The War Over Laws and the War Over Hearts

Ever since the birth of democracy, politicians and activists have been waging wars over laws. I’m not talking about literal war, although sometimes debates over laws have certainly resulted in literal wars (e.g., the American Revolution, the American Civil War). I’m talking about people exercising the freedom of speech through political debates, public demonstrations, print media and social media methods, etc., in order to get their opinions and agendas to become the law of the land. Sometimes these wars stay civil. But sometimes they can get pretty nasty, with people attacking one another, undermining one another, and exposing one another’s flaws–and employing all sorts of political manipulations and legislative loopholes.

More recently, there have been heated wars regarding the tax code, immigration, healthcare, net neutrality, national monuments, and gun control, just to name a few. In all of these cases, there has been a lot of time and energy invested by all sides, from debating to condemning to shaming to protesting to recruiting to mocking, all for the purpose of passing (or fighting the passage of) laws.

Obviously, in the arena of government law, there are many worthwhile battles to fight. The laws of our nation have drastic consequences.

But I want to suggest (to everybody, but to Christians in particular) that as we fight this war over laws, that we do not neglect a much more important war: the war over hearts.

Today is the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. And Dr. King was a man who dedicated his life to not only fighting the war over laws but also the war over hearts. In his sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor,” he said, “Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the final goal that we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”

Desegregation can only go so far. Civil rights laws can only go so far. Winning some wars over laws can only go so far. As Dr. King points out, laws cannot end things like fear, prejudice, pride, and irrationality. Laws cannot bring about “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living”, “personal and social transformation”, or “true integration.” Such things can only come about through winning the war over human hearts.

There has been a very long history of people trying to change the culture with new laws, but they never work out. In the 20s, Americans prohibited alcohol. But alcoholism remained. In the 60s, Americans passed the Civil Rights Act. But racism remained. In the 80s, Americans started fighting the War on Drugs. But substance abuse remained.

And the reason for all of this is because although people won the war over laws, they didn’t win the war over hearts. Laws are of course important because they limit the excesses of sin, but they cannot remove the sin itself. Even the book of Romans teaches this–that the Law can only make us aware of sin, but it cannot remove the sin. The sin is too embedded in people’s hearts.

But despite this reality, unfortunately, I’ve often seen that many people are too concerned about the war over laws and not concerned enough about the war over hearts. In fact, often the very methods that people use to fight the war over laws cause them to lose the war over hearts. In the war over laws, when people resort to manipulation or deception or bullying or social shaming, they only agitate their legislative opponents, and they lose the war over hearts. So while a short-term fight is won, the long-term fight may be lost, because ultimately, the war over hearts is more permanent and more fundamental than the war over laws.

At the end of the day, a nation’s culture is controlled not by the laws of the land but by the hearts of the people. It is the hearts that determine the laws, and not the other way around. There are of course times when a nation’s laws does not fully reflect the hearts. There are plenty of government laws in existence that the majority of the public disapprove of, and there are plenty of government laws that do not exist that the majority of the public approve of. But eventually, over time, the laws will catch up to the hearts. Slowly but surely, as the hearts shape the culture, the laws will eventually follow.

Nevertheless, sometimes I am afraid that modern-day Christians are trying too hard to make Christianity the law of the land, and as we wage this culture war, we are slowly losing the hearts of the people.

I must remind you that there were two notable time periods in history where we had essentially won the war over laws–ancient Israel and medieval Europe–and in both cases the war over hearts was lost. And God could have said of both of those cultures, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).

So what can we do? Obviously we as Christians should still seek to influence government policies. Just as William Wilberforce’s faith drove him to seek the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s, we ought to allow our faith to drive us to influence the laws of the land. But I would say that this should be secondary to an even more important task–the task of influencing the hearts of the people.

And thankfully, God is in the business of changing hearts.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

So let us fight the war over hearts. Let’s love our neighbors, speak to political enemies with gentleness, turn the other cheek, befriend the least of these, and humbly share our faith. Because if we stick to that agenda, we will change hearts, we will change the culture, and will will change the world.

Larry

 

 

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“Not All ___ Are Bad”

Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of police brutality. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all police officers are bad.”

Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of racial discrimination. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all white people are racist.”

Recently, many women have come out publicly to share their stories of sexual assault. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all men are sexist.”

