Stop flinging statistics

I’ve got more to say than will fit in a Tweet…

My news feed is blowing up with highly distorted references to a “Harvard Study” that allegedly presents a “shocking conclusion” and “pokes a massive hole in Black Lives Matter claims.” I’m not linking to this internet propaganda that masquerades as journalism; if you want to see it plug the quotes into your favorite search engine.

Here’s a better NY Times article on the study.  While the skewed articles are factually correct in their statement that the study found no racial bias in police shootings, they leave out critical findings from the study.  A more accurate summary of the findings, from the study itself (it’s 63 pages, but over half is statistical data and tables, it’s not too difficult of a read, if you’re interested in facts and details):

On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences- sometimes quite large– in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction.  Interestingly, as the use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force. Yet, on the most extreme uses of force– officer-involved shootings- we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls. (p35, emphasis added)

I could expend another couple of paragraphs detailing how what the report actually says in no way punches holes in the Black Lives Matter argument, or vindicates those who oppose it.  But that’s not the real point of this post.

Significant numbers of the African American community are telling us in multiple different ways, from tweets, blogs, speeches, sermons, and protests, that there is a problem.  When us white folks answer with “All Lives Matter,” or with statistics purporting to tell them that they are wrong, we are totally missing the point.  THERE IS A PROBLEM!!!  We can have a discussion about what the problem is, or how we solve it, or even about whether the problem is one of fact vs. perception, but that requires a willingness to have a dialog first.  If your answer fits in a tweet, or a meme, particularly if it points out how the other party is wrong, or how the problem doesn’t exist, you have failed at dialog before even demonstrating a willingness to participate.

Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta made an astute observation in his gathering last Sunday (watch the entire service here–it’s worth your time):

“The further away we are from a problem, the simpler it looks….  Most of us, from where we sit as white people, we are far away from what you’re talking about. We just are.  We believe you, it’s a reality (Greg’s note:  I would argue that this isn’t always accurate), but it’s still so far away and our answers, our emotional response is so simplistic.

“The closer you get to a problem, the more complex it becomes, because the closer you get to any problem there is the actual facts.”

We have to quit throwing out simplistic answers (“just comply”) or statistics and “facts” that deny the problem (see above), or pithy statements that dismiss the problem (“All Lives Matter”).  These do nothing but degrade our African American brothers and sisters.  We need to listen.  We need to lean in.  We need to get closer to the problem, so we start understanding it.  If you don’t think there is a problem, you’re too far away.  Sit down with the mom of an African American teenage boy, and ask her what she fears.  Ask her what she teaches her son about being pulled over by the police.  Listen.

Stop being defensive.  The African American community is not calling you or me an explicit racist.  What they’re trying desperately to tell us is that there is bias in the system, and it’s hurting them, it’s creating fear, and we need to help.  If your solution is a study to prove that the problem doesn’t exist, maybe you need to lean in a little more.

One more thought for my Christian brothers and sisters:  Prayer is vital, and necessary.  I implore you to pray, but not some lame prayer of “Jesus, fix what’s going on in our country.”  He empowered the solution 50 days after his crucifixion.  Jesus’s solution for addressing what’s going on in the world today is, and has been the same for the last 2000 years–the Church.

Instead, I ask you to pray the prayer that Andy suggests:

“Prejudice and racism are almost impossible to see in the mirror because it’s hidden in our hearts…. Would you ask God to do for you what he did for Peter (in Acts 10:28)? Would you ask God to show you? Would you say ‘God, I think I’m good with this, I think I’m free and clear.’… Regardless of your experience, would you at least have the courage to say, ‘God, show me. Help me to spot it and despise it the way that you do. Help me to despise it and to stop defending it.  And give me the courage to eradicate it from my heart, rather than keep telling myself that same story over and over and over that justifies it in my heart.’ “

But when you’ve prayed, don’t consider your role finished.  As Christians, we need to act.  Andy’s concluding words:

The church has to be at the epicenter of this.  Only in the church are we taught that I am looking at someone who is made in the image of God….  You cannot mistreat my children and get along with me, and I cannot mistreat you and get along with my Father in Heaven. That is the message of the New Testament, and that is the message of the Cross, and that trumps my experience, and your experience.

Lean in.  Get close to your brothers and sisters–so close that the problem is not “theirs,” but “ours.”  And when your response begins with, “But…” stop and listen again.

Orlando, part 2: Seeing the people

One of the things I observed in Orlando on Monday, a little more than 24 hours after the Pulse shooting, was the people. The feeling was different. Even in the restaurant where we ate lunch, about a mile away, the staff was waiting tables, but you could tell their minds were distant… numb. The traffic was horrendous, as a main arterial through the middle of the city was closed for several blocks, yet people were patient. Courteous, even.

I was struck by who was there.

The first people I noticed were the locals. People who had this occur, in some cases literally in their back yard. Most of the time, catastrophic news happens in a place on TV. It’s not a real place; it could be a movie set in Hollywood as far as we know. But for these people, this was in their neighborhood, their place of work, at the Subway where they buy their lunch every day. It is their home. And it had been invaded, not just by a gunman, but by the world.

