Climate Change: Everybody Needs an Apocalpyse

climate-changeBrian Williams sounded the alarm about a new U.N. climate report on NBC’s Nightly News this week, stating that “Unless the world changes course quickly and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk.” He was flanked on each side by images of forest fires, floods, and mudslides. The story moved to NBC’s chief environmental correspondent, Anne Thompson, who was standing in New Jersey where super-storm Sandy had blown through. She warned that coastal communities could soon disappear, beginning a montage of scary images with warnings of deadlier storm surges, hotter fires, and shrinking glaciers. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton Geosciences and International Affairs explained that everyone who lives in cities, along coasts, or who eats wheat or corn is in trouble. To make matters worse, the ocean is becoming more acidic, killing coral reefs and the shellfish industry. There will be more droughts, hotter summers, and no one will escape the consequences.

It gave me a bit of a flashback. Not to my last trip to the recycling bin, but to Sunday school when I first learned about the end of the world. There I learned God’s judgment would fall on all who did not change course quickly and dramatically. Wars and natural disasters would sweep through the world, everyone would receive the mark of the beast, and no one would escape the consequences.

Everybody needs an apocalypse. Humanity seems to be hardwired for judgment. We know our conduct has been less than admirable and should earn some epic consequences. As Revelation 11:18 says:

The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.

Look at the popularity of recent dystopian series and movies like Divergent, The Hunger Games, Oblivion, Elysium, the Walking Dead, etc. We seem to know our actions will create a less than satisfying future.

But what happens when you have a secular worldview? When religion with its supernatural prophecies is pushed out or to the periphery? You still need an apocalypse. And that is why our culture needs climate change. As President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address, “The debate is settled, climate change is a fact.”

Yet as Charles Krauthammer points out in his column “The Myth of Settled Science,” the facts of climate change are not so simple. There has been no change in global temperature in 15 years according to Britain’s national weather service. The climate change models predicted a wet California, not a dry one like we have today. Superstorm Sandy, the poster child for climate-driven storms, is largely unimpressive compared to past hurricanes to hit New York; three caused damage to the state in 1954 alone. 2013 saw the fewest Atlantic hurricanes in 30 years. Arctic ice was supposed to disappear by 2013 but experienced a 60% increase that same year.

I’m not affirming or denying man-made climate change. As Christians, we are called to take care of the planet regardless of the temperature. The point is that despite complex and often contradictory evidence, proponents of climate change will accept no debate; like a religious believer who refuses to entertain the prospect that Jesus isn’t returning or their loved ones aren’t reincarnating.

Climate change is a story that gives meaning to the lives of secular people. The story goes something like this – we were created by blind nature, have sinned by polluting that nature, and if we fail to repent we will bring about the end of the world in a judgment of super storms, droughts, fires, heat, and floods leading to starvation, wars, and death. This story gives meaning to otherwise purposeless lives. One can save the planet and the future by turning off lights, conserving water, recycling, driving a Prius, eating organic, reducing carbon footprints, composting trash, and voting for environmentally-minded politicians. Just as each minor action in a religious believer’s life has meaning because of God’s judgment, so each minor action to fight climate change has meaning because of nature’s judgment.

If we didn’t have climate change we’d probably have to invent it. That’s why, after the failure of past climate change models, scientists simply create new ones with slightly adjusted horrors. It’s eerily similar to the failure of various Christian dates and scenarios of the apocalypse from the 16th century Anabaptists to Harold Camping’s 2011 prediction of Jesus’ return. Judgment is hardwired into us all as Paul writes in Romans 2:15

[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.

The law written on our hearts accuses us but the slow fade of religious influence in the West has left us without recourse. We need judgment and we need a way to appease it. The NBC Nightly News report was not about degrees Celsius, inches of ice, or levels of acidity as much as it was about a story – a story of humanity’s environmental sin against a judgmental planet that will result in terrible consequences if we do not repent and live differently. In a secular age, this is might be the best religion our culture can preach.

-Brian

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Why We Can’t Talk Nice About Politics

Unless you’ve been living in the mountains of Nepal, you’ve probably noticed the political campaigns have a bent toward the negative.