This common exchange exists because of a fundamental misunderstanding. In all of these cases, there are people who are demonstrating tremendous vulnerability and courage in order to point out that there is a problem. But in response, some people, instead of acknowledging the individual victim’s problem, assume that the victims are talking about another problem altogether (namely, that a certain demographic of people is bad), and as a result, they try to defend or justify that demographic that they think is being accused.

I created a few simple diagrams to illustrate where the disconnect is. When victims of abuse speak up about police officers, white people, men, or anybody else, they are trying to bring attention and awareness to a certain problem: that the status quo needs change. But how does the status quo need change? What exactly is the problem? It seems like someone can be communicating one of three things.

Argument #1: Some of them are bad.

Slide1

In this argument, people are accusing some police officers, some white people, or some men of being bad. They do not intend to say that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. You can debate how big the bad circle should be in relation to the size of the overall circle, but it is clear that the bad circle is smaller than the overall circle.

Argument #2: The system is bad.

Slide2

This concept may be a bit foreign to some people, so I’ll try to explain this the best I can. In this argument, people are saying that the system–and not the individuals that make up the system–is bad.

For example, one can say that a certain police department needs reform. Perhaps they need better training. Perhaps they need body cameras. Perhaps the police officers need to reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. When they say these things, they do not mean that all police officers are bad. They are talking at the organizational level.

This is also true of racism. When people say that there is systemic racism, they usually do not mean that all white people are racist. What they mean is that our country has had racist policies and practices throughout history that have now created a society where ethnic minorities are underprivileged. From African American slavery to Native American forced displacement, such policies (whether intentional or not) have drastically affected the living conditions of non-whites, so that even today there are statistically significant discrepancies in living conditions (e.g., education levels, income levels, suicide rates) between whites and non-whites.

And lastly, this is true of sexism. Again, people using this argument are not accusing all men to be sexist, but they mean that there are many things in our society that contribute to a systemic sexism. Such things include the social expectations of gender roles, the objectification of women in the media, the lack of female representation in leadership positions, etc. This also includes the exploitation of women in the pornography industry, the verbal abuse of women in the gaming world, and the prominence of rape culture on college campuses.

This argument is very different from Argument #1 because it is not just claiming that some people are bad, but it is claiming that the badness has become so prevalent that all of society has been affected.

Argument #3: All of them are bad.

Slide3

In this last type of argument, people are actually claiming that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. There is not one who is good.

Here’s where the misunderstanding takes place. The large majority of victims of abuse are talking about Argument #1 or Argument #2. Either they are claiming that there are some bad apples who need justice, or they are raising awareness to issues in the system, or both. Very rarely do they actually use Argument #3. Nonetheless, when people say, “Not all ___ are bad,” they automatically are assuming that the victims are employing Argument #3, which is why they feel the need to deny Argument #3. And they are subtly shifting the conversation away from Argument #1 or Argument #2 into the arena of Argument #3.

In other words, instead of addressing the victim’s very real problem (Argument #1 or Argument #2), they pretend that the victim is bringing up another problem altogether (Argument #3), and they then deny that this other problem exists.

Slide 4

It can be easy to point fingers, but I believe that we all do this to some degree. For example, when my wife brings up a problem, sometimes I deny that another semi-related problem exists. And in those conversations, what I have done is the same thing these problem-deniers do. I redefine the problem, and I refuse to believe that my redefined problem exists.

There are all sorts of potential reasons why we do this. Maybe it’s because we want to protect the status quo, and we cannot bear to think that there is something wrong with it. Maybe it’s because we are just not loving enough to want to tackle the problem, so we give ourselves the illusion that there is no problem. Maybe it’s because we don’t like feeling guilty, and we assume that people who want to point out problems want us to feel guilty about it, so we find a way to maneuver ourselves out of the guilt.

Regardless, this subtle response that we employ when we are presented with cries for help allows us to do nothing. It makes us think that we are off the hook, and that it is no longer our responsibility. And when enough people have this mentality, it ensures that the problems will never be resolved, and the victims of abuse will continue to be victims of abuse.

As a Christian, I believe that once upon a time humanity had a major problem, and that was the problem of sin. And when we cried for help, God did not redefine the problem, nor did he deny the problem, nor did he ignore the problem, nor did he justify the problem, nor did he politicize the problem.

