And To Dust You Shall Return

Here’s a sincere question for my conservative Christian friends: as we lined up to vote for George W. Bush in 2000, would any of us have believed that in a short 15 years, the favorite candidate of the “Christian right” would be a philandering casino tycoon and Clinton donor with four bankruptcies, two divorces and God only knows how many affairs under his belt; an outspoken defender of partial birth abortion, gun control and the abuse of eminent domain who became famous by objectifying women and successful by paying off corrupt politicians (and is shameless enough to boast openly about it); a man whose insincerity is as plain as the hair on his head and whose assumed “Christianity,” though of the shallowest possible type, still comes across as an implausible piece of bad acting? Be honest – would any of us have believed that story for an instant?

Church, the political “Christian right” was at its best a defective clone, conceived in the laboratory of human invention – a heartless deformity on life support. It has been dead for some time and by now it stinketh. Now that the Trump campaign has done us all the favor of a very public, very nasty autopsy on national television, can we just bury it and get back to the proclamation of the Word, with an extra helping of humility? It’s past time, brothers and sisters.

If Not Now, When?

Apparently this moment in time – when Ferguson is burning, Darren Wilson’s supporters are celebrating, and Obama is talking – is not the appropriate time to discuss police misconduct and the problems with our criminal justice system or to try to understand the causes of this horrible series of tragedies. At least that is what we’re being told. The reasons we are given by those who say that this is not the right time for those discussions are pretty diverse. I disagree with all of them – predictably, I hope. But let’s take a look at some of the best.

If we really cared about black lives we would be talking about abortion.

Back during the 2012 election season, Randy Alcorn complained that every time he addressed abortion, some liberal was sure to ask why he wasn’t also talking about unjust war. He was right, of course; anyone who has been vocal in defense of the unborn has been asked the same question. It’s almost invariably an attempt to either shut down the discussion, shame the speaker (under the assumption that they most likely have supported some pretty sketchy wars) or change the subject. It is an evasive tactic to avoid dealing with the injustice and immorality of one’s own position.

So is this one.

Of course we should be talking about abortion. Yes, it is a greater threat to black lives than police brutality. It’s also a greater threat to all American lives than gun control, or ISIS, or ObamaCare, or GMOs, or – you get the idea? Matt Walsh, next time you’re tempted to write something about Ebola, remember that abortion is an exponentially more serious threat to everything we hold dear as – as – as whatever we are.

There are any number of critical issues facing America today that desperately need to be held up to the light – the light of the truth, of the Gospel, of reason, of history. Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of them every day. I don’t post nearly as often as I’d like. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But speaking out on one important issue is not the same as denying, or even minimizing, other issues of equal or greater importance. Don’t try to pull this one; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of squirming in your seat – and it’s pretty obvious.

The real issue is that our society has rejected God; don’t get hung up on police brutality like those godless libertarians.

This one gets to me because it is presented as if all the rejection of God is on the part of the criminal, the protestor, and the victim. Sure, looting and burning, disrespecting police officers and calling for summary justice are all symptoms of society’s rejection of God. What doesn’t seem to occur to those who raise this as an objection? Systemic injustice, abuse of power, extortion, deception, gratuitous violence and murder by police officers are the fruit of the same tree.

More importantly, our modern society isn’t unique in that regard. I understand that many people simply mean to say that biblical standards of morality, once widely accepted, are now as widely rejected in our culture. That is true. But it’s hardly new. Society rejected God in the garden and has been living out that rejection ever since. I wonder if anyone said to John the Baptist, “Listen, John, the real issue is that the Jews have rejected God. Don’t get hung up on Herod and his incest; get out there and preach to the mob. They’re the ones who need to hear it.”

The police will always be dealing largely with sinners in rebellion against God. And guess what? The police will always be made up largely of sinners in rebellion against God. As Christians, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power as well as to everyone else. Sin is sin, violence is violence, murder is murder, regardless of legal sanction or lack thereof.

These black protestors are looting and destroying their own city? How can you support them?

