the leaders of the previous generation seems so fundamentally at odds with the positions they are taking now. And we don’t know how to process that. Are they wrong about this? Were we wrong about them? About ourselves? None of it makes sense to us.

We are so confused.

Ever since we’ve been old enough to vote – only three or four cycles, really – we’ve heard the admonitions about voting for the lesser of two evils. And we’ve watched as the lesser keeps getting less good. With both major candidates at record unfavorable ratings, there are multiple third parties polling at record levels this cycle (the Libertarians with their two former Republican governors have been flirting with double-digits). Could our evangelical leaders have tried to get behind a third-party bid, even with the resignation of switching back to (R) if it didn’t take off? We can’t help but wonder why we didn’t even try to snap out of the lesser-of-two-evils spiral.

To be honest, we’re not sure the (R) is the lesser evil this time around.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but we’re just not that scared of Hillary Clinton. It’s not that we think she’d be good, either. But we’ve heard our leaders spend the last eight years warning Obama was going to cause the destruction of America, and now they sound like the boy who cried wolf as we look around thinking things aren’t so bad.

Yes, we’re heartbroken by abortion. We think Obamacare has made things worse for a lot of us. We’re not really expecting much Social Security from our government’s unsustainable fiscal path. But we’re not really convinced Trump has a plan or even an interest in changing any of those things. And we don’t all think Hillary and the Democrats are “100% wrong” – as I saw one pastor recently post – about everything. A lot of us kinda like the idea of welcoming more refugees; we think there might even be something Biblical about it that’s worth what we think is a negligible risk. Some of us even think it might be worth at least doing a little something about the risk of climate change.

Maybe that’s why Hillary’s potential to maybe nominate somebody to the Supreme Court who might get to take cases that might nudge some issues away from what we’d prefer… well, that doesn’t really scare us, either – or at least it’s not obvious to us that it’s definitely worse than the potential downsides of Trump directly managing everything in the executive branch. (When you consider life expectancy these days, what if no more justices die in the next four years? Should we throw away our integrity for an event that might not even happen?) Our hope hasn’t been in politicians for awhile… maybe it never was?

I know, I know. We have biases, too. Maybe we’re all young and naive. Maybe we’re not old enough to understand the way the world really works or what our country really needs. We need elders, mentors, leaders. Please forgive us when we’re stubborn, angry, quick to speak and slow to listen. But a lot of us are starting to think that we don’t know what to do.

I’m not just talking about who to vote for president this year. What I really mean is, a lot of us don’t know who to look up to anymore. Unlike some of our friends, we still believe in God. We still want to believe in the Bible, and we don’t really want to run to the liberal theology of some of our other friends, either. But we find ourselves increasingly apart from the leading figures of our parents’ generation.

Who do we follow? Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, in my opinion, has been fantastic, on everything from civil rights and racism to refugees to abortion. I’m sure there are others. But I don’t want evangelicals to just split into pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions. I don’t want to say “we’re right” and go with the people I agree with. I hope we can have conversations about things like character in leadership.

I’ll leave with these profound words from Amy Gannett:

Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals.

And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools…

Evangelical leaders are going to lose an entire generation of Christians in the wake of our current political and social climate. This is not an article asking millennials to leave Evangelicalism because I believe it can’t be saved, nor is this article saying that Evangelicalism is dead. It also is not a proposal of a useful way forward in this“dumpster fire” of an election. It is a plea for reform. It is a big ask of Evangelical leaders to reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground and ask if there could be a better, more truly Evangelical way…

Because you’re losing us, and we don’t want to be lost.

informal essays

A Woman’s Right To Choose

webmd-fetus-16-weeks

“I believe in a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body”

Whenever abortion debates flare up around the Internet, many pro-choicers express this sentiment, without fail and usually without explanation, as if that simple principle is a self-evident final answer. Over and over and over I see that refrain, uttered with a dogmatic conviction that reminds me of fundamentalists who repeatedly say, “The Bible says it and I believe it!” – without taking the time to consider whether or not such a reply actually provides an adequate answer.