Mitt Romney is portrayed as a cold-hearted CEO who built his fortune bankrupting hard-working Americans. He wakes up every morning plotting how he can hurt the poor, elderly, and minorities to enrich the fat cats.

Barack Obama is portrayed as an inept socialist who rose to power on flowery rhetoric with no substance. He wants to divide the country, diminish America in the world, and bankrupt us all for the sake of his ideology.

Sound familiar?

The debates between Republicans and Democrats in the media are increasingly hard to watch. Words like “extremist”, “hate”, “bigot”, “racist”, “liar”, and more are being thrown like hand grenades designed to strip the opposing side of any right to be heard.  One side is waging a war on women; the other a war on success. One party will destroy the economy; the other will destroy human rights. With every passing day the divide between donkey and elephant seems to widen. As it does, the shouting matches on television get louder and the rhetoric nastier.

Why can’t we just play nice? Shouldn’t we have honest, substantive debates about the issues? Shouldn’t we listen to, respect, and value opposing ideas? Shouldn’t we shake hands and let the country decide who has better solutions? Shouldn’t we politely disagree without ripping the opposing side’s heart out of its chest like the crazed bad guy from the Temple of Doom?

We can’t play nice because political parties, ideologies, issues, and leaders are more than parties, ideologies, issues, and leaders – they’re gods and saviors. We assign them ultimate worth and value. We believe if our god –party, ideology, or leader – was reigning over the country we would live in paradise. Our politician, political philosophy, issue, or party will rescue us from our hell and deliver us to our heaven. The political podium is a pulpit where politicians and activists preach the glories of their various gods and saviors and warn of the dangers of the other side, all while faithful worshipers sing the praises.

That’s why we must win at all costs. Our god and salvation is at stake. It doesn’t matter what lies we tell, what truths we spin, what people we cut down and dehumanize, what system we cheat. All that matters is my god reigning victorious and bringing salvation to the earth. The ends will justify the means.

If I assign ultimate worth to freedom and make it my god, Ron Paul becomes my savior who rescues me from the hell of big government and takes me to the heaven of limited government.

If I assign ultimate worth to social justice and make it my god, the Democratic Party becomes my savior to rescue me from the hell of inequality and oppression and take me to the heaven of equality and fairness.

If I assign ultimate worth to economic security, fiscal conservatism becomes my savior to rescue me from the hell of a declining economy and take me to the heaven of steady growth and prosperity.

If I assign ultimate worth to the female gender, pro-choice becomes my savior to rescue women from the hell of being chained by sexual choices and to take them to the heaven of achieving all they want.

When my god or savior is attacked, I have to demonize and defeat the attacker. That’s why conservative commentator Ann Coulter writes a book about liberals called Demonic. Liberals aren’t just wrong; they’re possessed by evil. That’s why liberal commentator Keith Olbermann writes a book largely about conservatives called The Worst Person in the World. Conservatives aren’t just wrong; they’re so bad every liberal is more righteous.

Is there a way out of this mess? For many, the solution is not to care. They look for gods and saviors in other places such as money, fame, family, sex, or entertainment. But these issues, politicians, and parties are important. They matter for our future and our country. Is there a way to care deeply about these things without them ruling over us as little gods?

The answer is found in Jesus Christ. If Jesus is my God, He is my source of worth and joy. I don’t have to look to freedom, economic stability, gender equality, social justice, or something else. If Jesus is my God, only He can ultimately give me heaven. I don’t have to seek it on earth through the government or free markets. If Jesus is my God, it’s not because I am better than anyone else. I can’t look down on or belittle another person.

A conservative may believe their philosophy, morality or self-reliance makes them superior to a liberal. A liberal may believe their education, compassion, and tolerance makes them superior to a conservative. When we believe in our own superiority it allows us to beat each other up. But a Christian is only made by the grace of God; not education, morality, or compassion. Thus, a Christian can never view themselves as superior to anyone.

Now some may object. Many Christians can be quite nasty politically. But the answer isn’t found in Christians, but in Christ. When a Christian fails to worship Jesus and instead places their hope in political figures, causes, and parties, they sin against Him.