Sigh. First of all, acknowledging and seeking to understand their grievances is not necessarily support.  Secondly, “The protestors” are a diverse group with widely divergent motives, agendas and goals. You cannot expect to be taken seriously by thinking people when you make sweeping generalizations about their actions and intents. Think about this for a moment. Who are the protestors?

Some are professional civil rights activists. For the most part, they aren’t from Ferguson. Some of them are no doubt sincerely hoping to help focus the nation’s attention on serious problems of injustice in the judicial system and police culture. Others, to put it bluntly, are constituents of racism; they profit from racial tension and, while they probably aren’t burning buildings or overturning police cars, they will do what they can to inflame the situation and seize the limelight.

Some are anarchist troublemakers, career agitators, rebels without a cause. They aren’t from Ferguson either. They live in their parent’s basements, playing video games, watching InfoWars and posting inflammatory, obscenity-laced comments on the internet until unrest somewhere presents an opportunity to riot. I know because I’ve dealt with them first hand. Some are better organized, like the Black Bloc (“black” here refers to their clothing – they are almost all white) while others are just losers seeking a thrill. My guess, based on observation and experience but without personal knowledge of the situation in Ferguson, is that they are less than ten percent of the protestors and responsible for ninety percent of the destruction.

Then there are the locals – the people of Ferguson. They aren’t a monolithic group either. Men who have been systematically harassed by an out-of-control PD; mothers and fathers who fear for their children’s future; youths who have grown up without a parent; respected pastors and community leaders; elected officials; business owners. The angriest of their young men will find justification in the rhetoric of the activists, sympathy and incitement in the anarchists, and satisfaction in joining the destruction. But for the most part, the locals are the last ones to blame for the rioting, the looting, the wanton destruction of property. Yet they are the ones who will bear all the blame, as well as all the burden of recovering from the devastation.

The least we can do is to acknowledge the reality of their grievances, to stop excusing violence and crime when it hides behind a badge. We can recognize that even if Darren Wilson was perfectly justified – and he may have been – officers who abuse their power endanger those who serve honorably as much as themselves. We can use the opportunity presented by this horrible tragedy to change the way society thinks about crime – to challenge the deification of the State and give God’s law, not man’s, the highest place. We can at least seek to make the law respectable as we call on our fellow citizens to respect it.

Simple, Right?

In the ongoing tragedy that is Ferguson, MO, one of the most tragic aspects of all is the hardening contempt each side of the conflict feels and expresses for the other. As a white conservative I am ashamed of the grossly simplified generalizations that characterize the discussion on the right. But more than anything, I am grieved by the widening gulf, on this and many other issues, between neighbors, fellow citizens and, most especially, fellow believers.

After the Grand Jury decision not to indict Wilson was announced last night, the usually thoughtful Matt Walsh opined this morning, “Brown instigated this encounter, tried to hurt the officer, and paid for it with his life. That’s it. That’s all. This whole outrage was based on rumor and false testimony. You either accept the facts, or you brand yourself a liar and a fraud.”

No, Matt, that’s not it and that’s not all.

In France, 1789, the explosion of rage, murder and destruction we call the French Revolution ignited a fifty year period of chaos and death. The world looked on in disbelief as the desperation-fueled heroism of those who stormed the Bastille gave way to Robespierre and the reign of terror. Observers all over the west shook their heads as centuries’ worth of cultural, religious and political effort was dismantled and destroyed, and waxed philosophical in their armchairs over the sheer stupidity of the French public. If any people could be accused of destroying their own city – even beyond that, of destroying themselves – the French peasantry of the late eighteenth century were guilty.

Edmund Burke criticized the French Revolution in a series of pamphlets, speeches, etc. In his first pamphlet he accused the French people of rebelling “against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant.”

This accusation drew the ire of the American author Thomas Paine, who replied, “It was not against Louis the XVIth, but against the despotic principles of the government, that the nation revolted. These principles had not their origin in him, but in the original establishment, many centuries back: and they were become too deeply rooted to be removed, and the Augean stables of parasites and plunderers too abominably filthy to be cleansed by anything short of a complete and universal Revolution. … Perhaps no man bred up in the style of an absolute king, ever possessed a heart so little disposed to the exercise of that species of power as the present King of France. But the principles of the Government itself still remained the same. The Monarch and the Monarchy were distinct and separate things; and it was against the established despotism of the latter, and not against the person or principles of the former, that the revolt commenced, and the Revolution has been carried.”