I believe “a woman’s right to her own body” is an excellent general principle for building a set of ethics. I recognize that societies throughout history labelled women as the property of their husbands (at best), that men in more enlightened societies have placed and continue to place unjust control – emotional, physical, sexual, even vocational – over women, and that as a man I am likely woefully ignorant of much of this oppression. I generally support efforts to decrease the unjust control of a woman’s body by others and increase her control over her own life.

But a general principle is only helpful as long as you don’t run into a situation that puts it in conflict with itself. This can happen to pro-lifers, too: “Protect life!” sounds great until you have a pregnancy where the continuing development of the child may or may not kill the mother. Does the pithy slogan still lead to the same conclusion, or do you need to go deeper and embrace the terrible tension? I propose that the pro-choice position runs into a conflict with its general principle all the time, because half of abortions involve two women.

Consider the sixteen-week old fetus in the image above from WebMD. She and her mother each have a distinct body. All of her cells have the same unique DNA, and all of her mother’s cells have a different unique DNA. They each have their own head, brain, heart, liver, fingers with unique fingerprints. Their blood, which does not mix, may have different blood types. Two distinct bodies, one inside the other, connected by an umbilical cord.

Simply stating “a woman’s right to choose” does not help us decide which of the two women gets to choose what happens to the weaker one. If a woman’s right to her own body includes her offspring, then at one point her body was the right of her mother’s. By Week 16 her little body already had her own eggs in her own ovaries! When did that body stop belonging to her mother and start belonging to her? When was this “product of conception” no longer merely the property of her mother?

Most pro-lifers say it’s from the moment of conception, when cells with unique DNA begin to divide into a body. Some pro-choicers might say it’s when the child develops consciousness, or the ability to feel pain, or viability outside the womb. (I think each of those have weaknesses, but I commend folks who hold such views for trying to find a line rather than imply there isn’t one.) Only 14% of Americans think a woman’s right to her own body hasn’t started by the third trimester, when that body is filling out with fingernails and body fat and head hair and the ability to recognize words; I think most people feel there is no difference in personhood between a 34-week-old premie and a 34-week-old still in the womb. Only 27% think self-ownership hasn’t started by the second trimester, and I think that number would be lower if more were aware of how much development has occurred at that point.

Such development is starkly illustrated in the recent Planned Parenthood videos. A fetus cannot be a worthless blob of tissue while inside the womb and full of valuable, identifiable organs once removed. To deny her the right to live, you must either say she is just part of her mother’s body, which means the mother has two hearts and two brains for awhile, or she is a separate body without its own rights. You cannot liberate a woman from the property of men only to leave her as the property of her mother. The pro-life position, far from restricting women, actually proposes a fuller liberation!

I don’t think I am alone in saying this. Read Ann Voskamp on the virtues of being “pro-voice” for “both the human in utero and the human in a hard place”. (In fact you would do well if you leave to read her post and never finish mine.)

I think a lot of times pro-choicers feel like pro-lifers don’t seem to care too much about that woman “in a hard place.” Even if one accepts that a fetus is a separate body from her mother, pro-lifers often fail to acknowledge that the development of the fetus exacts a significant toll on the mother’s body. Nausea, vomiting, back pain, the literal rearrangement of internal organs, the possible tearing of the perineum upon delivery, the emotional side effects of all the hormones, the financial costs of doctor and hospital visits and childcare, the lifelong loss of wages due to workforce gaps…

Maybe you only hear pro-lifers get riled up about abortion without seeming to care about all the burdens of developing and raising a child. Maybe you see heaps of stigma and shame on women who have abortions and on single mothers who don’t. Maybe you see the demonization of Planned Parenthood without seeing any concern for the health and wellbeing of the underprivileged.

Personally, I want to stop Planned Parenthood from crushing the most underprivileged of all and extracting their organs, but I don’t want to destroy Planned Parenthood. I have no problem admitting they do a lot of good things that society needs more of. I love how my favorite local pro-life group, Thrive St. Louis, has begun competing with Planned Parenthood on a more holistic level.

