jasonbwatson

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

January 25, 2017

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

August 11, 2016

Evaluating Donald Trump–and Why Hillary Clinton Cannot be an Option

This is, by far, my longest post ever. It also includes far more links that I usually include so that you can read the thoughts of others for yourself if you wish. This post’s length reflects two important things, I think. One, this is an incredibly important issue. Two, it does not have an easy answer and trying to make sense of it is difficult at best. This is my best effort at doing that and, if you stick with me to the end, I thank you for your endurance.

Whether or not Christians should vote for Donald Trump is a question that is getting a lot of attention these days—and rightly so. Voting is a privilege and a responsibility, and Christians have a specific responsibility, I believe, to stand for biblical values and truth in a secular society—which includes through the ballot box. Accordingly, the question of whether or not to vote for Trump—or Hillary Clinton—is a valid one and one that is worthy of serious contemplation. No one should vote blindly or ignorantly, nor should anyone cast his vote based solely on the letter that appears after the candidate’s name (party affiliation). Individuals far more well known that me, far more educated than me and with far larger followings than me have already weighed in on this question and will no doubt continue to do so…but I see no reason for that to deter me from sharing my opinion!

On July 28 Wayne Grudem posted his thoughts on Townhall in an editorial entitled “Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice.” He starts his thoughts by saying that many Christians have told him that when faced with choosing between two evils the right thing to do is to choose neither, meaning that a vote for Trump is not an option. These folks, says Grudem, advocate a vote for a write-in or third party candidate. To that, Grudem responds that, with his 39 years of experience teaching Christian ethics, he believes that “voting for a Trump is a morally good choice” now that Trump is indeed the Republican nominee. Before giving his specific reasons why he thinks this, Grudem states the following:

American citizens need patience with each other in this difficult political season. Close friends are inevitably going to make different decisions about the election. We still need to respect each other and thank God that we live in a democracy with freedom to differ about politics. And we need to keep talking with each other – because democracies function best when thoughtful citizens can calmly and patiently dialog about the reasons for their differences.

I agree with Grudem about that, and, just as his post was his effort at contributing to the discussion, this is mine. If you discuss politics with family and friends at all, or look at a Facebook feed every now and then, you are no doubt baffled, frustrated or just downright upset with the political inclinations of some people you know right now. Me too. The challenge on that front is to respectfully express our differences, kindly try to persuade, but, in the end, still have love and respect for those people even when they disagree with us. So it is not my desire here to denigrate anyone, but I do think this is a discussion worth having.

Grudem says that voting for a flawed candidate is not morally wrong if you think that candidate will do more good for the nation than will his opponent. I would agree with that and would suggest that we all do. After all, if you are a Christian and you believe in the sin nature of man, then you must recognize that there is no such thing as a candidate who is not flawed. If we could only vote for candidates who were not flawed then we would never be able to vote.

In a paragraph enumerating Trump’s flaws Grudem begins with this sentence: “He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash.” Certainly true. At the conclusion of that paragraph, which includes reference to Trump’s marital infidelity, he writes, “These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.” Now I do not know, and to my knowledge Grudem has not said, but it would seem to me that the words this election are crucial in that sentence. In other words, it would seem to me that Grudem is stating that while the flaws of Trump—which are, admittedly, greater than the flaws of many other candidates who ran in this election and who have been nominated in the past—would disqualify him from consideration in any other election, the fact that Trump and Clinton are the only major candidates left now makes this situation different. Grudem explained that he spoke against a Trump candidacy just six months ago, but his position has now changed. That causes me to think that when there were a dozen other candidates to consider, Grudem did not think Trump was a good moral choice.

That does beg the question of whether or not someone who is not an acceptable candidate at one time can become an acceptable candidate later when said candidate has not changed at all but the environment in which he is running has changed and the options have diminished. Is the acceptability of a candidate subjective or not?

Back in April Andy Naselli wrote a post on his web site entitled “Can You Vote for Donald Trump with a Clear Conscience?” Naselli had just coauthored a book on the conscience, so this was a relevant subject for him to address. Like Grudem, he began by enumerating Trump’s flaws and failures. He made it clear that Trump is not a man of good character. “A presidential candidate does not need to sign off on my church’s doctrinal statement to earn my vote,” he wrote. “But character matters immensely for leaders. If a presidential candidate is not trustworthy in other areas, how can we entrust him with the most influential governmental position in the world?” There is really no debate over many of the points Naselli makes, including that Trump brags about his adultery, mocks and disrespects women and those with disabilities, is shamelessly proud and so on. His conclusion? “Trump is not morally qualified to lead a Boy Scout troop.”

In his article, Grudem explains that be believes Christians have a responsibility to seek the good of the nation in which they live, and I agree. He cites Jeremiah 29:7 as support for that position: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (ESV). I think there are ample other passages that can also be used to support the importance of Christians seeking to influence for good the community, state, nation and even world in which they live. John MacArthur wrote a book a number of years ago entitled Why Government Can’t Save You. I do not agree with everything he wrote there, but I certainly agree that government cannot save anyone, nor should seeking to influence the public good through government ever replace the importance of seeking to lead lost souls to salvation. But I think Grudem would agree with that.

Naselli writes, “If you vote for a presidential candidate in America’s democratic republic, it does not mean that you fully endorse all of that person’s policies or that you think that person’s character is stellar.” He says there are two basic voting strategies—voting for “the least bad candidate who has the best chance of winning” and voting “for the best (or least bad) candidate, even if that person has a low chance of winning” (italics his). Naselli says he has employed the first option to this point in his life but questions now whether or not there is a limit on the application of that principle. “Can the most viable candidates be so bad that you cannot dignify either of them with your vote?” he asks.

He goes on to use an example of an election between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. If they were the two most viable candidates, Naselli asks, would someone really feel obligated to vote for the lesser of the two evils? “The strategy to vote for the lesser of two evils breaks down at some point. You must draw the line somewhere. The question is where to draw that line.” I agree that there does come a tipping point, but I think it is also necessary to bear in mind the notion of taking the course that will do the most good for the nation within the available options—and I will address that later using Naselli’s hypothetical as an excellent example.

It is precisely because of the responsibility to vote for the person who will do the most good for the nation that Grudem says voting for Trump is the moral thing to do. In his estimation, a vote for someone other than Trump, such as a write-in or third party candidate, is a de facto vote for Clinton, since it reduces the number of votes Clinton needs to win. Historically, there is significant evidence of a third party candidate making a difference in some elections, so that is a legitimate concern. Grudem’s point is that by not voting for Trump someone would be in essence supporting Clinton; in other words, voting for someone other than Trump and Clinton is as effective as voting for Mickey Mouse…or not voting at all.

Accordingly, the real question Grudem asks is, “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?” That is a very fair question. I think Grudem goes too far, however, in claiming James 4:17 as reason to support Trump; I do not think it is reasonable or accurate to say that voting for someone other than Trump is sin because of the fact that it could result in helping Clinton.

Grudem goes through a long list of topics that should matter to Christians and that will be adversely affected of Clinton wins in November. These topics include sanctity of life, religious liberty, freedom of speech and, most importantly, the makeup of the Supreme Court. He also addresses issues like taxes, minorities, the military, terrorism, Israel, energy and health care.