Paine went on to lash out at Burke for his aristocratic sympathies and his refusal to even attempt to see the revolution from the perspective of the oppressed people of France. “Not one glance of compassion,” he wrote, “not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. … He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

Ouch.

Burke and Paine both made legitimate points, and both were blinded by their own prejudices. In his sympathy for the horrific suffering of the French people, Paine glossed over many of the terrible crimes and excesses they committed. But his critique of Burke on this point was devastatingly accurate. Burke saw the sins of the French Revolution in a political and historical vacuum. He saw them as a grave threat to the relatively orderly subordination of English society and to the aristocratic system. He failed to acknowledge the crushing weight of centuries of accumulated oppression and how that history shaped the French people, and he failed to distinguish between the many aspects of the revolution and the motivations of its various groups and factions.

Those who look with contempt on the whole mass of protesters in Ferguson – without distinction, without even an attempt to perceive their widely different motivations – are guilty of just such an error. The killing of Michael Brown, whether justified or not, occurred in a decades-old context of unchecked law enforcement brutality and deep-seated hostility between people of color in Ferguson and their police. Back in the late ’90s journalists described the area as a racial volcano destined to erupt. In 2012 Ferguson police officers mistakenly arrested an innocent black man and beat him savagely in a holding cell, only to discover their mistake afterwards. Rather than risk the consequences of a public acknowledgement they charged him with destruction of government property for bleeding on their uniforms. While a judge dismissed those charges, none of the officers involved were punished. In this context it would be shocking if the black community were to calmly accept a grand jury decision not to indict. They have no faith in the system, and for good reason.

Then, too, there is a fundamental distrust of this particular process that is equally understandable. No one expected the grand jury to indict Wilson. Jonathan Blanks, writing for Rare today, observed that “The law enforcement apparatus in and around St. Louis County treated the citizenry with open contempt. In his press conference yesterday, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch sounded more like a defense attorney for Wilson rather than a prosecutor who failed to get an indictment.”

Legal blogger and defense attorney Scott Greenfield was more specific. “All the evidence,” he writes, “is a phrase that applies to a trial. A trial is a procedure that happens in an open courtroom, where adversaries zealously present their case and challenge the other side’s case. It is transparent because we can watch it unfold, develop, happen before our eyes. We hear the questions and answers, the objections and rulings. We hear the request to admit evidence and the voir dire and challenge to its admission. We hear the opening arguments and summations. … Whether Darren Wilson would have been convicted after trial remains unclear; perhaps the case against him for the killing of Michael Brown wouldn’t have survived scrutiny. Perhaps the structural benefits given law enforcement to kill without fear would have allowed him to circumvent conviction. Perhaps he wasn’t guilty. We will never know. … The merit of the grand jury presentation relies entirely on our acceptance of Bob McCulloch’s office desiring an indictment against Darren Wilson. Just as a prosecutor can indict any damn person he pleases, he can similarly make sure a person is not indicted.” (Read the whole post – it’s worth your time.)

When was the last time you saw a police officer indicted, let alone convicted, for excessive use of force, without a viral video either leaked or recorded by a bystander? Even in those cases where a concerned citizen is in the right place at the right time to make such a recording, how often are officers actually prosecuted? Answer those questions honestly, and then tell me why, in that context, any of us should be expected to accept the grand jury’s finding as fact?

Wilson may have been completely justified. But to dismiss those who distrust the process as liars and frauds is either tragically simple-minded or disingenuous.

Who’s Leaving Who Over Gaza?

Writing for The Hill, Niall Stanage wondered earlier this week whether the Obama administration’s impotent criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza could finally cause the oft-predicted,  never realized shift of American Jewish voters toward the GOP. The answer, I suspect, is no. But while he and others are worrying about shifting opinions and demographic trends among potential voters, perhaps they should take a look at what is already resulting from Israel’s actions.