Then what did he do? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In order to address the problem of sin, God sent his Son Jesus to become sin for us. And Jesus immersed himself so much in the problem of sin that he walked among sinful people and suffered a gruesome death at the hands of sinful people. And he did that for us. The irony is that in order to rescue the victims of sin, Jesus became the truly innocent victim of sin.

So when we hear problems of abuse, let’s not resort to these argumentative tactics to excuse ourselves. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and dive in. Let’s listen, engage, empathize, and serve.

Larry

Having Dialogue with the Alt-Right

Over the past several days, I’ve seen a lot of people publicly denounce and condemn white supremacists, the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the alt-right. And rightly so. Last weekend’s events in Charlotesville have made it clear to even the most persistent deniers that racism is alive and well in America. And I’m not just talking about individuals thinking racist thoughts. I’m talking about large groups of people who are committed to violence. And if you still aren’t convinced that this is a thing, watch this 22-minute documentary by VICE News.

However, I want to direct this blogpost not to the alt-right but to those who are condemning the alt-right. There is a tendency for people of all stripes to criticize and condemn “the other” without thinking much about themselves, or to do so without thinking about how they are criticizing or condemning. Obviously, when evil is present, prophetic condemnation is absolutely necessary–I am not arguing otherwise. But as a Christian, I believe that one of the fundamental principles of condemnation is self-evaluation (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). It is not biblical for Christians to condemn others unless they do it with humility and self-awareness.

Note: Before you label me with non-original labels, allow me to introduce myself. I am a Christian pastor in Baltimore. I used to be a socially and fiscally conservative libertarian. Now I lean left on most political issues, I am a part-time vegetarian, and I compost my fingernails. I am not a typical Democrat, nor am I a typical Republican, so please refrain if you can from calling me a Communist or a Nazi.

I spent the past several days reading up on white supremacy. I found it difficult to understand how somebody in America today could be a white supremacist, so I spent a lot of time just learning. I looked through Confederacy pride Facebook groups, I watched videos on alt-right YouTube channels, and I read up on the history of the KKK on Wikipedia. And I am realizing that there is some major disconnect between reality and what many political liberals perceive to be reality.

And because of this, I am afraid that we on the political left are missing a golden opportunity to initiate dialogue with those on the far right. And instead, we are only pushing them further and further away from us.

Some of us make these public condemnations on social media to tell our friends where we stand on political issues, so that those who agree with us will like our posts and those who don’t agree with us will de-friend us. Others of us make these public condemnations on social media because we actually want to make a difference in society. If you are in this second camp, then I want to help your attempts at dialogue to be more effective. Here are a few things you should know about the alt-right.

1. The alt-right consists of many different factions that believe many different things. Sometimes I get the feeling that people on the left think that the alt-right is this massive unified organization of people who carry Confederate flags, do Nazi salutes, deny the Holocaust, and hate on black people. Reality is a lot more complex than that. The alt-right is not an organized group of people; rather, there are many different factions that believe many different things, and they often disagree with and even condemn one another.

There are some people in the alt-right who self-identify as alt-right, and there are others who do not even self-identify as alt-right. There are some people in the alt-right who love David Duke, and there are others in the alt-right who condemn David Duke. There are some people in the alt-right who are violent, and there are others in the alt-right who are peaceful. There are some people in the alt-right who genuinely believe that whites are superior to other races, and there are others in the alt-right who do not believe that. There are some people in the alt-right who are anti-Semitic, and there are others in the alt-right who are not. It is very important to be specific about what we are condemning, and it is important to direct these condemnations to the right crowds. Calling all Confederate-flag-wavers Nazis, for example, is not only unhelpful but incorrect. This is the equivalent of calling all liberals pagans.