The next group of people I noticed were the media. Satellite trucks were everywhere. Miles of cables strung through the streets. Power inverters hooked to the batteries of rental cars for blocks in every direction. Enough pop-up tents to equip the infield of a NASCAR race. I’d already seen the Facebook posts about the “truth” that the media is keeping from us. You know, those plastic-faced souls who are trying to brainwash you into believing their version of America? Lies. All of it. Am I biased? You could argue that, since my son is one of them. Or, you could consider that maybe, since I know one of them, I have a better perspective on reality than most people. As I watched these reporters, producers, photographers, and others work and sweat, trying to make sure every detail was correct, to uncover truth and provide accurate details without spreading inaccuracies, I was struck by their determination. In horrific conditions, they were sweating it out, suppressing personal emotions, sleep deprivation, and technical frustrations. They weren’t doing it to control minds, nor to get rich. They were doing it because presenting the truth is important to them. Hear me on this one: The media plays an important role in our free nation, and these professionals perform their duty with the same gravity as law enforcement or military does. We owe them respect, and the benefit of the doubt.

It was impossible not to notice the law enforcement presence. What was most surprising was the number, and the variety. Local, county, and state police, but that was just the beginning. Federal agents from multiple agencies, mobile crime labs and command trailers from cities hundreds of miles away, some of which made no sense for them to be there, until you consider the enormity of the task. Again, I was impressed by their professionalism in horrific circumstances and in incredibly difficult conditions. The heat and humidity were brutal. Cops controlling closed roads who had to answer the same insistent plea to go down that street, from a different person every three minutes, for whatever brutal length of time their shift covered. Men and women who had spent hours working through the carnage of a crime scene that can’t be comprehended. All with a calm, patient presence that concealed their exhaustion, tension, and …pain. These men and women were there to “protect and serve.” The law enforcement profession has been battered lately in the public eye. But they deserve our respect and appreciation for their work on this day. All of them face death on a daily basis, much more often than most of us ever realize.

Then there were the volunteers. Christ Church Orlando  is just 5 doors down the street from Pulse. They opened their doors in the first hours after the shooting, providing a needed respite for the first responders and law enforcement, offering A/C, food, water, and a place to rest, 24 hours a day. As a general rule, Christians haven’t done the best job loving the type of people who frequented Pulse, but Pastor Paul impressed me with one thing he said: Since starting the church, they have always stayed true to their call to remain in the heart of the city. I didn’t get the impression that they had much of a connection to Pulse or its customers, but they were there, and they went to work, ministering to their community the best way they knew how.

If your news feed has an evangelical Christian channel to it, you’ve seen the posts about the Chick-Fil-A that opened on a Sunday to feed the first responders. If you don’t know, this is a big deal, first because Chick-Fil-A never opens on Sunday, because their owners are Christians who make it a corporate policy to allow all employees to have Sunday to be with their families (and go to church, if they choose). Chick-Fil-A has received bad press in the past on LGBT issues, so Christians are trumpeting it from the rooftops that no one has heard about this act (often with an air of self-righteousness because it’s not being reported by the biased media). Here’s the thing: It’s probably not making the news for several more legitimate reasons:

  • I get the impression they didn’t do it for publicity, but because they were serving a need in their community
  • EVERYONE was serving. Businesses were donating whatever they could to help out. The Target store just a few blocks away gave pallets of bottled water. Grocery stores were donating food. Restaurants were donating meals. Chick-Fil-A was just one business among many. ALL deserve to be appreciated for their selflessness, yet no one was doing it for appreciation. People needed to serve one another, to put their love into action.

I saw thousands of people. Straight and LGBT; community leaders and the impoverished; multiple ethnicities, and most likely multiple political parties. People who want to abolish guns, and 2nd Amendment loyalists. There were rednecks and illegals. Muslims, Christians, and atheists. But on this day, something was different:   There was a respect being shown, by everyone, to everyone. Suddenly, we were once again aware of the humanity of each one, even those who were different. It felt much the same as the feeling I had in DC, near the Pentagon, in the days after 9/11.

That day, no one was a them. Every person I encountered was a we. Someone who mattered, who hurt, who was a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, a spouse… Most importantly, EVERY person there was a PERSON, with intrinsic value, which I believe is because they are first and foremost an image-bearer of God. God gives every person value, and no one has the right or authority to take that value away. On that day, in Orlando, each saw the value of the lives around them. My prayer is that we will all be changed by this event… that we will see that value for the rest of our lives, and even in those that we dislike, disagree with; and that we will think and act differently.

I’m not asking that each of us hold hands with a Muslim, or a transgender person, or an NRA Life Member, and sing Kumbaya. Start with your next door neighbor. Or the jerk that just cut you off in the grocery store parking lot. How about just changing your political rhetoric–not your opinions, but the words you use to state your opinions? Because, like it or not, Hillary, Donald, and Barack are people too. Once we start dehumanizing them, we are well on our way to hating them. And as I wrote a few days ago, that hatred is the evil that resides in each one of us, that is the root cause of this tragedy.

For my readers who aren’t followers of Jesus, you can jump out here.  The rest of this post is a family talk with my brothers and sisters.

In Luke 6:27-49 Jesus issues what is arguably the most difficult commands in all of his teachings.  He tells us to love everybody–not just those who are loveable, or who are in our circle and meet our standards.  Because everybody does that.  His followers are to be different, and to show that difference by loving those who hate them.  And he’s not commanding us to have warm feelings from afar–he’s talking about real, sacrificial action, without expecting anything in return.  Then he puts some teeth in his teaching:  in v 35 he tells us that in doing so, “then (we) will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (including me).  He goes on to tell us that we will be judged, condemned, and forgiven with the measure we use to judge, condemn, or forgive others.  We get this backwards.  We want God to forgive us as we forgive ourselves, and judge others the way we judge others.  He talks about the fruit in our lives coming from what is stored up in our hearts, either good or evil.