In response to the rhetorical question “Does character matter?” Grudem answers,I believe that character does matter, but I think Trump’s character is far better than what is portrayed by much current political mud-slinging, and far better than his opponent’s character.” I am really not so sure that his character is better than it is portrayed. Does the media seem to relish in portraying his worst moments and most ridiculous statements? Of course. But that does not change the fact that they are there. In other words, the way his character is portrayed, even in the left-wing media, is usually not completely fabricated. Is his character better than Clinton’s? I suspect it may be, but that still goes back to the “choosing between two evils” conundrum.

Alex Chediak, also on Townhall.com, responded to Grudem’s essay on August 1. He wrote, of Trump’s claim that he entered the political arena to defend those who cannot defend themselves against the powerful who continue to beat up on them, that in actuality “we see [from Trump’s track record] the picture of a fundamentally arrogant, selfish, and greedy man, who will do or say anything to beat his rivals. This is a man who glories in a kind of self-exaltation that most of us would find shameful.”

Grudem says those who reduce their decision on whom to vote for solely to character are guilty of reductionism, but I would disagree. A person’s character will determine how he or she will handle all of the other issues that matter. During one of the presidential debates John Kasich responded to an answer Ted Cruz gave regarding his philosophies by saying, “You don’t run anything with philosophy.” Kasich’s point was that actually having done something is more meaningful. The truth, though, is that one’s philosophy will dictate how he or she will run something. Trump’s character and philosophy indicates that he has usually been out to do what is best for him and his personal bottom line. He made it clear during the debates that he is proud of all the money he made in Atlantic City and the fact that he got out before most other casino owners, but the record of his operations in Atlantic City is not flattering.

Chediak says he agrees with Grudem that character cannot be the only factor to consider, but he also says that there comes a point where poor character makes it a necessary consideration. Writes Chediak,

But there is a character threshold that we should expect any candidate to meet. A man who owns his vices as if they were virtues, who talks proudly about “going after the families” of suspected terrorists, who has profited from strip clubs, who is by all accounts a pathological liar, who disparaged a disabled journalist, who insulted POWs, who criticized the looks of a rival’s wife, is unworthy of the office of president.

I agree with most of what Chediak said there. I have to ask though, who is worthy of the office of president? How do we determine that? Who gets to decide is us—we the people. That means, by default, that anyone who gets elected is “worthy.” When we are the losing side of the equation we probably do not like that, but we would not really want any alternative. If we were to suggest that some group of people should get to determine who is worthy or eligible to be the president we would only like it as long as we were in that group. That’s the great—and terrible—thing about democratic government; the majority will sometimes choose a candidate that we feel is completely wrong for the job, either by his positions and/or by his character. James Madison famously wrote, in The Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Men are not angels, and angels do not govern men, which is why we have to take seriously our responsibility as voters. In Christianity Today Russell Moore wrote, “In our system, citizen is an office; we too bear responsibility for the actions of the government.” That is also why, by the way, not voting is really not an option in my opinion. Even if a candidate lacking character—a candidate we feel is “unworthy of the office of president”—wins the office, we must be diligent to do all that we can within the system to keep him or her accountable through the checks and balances within our system. We have not done a good job of that in recent years, with a Congress that has allowed the president to usurp his constitutional powers on multiple occasions without calling him on it in any meaningful way and with a judicial branch that has created rights that do not exist and laws that were not voted on without holding those judges accountable either.

Grudem said that people’s concern that Trump will not be the president he has promised to be is a moot point because “all of American presidential history shows that that result is unlikely, and it is ethically fallacious reasoning to base a decision on assuming a result that is unlikely to happen.” I don’t agree with that either. That’s akin to saying that because everyone lies we should not care if one individual person lies. To use the faults of the whole to justify or excuse the faults of the one is ethically fallacious, too. I hesitate to start a debate with an ethics professor on ethical fallacies but this particular assertion by Grudem is an example of appeal to probability. Grudem says it is ethically fallacious to base a decision on the assumption that a result is unlikely to happen but it is just as fallacious to base it on a result that is likely to happen. Trump probably won’t do what he has said he will is a fallacious argument Grudem says, but opposing that by arguing that no one does what they say they will is also fallacious. Grudem is committing a fallacy of his own, saying that history tells us that candidates rarely do govern as they promise, so of course Trump is unlikely to as well.

Of course Grudem is not the only person whose writing is getting attention on this question. Though not nearly as prominent a voice as Grudem, a blogger named Shannon Dingle posted, on July 31, her opinion on the matter. It was entitled “I’m pro-life. And I’m voting for Hillary. Here’s why.” She says her opposition to abortion has not changed, but the Republican track record has caused her to come to the conclusion that she is “not sure we can hold that voting Republican is the best thing for abortion rates in this country.”

According to Dingle, “abortion rates rose under Reagan, rose under the first Bush, dropped under Clinton, held steady under the second Bush, and have been dropping under Obama.” However, I am not sure where received her information or on what she is basing that assertion. The National Right to Life Education Foundation reports, on nrlc.org, that the U.S. abortion rate (measured as the number of abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44) was lower when Regan left office than when he entered, lower when the first Bush left office than when he entered, was lower when Clinton left office than when he entered, was lower when Bush 43 left office than when he entered, and has also declined under Obama.

Perhaps Dingle misspoke and she meant the abortion ratio. That is the number of abortions per 100 births ending in live births or abortion. However, that number reached its peak in 1983 but had dropped markedly by the time Reagan left office. When Bush 41 left office it was slightly higher than when he entered, but then the ratio fell during the Clinton and Bush 43, and has also fallen under Obama. These are not NRLC numbers, either; they come from the Centers for Disease Control and the Guttmacher Institute. The NRLC did comment, however, that while the abortion rate is declining, the number of abortions from RU-486 and other similar means were up.

Dingle goes on to say that Trump has no political track record and therefore all we can go by are his words. Those words, she says, are “are inconsistent, unreliable, and highly subject to change based on what’s politically convenient for him.” I don’t disagree with that at all. She says he has a “newly minted pro-life stance,” and I do not disagree with that either. (That was also true of Mitt Romney, by the way). At the same time, Hillary Clinton has a political track record, and it is one firmly committed to the pro-abortion position. Just a few months ago she made the news with her comments on Meet the Press in which she said that unborn children do not have constitutional rights. She also said that the absence of those rights does not negate the responsibility to do whatever can be done medically to help the unborn child of a “mother who…wants to make sure that the child will be healthy.” Those words are significant because the imply Clinton’s well-known position that the medical community should also do whatever is necessary to end the life of an unborn child when the mother does not want that child. Here is an excerpt of Clinton’s response to Chuck Todd’s question, “When or if does an unborn child have constitutional rights?”

Well, under our laws currently, that is not something that exists. The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can in the vast majority of instances to, you know, help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy, to have appropriate medical support. It doesn’t mean that you don’t do everything possible to try to fulfill your obligations. But it does not include sacrificing the woman’s right to make decisions.

Dingle continues on to say that abortion—while deeply important to her—is not the only issue she is considered. She also makes it clear that she is voting for Clinton because she agrees with Clinton on enough issues to warrant her vote. If she did not, she says, she would abstain from voting or would vote for a third party candidate because she does not believe in voting against someone. Wrote Dingle, “I find enough I can affirm and identify with in the positions and record of Hillary Clinton.… Aside for abortion – which I do care about deeply – I see the Democrats as the party that champions other pro-life issues more effectively and consistently.”