2. Most people in the alt-right do not self-identify as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or KKK members. Even the hated Richard Spencer, who supposedly coined the term “alt-right,” doesn’t self-identify with these labels. In fact, many alt-right people are very frustrated by the fact that they are continually called these things, and they feel that they have to state over and over that they are not white supremacists, that they are not neo-Nazis, and that they are not part of the KKK. Therefore, while condemning such camps with these terms may give the condemner a feeling of vindication, they will be ignored by the vast majority of the alt-right, because they don’t feel that the terms are directed toward them. The alt-right feels the same amount of affiliation for the term “white supremacist” as Democrats feel for the term “Marxist.”
3. Most people in the alt-right do not see themselves as racists. Obviously, you will have a few outliers who are proud of being racist, but the vast majority of people in the alt-right do not think that they are racist. I’m not saying that they are not racists; I am just saying that they do not perceive themselves as racists. Therefore, calling them racists will have the same effect as a preacher yelling, “Sinner!” to non-Christians who don’t believe they are sinners.
4. Many people in the alt-right have publicly condemned James Fields. Many of the people in the alt-right, including many of the Charlottesville protesters, have condemned the man who violently drove a car into the crowd of anti-racism protesters. They say that this person was a rogue white nationalist who clearly disobeyed their given instructions to be peaceful and restrained.
5. One of the primary concerns of the alt-right is the issue of free speech. This is very important to understand. People on the left often frame the issue around the issue of racial equality. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for racial equality and those who are for racial inequality. All other issues are secondary issues. However, people in the alt-right often frame the issue around the issue of free speech. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for free speech and those who are not for free speech. All other issues are secondary issues. People on the alt-right have been frustrated by the censorship of opinions on college campuses, the regulations of big government, and the political correctness of society, and they want to speak out against this perceived Big Brother. Therefore, the brandishing of provocative symbols and flags, the lack of etiquette and politeness over social media, and the display of public marches are all assertions of this free speech. And both on the internet and in person, people in the alt-right often say things that they know to be ridiculous (e.g. “Hitler did nothing wrong”), and they purposefully choose contentious social issues to address (e.g. race), because they want to test the limits of free speech, and in order to revolt against what they perceive to be this liberal cultural speech police.

Post-Charlottesville, while people on the left were talking about racism, people on the far right were talking about free speech. When I was reading up on forums and comments, I found that one of the biggest complaints alt-right folks had about Charlottesville was the fact that the alt-right had spent months going through the legal means to peacefully organize a rally, while the “alt-left” (yes I know that this group of people is not a real thing) simply showed up without any legal permission and shut down their government-approved rally, thus denying them their free speech. I do not intend to get into a debate regarding whether racial equality or free speech is more important. I am merely pointing out that the alt-right feels that this was yet another example of how their attempts at free speech have been hijacked, and as a result even more people now don’t understand who they are, and now they are being wildly accused of things and getting death threats for things many of them don’t stand for.

I want to make it clear that I am not siding with the alt-right in any way. I believe that many of the policies that many people in the alt-right endorse are inherently racist, and I believe that their tiki-torch-carrying marches were horrendous and appalling.

But I do not think it is appropriate for us to respond with shame-based condemnation and social isolation. If we do this, then we are no different than the morally self-righteous Pharisees. If our goal is healing, understanding, and reconciliation, then many of the methods that we have been employing this week have not been effective. When we broadly condemn groups of people in ill-informed ways, the alt-right feels misunderstood and mischaracterized. When we use their worst examples to characterize their whole movement, the alt-right feels frustrated and helpless. When we shout them down and refuse to allow them to gather publicly, the alt-right feels trampled upon and muffled. And all this does is turn them into martyrs and give them more reasons to fight for their cause.

Good parents do not impulsively yell at their children whenever they do something wrong. Good parents invite their children to have conversations, they ask them questions, they listen to them, and they guide them to do what is right.

In the same way, God did not whole-scale condemn us when we sinned. Instead, he came into our space, lived among us, taught us how to live, and died for us. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4). Let us demonstrate kindness to others who need it.

Larry

Justice and Judgment

Recently, our church is going through a sermon series on the Minor Prophets, and I’m discovering that two very prominent themes in the Minor Prophets are justice and judgment.

And what I find fascinating is that even though the Bible uses these two concepts almost interchangeably, the secular culture loves justice and hates judgment. People today are increasingly advocating for more justice while at the same time advocating for less judgment. Justice is increasingly seen as something that is necessary and good, while judgment is increasingly seen as something that is unnecessary and bad.

But let’s kick it up another notch. What is even more fascinating is that certain political camps frame their issues as issues of justice, while their opponents often frame their issues as issues of non-judgment. I’ll give you a few examples.