Evangelical Christians, especially in America, have arguably been the Republican Party’s most dependable group of supporters. There are lots of reasons for this, but the two most important are the GOP’s perceived opposition to abortion and unflinching support for the Zionist element of Israeli politics. These two factors – being pro-life and pro-Zionist – are increasingly at odds. The prevalence of a novel and unbiblical view of Bible prophecy has so far led to the Israeli government getting a pass from American evangelicals, but among younger evangelicals that is no longer a safe assumption. While Jewish voters in the next decade or so aren’t likely to leave the Democratic Party over a bit of meaningless criticism of Israel, the loss of evangelical Christians as an assumed base of support is much more likely to result from Republican support for Israel’s wholesale slaughter of Gazan civilians.

The Lesser Of Evils?

Randy Alcorn has an excellent series of blog posts on the choices faced by Christians in this election. I don’t endorse all of his conclusions, but he has thoughtfully addressed some very divisive issues with a spirit of charity that is too often missing in political writing, mine included.

Reading through the series, I’ve found myself emphatically agreeing with some points, like the religious freedom/abortifacient issue and our individual responsibility to help the poor – and as emphatically disagreeing with others, like the justification of legal plunder for charitable purposes. The debater in me wants to post a fifty point response that no one but my sweetheart will take the time to read. The cynic in me wants to shrug and go do something else because most voters, Christians included, have a bit of a herd mentality and their minds are already made up. But another side of me hopes against hope that as the Republican Party (my party, by the way) abandons the last of its moral principles, the opportunity for evangelical Christians to rethink their perspective on morality and government will not be wasted. That side of me hopefully can respond to Alcorn’s most recent post with the same charity it reflects.

Alcorn asks the question, “Is it wrong to vote for the lesser of evils?” Although I’ve made that argument in the past, I agree with his conclusion. He correctly notes that “to vote for the lesser of two evils is to vote for less evil.” That’s certainly true, and it may even be the duty of a Christian in some cases. His basic objections to third party candidates are also legitimate. What is missing for me, and some other Christians I know, is the conviction that Romney is indeed the lesser evil.

To be sure, on the issues Alcorn has identified as critical there is little or no room for argument. The candidates’ rhetoric on abortion, religious freedom, and (to a lesser extent) welfare issues is widely different. Even if their past records show less of a distinction, Alcorn rightly notes that, given the choices, there is at least good reason to hope that electoral pressures and maturity would make Romney, on these issues, a better President.

So what’s wrong with the conclusion? It seems to take for granted that the issues Christians on the right and left argue about the most are the only issues that matter. But not all of us think so. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are many places where innocent human life is threatened besides in the womb. Alcorn makes the argument that “pro-life” refers specifically to the protection of unborn children. That’s fine, but it doesn’t change the reality that civilians, women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are equally innocent human lives and, when they are being recklessly killed at our expense by our public servants, have an equal claim on our responsibility.

I don’t like the fact that my tax dollars go to organizations that kill unborn children either. But reinstating the Mexico City policy won’t really help me to sleep better at night, because my tax dollars will still be paying for things like this, and this, and this. And while Obama has been appallingly indifferent to the lives lost in the pursuit of money and power, Romney has promised to double down, accusing Obama of being weak and timid when it comes to killing those who get in our way.

In that light, the choice between Romney and Obama becomes muddled to the point of insignificance. I’ve said for some time that if I vote for Romney (and I still may) it will be a consequence of Obama’s attack on religious freedom, because honestly, I don’t see a meaningful difference when it comes to life. And as a Christian, I’m not willing to limit my concern for innocent human life to the unborn.

By the way, Alcorn partially addressed this particular criticism in an earlier post, where he objected that “… every time I say something about the unborn, those people ask me why I’m not addressing war.” He is absolutely right that many on the “left” raise the issue of war to avoid talking about infanticide. I’m not objecting, however, to advocating for the unborn without simultaneously advocating for others. Obviously different Christians are called to different areas of ministry or feel especially burdened by different aspects of this broken world, and their focus will (and should) reflect that. But I am objecting to the argument that a candidate’s position on abortion should matter more than his position on just war.