Quite frankly, that statement blows my mind, so I found it very interesting to explore Dingle’s rationale. And she did not hold back, believe me. She enumerated ten ways in which she feels Clinton is a more pro-life candidate than Trump (and Republicans in general). Her first example is the lives of people with disabilities. Donald Trump has a hideous record of statements and insults directed toward and about individuals with disabilities and there is no defense for those statements. Clinton has a more admirable record of statements made about the still-existing need to provide more help and greater access for individuals with disabilities. So I will let Dingle have this point, but I do want to mention that the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed by a Republican president (Bush 41) and Republicans Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin, among others, have rock-solid records on the issue of individuals with disabilities, due in no small part to their own experience as parents of children with disabilities (and their position that parents who are told their child will have a disability should not have the right to abort that child—a position Clinton does not hold).

Dingle’s second point is on the matter of women who would otherwise get abortions. She suggests that “empowering poor and low-income women can make a difference in overall pregnancy termination rates.” I find the word empowering to be trite and therefore almost devoid of meaning, but Dingle specifically mentions family supports—especially for single mothers, increased educational access and frank conversations about the issue of rape. Dingle says Clinton started the first rape crisis hotline in Arkansas and was “considered a leading advocate for abused and neglected children” shortly after leaving law school. That’s commendable, but it does not ignore the fact that Clinton only advocates for the rights of children who are already born—while simultaneously advocating for a woman’s right kill that child before it is born for no other reason than the fact that she does not want the child. In a 1995 speech at the UN women’s conference in Beijing Clinton made a gutsy statement, given the location of the conference. She said, “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls….” That’s absolutely true. But let us not forget that Clinton supports the right of a woman to have a doctor do those exact same things to a baby before it leaves the womb. While Marco Rubio’s assertion earlier this year that Clinton supports abortion even up to the due date of the child may be a small stretch, Clinton said on Meet the Press Daily on September 28, 2015, “”There can be restrictions in the very end of the third trimester, but they have to take into account the life and health of the mother.” Note the key words—very end of the third trimester.

Dingle writes, “As the mother of children who one day might benefit from any or all of these policies [that can benefit women who might otherwise have an abortion], I can’t look them in the eye, say I value them deeply, and then justify a vote for Trump. As someone who believes the best anti-abortion policies prevent abortions rather than ban them, I can’t say I’m pro-life and say I’m with him. I can’t.”

To that I would ask Dingle, Could you look those same children in the eye and say you voted for a woman who believes you had the right to kill them before they were born if you had wished to do so?

I am not going to take the time to discuss all of Dingle’s points because I do not feel they all need to be discussed. It is true that Hillary Clinton has a more admirable record on some issues than does Donald Trump. There is no defending Trump’s treatment of, and comments about, women. Wrote Chediak,

Trump has directly profited from the debasement of women. Trump was the first to put a strip club in a casino in 2013, the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Trump was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern show, where the two men regularly objectified women in the most degrading of ways. When we combine this record with Trump’s boasts of marital unfaithfulness and (more recently) his grotesque remarks about Megyn Kelly and the looks of Carly Fiorina and Heidi Cruz, it’s hard to argue that accusations of misogyny are unjustified.  (emphasis mine)

But Dingle seems to lose her grasp of reality when she says Clinton will be a better candidate for the lives of our armed forces. After admitting that Clinton made a complete mess of Benghazi, Dingle writes, “but I do think Hillary learned from the grievous errors leading up to and following that horrible day.” Really? Based on what? When questioned by Congress she said, notoriously, “what difference does it make now?” I do not think that shows any lessons learned. Dingle cites James Comey’s failure to indict Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server as an example only of poor judgment. I think, despite Comey’s statement, that conclusion is erroneous. There is evidence that Clinton knew exactly what she was doing, and continued to do it intentionally—if for no other reason than to avoid future FOIA requests. Her behavior would have resulted in an indictment for anyone else.

Dingle says she was “I was astounded by the number of military leaders speaking at the DNC…vouching Hillary as the best choice for our troops and most knowledgeable in this area of policy.” I wonder if she has checked out the number of military leaders who have said that Clinton is absolutely not the best choice for our troops? I think she would be even more astounded.

In an article in WORLD Mindy Belz wrote, referring in part to a number of pieces the magazine has run exposing connections between the Clintons and rogue Nigerians,

Our reporting uncovered multiple ties between the Clinton Foundation, Hillary herself, and Nigerian business interests who benefited from the United States not cracking down on terror in Nigeria. It’s a small anecdote. But it fits a pattern of cover-up; of Clinton denying shady practices plain for all to see; of her dealing with rogues, defying the law in plain sight, and daring anyone to catch her. A nuclear arsenal and the world’s best army won’t be in trustworthy hands on her watch.

In November 2015 Rasmussen Reports reported that a “RallyPoint/Rasmussen Reports national survey of active and retired military personnel finds that only 15% have a favorable opinion of Clinton, with just three percent (3%) who view the former secretary of State Very Favorably. Clinton is seen unfavorably by 81%, including 69% who share a Very Unfavorable impression of her.”

In March of this year, on americanthinker.com, retired Air Force Colonel Chris J. Krisinger wrote, “If polling is any indicator, Mrs. Clinton has few fans in the military. … Given the military’s performance-based ethos, coupled with the ideals and standards U.S. military members are held to account for, it seems increasingly likely that few among them would publicly offer up their names and professional reputations for her political fortunes.” So there may be plenty of military personnel who oppose the notion of Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, but there are no doubt just as many who oppose Clinton for that position. And she, by the way, has a track record on which to base such opposition.

Near the end of her post Dingle writes, “One reason I’m voting for Hillary is that I know what and who I’m voting for.” That, in my mind, is exactly why I could not vote for Clinton. I know what I am voting for and I could never in good conscience lend my support or endorsement to Clinton’s past or promises for the future.

A different take on Clinton comes from a (much shorter) blog post by Helen Wickert on courageousmotherhood.net and entitled “An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton.” Having stated that she would love to be able to celebrate with her daughter the first nomination of a woman for president by a major political party, Wickert writes that she cannot. “Sadly, Mrs. Clinton, you have shown not only my daughter but all daughters—and not only in this country but globally—that in order to, in your words, ‘shatter the gla’ you have to lie, cheat, abuse, insult, bully and ignore.”

Wickert writes, “Mrs. Clinton, how can I possibly tell my daughter to follow you as an example after you allowed your husband to assault and demean multiple women throughout his political career?” Good question—especially since Dingle says that one of the reasons she is supporting Clinton is Trump’s abysmal record toward women. Trump demeans women with his words and actions, Dingle says. No argument from me on that one. But has not Clinton done the same? In January of this year the New York Times ran an article that enumerated a number of instances of Clinton’s attitude toward the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or of having affairs with them. According to George Stephanopoulos Clinton said “We have to destroy her story” when Connie Hamzy came forward against Bill Clinton in 1991. The article also references Clinton’s approach toward Gennifer Flowers and quotes “one of her closest confidantes” as saying that Clinton called Monica Lewinsky “a narcissistic loony toon.” You can read the article for yourself if you want to know more.