He then drives the point to a non-negotiable conclusion with his parable of the wise and foolish builders.  He starts in v 46 with a question that should cut each of us to the bone: “Why do you call me , ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

The answer is, “because we don’t want to, Jesus.”  We want to do things our way, with your blessing, so we parse and interpret the words of this passage and others like it, to give ourselves loopholes to avoid doing what he plainly says.  But looking back at the logical implication of v 35 above, if we are children of the Most High if we obey him, then when we choose not to obey, or twist his words to make his commands more suitable to our liking, then the converse is true–v 49 tells us that like the house without a foundation, we will collapse, and our destruction will be complete.

Love.  It’s how we’re known as his disciples.

Orlando

My wife and I spent Monday in Orlando, on Orange Street, looking for ways to help in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy. The day was emotional, exhausting, and difficult to process. I tried to take everything in… the people, the emotion, the activity. I spent much of Tuesday writing, and trying to distill what I sensed, and what I’m feeling. Most of those words will probably not leave my notebook. There are several blog articles that I’m not certain if I’ll ever publish. Some because I just needed to get my thoughts down on the page, and some because, well, I’m not sure they will mean anything to others. I’m also hesitant because so much has already been said, and I can’t seem to write fast enough to not be rehashing the thoughts of others.

I have to publish this one. I’ve been wrestling with it since Sunday. My (small) audience covers a really broad spectrum politically, philosophically, and theologically. I can bet that all of you disagree with me on something, which is OK, because there are some issues that I have trouble finding consensus with myself on. I work to write in a way that doesn’t compromise my deeply held beliefs, but at the same time encourages constructive dialog, or at least meaningful thought, even in those who hold core values that differ fundamentally from my own. But today I am writing from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint, yet with the same desire to cultivate meaningful dialog or thought amongst those who might disagree.

Much has been written to attempt to explain why. Hundreds of investigators are interviewing thousands of connections, exploring terabytes of data, all for clues as to what motivated the shooter. Some want to blame religion. Or hatred of homosexuals. Or repressed sexuality. Or ethnicity, mental health, or some other cause that we can find reprehensible. Donald Trump wants to blame Muslims and Syrian refugees. Hillary wants to blame guns. Some want to blame the FBI for not recognizing “warning signs” that are only perceivable after the fact. The reality is we all want to blame something. We’re looking for an external cause, a them, or a that, which we can then abolish, hate, or kill to make this stop.

Carey Nieuwhof is a Canadian pastor who teaches about leadership in the church. He wrote a blog Monday morning that contained a thought that rattled me. He offered up several thoughts on how churches should respond in this “age of terror,” and point #2 gave me trouble. He talks about the importance of confession and humility, two Christian staples that may have lost some of their importance in our Western church culture. In that discussion, he made a statement that I flat disagreed with, when I first read it. He said,

“The opposite of confession is blame…and that’s an instinctive reaction most of us have.”

I don’t disagree with the “instinctive reaction” part–we all are good at blame, and it comes from deep inside, without effort or conscious thought. My issue was with the “opposite” part. I have a fundamental issue with people creating dichotomies  and this one seemed to be stretching quite a bit. I read enough stuff that I disagree with that I didn’t dwell there much, but as I thought and pondered throughout the days, it kept bubbling back to the surface. And I started to consider the significant truth packaged there: Blame is an attempt to ascribe cause to the other… Confession is the admission that “I did it.” Not “I did it because…” or the original casting of blame that followed the original sin, in Genesis 3, where Adam blames Eve (“The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” See how he did that, not only was it Eve’s fault, but it was God’s fault for putting her there!).

But, what do I have to confess? I didn’t shoot anyone. As I considered all the different angles being explored as we all seek a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”, I crashed into this confession thought again. Because the Christian concept of confession starts to point to the answer to the question. There is one common denominator to all of the tragic events that have dominated our news in recent years (and all of history, for that matter). It’s not religion, race, ethnicity, or weapon. It crosses every boundary. It is most often a silent killer, destroying from the inside out. It is a blackness of the human soul called evil.

We can all agree that the actions of the shooter in Orlando were evil. Our desire to blame is simply looking for an external locus for that evil. What made him evil? Was it his religion? Was it his upbringing? Was it defective brain chemistry? Repressed sexual urges? Any one of those causes can be a viable explanation, so long as we don’t share that same defect.   That last phrase is important. As long as it was them, we can accept an explanation. But when the explanation includes us, we react with vehemence. I am not in any way blaming this tragedy on guns, but observe the response of gun owners: When the expected call to in some way blame guns for this tragedy came, the shouted challenges and impassioned memes exploded across the ether. In this case, I have to agree: guns didn’t cause this, and banning guns won’t stop it. Because guns aren’t the problem.

Many want to blame religion, or Middle Eastern culture as the source of the evil we see, but that explanation doesn’t fly in the case of the Charleston shootings. Guns can’t explain away Timothy McVeigh’s actions. The Bible tells us the problem lies within each of us. Evil is inherent in the hearts of men and women. We don’t like to hear that, and mankind has pursued multiple philosophies to refute this claim. My purpose today is not to defend the claim, so much as to encourage us to consider it. We don’t want to, because if the shooter’s motivation was evil, and evil is inherent, then the logical implication is… we are all capable of similar atrocities.

I cannot prove this statement to be correct, but the more I consider it, the more I believe it is true. I suspect that each of us, if we were bold enough to take the time and consider the deeper recesses of our souls, would come to a similar realization. I’m not blaming here, I am confessing. I am capable of incredible evil. I wouldn’t shoot up a gay nightclub, because that’s not where the objects of my hate are found. But there is hatred in my heart, and it can cause me to consider unthinkable actions against my fellow man. I would humbly submit, based on both my knowledge of people and my study of the Bible, that we all have that same capacity. I further submit that if you haven’t seen that level of hate in your own soul, it’s because you haven’t met the object yet, not because you don’t have the capacity.