Let us hope in Jesus as our God. Everything we need is found in Him.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” –Ephesians 1:3

Let us look to Jesus as our savior. Only he can bring us to a real and lasting heaven.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” – Revelation 21:1, 5

And let us remember we are who we are only by the grace of Jesus.

“God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:28-29

What place does politics hold in your heart? These issues matter, but we’ll only be free to honestly debate, humbly win, graciously lose, and genuinely love those we disagree with when we have bigger God and a better Savior.

-Brian

I would like to credit Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll for their insights on false gods and saviors that have helped shape my thinking!

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It’s Getting Scary Out There for Religious Freedom

America has not always enjoyed freedom of religion. In 1773 Isaac Backus wrote his Appeal to the Public where he detailed religious oppression going on in Massachusetts. The legislature required each town to maintain pedobaptist (infant baptism) worship. The minister was elected by a majority of the people and paid by taxes levied on the whole population. Backus’ complaint was that truth should not be decided by a majority vote – since Christ said there were few on the narrow way (Matthew 7). Those whose consciences would not allow them to support the minister were often imprisoned or had their property seized.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote him concerning religious liberty in 1801:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals – That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate power of civil governments extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.

They were concerned the new Constitution was not specific on religious liberty and needed to know if Jefferson would support their freedom or allow their oppression. Jefferson wrote back to the Danbury Baptists his famous separation of church and state letter:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

Jefferson did not banish religion from the public arena. He wrote to assure Baptists they would not be taxed, imprisoned, or maligned for failing to support a religion in which they did not believe.

In the 200 years since Jefferson wrote his letter, religious liberty has thrived in the United States. While America’s record has not been perfect, it has arguably been one of the best. However, in our own time, Christians may be watching the slow death of religious freedom.

On December 9th, the Wall Street Journal reported the case of Chuck and Stephanie Fromm who were fined $300 for hosting Bible studies in their home. The city of San Juan Capistrano claimed they had violated a city ordinance which prohibits groups of three or more from gathering without a permit. The cost obtaining such a permit can be as much as $150,000. Similar cases have appeared in San Diego, Florida, and Michigan. So far these permits have not been enforced on football parties or book clubs.

The Christian Legal Society lost its recognition as a student group at UC Hastings College of Law because it failed to abide by the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In 2004 the group declared they would not accept gays, lesbians or any members not adhering to Christian beliefs. They lost funding, meeting spaces, and their spot on the school’s website. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled 5-4 against the Christian Legal Society because they did not accept “all comers.” Justice Alito, in the dissenting opinion, noted the school’s policy had been used against only 1 out of 60 student organizations – the Christian Legal Society – and that public institutions now have “a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.”

This fall Vanderbilt University decided to ban Christian organizations including Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The school adopted a policy that prohibits student organizations from holding members to any standard of belief or behavior. The issue ignited when Beta Upsilon Chi dismissed an openly gay leader. School administrators are remaining firm on the ban; no word yet if their policy of not holding student organization members to a standard extends beyond Christians. Fifteen Intervarsity Christian Fellowships have faced similar difficulties with school administrations in the past year.

Meanwhile, Catholic charities are losing funding for their adoption, foster care and human trafficking operations because they refuse to provide abortions and contraceptives and to work with homosexual couples. Rather, funds are diverted to other agencies despite the superior effectiveness of the Catholics.

In New York, over 60 churches will lose their meeting space in public schools next year after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. While the majority of these churches maintain excellent relationships with the schools, paying rent on time and cleaning up after worship, they will have to leave because officials fear the presence of churches will influence public school children. As one Brooklyn city official commented, “It’s ironic that the Ku Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools but churches….are not allowed.”

There is probably not an all out war on religious liberty in America. What we see are the effects of a shift in the way the culture – especially elites such as politicians, professors, and pundits – views the world. For them, truth is not ultimately found in sources such as the Bible or science but in the individual who determines what is true for him or her. Thus, judgments religion makes about behavior or belief are seen as harmful and destructive; even if those beliefs are not forced on others but merely shared. While religion doesn’t force itself on Americans (no one is forced to believe) the opinions of the culture are being forced on religion. Believers are told their views are unacceptable and find their meeting spaces, funding, and positions being stripped from them.