Wickert also asks,

How can you get up and speak about income equality and then pay your own male executives considerably more than your female staff? How can you receive donations from countries that publicly abuse, shame and even execute their own women? Yet you continue to boast about how you stand for women’s rights. Double standard?

I have nothing to add to that, but it would be interesting to know how Dingle would respond. Wickert also raises the issue of Clinton’s $12,000 jackets she often speaks in and the six-figure speaking fees she collects. How do those facts contribute to Clinton’s ability or desire to help women who are struggling?

Wickert wasn’t through though; she also writes this:

You have the interests of only one woman in mind here: your own. You have done nothing to bring the United States together. Quite the contrary—you have done your best to divide, and you have succeeded. Congratulations. You crave power, and you will do whatever it takes to get it. You have lied, cheated and let down your own country.

Now it would be difficult to suggest that Trump has done much to bring the country together either. I am not suggesting that he has. But I am suggesting that Dingle’s assertions about Clinton being the better candidate really do not make much sense when you truly compare the two candidates.

This is already long and is only getting longer, so the time has come to begin moving toward a conclusion.

I said earlier that I would come back to Naselli’s example of an election between Hitler and Stalin. Obviously that would be an extremely undesirable choice to have to make, and if there really were a U.S. election with two such candidates it would be quite tempting to abstain or vote for a third party candidate. However, I said this was a perfect example because if we reflect back to World War II we see that the United States actually did choose Stalin over Hitler—just long enough to defeat Hitler. Very few people, if any, in the U.S. liked the idea of working together with the Soviets, but it was a temporary necessity in order to defeat Nazi Germany, which was an even worse evil at that time. History bears out that there are times when the adage is indeed true that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump is the enemy of Hillary Clinton.

Dingle writes that she has changed her mind about support for abortion being a deal breaker position. I cannot agree with her. Instead, I side with John Piper, who wrote back in 1995, “I believe that the endorsement of the right to kill unborn children disqualifies a person from any position of public office.” Now I should clarify that, supporting the freedoms which make our country the great country that it is prevent me from saying that I actually believe that such a position disqualifies a person from running for or holding that office, but I do believe that it disqualifies me from ever voting for such a person—and I think it should have the same impact for anyone who claims to be pro-life. Writing on The Gospel Coalition web site, Thomas Kidd wrote earlier this month, “Just what we know about her views on abortion and the rights of conscience should disqualify her, in my opinion, as a political option for Christians.” Despite Dingle’s best efforts, there is simply no way to claim to be pro-life and support a person who passionately defends a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Back in April Naselli wrote that if Trump and Clinton ended up being the nominees there would basically be four options for voters: (1) Don’t vote; (2) vote for Clinton; (3) vote for Trump; or (4) “vote for someone else who has no chance to win.”

I do not think number one or number two are real options for believers—or for anyone who believes that there are responsibilities that come along with being a citizen of the United States (and a citizen of heaven, for those in the “believer” category).  That leaves three and four. There are arguments to made for and against voting for Trump. I have discussed some of them already, and I will share just a couple of more thoughts from Russell Moore.

Again, in Christianity Today, Moore wrote this:

For starters, unless Jesus of Nazareth is on the ballot, any election forces us to choose the lesser of evils. Across every party and platform, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Still, the question is a valid one. Believing in human depravity doesn’t negate our sense of responsibility.

Moore also wrote this:

Can a candidate make promises about issues then do something different in office? Yes. Can a candidate present a sense of good character in public then later be revealed to be a fraud? Sure. The same happens with pastors, spouses, employees, and in virtually every other relationship. But that sense of surprise and disappointment is not the same as knowingly delegating our authority to someone with poor character or wicked public stances. Doing so makes us as voters culpable. Saying, “the alternative would be worse” is no valid excuse.

That is why, bottom line, I do not believe a Christian can vote for Hillary Clinton. Neither can someone who does not profess Christianity but does claim to be pro-life. Such a vote would be, in Moore’s words, “knowingly delegating our authority” to someone who has said she defends the right of women to kill their unborn children.

That still leaves the question of whether or not to vote for Trump.

There are plenty of intelligent arguments being made both for and against doing so. Many people I respect are passionately in favor of supporting Trump. Many others I respect are passionately opposed. Several months ago I said myself that I did not know how anyone who professes to be a Christian could support Donald Trump for president. At the time I said that there were other Republican candidates still in the race, but if I felt that way then can I change that position now? Should I? That brings me back to the question I asked near the beginning of this lengthy piece, “whether or not someone who is not an acceptable candidate at one time can become an acceptable candidate later when said candidate has not changed at all but the environment in which he is running has changed and the options have diminished.” As I said, I think that is Grudem’s position. I just need to determine whether or not it is mine.

Chediak suggests that voting for a third candidate—whether a proclaimed candidate or a write-in—is the appropriate choice. “By voting for neither Trump nor Clinton, we do not participate in our country’s decline. We lay the groundwork for a brighter day to come,” he says. David French, writing for National Review, says, “It is hard to face the fact that — on balance — Trump is no better than Hillary Clinton. Hillary is a dreadful politician, and Republicans have waited for years for a great candidate to take her on. They’re still waiting. It’s Democrat versus Democrat for president, and no amount of wishful thinking can change that sad reality.” And Matthew Franck, writing on thepublicdiscourse.com, a web site of The Witherspoon Institute, said this of Trump:

Was there ever a candidate more obviously unqualified for high public office, as measured by his dearth of relevant knowledge and experience, his willfulness and self-absorption, his compulsive lying and inconsistency, his manipulative using of other people, his smash-mouth rhetoric and low character? For anyone professing conservative principles, the first problem with Trump is that he is not one of us, has never been one of us, shows no sign or capacity of becoming one of us, and hardly cares to pretend to be one of us. Even “what about the Supreme Court?” has no grip on my conscience when I try to imagine Donald Trump in the Oval Office. I cannot trust him to choose judicial nominees wisely, and there are other things whose cumulative weight is greater even than this variable.

We haven’t even the consolation of thinking of Trump as a certain kind of Republican who is not actually conservative but who at least recognizes our vocabulary when he hears it. No, Trump would not know a conservative principle if it kicked him in the shins. This is a nominee who, in my estimation, cannot earn my vote even as a “lesser evil” or an “at least he’s not Hillary” candidate. I waver between believing that his defeat would be the worst thing to happen to our country and believing that his victory would be.

At the beginning of his piece Franck sets the stage by recounting being asked this: “If your vote were the deciding one in the election, with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becoming president on the basis of your vote alone, for which one would you vote?” No one is ever actually in that position, of course, a fact that Franck acknowledges, and which leads him to his ultimate conclusion:

Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character. Vote as if the public consequences of your action weigh nothing next to the private consequences. The country will go whither it will go, when all the votes are counted. What should matter the most to you is whither you will go, on and after this November’s election day.

I understand Franck’s point and I think one’s own character and conscience certainly must be factors in how to vote. At the same time, loving God necessarily entails loving each other, and I do not feel it can be justified biblically to act in a way that could result in contributing to Hillary Clinton becoming the president. That means that Naselli’s fourth option—voting for someone who has no chance to win—is not an option at all if voting for that person will have the resulting impact of helping Clinton win. (See again Grudem’s point that voting for such a candidate is in essence a vote for Clinton).