This post could become book-length, and not exhaust the consideration of this thought. My goal isn’t debate. Today, all I want to do is confess. I am capable of hating, and that hatred has the potential to judge a person bearing the image of God as a sub-human that I have the right to destroy. I believe that is the essence of the shooter’s action, whether his target is eventually determined to be because the victims were gay, or because they were Americans complicit in the bombing of his claimed country, or some other reason that we will probably never know.

I believe for each of us, there is a them. Them are the people that we don’t see as human. It might not start that way. It may just be a disdain for an action, or an origin, or a belief, or a characteristic. As we allow that disdain to separate us from them, the disdain can strengthen. As the chasm grows, their humanity shrinks, and eventually we can quite easily see them as not worthy of… You may not have pursued that thought to the point of being willing to take a life, but I believe we are all capable.

Before you think I’m just making this all up, let me point to someone who most agree was at least a great philosopher/ethicist/teacher. Jesus said that anyone who is angry with another person is subject to judgment the same as one who murders. Without delving into a deep parsing of the Greek word translated as “anger” in Matthew 5:23, he’s not rewriting the Ten Commandments. He’s pointing out that murder starts in our hearts as a judgment of another. John affirms this interpretation in 1 John 3:15 when he says “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer…”. The rest of that verse tends to answer the next question: “What is the solution?”

John goes on to say “and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Christians will tell you that Jesus is love, and that having Jesus residing in you provides eternal life. For the sake of time, let me jump a few steps in this logical process–the antidote to the evil and hatred in each of us is LOVE. That’s the ONLY thing that is going to stop the atrocities. Gun bans wont. Walls wont. Bombing the Middle East into a parking lot wont.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 Love never fails….

 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13

Shame on Falwell

A few days ago, the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., encouraged his students in a mandatory weekly gathering of all undergraduate students, to enroll in a free concealed carry course, and to carry concealed weapons on the campus.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he proclaimed to the loud unrestrained applause of students. “I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” (Huffington Post, 12.07.15)

Headlines and editorial pages are exploding, and the Facebook memes won’t be far behind.  Both sides of the political and Second Amendment arguments are stridently taking positions, and classifying the opposite side as subhuman, in intelligence level, if not in actual DNA composition.

As usual, my thoughts on this particular incident are complex, and have enough nuances to offend everyone.  I wish I were able to condense my thoughts on significant issues to the size of a Tweet, but I work hard to see the complexities and to consider the positions and concerns of all sides of a disagreement.  That unfortunately leads to long posts.  Fortunately for my readers, I don’t charge by the word.

I am a Christian, and a pastor.  A survey of my key theological beliefs would match up well with the Evangelical camp that Falwell calls home, and to which Liberty University caters.  I’m also a firearm owner, and believe that properly trained and qualified individuals should be able to carry firearms (more on the qualifiers in a moment).

With that introduction, let me tell you that I have a few problems with Falwell’s statements.  As in, I gave myself a bloody nose with the facepalm.

Let’s start with the practical:

  • Concealed carry licensing requirements in EVERY state in the US are a joke.  I was unable to obtain the details of the free training that Falwell is offering Liberty students, but I did check what is required in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Basically any firearm or hunter safety course, including those that consist only of classroom instruction, or an honorable discharge from the military, suffices to meet the state requirement that the applicant “has demonstrated competence with a handgun.” I’m not a hunter, and have never attended a hunter safety course, but I am retired from the Army, and can assure you that an honorable discharge from the US military in no way demonstrates “competence with a handgun.”  Many soldiers will go their entire enlistment without ever even handling a handgun, let alone demonstrating competence.
  • Beyond basic weapons proficiency, or lack thereof, the more important issue is that most people carrying handguns today neither train regularly to maintain basic skills, nor do they spend time developing the proper mindset and muscle memory to be effective in an active shooter scenario.  Despite the claims of the NRA and most gun rights advocates, most people carrying concealed today are a hazard to those around them, because they aren’t trained well.  College students, and presidents, shouldn’t assume that because they’ve hit a paper target, they’re effective gun-fighters, no matter how many video games they’ve played.
  • Security at a large institution should not be left to several hundred independent operators.  Imagine being a first responding law enforcement officer and arriving on a scene with two bad guy shooters, and 200 good guy shooters–who are your legitimate targets?  For that matter, even before the law enforcement arrives, assume you hear shots, draw your concealed weapon, look up and see several people with handguns drawn–who is the bad guy?  Most concealed carry permit holders don’t consider these scenarios.  Adding more untrained, armed people to the mix won’t help.
From an “influential leader perspective:
  • “ending those Muslims before they walk in”– yes, I know he clarified the next day in a press release that he meant the terrorists, but that’s not what he said…  This whole phrase is STUPID (to borrow Trump’s terminology).  It’s inflammatory, insensitive, and wrong.  How about we decide, and state, that we’re going to defend against terrorists, who are the problem, instead of an entire religion?
  • “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here”–more ignorant, harmful blustering.  I love John Wayne movies more than most, but cowboy bravado has no place in public leadership.  Taking lives, even terrorist lives, shouldn’t be about “teach(ing) a lesson.”  It should be about defending innocent lives.  And it shouldn’t be spoken of cavalierly by the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning in the world.  It sounds like high-school bluster.
  • IF you feel it is necessary to ignore all the thoughts above, and you choose to run your mouth, and IF you feel it is necessary to announce to thousands (millions, really) of people that you carry a concealed weapon, at least be well-trained enough to know whether or not pulling it out on stage, in front of thousands of people, when there is no imminent threat, is legal!!! (In case you missed it, Falwell said, “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know.”)  If you don’t know, you have no business carrying it, and you just acknowledged your lack of competence to the world.
  • As the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning, you bear an incredible responsibility to set a good, Christ-like example.  Pandering to the audience’s fear, and in so doing, a) encouraging your considerable audience to judge an entire religion by the actions of a small minority, and b) giving further credence to radicals’ claims that Americans, and Christians, are out to kill them, is grossly irresponsible.