Christians must obey Jesus in Mathew 10:16 where he told us, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We must be wise and stand for religious liberty. We cannot thoughtlessly cast votes but must inhabit places of cultural influence and use political and legal means at our disposal. We must be innocent, at times turning the other cheek and accepting injustices against the church for the sake of our witness. Jesus says later in Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, we must not compromise what we believe for the sake of changing cultural winds.

Liberty doesn’t disappear overnight; it is slowly stolen away piece by piece. Christians need to wake up from college campuses to Capitol Hill. We dare not compromise and we must guard our witness in our communities but like the Danbury Baptists, we need not go quietly.

-Brian

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Christ, Poverty, and the Goals of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street began as a small gathering of protestors on September 17, 2011 in Manhattan’s financial district. Thirty days later, the movement has drawn thousands of protestors to New York and has expanded to draw tens of thousands across the U.S. and the world. At “Occupy Denmark”, 3,000 gathered to demand money be taken from the 1% and be given to the 99%. In Rome, vandalism erupted as the initially peaceful protests against corruption got out of hand. Protestors gathered at the European Central Bank in Germany while Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange led thousands of protestors in chants in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The central site for the international movement claimed protests in 951 cities in 82 nations on October 15. Meanwhile, the protests in New York press forward. While protests raged around the world last week, the movement marched into Times Square and police arrested 90 demonstrators.

What do these protestors want?  No one is really sure. Occupy Wall Street organizer Beka Economopolous is quoted as saying, “Meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. At this time, we are only interested in impossible demands.” A major website for the movement claims the goal is to “restore democracy” and to “no longer… let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation”.  Pollster Doug Shoen surveyed protestors and wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence” and that protestors are “bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies.” Two slogans that rise above the rest are “people over profits” and “we are the 99” – in reference to the movement’s claim to represent 99% of humanity versus the richest 1%. Media interviews with protestors have revealed different agendas: some want to tax the rich, some want to abolish money, some want to topple capitalism, some want government jobs, some simply want to pay off student loans. All of them are mad at the evils they perceive from the unity of Wall Street and Washington that led to enormous bailouts.

Based on the coverage, the protests appear to be the latest incarnation of the old struggle between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots believe the haves achieved their wealth by unjust, unethical, or illegal means. The haves believe the have-nots made poor choices, are lazy, or simply want a handout. So what does a society do with the persistent reality that some have resources while some do not? Before the Great Depression it was largely the task of private individuals and charities to care for the poor. Beginning with President Roosevelt’s New Deal and finding full expression in President Johnson’s Great Society, many came to believe the government would have the means to bring about justice and put an end to poverty. So far, neither private charity nor government intervention has been able to eradicate poverty.

The above statement by the Occupy Wall Street organizer – that the protests are interested in impossible demands – may be truer than she realizes. Jesus said in Mark 14:7, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them.” Was Jesus right? Will we always have poverty among us? Yes, because at the root of poverty is sin – both the sin of the wealthy, powerful, and influential and the sin of the poor, weak, and oppressed.

Progressives tend to believe poverty is a result of systems and structures that oppress the poor; an unjust economy, racial prejudice, exploitation, lack of educational opportunities, or inadequate resources. This is certainly true. A child born in an impoverished neighborhood, who grows up in a single-parent household, attends a struggling school system, is victimized by criminal activity, and lacks the nurture, health care, and resources of wealthier kids experiences injustice beyond his or her control. Social structures prevent a person like this from receiving the fair pay, affordable loans, and decent housing they need to succeed. The sinful greed, selfishness, and oppression of the wealthy and powerful keep the poor down.

Conservatives tend to believe poverty is a result of poor choices, family breakdown, moral failure, or laziness. This is also true. Consuming addictive substances hurts one’s chances of success; the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 8.9% of Americans were using illicit drugs. Anyone who has worked in poor neighborhoods has been disheartened to see children wandering the streets in the same clothes day after day while their “impoverished” parents choose to spend their limited resources on a smart phone, satellite television, and tinted car windows. The National Institutes of Health reports single mothers are twice as likely to be in financial hardship as married mothers making single motherhood still one of the surest roads to poverty. The sinful selfishness, neglect of family, and laziness of the poor can work to keep them down.