When some people talk about police brutality, they often frame the issue under the umbrella of justice. They cry, “No peace, no justice.” And this appeal to justice has a long tradition. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. would often quote Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

However, on the other side of the political aisle, people would respond to this demand for justice by appealing to this social standard of not judging others. People who defend cops often say things like, “You don’t know what happened before this video started recording,” or “These cops are in a very stressful situation.” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”

Another example. When some people talk about illegal immigrants in the United States, they often frame the issue as an issue of justice. They say, “No border, no order, no nation.” They view the deportation of people who are illegal immigrants as a law-and-order issue. And whether or not the claims are true, they claim that these immigrants are receiving certain social benefits of living in the United States without paying their fair share of taxes. And so they think that it is not just that these immigrants are here.

And what is the common response on the other side of the political aisle? “Imagine if you came over to the States at such a young age. How would you expect to become a citizen if you were always afraid of deportation?” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”

And here’s another one: abortion. Pro-life advocates frame the issue as an issue of justice. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being taken away every year, they say, and this is an absolute genocide on the weakest and most vulnerable of our society.

And what is the response on the other side? “Do you realize that those seeking abortions come from disproportionately low-income families? Who are you to force a woman who is financially unstable to bear a child for nine months, to take a paycut for missing work, and then to have to pay the living expenses of a child growing up in an economically unstable home?” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”

This dynamic of one side appealing to justice and the other side appealing to non-judgment is also characteristic of the debates regarding religious university student organizations, transgender bathroom laws, protesting on highways, etc. One side appeals to fairness, order, peace, etc, and the other side appeals to understanding, openness, leniency, etc.

Some may think that people on the political left are all about justice and people on the political right are all about judgment, but as the above examples show, that’s simply not the case. They may use different terms (e.g. “rights”, “law and order”), but both sides take both roles.

In fact, it’s inevitable to take both sides. When somebody is advocating for justice (however they define justice), they are automatically judging people. They are saying, “Justice is needed here, because I am judging that these people are not being just.” After all, justice is to hold people to a certain standard, and there is no way to hold people to a standard without judging them. In other words, being just is to be judgmental. And so when people talk about locking up corrupt policemen in the name of justice, they are judging those policemen. And when people talk about locking up corrupt politicians in the name of justice, they are judging those politicians.

The reason why there is such a disconnect between these two political sides is that people disagree on the standards by which they should judge other people. If they think that a standard is very important and that everybody should adhere to it, then they will frame it as an issue of justice. If they think that a standard is more nuanced and fluid, then they will tell people not to judge others.

But biblically, justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin. To advocate for justice is to advocate for judgment.

In fact, the original biblical understandings of justice and judgment are so similar that sometimes an English translation would translate a word as “justice” while another English translation would translate the word as “judgment.”

Here are some examples.

Bible Verse English Standard Version King James Version
Isaiah 1:16-17 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Amos 5:24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Matthew 12:18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles.
Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Acts 8:32-33 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.

Earlier I talked about how we view certain standards as important and other standards as nuanced. The important ones we uphold in the name of justice, and the nuanced ones we don’t uphold in the name of not judging others. We all have this contradictory complex of enforcing standards while giving leniency with other standards. And why? Because we see the goodness of standards, but at the same time we see that we are too broken to meet them.

Well, here’s an interesting question. What are God’s standards like? Are they important and firm? Or are they nuanced and fluid? Well, biblically, they are very important and firm. The Bible talks about how God is constant and unchanging. He does not compromise. Well, if that’s the case, then we are all at the mercy of the judgment of God because none of us can ever meet God’s standards of justice.

But there is an interesting paradox at the heart of Christianity. And that is that the One with the most authority to deliver judgment is also the very One who bore the most judgment. When Jesus volunteered to become a normal human being and to receive the sentence of crucifixion, the Judge became the Judged, and the Condemner became the Condemned. And when he did that, he set us free from judgment, and he also set us free from the need to judge others.

We all have this need to judge others, and part of this is because we are afraid of judgment ourselves. We think that if we can judge others on certain standards that we meet, then we can avoid being judged on certain standards that we do not meet. But for every human being, there is only one judgment that matters, and that’s whether you are right in the eyes of God. And for every human being, that’s a standard that we cannot meet.

But through Christ, we have been justified. We have been declared just. And if we have been declared just, then we no longer need to judge others. We can be free to live as Jesus lived.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Let’s spend less time condemning the world and more time saving the world.

Larry

How Christians Should Understand Politics

It seems that one of the effects of the 2016 election season has been its “outing” of Christians into the political sphere. Many Christians who usually do not express their opinions on politics have suddenly started to engage politics on a public level, revealing that Christians are a lot more politically diverse than people realize.