Tony Reinke, by the way, added a few more options to the four voting choices Naselli presented. One of those was, “Vote utilitarian by choosing a major candidate based on who would appoint the best SCOTUS judges.” This argument is consistent with what Eric Metaxas said in a recent interview: “We need to take seriously the realization that the wrong people in the Supreme Court can effectively end our form of government. That’s why, for all the shortcomings, I would say we have no choice but to vote for Trump.” Reinke is not persuaded by this argument, though, saying “it remains difficult to know how many SCOTUS judges will be selected in the next four years, maybe only one (to fill Scalia’s vacancy). After last summer I have a hard time believing SCOTUS, in any forms, is little more than a codifier of public opinion.” I think that’s unlikely. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is probably not going to be able to serve another four years. Anthony Kennedy is 80 and Stephen Breyer will be 78 next week. So there is a high probability than the next president will appoint more than one justice to the court.

The lasting influence of SCOTUS justices is undeniable. It is no coincidence that the average age of the last four appointees—Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan—was just shy of 53. A Supreme Court justice can easily serve thirty years—longer than seven presidential terms. So this has to be a serious consideration.

That is why, combined with everything else I have said here, I believe that voting for Donald Trump is the right thing to do for voters who live in a state that is not a sure thing for Trump to win. There are plenty of states where the vote is going to be very close, and these states are likely to determine the outcome of the election. Recent elections have all been close in electoral votes. Some states, though, are not really “up for grabs.” I live in South Dakota, for example, and it was last won by the Democratic nominee in 1964. In 2012 Obama received only 40% of the vote in the state. California, on the other hand, has not voted Republican since 1988 and is highly unlikely to do so this year. But if you live in a state that could go either way—Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia among others—I believe voting for Trump is the right thing to do. I could vote for Trump with a clear conscience if I lived in one of those states because it would be the most effective step I could take to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president. It would, in other words, be me loving my neighbor by doing what I could to ensure that the worst candidate did not win the election. I am not certain that makes Trump a good candidate, but if doing what is best for the nation as a whole—which is another way of saying loving my neighbor—is what Grudem means by Trump being a good moral choice then I agree—within the confines of what I stated above.

For those, like me, who live in states where the outcome is unlikely to be a real race, though, I think voting your conscience is the right thing to do. Notice I did not say not voting is the right thing to do, because I do not see that ever being the appropriate choice, but voting for a third party candidate or a write-in candidate is justifiable in those situations, and if it will ease your conscience or help you sleep better, then it is definitely the right choice. In fact, perhaps even more than that, I think it is the right choice because it communicates effectively that you are concerned about this country—enough to be an involved citizen—and are not pleased with either of the two major party candidates that were nominated this year. If there is enough of that kind of voting there may well be attention paid. There is no way, though, that a third party candidate is going to win the election this November (assuming nothing drastic changes between now and then) and doing anything other than whatever you can do to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning simply cannot be an option.

September 3, 2015

Words of Judgment

The same issue of Christianity Today that contains the column I referenced in the last post includes a column by Christena Cleveland. Cleveland, an African American, is an associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School and also the director of the school’s Center for Reconciliation. She has, in the past, received recognition from CT as one of the most influential young evangelicals, and in addition to her recent appointment at Duke (she had been a professor at St. Catherine University in Minnesota) she has also become CT’s “newest print columnist” because, in the words of the magazine’s managing editor, Katelyn Beaty, “she speaks words of judgment and of hope on racial reconciliation.”

When I read this, I was excited, because I have been aware of Cleveland for a while and I have both read and recommended her book Disunity in Christ. So impressed was I by the way Cleveland raised thought-provoking questions about the church and the issue of racial reconciliation within the book that not only I recommended the book to several people, I invited her to come speak at the school where I serve. While initially that seemed to work out, and we had a date scheduled, she later had to cancel and no rescheduling was ever completed. Having read her first effort for CT I am no longer sure I am disappointed about that. To borrow Beaty’s words, she definitely speaks words of judgement.

Cleveland’s column is titled “A Necessary Refuge,” and sub-titled, “I learned at age five that most US churches are unsafe for black people.” That’s thought-provoking and attention-getting to be sure, and while it rubbed me the wrong way I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking it was intentionally chosen to provoke interaction and to prompt reading. After setting the stage with her childhood experience, she would likely use the full-page essay to explain how that experience prompted her to pursue the career path she is on and how she has since learned that that assumption is not always the case, nor should it be. Sadly, that is not what her column does at all.

The first three paragraphs of the essay explain Cleveland’s first experience with being called the n-word. It happened when she was only five years old, and it happened at a Vacation Bible School she and her siblings were attending at a predominantly white church outside of San Francisco. It was one of the VBS teachers who shouted the word at the children when they did not respond immediately to a call to return to the classroom after some outdoor recreation. Cleveland writes that while she had never heard the word before, she “instinctively knew that it referred to out blackness. I lowered my head and ran back to the classroom, feeling unwanted and unsafe.”

I have no doubt that was traumatic for Cleveland and her siblings and that it happened is inexcusable. However, from there Cleveland makes a big jump. She writes, “This was the first of many times that the white church has dishonored the image of God in me as a black person, resulting in feeling unwanted and unsafe within the white church walls.” I certainly cannot speak for Cleveland’s feelings, nor would I presume to know what it feels like to be addressed the way that she and her siblings were at that VBS all those years ago. What I do know is that Cleveland is painting with a very wide brush. As tragic as it was for the woman to call her the n-word, it is just as tragic for Cleveland to blame it on the “white church.”

This goes to the same issues I have addressed in the last two posts. Zach Hoag wants to blame God for Josh Duggar’s behavior and Cleveland wants to blame the entire white church for one woman’s stupidity. Ligon Duncan wants an entire denominational body to apologize for the acts of some churches. Cleveland wants an entire race of Christians to be held responsible, and to apologize for, the acts of one individual. For reasons already addressed, neither option makes any sense of holds any water.

Cleveland writes, “Because of this early experience, I have long believed that white churches are not safe spaces for black people.” Notice she does not say she believed that for a long time and has now realized the error of her ways. No, she says have long believed—present tense, meaning she still believes this. And this is a woman who is a professor of the practice of reconciliation? This is a woman who directs a Center for Reconciliation? How, I am longing to know, can she teach or practice reconciliation when she holds millions of people responsible for the actions of a few? If Cleveland believes that white Christians are all responsible for the attitudes, beliefs and actions of a few white individuals who may profess Christianity does she also believe that all African Americans are responsible for the ridiculous violence that some African Americans engaged in over the past year in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere? Somehow I doubt it.

The impetus for Cleveland’s article is the attack, by a white male, on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. She says that the attack was particularly disturbing because “it communicated that black people are not safe even in our own churches. The trauma is exacerbated by the fact that the black church was created to be a haven for black people.” This is absurd reasoning. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because James Holmes shot up a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado no one is safe in a theater. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because several hundred people lost their lives on the airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania that no one is safe on airlines now, certainly not airlines carrying passengers of Middle Eastern ethnicity. When the United States rounded up and imprisoned anyone of Japanese ancestry after the Pearl Harbor attacks it was inexcusable. It is one of the saddest events of American history, in my mind. Christena Cleveland is essentially doing the same thing with her words.