Finally, from the Christian perspective:

  • Before Falwell, or anyone else who professes to be a follower of Jesus for that matter, starts advocating armed action against others, it would be wise to examine what God’s word says.
    • First, throughout much of Old Testament history, we see the Israelites being instructed by God to wage war.  Of note is that they were instructed by GOD.  In at least one instance where the Israelites decided on their own to take up arms against others, it didn’t go so well for them (Numbers 14).
    • Luke 22:36 is the only passage where we see Jesus advocate any form of taking up arms; a passage that Falwell’s supporters are quick to point out.  However, in just a few hours Jesus rebukes his followers for drawing their swords (22:49-51).
    • More instructive to what Jesus expects from his followers is the following 50 years of history recorded in the New Testament, where his followers are attacked, imprisoned, and even killed, but never respond with violence.
  • I don’t believe that Jesus was the pacifist that many want to portray him as; neither do I believe that he wants us to take up arms to defend him, or advance the Christian religion.  I do believe that the body of Scripture supports defending innocents against evil.  That doesn’t justify a religious war against opponents of Christianity.  The Apostle Paul identifies the opponents of Christianity not as humans, but as spiritual forces of evil that set themselves up against God.  The weapons Paul proscribes for the follower of Jesus in this fight against spiritual forces are not physical weapons, but spiritual weapons.
  • Revelation 19 is pointed to as a justification of physical violence against the opponents of Jesus, but one must interpret the book of Revelation with caution.  Even with the most literal of interpretations, the reader must recognize that the followers of Jesus are just that: followers.  Getting out in front of Jesus is probably not wise; it certainly isn’t Biblical.
  • Given this quick examination of Scripture, I would propose that while it is not imprudent for Jesus’ followers to arm themselves, they should do so with caution, that they not be tempted to take lives cavalierly, or in aggression.

Here’s the deal:  I’m not opposed to well-thought out security measures, including appropriately trained private citizens carrying concealed weapons.  I’m not opposed to the university president carrying a concealed weapon.  But talking smack on a stage in front of thousands of people, who are forming their own political and spiritual beliefs based in part on what you say, is no place to play cowboy.  Advocating violence based on a religion (and that’s what he said, whether or not it’s what he meant–and if he can’t communicate more accurately and effectively than that, he needs to find a new vocation) and pandering to the fear and mob mentality of a crowd of college students, is foolish, unprofessional, and not Christ-like.

Falwell screwed up.

Loving, conditionally

Had an interesting conversation with a neighbor this morning.  While petting my dogs on our morning walk, she told me that she had looked into volunteering at the local humane society, but couldn’t because she’d end up bringing all the dogs home so they wouldn’t be put down.  I told her that I thought our shelter was a no-kill shelter.  She then said, “Oh, it’s not just that.  Just seeing them in cages would be too much for me.”

I told her that I understood, and that from what I had seen, our local animal shelters had a lot of volunteers, but it was difficult to find volunteers to help people.

She then said, “But it’s so much easier to help animals than people.  People are hard to get along with; animals love you unconditionally.

Let that sink in for a minute…

While you are processing it, let me say, in her defense, that although I don’t know her well, my impressions are that this is a very kind, caring lady, who does help others.  I’m not in any way demeaning her. I probably have made very similar statements in the past.

It would seem to me that we all, me at the front of the line, are guilty of wanting, seeking, even demanding unconditional love–but most of us are quick to refuse offering it.  I could at this point begin blasting away at how selfish we all are, but that would be pointless.  It’s our nature.  Just like it’s pointless to yell at your dog to stop licking himself…

The truth is there is only one way to even begin to consider offering unconditional love–get a new nature.  I’m going to risk offending some non-Christian friends here, but I’ve studied enough human nature and alternative religions to feel safe in making this assertion:  The only way a human being can love unconditionally is as a new creation in Jesus.  Because only God (specifically, the Judeo-Christian God, YHWH) has the capacity to love unconditionally.  He extends that love to us, and fills us with it when we accept his love–and we become a new creation, with his Spirit dwelling in us, teaching our spirit to be like him–to love, unconditionally.

Oh that it were an instantaneous transformation from old nature to new.  Then Paul wouldn’t have had to write the last half of Romans 7. Instead, we, like Paul, have to grow, and to cooperate with what God’s Spirit is teaching us–against our old nature.

I’m not trashing my neighbor.  For all I know, she is following after Jesus in her life as well, and I am making too much of her innocuous statement.  She just got me thinking, and I thought I’d capture and share some of those thoughts, to challenge myself.  You see, nothing is impossible for God, but transforming me may push him to his limits.  🙂

Be an answer to prayer

I’m a “Pentecostal.”  That means I believe that the miraculous, supernatural power that Jesus promised his first disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and otherwise do his work here on earth is still available for his followers today.  Pentecostals believe that if we are truly following Jesus and devoted to being like him, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to do things that we can’t do on our own.

Unfortunately, we sometimes rely so much on the element of the supernatural that we sit around waiting for the miracle, and in so doing miss the opportunity to BE the answer to prayer ourselves.  We’ve become enthralled with manifestations of power, and end up missing an opportunity to manifest love.