I appreciate Randy Alcorn’s willingness to go on the record and his thoughtful approach to this question. But if we judge our standards of evil by all of God’s Word, the answer is not so clear-cut in my mind as it seems to be in his.

A Vote For Whom?

Leaving church last Sunday I found a handwritten note on our car. Some well-intentioned but misguided soul apparently was distressed by the Ron Paul bumper sticker and took the time to warn me that “a vote for Ron Paul is a vote for Obama.” The author lacked the courage to add their John Hancock, so I have no way to enlighten them. It was only the fiftieth time or so that I’ve been on the receiving end of such nonsense, but the anonymity of the warning nettled me enough to post a response here. So for anyone out there who might be similarly confused, here are three indisputable reasons why a vote for Ron Paul would NOT be a vote for Obama:

1 – Because it would be a vote for Ron Paul.

2 – Because Ron Paul has never had the chance to run against Obama and, at this point, will never appear on the ballot as an alternative to him.

3 – Because even if Ron Paul would have chosen to run independently this November (something that was never going to happen), any votes he received would be equally lost to all four of his opponents, including Obama.

This last would appear to be basic arithmetic. That it eludes so many otherwise intelligent conservatives is an indication of arrogance born of denial.

See, people say foolish things like the above because of faulty reasoning. Reduced to a syllogism, their logic runs like this: (a) If a person supports Ron Paul they most likely support smaller government, lower taxes and/or Christian values; (b) Mitt Romney is the most viable (or legitimate) candidate who stands for these things; therefore (c) if this person had not been led astray by Ron Paul they would instead be voting for Mitt Romney, right?

Nope.

The devil, obviously, is in (b) above; most Ron Paul supporters don’t agree that Mitt Romney stands for anything at all, unless it’s the Federal Reserve.

Of course, most conservatives agreed with us a few months ago; the difference now is that the RINO of all RINOs has been anointed Leader of the Party of God and Country (and Israel), the Standard-Bearer of Freedom, Responsibility and Judeo-Christianity Against Islamo-Fascist Marxists and Terrorists (who we know are trying every day to kill us all and also to end women’s suffrage). In other words, he’s now officially the Republican presidential nominee; to these dear people, therefore, he is The Savior. Therein lies the arrogance.

This arrogance is possible because these conservatives live in a fantasy world, in denial of certain facts the rest of us have by now accepted. The most important of these facts is that the GOP and its national candidates can not be counted on to stand up for anything good under even the most favorable circumstances. They do not stand for limited government, for individual liberty or responsibility, for the sanctity of innocent human life, or for anything that even remotely resembles Christian values (at least if that word “Christian” refers to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ). I call these facts advisedly, and I challenge anyone who believes otherwise to remind me of any meaningful efforts by the GOP to limit government, promote freedom, protect innocent human life or exemplify the values of biblical Christianity in the last two decades.

So if the premise is false, the conclusion is faulty. Ron Paul supporters are not denying Romney votes he could otherwise take for granted. The shocking truth is that many Ron Paul supporters, if forced to choose between Romney and Obama, would choose Obama. Don’t shoot, pardner; I’m not one of them. But a good friend who has been a registered Republican voter and activist for decades recently said this: “… there is no more than a dimes worth of difference between the R and the D. And if non-interventionism or ending the Fed are your most important issues, Obama has that ten cents. Not that a liberty minded person could ever vote for him …”

I can hear someone at the Huffington Post gasping (or puffing?), “But a vote for Ron Paul is a vote for Romney!”

Personally, I never expected Paul to win the nomination. My support for Paul was a matter of principle; I believe in the same things he believes in. In my view, a wasted vote is one cast for a candidate who does not represent my beliefs. Been there, done that, not sure I’m willing to do it again. No candidate on the ballot this November comes close to representing my beliefs. I haven’t decided what to do now. My Ron Paul bumper sticker doesn’t represent an intention to write Paul in next month. Nor does it reflect a conspiracy to punish the GOP by taking votes from Romney, who would need to earn my vote whether Paul had ever existed or not. (So far he isn’t even trying.) It remains on my car as a reminder to my fellow Republicans that our party has betrayed our country again, and as a disclaimer to my fellow Americans that, though a Republican, I am not complicit in that betrayal.

