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.


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.


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.


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)


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?


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.



Justice and Fairness

If you haven’t heard, the ex-NYPD cop Peter Liang was recently found guilty of manslaughter and misconduct charges, and he faces up to 15 years in prison. Since then, tens of thousands of people, mostly Chinese American, have held protest demonstrations across the country. As of Saturday, 124,000 people have signed an online White House petition demanding that Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson withdraw his indictment. This is notable because Liang is one of many cops who have either intentionally or unintentionally killed unarmed black men; however, while many of these cops have not been indicted, he has.

I spent some time reading articles and statements by people who have been protesting his case, and it seems like what is fueling this frustration is not necessarily the fact that Liang was indicted, but it is the fact that Liang was indicted while so many others were not. While so many policemen have seemed to have “gotten off the hook,” Liang hasn’t. Thus, it seems to many that Liang is the scapegoat, the fall guy, for so many other incidents of injustice. It also does not help that much of the conversation in regard to police brutality has revolved around white privilege and racism, and Liang, one of the few policemen who has been indicted, is not white.

I believe that the outrage of Chinese Americans provides insight to something–that there is a big difference between justice and fairness. Justice is the idea of getting what you deserve. Fairness is the idea that all people should receive the same level of justice. And the fascinating thing about justice and fairness is that they don’t always line up with each other. For example, if I am driving 10 miles over the speed limit on the highway, and if I get pulled over, I am getting pulled over justly. However, if it was the case that everybody was going 10 miles over the speed limit, and if nobody else got pulled over, I am getting pulled over unfairly. If I get pulled over, shouldn’t everybody else get pulled over? In this case, I am given justice but not fairness. On the other hand, if everybody on the highway is going over 10 miles over the speed limit, and nobody gets pulled over, then there is fairness but no justice.

Of course, driving over the speed limit is not nearly as serious as killing somebody. In this case, it seems like many people are saying that Peter Liang did receive justice–he committed involuntary manslaughter and therefore deserves a sentence–but he was not extended fairness–so many other people who should have deserved a sentence have gotten away with it.

This concept reminds me of a parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16, in which he compared the kingdom of God to the owner of a vineyard and his laborers. In this parable, a man hires a bunch of people to work in a vineyard, agreeing to pay them all a denarius a day. And as the day goes on, he finds more people and hires them to work in his vineyard, continuing to do so until the day is almost over. At the end of the day, he gives everybody one denarius each. However, when those who were hired first saw this, they grumbled, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And in response, the owner of the vineyard said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

In this parable, Jesus highlights something about the way his kingdom works: it is just, but it is not fair. The owner’s payment to the original laborers matched what he had promised them, and therefore it was a just payment. However, those who worked less than those original laborers also received the same payment, and therefore it was not a fair payment. And the reason why this happened was because the owner chose to be generous with those who started working late. I find that fascinating! Generosity is usually seen as a positive thing, and fairness is also seen as a positive thing. But generosity actually makes things unfair. In the song Be My Escape, Relient K sings, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”

Was the sentencing of Peter Liang sentencing just? I think so. But was his sentencing fair? I don’t think so. Should he be sent to prison then? I cannot say. That is a complex issue that involves ethics, politics, and racism. I do not want to comment on what should happen with Liang, and I realize that I am disappointing you if you are expecting me to take a position on his case. However, I believe that Liang’s situation powerfully points to the story of Christianity. Yes, it might have been unfair for Liang to be sentenced to prison while so many others have gotten away, but there is a more fundamental system of unfairness that undercuts all of reality. And that is that Jesus was sentenced to death on a cross while so many have been given life.

According to Christianity, all human beings were given the responsibility of taking care of God’s creation, of mirroring God’s character on earth. In a sense, we were to be the police force of the world, advocating for God’s justice and righteousness as we governed creation. But all of us have sinned against God. We have all committed crimes against each other and against Him. And therefore, we all deserve justice. And justice for us entails death–eternal separation from God.

But then comes Jesus. Jesus was the figurative Commissioner Jim Gordon from Batman, the one good cop in a department full of bad ones. And Jesus brought about the Great Exchange: humanity, though guilty, was declared innocent; Jesus, though innocent, was declared guilty. And thus Jesus, the true scapegoat, was sentenced to death on a cross. Nothing in history has been as unfair as what happened to Jesus. But paradoxically, in this unfair exchange at the cross, the justice of God was achieved. And because of what Jesus did, justice for us now entails life–eternal communion with God.

So is the Christian faith just? Yes. But is it fair? No. But the beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair.

The Captain of My Soul


To be honest, I used to not care too much about books like Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. As someone who is always trying to find answers to everything, I tended to view Christianity as a list of beliefs, a series of truth propositions. And although Christianity is a list of beliefs, it is not ONLY a list of beliefs. The Bible is not predominantly a list of creeds. Much of it consists of stories, proverbs, and songs. Much of it has to do with emotion and experience.

I believe that the theologizing and systematizing of Christianity among many circles today has stripped the faith of its emotional and experiential nature. In some cases, the slightest sign of any negative emotion is immediately seen as sin. And any sort of spiritual experience is immediately branded as mysticism, Pentecostalism, heresy, etc.


This sort of thinking has also influenced the realm of Christian music. Much of Christian music consists of declarative statements of truth, founded on the principles that such songs have the power to break deceptive thinking. And I think those are necessary. It is very easy for humans to believe lies that need to be corrected. But I also believe that Christian music can be more than truth declarations.

For example, it’s okay if a song brings up all sorts of problems that are left unanswered (check out Ecclesiastes). It’s okay if a song describes negative emotions (like fear or abandonment) that do not seem to reflect a solid, unmovable relationship with God (check out the Psalms). It’s okay if a song doesn’t even mention God (check out Esther).

In that light, I recently wrote and recorded this song. I was inspired by a poem by William Ernest Henley called Invictus, which ends with the lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The poem exhorts that the individual self has the power to resist, to advance, and to conquer. However, this self-confidence seemed to stand in stark contrast with my own experience, which has often felt very purposeless and gridlocked. I have found myself wondering, “Where is the captain of my soul?”

Intellectually, I know that God is the captain of my soul. I know that he loves me. I know that he will never leave me nor forsake me. I know that he will work things out for my good. But emotionally, I sometimes find myself feeling apathetic, lazy, or fake.

This is my attempt to put that feeling into a song.



I can’t even recall how this heart hit cruise control
All I know is that this engine’s dying in the cold
I thought this ship was headed for a sea of glass
But this machine is headed straight into this siren trap

Where is the captain of my soul?
Where is the captain of my soul?

Every now and then when nobody would see
I would step inside my golden cage and make believe
All of life was just a game that I could manipulate
And the line between the real and fake would fade away

My heart was such an easy sell
I had it convinced that all was well