The Bible has a more balanced view than either of these perspectives. Poverty can be the result of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor (Amos 5:11-12) through unjust wages (James 5:1-6), partial judges (Lev. 19:15), or unfair loans (Ex. 22:25-27). The solution to this injustice in the structures of society can come from the government or the community. For example, the Law mandated gleaning; the practice of leaving some crops for the poor to gather for themselves (Lev. 19:9-10). A year of Jubilee cancelled debts, freed slaves, and restored land – the most important economic asset – to families every fifty years so each generation wouldn’t be stuck with the financial failures of past generations (Deut. 15).

The Bible also teaches poverty can be a result of personal sin and laziness. Proverbs 6:6-11 teaches laziness and poor choices lead to poverty and Proverbs 23:21 claims substance abuse will do the same. Second Thessalonians 3:10 says if some will not work then neither shall they eat. Poverty can also be caused by natural disasters such as famine (Gen. 47), by disability (Acts 3:2), by crime (Ps. 12:5), family breakdown (Zech. 7:10), by a lack of friends (Prov. 14:20), a lack of resources (Is. 41:17), and a lack of education (Jer. 5:4). The solution can come from individuals taking responsibility for the poor among them (Luke 14:12-14) and sharing resources (Is. 58:7) and for the poor to walk with integrity (Prov. 19:1).

Tim Keller summarizes the Bible’s view of poverty in Generous Justice,

“Poverty, therefore, is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon. Several factors are usually intertwined. Poverty cannot be eliminated simply by personal initiative or by merely changing the tax structure… Any large scale improvement in a society’s level of poverty will come through a comprehensive array of public and private, spiritual, personal, and corporate measures.”

The complex nature of poverty comes from the complex nature of sin. In this life, we will always be fighting sin and we will always be fighting poverty. We may not be able to eradicate poverty, but we can help those in need among us by addressing their personal needs and the social structures that keep them down.

Even if the Occupy Wall Street protestors have all of their demands met it still won’t fix their problems. Even if family breakdown and substance abuse ended and everyone worked 60 hours a week it wouldn’t fix the problem. The hope for a sinful world wrestling with the reality of poverty is Jesus Christ. His death on the cross deals with the sin that lies at the root of poverty, gives hope to the poor (Luke 4:16-21), and empowers His followers to engage all of the factors that cause poverty – personal, spiritual, and social.

-Brian

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In Your Fight for Justice, Don’t Forget the Unborn

You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Pastor Rick Warren, sitting across from candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum, asked “at what point does a baby get human rights?” Obama’s response was memorable. He replied, “…answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” Of course, his answer was largely unsatisfying to people on both sides of the issue as he went on to add, “I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions?”

Of course, if nothing is morally objectionable about abortions then there is no reason to attempt to reduce them. This may be why President Obama, in his address on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this year, simply said, “I am committed to protecting this constitutional right [to abortion]. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.” The President left out any language about reducing abortions and only advocated reducing “unintended pregnancies.” His hope to accomplish this is “healthy relationships.” Sadly, his administration remains more moved by the tragedy of serving fatty foods in school cafeterias than by one in every five U.S. pregnancies ending in abortion.

Since that forum in 2008, it seems not only Obama, but the culture and the church has lost a great deal of interest in the abortion issue. At the GOP Presidential debate in September, candidates spoke endlessly about the economy, social security, illegal immigration, education, and foreign policy but only one question about abortion was asked and it was asked to Ron Paul – who, while popular, will likely not be a serious contender. Meanwhile in the church, fighting injustice and poverty is in but fighting abortion is out. The new generation is passionate about ending sex trafficking, protesting child labor, cleaning up the environment, combating poverty, building wells in poor African countries, drinking only organic coffee grown by fairly compensated farmers, rejecting consumerism, and reconciling the races.