Jesus’ first followers did amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit, including healing many people of various diseases and infirmities, as well as raising people from the dead on multiple occasions.  However, they also saw prayers answered as they lived life together in Christian community.  God’s plan has always been that the world would come to know HIM through his followers loving one another–see “Greatest Commandment(s).”

Recently we had a friend who had a material need, and asked for Christian friends to pray with her for fulfillment of that need.  In similar situations, most Christians pray, and then sit around hoping for a mysterious envelope to arrive in the mail or the material good to fall from the sky (Amazon drone malfunction?).  But this time, we didn’t do that.  Instead, the friends realized that THEY could be an answer to prayer–and they took it upon themselves to team together to meet the need.  THEY became the answer to prayer.  Not to get all self-righteous, because it’s not that they were special.  Instead, they realized that God uses his church, his people, to meet the needs of others.

Just today I got to witness another miracle-but not one where God wrinkled the fabric of the natural world.  Instead, I watched God’s incredible timing bring a man with a talent together to help a lady with a desperate need.  He even said it was “no big deal at all.”  But he solved her unsolvable problem.  That’s a pretty big deal in my book!  It was a miracle because God orchestrated the timing, and because he was generous with what he had.

How many prayers go unfulfilled because, rather than using a supernatural event, God appointed one or more of his people to meet the need, yet they didn’t respond?  I don’t recall where I first heard the principle, but credit it to a former missionary I know:

If someone you know has a need, and you have the means to fulfill it, God most likely put that means in your hand to meet that need!

But we want to hold on to what we have, because we might need it, and instead expect the cosmic air force to fulfill the needs of others with emergency resupply drops.  We essentially pray and say “I’m believing that God will magically meet your need; but don’t ask me to act in faith that he’ll meet MY need if I meet yours out of my provision.”

Be somebody’s miracle.  It’s really not that hard.

What if it is true?

I’m a white, Protestant, middle class man.  I grew up in a redneck town, attended a predominantly white high school, paid for my own college, have had two successful careers that have allowed me to live a very comfortable life, that I worked hard for.  It’s pretty easy for me to argue that racism is dead, that equal opportunity is out there, and that black people need to quit (fill in the blank) and work hard, and they can be successful just like me.  As a matter of fact, I wrote a paper on that very same subject 20+ years ago in Freshman English at Lincoln University (my undergrad alma mater, and a historically black college).

But I also spent 23 years in the Army and became friends and comrades with many blacks from many different backgrounds from around the US.  I had a Master Sergeant that worked for me who was pulled over multiple times while we worked together in Des Moines, IA, for “driving while black.”  I’ve seen enough similar occurrences to know that it wasn’t an isolated situation.

In my years of leadership I’ve studied human behavior, particularly in situations of conflict, and learned that true progress can only be achieved when we begin by recognizing the existence of positions that may not align with our own.  I’ve also become very aware that a person’s perception becomes his or her reality, no matter how illogical it might seem to an observer.

Many, many black people in our country today are hurt, afraid, enraged, distrusting, and myriad other emotions.  They believe the system is prejudiced against them.  Rather than taking that as a condemnation of all us white folks, what if we stopped first to listen–not to form our argument as to how they are wrong, but to hear their perspective, to seek 1st to understand what makes this perception real to them?   What if, instead of immediately shouting back “You’re WRONG!” and launching into whatever flavor of justification we prefer/believe, we stopped to consider, “What if it is true?”

“Truth” + irrelevance = FAIL

The Christian world is all knotted up right now in a bout of self-torture over a recent New York Times interview with Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church.  The reporter asked Houston to clarify Hillsong’s position on gay marriage.  Houston refused to take the bait, in part because his church has a presence in LA and NYC, and is being effective at ministering to the gay community in those two cities.  His response:

“It’s very easy to reduce what you think about homosexuality to just a public statement, and that would keep a lot of people happy,” he said, “but we feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation, that the real issues in people’s lives are too important for us just to reduce it down to a yes or no answer in a media outlet. So we’re on the journey with it.”

The reaction to this response was swift and strong from the evangelical conservatives, led by the Southern Baptist Convention.  In his blog post, Andrew Walker (no relation), SBC Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, takes Houston to task for being accommodating to culture by not declaring an unequivocal Biblical stand in opposition to gay marriage, and homosexuality in general.  Conservative evangelicals hate the concept of cultural relevance, and believe Christians need to be clear, blunt, and unbending in declaring the “truth” found in the Bible.  In Andrew Walker’s words:

a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is.

Apparently Walker and other evangelicals who are offended by Houston’s choice not to reply to a loaded question have forgotten Jesus’ answers to the chief priests in Matthew 21:23-27.  The religious leaders ask Jesus a loaded question:  “On whose authority are you saying and doing what you’re doing?”  Knowing that the question was loaded, Jesus artfully dodged the question by responding with a loaded question of his own.  When the religious leaders dodged Jesus’ question, he refused to answer theirs.

The NYT question to Houston was a loaded one–any answer was going to bring about division and controversy.  Here is where Houston erred in the eyes of Mr. Walker, and most other raging evangelical commentators:  He chose to avoid an answer that, while affirming Biblical truth (as even Mr. Houston interprets it, as indicated in this press release in response to the firestorm) didn’t poke sinners in the eye with a sharp stick.  These critics love to throw about a small phrase from Ephesians 4:15, devoid of context*:  “speaking the truth in love,” as in “The Bible demands that we declare loudly that homosexuals are sinners, and that by doing so we are showing them how much we love them by saving them from Hell.”