Unsatisfied with suggesting that the actions of one white man in one black church mean that the white church is unsafe for blacks, Cleveland goes on to write that “anti-black racism” is “part of the DNA of the white American church. … The white-led church was a headquarters for black subjugation, birthing a legacy of racial inequality that has long shaped white Christianity.” Wow… With a few pecks on her keyboard Cleveland wipes out every white church that opposed slavery, that persevered in the face of opposition to bring about an end to slavery, to discrimination, to Jim Crow and racism. It is a very narrow and incredibly inaccurate view of history to suggest that all white churches were in favor of black subjugation. Cleveland gives no credit to those individuals and churches. Instead, she writes, “While many black churches were leading abolitionist and anti-lynching efforts in the 19th century, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century, white churches overwhelmingly maintained the status quo of racial inequality and actively resisted change.” Overwhelmingly? That’s a strong word, and one without sufficient evidence to support its use.

Cleveland cites, as well, a Public Religious Research Institute poll which indicates that white evangelical Protestants are “the only major religious group in which a majority doesn’t see the need for such a movement” as Black Lives Matter. I have not seen the poll numbers so I will not comment on them. But I am a white evangelical Protestant and I do not see the need for such a movement. I see no point in qualifies of any kind. Lives matter, period. Plain and simple. All lives matter—in the womb and after birth; young, middle aged and elderly. Red, yellow, black and white—all are precious in His sight. Those are the words of a children’s song, but they contain adult truth. The emphasis of movements like Black Lives Matter draws lines that need to be erased, reinforce attitudes that need to be obliterated and contribute more to the perpetuation of racism and discrimination than to the elimination of the same. Cleveland’s rhetoric, though perhaps less outrageous and more eloquent, is about as helpful as the rhetoric of Al Sharpton.

She continues, “How can churches filled with people who refuse to acknowledge that racism is still a problem possibly honor the image of God in the black people who darken their sanctuary doors?” I have a few thoughts in response to this question. First, I am more than happy to acknowledge that racism still exists. However, I am not willing to admit that it exists everywhere and certainly not in all white churches. Second, and I suspect Cleveland may not like this position, but racism is not a one-way street. There are plenty of African Americans who are just as racist as the most vehement white racist. There are plenty of people—Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others—who cannot move fast enough, or open their mouths quickly enough to make every problem or crisis a racial matter. Unfortunately, as alluded to above, Cleveland’s tone in this column do much the same thing. Another point related to this question is that in my own experience very few blacks do darken the sanctuary door of a predominantly white church. I grew up in an area that was quite racially diverse. I taught at a school that was predominantly African American students. Indeed, I once taught a class that was probably 85% non-white. Still, there were very few churches in the area with multi-ethnic congregations. Yes, there were some, and as far as I knew there were no racial issues from the church as a whole. Am I naïve enough to think that no one within those churches was racist? Of course not. But multi-ethnic churches are possible and they do exist, successfully. I am well aware that this cuts both ways; after all, I have never darkened the door of a black church. But Cleveland has to acknowledge the dual directionally of this problem.

Cleveland concludes her essay saying that until the white church is willing to acknowledge its racist history and honor African Americans, the black church will persist as a “necessary place of refuge and resistance—a place where black Christians like me can encounter a God and community that labor for equality and seek to restore the racial identities that have been cursed both inside and outside the broader church.” I take real issue with this statement as well. I have lived in the south—the part of the south where anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon line is considered a Yankee, where men still wear belt buckles that proclaim “The South Will Rise Again”, where African Americans are still referred to by some in very ugly, very inappropriate terms. Sadly, I went to church with some of those people. So yes, there are some white evangelical Protestants who do still fit Cleveland’s bill. Not all of the people in the churches I attended, however, thought that way. Indeed in one church there was an uprising when the pastor performed a marriage ceremony for a white female marrying a black male. A number of people wanted him gone from the church. But enough other people in the church took a stand and did not let that happen. They researched the matter, said there is no biblical support for limiting marriage to people of the same race, and insisted that the pastor had done nothing wrong. Other people in that church went out of their way to welcome and include individuals who were not white. So Cleveland needs to put away her paint brush and take out her fine point pen.

I truly believe that if we would stop focusing so much on the racism that does exist and instead celebrate and focus on the inclusion that also exists we would be surprised at home many stories and examples of reconciliation we can find. Perhaps that should be the first assignment for the new director of Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation. I dare say it would be far more productive and constructive than the current attempt to incite and divide.

September 1, 2015

Generational Apologies

In the September 2015 issue of Christianity Today Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra writes a column that asks a question I have been asking for years. The column is titled “Sins of Our Fathers,” and subtitled, “Should denominations apologize for acts they didn’t commit?” My position, for as long as I can remember ever considering the question, has always been no. I have usually referred to them as generational apologizes, when one generation apologizes for something a previous generation committed. I can see no point in it, no real substance or merit. In my mind, such apologies are hollow words. Dictionary.com defines apology as, “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” I think that is a solid definition for apology, and that is exactly why a generational apology is, in my mind, worthless. For me to apologize to someone or to some group of people for something that happened to their ancestors before I was even born is as meaningful as Person A apologizing to me for something that was done to me, or said about me, by Person B. It might be a nice sentiment, but it ultimately does no good, costs nothing and therefore means little.

Zylstra’s column is centered around a vote held at this year’s general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Ligon Duncan III, the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Sean Lucas, a church historian, introduced a resolution that would apologize on behalf of the PCA for “involvement in and complicity with racial injustice” during the civil rights era. Duncan said the motion grew out of the relationships and friendships he has developed with African American pastors. According to Zylstra, supporters of the motion said it would be “an essential step toward reconciliation in a time of growing diversity.” The motion was deferred by a vote of 684-46, and it will come up for consideration again next year. But even if it passes, what good will it do?

I respect Ligon Duncan and I have learned from him in the past. He said, “When you become friends with a person who has experienced oppression, and you begin to love that person, you begin to care about the things that have hurt their heart.” I believe those are sincere words, and I agree with them. My position, however, remains the same. Caring about someone, empathizing with them, even wishing that something had not happened to them or expressing sorrow that it did happen are all fine, all understandable and all appropriate. They are also all different from apologizing.

If I become friends with a woman who has been raped, and she entrusts me with that fact, do I apologize to her on behalf of the male race for what happened to her? I would not. And while I do not know for certain, I think she would find it hollow and contrived if I did. I did not perpetrate the attack, so how could I sincerely and meaningfully apologize for it? I do not and cannot speak for the entire male race, so what good would that do? Even if I knew the specific individual responsible for the attack, I could not apologize for him. I do not see these generational apologies by groups or churches as any different.

In this specific case there is a bit of difference since there are still individuals alive who experienced the racial injustice of the civil rights era. This makes it different than other similar motions passed by groups, including the PCA, on slavery, since there are no individuals still living who experienced the forced slavery that ended more than a century ago. However, any motions or apologies should still only come from the individuals or churches who were involved in order to be meaningful. Interestingly, Zylstra reports that some PCA pastors question the need of Duncan’s motion because the PCA did not even exist as a body until nine years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. This raises a valid point, one that serves only to reinforce my position. Alex Shipman is the leader of the PCA’s African American Presbyterian Fellowship and to this point he argues that while the PCA did not exist, many of its member churches did, and some of them, he said, barred African Americans from joining their churches and did nothing to bring about an end to Jim Crow. Fine. Then those churches should apologize if there is going to be any apologizing done, not an entire body like the PCA, with the vote being made by hundreds of individuals who had nothing to do with the attitudes and actions of those churches and who may not even have been alive at the time.