I think I would even support much higher taxes to legitimately address more of the aforementioned costs of pregnancy and childbearing. If we are going to accuse Planned Parenthood of not putting life before money, perhaps we should be more willing to do so ourselves. I know we have TONS of underappreciated generous donors and foster and adoptive parents in our ranks. I know the government pays for some medical care for the poor. Is that good enough? Should we at least start talking about… I don’t know, paid maternity leave?

I love small government, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice life on its altar. Would we see less resistance to banning second trimester abortions if it was accompanied by Cadillac care – or even Camry care – for those women and their children? When a large majority of Americans have already thought such abortions should be illegal for decades now? When most “progressive” European countries already ban abortions at that level?

I know. Pro-lifers have biases. If you categorically defend the pro-choice position with a simple “woman’s right to choose,” I wonder if you haven’t simply perceived these biases that seem to ignore all the other aspects of women’s health and wellbeing and formed your beliefs in reaction to that. Maybe not – maybe you have a well-reasoned position on the beginning of personhood. But if not, I encourage you to not rest behind a convenient slogan, but to wrestle with its inherent tension and enter the fray regarding the important question of when a woman’s right to her own body begins.

I know most abortions occur in the first trimester. I know I can’t post a picture of a four-week embryo to emotionally supplement quite as strong of a case about the number of distinct organs (though I assure you I heard my own son’s heartbeat four weeks from conception). I don’t expect to be able to totally change your mind in a single blog post. But I do encourage you to look at that picture, imagine a female fetus with her own eggs and ovaries, with a developing skull and brain that we currently allow doctors to crush so they can remove the rest of the body and sort out the heart and liver, all in the name of her mother’s right to own her, and consider how twenty years from now you would be saying that no one, not even that same mother, should control those same ovaries, or that same liver, for that matter.

Do you really, truly believe she shouldn’t have the right to that liver now?

Do you?

If not now, when?

 

books

Review: Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today
Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a solid mainline perspective on understanding the Bible. Hamilton summarizes the content and themes of the Bible and also addresses many good questions people have about it, offering reasonable answers to skeptics while simultaneously gently challenging the inflexible views of many evangelicals. As someone raised generally evangelically without a clear representation of the mainline perspective, I found it helpful in dispelling many false dichotomies that come with interpreting the Bible, and the way it made alternate viewpoints feel less threatening.

Hamilton challenges the popular evangelical idea that “if you can’t trust part of the Bible you can’t trust any of it” by noting that we don’t apply the same principle to trusted teachers and preachers we find fallible yet helpful. He also makes a strong argument that the evangelical definition of “inerrancy” has enough caveats to be almost meaningless (if modern variances or inconsistencies exist because only the original manuscripts were “God-breathed,” but none of the original manuscripts were preserved, than what was the point?). Supporting his “helpful but not necessarily infallible” view is a claim that the “God-breathed” phrase in Timothy, often invoked in defense of inerrancy, was also used to describe early church writings that have never been viewed in the same light. (I am interested in researching this further.)

Even as I appreciated the chance to become – if not totally convinced – at least more open-minded – about a less rigorous yet still solidly Christian understanding of Scripture, I occasionally found his evangelical challenges unconvincingly unimaginative. For example, he claims that the location of Jesus’ ascension is irreconcilably contradictory across the Gospels, which I did not find when I sympathetically reviewed the texts. I also found his attempts to reconcile an affirming stance on homosexuality with an inerrant interpretation surprisingly weak and clearly refutable; I remain convinced you cannot do that without also abandoning inerrancy. And while I am not necessarily opposed to the principle of using Jesus’ words to essentially override other parts of Scripture (while many evangelicals would never echo Hamilton’s language, in practice they are often similar), I’m not sure his approach to interpreting the Old Testament’s violent passages through Jesus is actually based on a comprehensive view of Jesus himself.

Overall, I found Hamilton’s book an excellent presentation of a viewpoint that I found to be much less hollow and inconsistent than I once suspected before I had actually read some of its stronger defenses. I think it would be helpful, both for the reputation of Christianity and for the saving of souls, if evangelicals were more familiar with the existence of this viewpoint, and in less agreement with their equally dogmatic secular opponents that one must either accept every evangelical interpretation or reject Christianity altogether.

View all my reviews