News flash for Mr. Walker and his friends:  Pretty much every coherent homosexual in the western world is abundantly clear on the evangelical position that homosexuality is a sin (not just any sin, but an abomination!), and that gay marriage is an affront to God, marriage, and Focus on the Family.  Your friends at Westboro Baptist are leading the charge in communicating the anti-relevance message.  We don’t need Mr. Houston to pile on.

18 months ago I articulated my views on gay marriage, so I’m not going to expound on that point.  Truth is, this post isn’t so much about gay marriage as it is about cultural relevance and the Christian church.  Houston’s critics will tell you, either indirectly or overtly, that their job is to present God’s truths so that everyone who does not know God as Lord and Savior will realize they are sinners, repent, and accept God’s forgiveness.  Any efforts to connect with the culture in a meaningful way is derided as accommodation, and diluting the gospel, most often with the stated or implied motive of attaining or maintaining popularity, which equals dollars.** These critics proudly proclaim that they would gladly see current society burn in hell before they would give up their primary mission of proclaiming “God’s truth.” (Walker:  A church in exile (and that’s how I’d describe the current placement of confessional evangelicalism) is one that is faithful amidst the culture, regardless of whether that culture looks more like America or more like Babylon. It knows that it may lose the culture, but that it cannot lose the Gospel. So be it.”)

There’s a problem with that approach, and it is most clearly seen in the example of missionaries of the past 200 years who left Western churches to “take the Gospel” to the unchurched in other parts of the world.  Whether it was Central America, Africa, or Alaska, those missionaries who refused to be relevant to the culture they were trying to reach, found themselves first trying to convert their audience to Western modernity before they could convert them to Christianity.  Most failed outright; some made initial headway (usually by force) in trying to force the people to change their culture, and in so doing, created long-lasting problems that we are still trying to undo today.  All created a distrust and fear of the Church.  On the other hand, missionaries that realized that you don’t have to be a Western European or American to be loved by God and be a part of his Kingdom have planted churches that are growing and thriving.  Those missionaries realized that the Truth of God is meaningful to all cultures, and does not have to be framed in the context of the culture that sent them.

More simply put:  the SBC’s message that “God abhors your sinful behavior and will send you to hell for all eternity if you don’t stop doing _____” is completely meaningless to someone who has no clue who God is, or why the person should care what God thinks.  Our culture doesn’t know God–they only know the church.  And their primary understanding of the church is that they hate homosexuals.  Somewhere along the way, evangelicals in America have lost sight of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.”  Making disciples involves building a relationship.  That’s hard work.  Before we can help someone become a disciple of Jesus, we have to get to know them and help them get to know Jesus well enough that they would desire to follow him.  It’s going to be hard to do that with homosexuals when our initial message is “God hates you and is going to send you to hell if you don’t stop having homosexual sex.”

Evangelicals love to point to John 8’s account of the adulterous woman to justify their actions, citing Jesus in verse 11 telling the woman “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  However, they lose sight of the fact that he only made this statement after he saved the woman’s life, and told her that he didn’t condemn her.

Brian Houston chose to avoid a trap, in order to continue building relationships with people who he wants to help know Jesus, so that he can help them become disciples of Jesus.  He is condemned by fellow Christ followers who would prefer that he alienate these people by “speaking the truth.”  While the SBC message may be factually correct, its disdain for cultural relevance means that they will become less and less effective at the Church’s primary mission of making disciples.  To those who feel the need to “speak the truth” on this (or any other) sin issue, I would recommend they consider following Houston’s example.  You see, Houston is choosing to speak Truth–in the form of Jesus himself.  Because, it is Jesus, not the SBC, who takes away the sins of the world.

__________________________________________________________

* Too bad most folks don’t read all of Ephesians 4.  Paul’s discussion about spiritual maturity and church unity might clarify that this oft-quoted phrase is not a license to castigate nonbelievers, but a plea for Christians  to quit acting like babies and instead to treat each other as integral parts of the same body of Christ.

**Many commenters immediately attributed Houston’s approach, despite his clear statement that a simple yes/no answer would diminish the importance of the conversation, to a perceived greed and desire to preserve the wealth of his church.  Their evidence:  Houston’s church is big, and it has a huge influence in the Contemporary Christian music genre.  Therefore Houston’s motives must be greedy, selfish, and devoid of Christ.  I wonder how many of those who grabbed their keyboard and thesaurus to launch their scathing attacks on a Christian brother on Friday, finished their worship set Sunday morning with Oceans (a Hillsong original which is immensely popular with contemporary worship services around the country)?  Their immediate association of Houston’s lack of alignment with their thoughts to the astounding success and impact his church is having around the world is curious, and without further evidence seems to be a glaring fallacy of logic.

Sodom’s Sin

The book of the prophet Ezekiel is not high on the list of most popular Christian speakers or writers.  It is full of apocalyptic imagery and symbolic prophecy against the Jews, and frankly doesn’t have too many nice things to say. The few who do make reference to Ezekiel typically do so in trying to predict the second coming of Jesus, along with all the events that will accompany it.

Ezekiel wasn’t written so we could predict Jesus’ return, nor to allow us to try to figure out when all the bad stuff was going to happen.  Ezekiel prophesied to the Jews in exile, and to the people left behind, to point out to them that their wanton rebellion against God had consequences.  Some of the imagery is quite bizarre and difficult to comprehend, but other images are all too easy to understand, and make their points quite readily.  Chapter 16 is one of the latter types.