Why Do They Hate Us?

I wonder if any question has ever been asked more often with less sincerity. The complete absence of curiosity on this point, especially among my fellow Christian conservatives, is appalling. My head is spinning with the comments I’ve heard just in the last few days from professing believers, some even members of my own denomination, my own church.

“Arabs really are just not nice people,” one friend observed. (Really? Is that as far as your mind is permitted to wander?) “People are people,” I told her. “They need the gospel-” “They’ve rejected the gospel,” she replied decisively.

Who are “they,” I wondered. When did they reject the gospel? What gospel did they reject? Have they ever really heard the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are the ideas and concepts they associate with Christianity likely to aid in winning them over? Are American Christians doing anything about that? Do American Christians even care?

Put yourself in the shoes of a middle eastern Muslim for a moment. (No, it isn’t an act of treason, and no, you won’t go to hell if you die while doing this exercise.)

Imagine that you were born and raised to believe in one god who expects you to earn your salvation by good deeds and strict adherence to his law. Imagine that every authority you know, from vigilante mobs to religious leaders to the tyrannical government you live under, sees violence as an appropriate response to offensive speech.

Imagine that in your world America is synonymous with Christianity. But you don’t know the America that for so long was a beacon of hope to oppressed people; the America that opened its doors to offer freedom and opportunity to the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses. You know America only as the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation; a “Christian” nation that exports obscenity and imports drugs. You know America as the money behind brutal dictators and the police states they control; as the source of drone attacks that strike without warning and kill indiscriminately; as the proponent of brutal economic sanctions that condemn the poor to a slow death long before the elites in your government feel the pinch. You know America as the land of politicians who think its okay to kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children to further their own economic interests; as the place where soldiers who kill unarmed civilians in cold blood are protected but soldiers who expose them are mercilessly prosecuted.

Pretend you are an Afghan who survived a drone attack on a wedding that killed your wife and left your child with permanent brain injury. (The US government has since christened your loved ones “militants.”) Or maybe you would rather be a Yemeni whose brother got on the wrong side of local authorities and ended up in Guantanamo. (After four years imprisonment he was cleared but he’s still there ten years out because the US hasn’t found a safe place to release him.) Imagine you are an Iraqi who hailed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein only to watch as professional fear-mongers dismantled your country’s civil institutions and pocketed millions while your society descended into chaos and violence.

Picture yourself as an Iranian father whose daughter is dying because the medication she needs is no longer available. (You’ve demanded an explanation and been told that the US is deliberately using economic sanctions to prevent its importation so that Iranians will die.) Or put yourself in the shoes of a Pakistani whose young son was vaccinated with something by a doctor you later learned was working for the CIA, and he died two months later. (The hospital says it was pneumonia but the talk on the street is that it was the secret substance in the “vaccine.”) “What nonsense!” you say. “Totally irrational!” Of course it is irrational to you and me, but not to someone in that world. They don’t trust their governments any more than you or I would, and they certainly don’t trust our government. Can you blame them?

Imagine … what’s that? You can’t take it anymore? Neither can they. It is true that a crummy you-tube drama doesn’t explain all the recent rage among Muslims. Neither does self-righteous nonsense about Muslims hating us because we’re free. Religion and culture don’t explain it either; while Islamic culture is violent to a great extent, that has been the case for the last 1500 years since the religion was founded. But this visceral anger targeted directly at the west and America in particular is a recent phenomenon – certainly within the last fifty years.

Self-righteous punditry aside, it isn’t the violence that strikes me as senseless. Trying to understand the current outburst of Muslim rage without taking American policies and intervention into account is senseless. Writing off all Muslims for “rejecting” a Gospel they’ve never heard is senseless. Imposing democracy by force on a society that has understandably grown to hate us is senseless. Killing innocent women and children to help dissuade the survivors from becoming terrorists is senseless. Sending American soldiers to die in tribal wars in Afghanistan is senseless. And calling support for such reckless insanity “conservative” is perhaps the most senseless thing of all.