And it’s not just that they differ on policies (e.g. environmental protection laws, immigration laws, education laws); they differ on how they view the basic role of government. Some say that the primary role of government should be to promote values that ensure a prosperous nation; others say that the primary role of government should be to promote equity across all demographics; still others say that the primary role of government should be to ensure certain freedoms.

This revelation of deep political divisions can be a great opportunity for members of the multicultural church to learn about other cultures. But unfortunately, this has by and large driven the American church not toward cross-cultural understanding but toward cross-cultural condemnation. Many Christians are not seeking to actually learn different points of view, because they are already fully convinced that their points of view are the biblical points of view. And as a result, they make all sorts of “biblical cases” to defend their views and ask others to consider their stances, though they rarely consider the stances of others.

Cases are made for why Christians should vote for or not vote for certain presidential candidates. Cases are made for why it is okay to vote for the lesser of two evils, or why it is not okay to vote for the lesser of two evils. Cases are made for why America is the new Israel, and cases are made for why America is the new Babylon.

But frankly, although the message of the Bible certainly has ethical implications, I think that many of these so-called biblical cases are actually not biblical at all. From what I can tell, these biblical cases are simply people stating their personal beliefs–which have been derived from their cultures, their experiences, their media sources, etc–and simply defending them by taking Bible verses out of context. They give the impression that their views are derived from the Bible when, in reality, they are simply baptizing their own views with the Bible.

Of course, there are certain principles people can derive from Scripture, but it seems to me that many of these Christian political articles out there are not based on these principles. What people often do is that they, like the Pharisees, use their knowledge of Scripture to give the impression of doing God’s will, while they in fact are just using God to justify their own agendas. And when the Bible is repeatedly used in ways to defend views it does not hold, its cultural power is diluted until it means nothing at all. It becomes nothing more than free-for-all ammunition that Christians employ to wage war against one another.

So what is the proper Christian view on politics? Well, it’s hard to say. There are a few principles we can derive from the Bible, but many of them are quite paradoxical. Here are a few examples.

  • Christianity is both conservative and progressive. It is conservative because it depends on an unchanging God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And it is progressive because the kingdom of God is always on the move, and it is offensively breaking down the gates of hell.
  • Christianity is concerned about both justice and mercy. It simultaneously advocates punishment and pardon for the lawbreaker.
  • Christianity  decries and condemns secular governments, but it also advocates submission to secular governments. From a biblical standpoint, the very existence of secular government is a direct result of a social rejection of God, and the Bible is filled with numerous examples of prophets condemning these secular governments. Nonetheless, followers of Jesus are called to obey their governing authorities.
  • Christianity teaches both individual responsibility and social responsibility. On the one hand, all have individually sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and therefore individual justification is required. And on the other hand, the whole world is corrupt and fallen, which means that systemic sin exists, and therefore social justice is required.

So where do we go from all of these paradoxical principles? I’m not sure. But I know for certain that we cannot condemn all political opponents at a whole-scale level for not being biblical. The Bible’s far more complex than we make it out to be. And God is much too big to be reduced to rhetorical ammunition in a political war.

Larry

The Retirement of Tim Duncan

I don’t usually blog about the NBA, but this one was too good to pass up. Tim Duncan recently announced that he was retiring from the NBA. He was always one of my favorite players, mostly because he resisted being a celebrity, kept a low profile, and played team basketball. He always seemed to prioritize team statistics over personal statistics.

Here are two noteworthy observations.

  • The Spurs had a 1,072-438 regular season record during Duncan’s 19-year career. This is a .710 winning percentage, and that is by far the best total record by any team in the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB over the past 19 years.
  • The year before Duncan arrived, the Spurs had their worst record in franchise history: 20-62 (.244). The year Duncan left, the Spurs had their best record in franchise history: 67-15 (.817).

And because the sports world is all about comparing people, there are many who have sought to compare Tim Duncan’s career with Kobe Bryant’s career. They both are two of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. They both spent their whole careers with one team. And they both retired this year. Here are some stats if you’re interested.

Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
Total Seasons  20  19
Team Playoff Appearances  16  19
Championships 5 5
# MVPs 1 (2008) 2 (2002, 2003)
# Finals MVPs 2 (2009, 2010) 3 (1999, 2003, 2005)
# All-Star selections 18 15
# All-NBA selections 15 15
# All-Defensive selections 12 15
Career Points* 33643 (3rd) 26496 (17th)
Career Rebounds* 7047 (110th) 15091 (7th)
Career Assists* 6306 (29th) 4225 (94th)
Career Blocks* 640 (184th) 3020 (6th)
Career Steals* 1944 (15th) 1025 (148th)

*The number in the parenthesis is the player’s all-time NBA/ABA rankings, as of the end of the 2015-2016 season.

I find attempts to rank greatness to be super subjective, and that’s not my purpose here. What I find personally fascinating is the way Kobe and Duncan retired, because they were about as different as you could get.

When Kobe announced his retirement early on, all of the basketball world took heed, so that he had standing ovations at essentially every away game for half the season. But Duncan announced his retirement after the season was over, so he didn’t get to experience opposing teams selling out their stadiums so that people could see him one last time. He just quietly slipped out. As former teammate Stephen Jackson once said, “He’ll be cool with riding off into the sunset with no applause.” And when Kobe went out, he went out with a bang, scoring 60 points on 22-50 shooting. But when Duncan went out against the Thunder, it seemed to be a normal game for him. 19 points on 7-14 shooting.

I realize that you can’t fully judge a person’s character by their public persona, but I love the way Tim Duncan went out. He had made his organization better, and he intentionally chose to hand off the mantle to younger players like Kawhi Leonard. He was satisfied with being ordinary. He was okay not getting those thunderous standing ovations. He didn’t need to awe people one last time.

As somebody in ministry, this speaks volumes to me. If I ever leave a ministry or a church in the future, how would I do it? Would I be content with a humble departure? Would my aim be to leave my organization better, or to make my reputation better? Would I want to go out with a bang, or would I be okay with simply “riding off into the sunset with no applause”?

That’s something to think about.

“And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not…” (Jeremiah 45:5)

Larry

Feeling Like a Refugee

Recently, I’ve been seeing people on social media writing things like, “If Donald Trump gets elected, I’m moving to Canada.” Among my circle of friends, people often like to bash Trump, but I’m sure that many people are saying similar things about other candidates as well. And while many of these people are joking, I truly believe that at some level, their sentiment comes from a real place of concern. People are so upset about the possibility that a certain individual will become president that they are considering leaving the country.

And I don’t blame them. It’s not just the fact that there is a diverse plurality of opinions in politics. That was always the case. It’s the fact that those we once thought were the political outliers of society are actually much more numerous, much more passionate, and possibly much more dangerous than we realized. And one of these individuals is now on track to be the next commander-in-chief.

That can be unsettling.

If you feel even a little bit of that fear, I want to say something to you: Welcome to the rest of the world.

Because do you know what’s even more unsettling? Imagine this. What if this leader does not become the president through a democratic election, but he does so through a heavily rigged election (cf. Equatorial Guinean presidential election, 2002)? Or what if this leader is not a president restrained by a fair system of checks and balances, but he is a totalitarian dictator? Or what if this leader does not just verbally insult and demoralize fellow citizens but actually unleashes chemical gases and cluster bombs on them? Or what if the political conversations revolved not around whether or not we should go to war but how we can address an already-existing, seemingly-hopeless, civil war, in which radical religious groups are dividing and conquering the country with suicide bombs, beheadings, and crucifixions?

All of those hypothetical questions are real scenarios, playing out all around the world today. What many Americans are experiencing in this election year is just a small taste of what millions of people around the world consider to be normal. Many Americans, who have staunchly refused refugees for so long, are finally understanding just a little bit of what it’s like to be a refugee.

All around the world, people are fleeing their countries. People are fleeing the rampant homicide rates of Latin America. People are fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar. And people are fleeing the civil war in Syria.

Let’s take a look at Syria. 11 million people (about half of Syria’s population) have been killed or forced to flee from their homes. Of those, more than 4 million have registered or are awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. How many has the US taken since the civil war started in 2011?

2,819.

Even Canada has already accepted 25,000. If Canada, a country with a tenth of our population, can accept 25,000, then I think it makes sense for the US to accept 250,000.

We in America may fear the outcome of our election. And rightly so. There is a lot at stake. But I hope that we can connect this fear with the fear in the hearts of millions of refugees who are looking for a home. I hope that we can channel some of this fear into a global compassion for refugees.