Apparently some individuals were shocked that Duncan’s motion was delayed by such a resounding vote. “There was a sense of, ‘Why would you want to drag your feet on repenting?'” Duncan stated. Hmmm… I am not a member of the PCA and I was not at their general assembly. But at least one reason someone might want to drag their feet springs immediately to mind: how can I repent of something I did not do? To use a definition again, Dictionary.com defines repent this way: “to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.; to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better; be penitent.” I cannot be conscience-stricken over something I did not do; I cannot be disposed to change my life for the better when what I would be changing from is not something I have ever done. When I watch movies or documentaries, or when I read books, that deal with slavery, with the way Native Americans were largely treated by the United States government, of the Holocaust, of the way many African Americans were treated in the American south, I do feel remorse, I do feel anger, I do feel sorrow. I will not, however, apologize for any of it, because I cannot.

Simon Wiesenthal addresses with this dilemma in his book The Sunflower. In it, Wiesenthal, a Jew, recounts being asked by a German soldier who was near death to forgive him for what he had done to the Jews. Wiesenthal’s book is excellent reading, and it includes thoughts on this matter from some of the world’s leading thinkers. Wiesenthal’s own conclusion is that no one has a right to forgive for others. I read Wiesenthal’s book as a high school sophomore, and perhaps his conclusion has influenced my own thinking, I do not know. What I do know is that he and I are in agreement: no one has the right–nor, I would add, the ability–to forgive on behalf of anyone else.

Alex Shipman references biblical examples of the people of Israel confessing the sins of their fathers. Daniel 9 is one example given by PCA pastor Lane Keister. he also acknowledges, though, that Ezekiel 18 provides an example of the opposite, making it “clear that each person is only condemned for his own sin.” I think there is a difference between confession and apology. I see no problem with a person or a group acknowledging that the actions or attitudes of previous generations were wrong. If any church stood by and condoned Jim Crow laws or segregation, that church was wrong. I will acknowledge and confess that in a nanosecond. That wrong is not on me, though; I hold to guilt nor blame for it. Neither can I apologize for it, nor will I. Such apologies, whether from me or any other person or group, are useless, pointless and meaningless.

March 20, 2015

Cinderella

I do not usually post movie reviews. In fact, I do not think I have ever reviewed a movie in this space, though it is possible that I have forgotten one. In this post, though, I am going to review one, primarily because I find it interesting how different two people can view the same thing.

Last Friday my wife and I went to see Disney’s new live-action movie Cinderella. I was not quite sure what to expect; I was hoping for a well-done film that did not stray too far from the classic storyline or get too “cutesy” in its presentation. I was not disappointed, because Disney and director Kenneth Branagh stayed very true to the storyline we all know. That pleased me. Interestingly enough, it disappointed Jessica Gibson, who reviewed the movie for Christianity Today. I did not read Gibson’s review until the day after I saw the movie, so I was a bit surprised to read the heading on the online version of the review: “When it comes to remaking classics, Disney shouldn’t try so hard.” Gibson opens her review announcing that she is a big believer that the original is almost always better. With that in mind, she said that she has been noncommittal on her opinion about Disney’s plan to make live-action versions of their classic animated versions of fairy tales. “Should Disney mess with success?” Gibson asks, to which she responds, “Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.”

Gibson goes on to write, “To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.” What I find so fascinating is that in Gibson’s mind this is a negative, whereas I found it refreshing. Far too often those who remake movies feel the need to put their own unique twist on the story we all know, with the result being that we are not watching the story we expected to see. I never find this satisfying or even enjoyable. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that if I have reviewed a movie here before it was quite possibly to take to task the makers of the most recent Alex Cross movie, based on the novels by James Patterson, since the movie bore almost no resemblance to the book).

Oddly enough, one of the things Gibson complains about (though complain might be too strong a term) is that the Grand Duke in the latest version apparently needed to improvement for his eyesight. Gibson bemoaned the fact that in Branagh’s version the Grand Duke “did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.” This actually struck me too, but only in an “I wonder why they didn’t include that” moment, not because I found it “very wrong.” (And, if I may politely correct Gibson, the Grand Duke in the animated version wore a monocle, not a pince-nez). The other difference that struck me is that Cinderella has no dog in Branagh’s version, meaning there is no Bruno when it comes time to get Cinderella to the ball. The result is that the fairy godmother makes footmen out of two lizards, an odd twist in my opinion. Branagh also makes the Grand Duke a conniver and schemer with his own designs on whom the prince should marry, whereas the original version makes him out as more of a bumbling sycophant.

It turns out that my opinion of the movie was much more in line with that of Emily Whitten, who reviewed it for WORLD. In Whitten’s words, the movie “is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.” Branagh’s Cinderella is, outwardly, incredibly patient and tolerant with her step-mother and step-sisters after the death of her father, yet the film also gives us a glimpse into the struggles she deals with internally (emphasis on the word “glimpse”). Cinderella confronts her step-mother and step-sisters when they destroy her gown before the ball, asking them why they are so mean. She gets no response, but I also thought it interesting that Branagh had the step-mother make the first rip, whereas in the animated version Lady Tremaine slyly points out to the girls that Cinderella’s dress utilizes some things they had discarded and lets them inflict the damage. Equally interesting is that Branagh gives no indication that Cinderella used any of her step-sisters castoffs. The result of Branagh’s approach is, in my mind, the realization that the step-sisters are modeling the behavior they see their mother display, as well as that the behavior of all three is motivated purely by envy, jealousy and fear. Yes, that’s right, fear. Branagh also allows us to see a bit more into the heart of Lady Tremaine and to understand that no small part of her treatment of Cinderella is jealousy and that no small part of her efforts to get her daughters married off to the prince is her fear of having no income and nothing to provide for her and her daughters in the future after the death of Cinderella’s father. (Branagh does not attempt to explain why Conderella’s father would choose Lady Tremaine of all the women in the world he could perhaps have pursued as a second wife, and this is an aspect of the tale that has never made sense to me).

From the time of her mother’s death, Cinderella is driven by her mother’s last instructions, to “have courage and be kind.” These are, even if a bit trite, excellent instructions for all of us, and often easier said than done. When the glass slipper is finally placed on Cinderella’s foot–by the prince himself, in Branagh’s version–following a kingdom-wide search for the slipper’s owner, Cinderella turns to her step-mother for one final remark before leaving for her “happily ever after.” We see Lady Tremaine standing on the staircase, realizing that the one she has so despised is about to get everything she has always wanted for herself or, at the very least, her daughter. Cinderella turns and the two lock eyes–leaving the audience wondering what she is about to say. There are many things that she could say, and no doubt many of them would be deserved and justifiable. Cinderella, though, chooses three simple but incredibly powerful words: “I forgive you.”

I am not suggesting that Branagh intentionally incorporated a biblical worldview into this version, and as Whitten wrote of the movie, “In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own”–and this is perhaps true for much of the film. However, Lady Tremaine did not ask for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she certainly did not deserve it. I find some powerful biblical principles in that, and it is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to use the movie as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their children.

If you want a dramatic remake of the Cinderella story you know so well, you will not find it here. If, instead, you want a well-crafted live-action version of a classic fairy tale, without even a hint of black magic or content otherwise inappropriate for children, then this is the movie for you.