In the stampede for justice, however, unborn children are being trampled. It simply isn’t as cool these days to be outwardly pro-life. Christian conservatism and/or the religious right made abortion central to their efforts in previous decades. In the minds of many Americans a conservative Christian became someone who oppressed women (because they were pro-life), hated gays (because they believed in traditional marriage), complained about obscenity, shunned alcohol, sheltered their children, never had any fun, and down deep  was a hypocrite who secretly enjoyed the sins they condemned. Newer generations of Christians have largely agreed with this caricature and have rejected the Christianity it represented. Unfortunately, in attempting to shed this image, many have over-corrected and rejected a passionate pro-life stand along with it. We can sit in our organic coffee shop, wear our Toms shoes, and save the money we would have spent on biscotti for an AIDS clinic in Madagascar but we aren’t particularly troubled by the plight of the unborn.

That plight is more serious now even then it was at the height of the Religious Right. In 2008, 1.21 million abortions took place in the U.S. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973 there have been over 45 million abortions in the U.S. In New York City, 40% of all pregnancies and 60% of African-American pregnancies end in abortion. Ninety-two percent of babies with down-syndrome are aborted. Worldwide the situation is far worse. The United Nations estimates that over 60 million girls are missing in Asia due to sex-selection abortion and infanticide resulting in a massive gender imbalance. This means that in India there are, on average, 300,000 less girls than there should be.  In Russia, 64% of pregnancies end in abortion. This has caused the number of infertile women in Russia to increase by 200,000 to 250,000 per year mainly due to complications from abortions. Twenty percent of the approximately 205 million pregnancies on earth every year end in abortion.

Here is my plea: continue to fight injustice, alleviate poverty, and eradicate pollution. But in your zeal do not forget the massive injustice being perpetrated against the weakest among us: abortion. A passionate pro-life stand will not necessarily make you popular. It may lump you together with people you’d rather not be lumped with. Your friends at work may not enthusiastically endorse it. You may have to grapple with it before you vote in the election. You may find yourself having some difficult and unpleasant conversations. But that’s ok. Battling injustice isn’t only worthwhile if it’s cool, trendy, and approved by the culture.

It is worth it because the unborn are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), God forms us in the womb (Psalm 139:13) and who we are comes into being before we are born (Ps. 139:16, Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:44). It is worth it because in the hours following conception the entire DNA blueprint that will define an individual for the rest of their life comes into being. It is worth it because a baby has a heartbeat after 21 days, has brain activity after 6 weeks, and can live outside of the womb after 6 months. It is worth it because if there is any chance unborn babies are human beings then ripping them to pieces as they are sucked from their mother’s body (most common abortion technique) is murder. It is worth it because those in the womb have no voice unless it is ours.

Will we stand by Scripture and 2,000 years of the church – from Tertullian to John Calvin to the present – in defending the rights of the unborn? Will we love those who have experienced abortion and support those who reject it? Will we weigh the plight of the unborn in the voting booth? Will we be passionately pro-life even though it is culturally un-cool? Will we speak for those who have no voice or quietly busy ourselves with other issues? Politicians may forget, the culture may move on, the church may get tired – but will we?

-Brian

To check out more pro-life resources go to Abort 73.com

Does Religion Deserve a Role in Politics?

In a column published on August 25th Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, took issue with the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates. He began by comparing belief in Christianity with belief in aliens – not the best of starts. He then goes on to question every one of the candidates’ religious associations under the assumption these influences will define their years in office. He wants to know if Rick Perry wants a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles” and for Christians to control the nation. He wants to know if Michele Bachmann believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, thinks homosexuality is an abomination, claims slavery wasn’t so bad, and is suspicious of non-Christian ideas. He has similar concerns about Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.

Of course, his concerns don’t extend to Barack Obama’s Christianity, nor Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s Catholicism, Harry Reid’s Mormonism, or Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. Perhaps he views their religious choices as inconsequential since they largely agree with him. The problem seems to be the fusion of conservative faith with conservative politics. Someone who sees the world differently from him and who believes in the Bible as the Word of God may not be fit to run the country. He says:

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

In other words, conservative religious believers may not be part of the reality-based community. They’re living in a fantasy world where there are angels and demons, where God speaks through prophets, and where Jesus is actually Lord over stuff. It’s okay to have religious faith, just not okay to follow it religiously.