In Ezekiel 16, God, speaking through the prophet, compares Israel to an abandoned baby, whom he finds, nurtures to health, and watches over as she grows to become a beautiful woman.  God then adorns her, and takes her for his bride.  Rather than showing appreciation and devotion, however, Israel prostitutes herself to anyone who will pay attention!   God goes on to say that Israel doesn’t even deserve to be called a prostitute, because she doesn’t even get paid for her actions–worse yet, she pays others!  All of this graphic description is to cast Israel’s behavior in the light of an unfaithful bride, who in no uncertain terms has violated her covenant.

Not stuff that sells well in Christian book stores.

That was a long intro to the point that really jumped out at me this morning, and the point that gave rise to this title.  Even most non-Christians in America have heard of the city of Sodom, and most would probably be able to tell you that the city’s destruction had something to do with sexual immorality. However, this basic understanding is inadequate.  Based on the description of the destruction of Sodom in  Genesis 19, it is easy to assume that Sodom was destroyed because of their deviant sexual practices.  Genesis 18:20 only tells us that the outcry against Sodom was great, and the sin was “very grave.”  But in Ezekiel 16:49-50, God explicitly states, “Now this was the sin of your (Israel’s) sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor or the needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.  Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Many in the US today like to claim some sort of special favor upon our nation from God, some going so far as to claim a birthright akin to Israel’s, that we are a chosen nation.  While I believe we are incredibly blessed by God, there is no basis for any claim as to special favor.  Nonetheless, we can and should apply the lessons of Scripture, and I believe that the sin of Sodom contains a lesson for the US today, starting with those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Too many Christians are quick to condemn those around us for their detestable acts, that are not pleasing to God.  We have declared Christian jihad against homosexual marriage and abortion*, but have not addressed the root problems of sin in our nation.  I believe American Christians are guilty of the Sin of Sodom:  We are arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned.  We do not help the poor and the needy.  We are haughty, and because of that, we do detestable things.

“But wait, Greg! I am concerned about the poor and the needy! I send $10 a month to a starving child in Africa!”  I  don’t underplay any of the contributions that people make to the needy in third world countries.  But too many Christians in this nation rail about the “welfare bums” and the illegal immigrants.  How many people who blocked busloads of frightened children with chants and signs went to church the next Sunday and sang about Christian love and charity?

I’m not saying that we will turn our nation’s fortunes around solely by helping the poor and the needy.  If that’s all we do, we won’t.  We need to start with the other issues described in Sodom’s Sin:  We need to start with our own arrogance, our own gluttony, our own selfishness that leads us to be unconcerned about others (or viewing others as competitors to what is “ours”).  There’s a lot of handwringing going on in pulpits, Christian teachings, blogs, and other conservative circles about the state of our nation, and that we appear to be headed for a fall.  Some respond with rejoicing, thinking that it means that Jesus is coming soon, and we’ll be taken from this messed up world to heaven (“great for all of us ‘good Christians,’ sucks to be you, sinner!”), or, more tragically (to hear some tell it) this great Christian nation is about to see its demise.  All of these responses seem to come from selfish hearts–“my world is going to be upended!”  What we should really be wringing our hands about is our sin of Sodom–our selfishness that evidences a lack of a Christ-like heart.

 

__________________________________

*Is there a parallel to Ezekiel 16:20-21, “And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols.  Was your prostitution not enough?  You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols.”?  I believe there is a frightening parallel to our acceptance of all deviant sexual behavior (defined as sex outside the bounds of Godly marriage) and abortion.  Nonetheless, I don’t believe the Israelites would have been saved by outlawing these practices–in fact, they were already outlawed in the laws of Moses! 

Want to be inspired?

Too many people today are frustrated by the injustice and evil in our world, and all too often are resigned to defeat, because the opposition seems to big, too powerful, too pervasive to fight.  Attempts to resist seem futile at best, and more often than not, appear to only offer personal pain and persecution.  So we do nothing, except maybe complain.  All the while, we are aching on the inside, because somebody ought to do something!  Maybe that ache is more because our own lives seem pointless in the face of the real things that matter–the bigger battle of good vs. evil, justice vs. brutality–yet we can’t seem to muster the courage to follow our passion into our purpose.

I was blessed in my years living in Alaska to have a friend, and a mentor, who was also a storyteller.  He often shared with me the stories he was working on, while we met each week to share coffee and life together, helping one another (ok, mostly him helping me) navigate our own stories.  Over the past year, Rick shared with me the most amazing story that he was living, while preparing to write his latest book.  Late night satellite phone conversations to interview guerrilla leaders hiding in the jungles on the other side of the world, researching exotic languages and the history of a country where people lived the most austere lives, fighting against nature and an oppressive government to liberate a nation–the things that young (and old) boys’ fantasies are made of!  Rick was preparing to tell the story of a man who did what he was made to do, and in the process has provided relief to over 1 million people engaged in a brutal struggle against evil in a place most of us can’t even find on a map.

I just finished the product.  In “Rangers in the Gap: Act with Courage. Never Surrender”, Rick tells the story of Dave Eubanks, a child of missionaries who becomes a successful US Army Special Forces officer, but finds his real purpose in life as the founder of the Free Burma Rangers.  Dave, and his teams are leading what might possibly the most radical, unconventional guerrilla campaign in history.  Against impossible odds, what began as one man has become 260 teams, defending the displaced ethnic people groups being ravaged in Myanmar (Burma), while simultaneously fighting a war against evil itself, using the only weapon that will defeat it.

I’d encourage you to download the Kindle book linked above to get the full story.  If you can’t, at least check out the Free Burma Rangers web page.   The story is inspiring.  Hopefully it’s inspiring enough to challenge each one of us to step into the role we were each given, to make a real difference in the world around us.