February 5, 2015

Belonging

It seems I have been reading a lot recently–and not even because of any intention on my part–about the Church. Some of what I have read is good, some of it not so good. All of it has served to generate at least five blog posts-worth of thoughts, ideas and comments in my head. I have scribbled myself a 24-word note outlining what I hope to address in those five posts, so hopefully I will be able to stick with it and crank out all five by the end of next week at the latest.

This first one will on the topic of belonging to a church. Everyone who has accepted Christ belongs to the Church–the universal body of Christ. But what is it about belonging to a local body of believers? Why does that matter–or does it matter?

On January 29, christianitytoday.com posted an interview between Laura Turner and Erin Lane. Lane is a divinity school graduate, pastor’s wife and a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. She is also the author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP, 2014).

When asked why the concept of belonging is so important to the church, Lane said, “We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.” While the church struggles sometimes in handling it, Lane says that one of the major premises of her book (which I have not read), is that “we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence.”

That is a crucial point right there–that we are interdependent. That certainly is not what our culture likes to portray, and the idea of needing each other–of needing anyone–is not an overly popular idea. The reality, though, is that God created us for relationships. (Even a relative introvert like myself, who can be perfectly content spending a day alone or driving a thousand miles with someone else in the car without saying a word needs other people!) Try as some of us might, there is simply no denying that need. We may be able to exist without other people, and we may even do it happily for a while, but the long run we would not thrive.

Commenting on this search for belonging, Lane says, “There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.” There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Lane continues, though: “I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. … I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.” This is what, in Lane’s opinion, makes the church unique. People from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, with diverse hobbies and interests, can come together at church because of their love for God, His Truth and His Church. Nancy Ortberg, in her book Looking for God, describes sitting between two individuals in a church service whose paths would otherwise never cross. One was a high powered attorney and the other a lowly grocery store bagger. If their paths did cross it would have been brief and inconsequential. At church, however, they were on the same playing field; the ground, after all, is level at the foot of the cross.

Lane explains that there are very little things that can be done to encourage and promote a sense of belonging–even as simple as wearing name tags. At a relatively small church where most people know each other than may not be necessary, but it does provide some leveling and it does invite personal interaction. I can remember watching sermons by Michael Youssef at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and seeing everyone in the (large) congregation wearing name tags. That actually never appealed to me, but that may be because (1) I don’t really like sticking things on my clothes anyway, and (2) sometimes I kinda like being anonymous. As Lane says, though, “There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names….” I have to agree. I actually make a point to use people’s names often, whether simply saying hello in the hallway or when sending an e-mail. I don’t always do it, but I think I do more often than not. I notice when someone uses my name–and when they don’t. In fact, I remember once being asked, about a church I began attending when I moved to a new town, “what did you like about our church?” I do not know if I had really thought about it before I was asked, but the greeter at the door introduced himself on that first visit and also asked my name. When I went back the next week, he remembered my name–and used it. That struck me.

Lane offers other insights about the importance of church and belonging, including the need to let people be themselves, let people speak freely and a lack of earnestness. Her insights are good. I want to read her book. The bottom line, though, is that we need each other. When we are together with other believers at church we are encouraged. We are challenged. We are sharpened. We may even be convicted. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. In other words, we are supposed to go to church! Not because it’s a rule, and not because we will get any bonus points or extra rewards, but because we need each other.

I do not remember where I read or heard this illustration, but it has stuck with me and may be one of the best illustrations of the importance of belonging: charcoal. Yes, charcoal. As in the squarish-looking hunks of black stuff that we bar-b-que enthusiasts squirt with lighter fluid and then set aflame. When they are together, pieces of charcoal generate considerable heat–enough to cook hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, fish, whatever. (They look pretty too, with their orange-y glow). Next time you’re around a pile of burning charcoal, though, see what happens if you remove one piece and set it off somewhere by itself. Actually, I suspect you know exactly what will happen. That’s what is likely to happen to us, too, if we stay away from church.

March 27, 2014

Blurred Vision

On March 24 Christianity Today ran an article in which World Vision made clear that it is now hiring homosexual Christians in legal gay marriages. Interestingly, the charity’s policy against sex outside of marriage is still a rule.

World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns granted CT an exclusive interview in which he explained the policy change. According to the article, “Stearns asserts that the ‘very narrow policy change’ should be viewed by others as ‘symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.’ He even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.”

Before I go any further I need to stop right here and state that very few things I have read or heard recently trouble me so much as someone simultaneously stating that abandoning a long-standing policy that is consistent with the Bible is a “very narrow policy change” and that this change is “symbolic…of [Christian] unity.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This “narrow policy change” rests on the belief that what the Bible makes clear about homosexuality and marriage is not correct or, at the very least, has been traditionally misunderstood. It is not possible to pursue Christian unity by redefining the Bible.

Franklin Graham, in a statement on the World Vision decision, said, “World Vision maintains that their decision is based on unifying the church – which I find offensive – as if supporting sin and sinful behavior can unite the church.” Graham is exactly right; you cannot unify the church by embracing sin!

The CT article continues, “In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently ‘tearing churches apart’ over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.” I read that to mean that Stearns hopes that Christians will ignore World Vision’s trampling of one part of Scripture in order to join forces in adhering to another part of it. The reality is, of course, that that makes no sense. After all, if what the Bible teaches about homosexuality or marriage need not be adhered to why should its teachings on caring for the poor stir me to action?

Stearns stated that the policy change is nothing more than that. “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.” Actions speak louder than words, Mr. Stearns. A decision to hire and accept individuals who are living a life that is contrary to what the Bible teaches absolutely is an affirmation of that choice–whether you say it is or not.

Because of World Vision’s size–it had revenue of more than $1 billion last year–and the scope of its ministries, “other Christian organizations look to World Vision for leadership on defending faith hiring practices,” Christianity Today reported. That is true…and scary. When one of the largest Christian charities in the world accepts this kind of compromise it will surely lead other ministries to consider doing the same.

For that reason it is imperative that churches, parachurch organizations and other ministries, as well as individual believers, take a stand for biblical truth and against the compromise of World Vision. Franklin Graham is but one evangelical leader who was quick to denounce the decision. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission issued a statement that included this observation:

But here’s what’s at stake. This isn’t, as the World Vision statement (incredibly!) puts it, the equivalent of a big tent on baptism, church polity, and so forth.

At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.

John Piper said this: “This is a tragic development for the cause of Christ, because it trivializes perdition – and therefore, the cross – and because it sets a trajectory for the demise of true compassion for the poor.” Piper goes on to highlight the idiocy of the stated position of World Vision:

When World Vision says, “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do, in fact, jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.

There are no doubt many other individuals and groups that have issued and will issue similar statements affirming the biblical position on marriage and challenging the foolishness of the World Vision position. When they do we must echo a hearty “Amen!” and join in their willingness to stand on the wall to defend the truth.

Russell Moore concluded his statement by suggesting that a refusal to stand firm for the Scripture, a refusal to call sin sin and to also share the Bible’s message of forgiveness is nothing more than “empowering darkness.” May we never be guilty of empowering darkness. May we, instead, follow the exhortation of Paul to the church at Ephesus when he wrote, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11, ESV).

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