The funny thing is, I actually agree with Keller’s overall premise. We DO have a right to know the worldviews and beliefs that underlie a candidate’s positions and policies. If their faith is real, a candidate will make decisions differently if they are a Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, atheist, or Unitarian. The problem with much political discourse in our country is the debate is only surface-level. News channels will dissect debts, limits, and spending without touching the philosophical principles about the nature of man, the role of government, and our ethical obligations which undergird the issue. Pro-life and pro-choice forces will wage a war of sound bites and protests while never dealing with the assumptions about humanity, rights, and authority which give rise to their differing positions.

Where I would disagree with Keller is in his position – implied by the religions and politicians he takes issue with – that only conservative religious believers have underlying beliefs which will drive their decisions. The idea that only a few Republicans are guided by un-provable faith commitments while the rest of civilized society exists in a realm of scientifically demonstrable reality is laughable. Everyone – whether atheist, agnostic, or Catholic – is guided by philosophical commitments that define their worldview and cannot be empirically proven. Furthermore, no law can be passed or policy decision made without these faith commitments. Let’s look at two examples: racism and the environment.

If I want to make a law to prohibit race-based discrimination, I must do so on the basis of a belief which cannot be scientifically proven – that all people are created equal and have inherent value. A Christian will derive this belief from the book of Genesis which teaches that men and women are created in the image of God. An atheist, on the other hand, will have a harder time with racism as revealed in the title to Darwin’s famous work on evolution: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In an evolutionary view of the world, it is conceivable that some races may be superior to others. This does not mean atheists are racists. Merely that, if they believe racism is wrong, they do so on the basis of an un-provable faith commitment about the equality and value of humanity.

The same is true of caring for the environment. We have created an entire government agency – the EPA – to do just that. But why? A Christian can support an EPA because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and God has called us to care for it (Gen. 2:15) because He will one day remake it in glory (Rom. 8:21). Whereas an atheist knows someday the sun will burn out and the earth and all of man’s accomplishments will come to an end. Yet they decide to care for the environment because they love their children and perhaps have an evolutionary desire to pass on their genes and need a healthy planet to do it. The reasoning for or against the creation and funding of an EPA rests on un-provable faith commitments – whether Christian or atheist – about the value of the planet.

Keller is concerned religious doctrine may be used to deny rights to citizens. Is he equally concerned about Marxist doctrine doing the same thing – as it is today in China, Cuba, and North Korea? Is it better to have candidates guided by faith in Marxist principles or biblical principles? All of us, no matter our religion or lack thereof, have a worldview with philosophical principles that rest on faith and not on scientific proof. That worldview may be based on the writings of Karl Marx, the apostle Paul, Charles Darwin, or the prophet Mohammed. So we should do as Keller suggests and ask the tough questions about the faith of our candidates. But let us not be naïve and assume only conservative Christians are guided by un-provable ideas. Let’s live in a reality-based community that realizes every person who has ever written or passed any law or policy is guided by their own un-provable beliefs and ideas. Maybe then we can start understanding and appreciating one another’s different views, even if those views include alien visitors (Tom Cruise anyone?).

-Brian

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Worshiping America: Memorial Day, Patriotism, and the Church

God bless America

Land that I love

Stand beside her, and guide her

Through the night with a light from above

God Bless America will undoubtedly be sung in thousands of parades, picnics, services, and churches to celebrate Memorial Day. First instituted after the Civil War to commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who had died, it was extended after World War I to be a day honoring all Americans who had died in war. Beyond the weighty task of reminding us of the price paid for our freedom, Memorial Day weekend serves as the unofficial start of the summer season with its vacations, cookouts, and fireworks. Americans will enthusiastically lift their voices wherever they gather to sing God Bless America, America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, The Star Spangled Banner, and perhaps a rendition of Neil Diamond’s America.

While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium? The church I grew up in regularly mixed God and country. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were occasions to prominently display the American flag, have veterans wear their uniforms to church, and congregationally sing every patriotic hymn in the book. Many a tear was shed and hand raised in salute at the sacrifices of soldiers and success of the United States. I even recall a seminary chapel service I attended where all of the students were led in My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. God and country seemed to fit together like two houses of congress.

One Sunday I was sitting in a church worship service on Memorial Day weekend reminiscent of what I experienced growing up. The choir was singing a patriotic hymn while images of America and her military were displayed on the screen. At the end of the song, the congregation eagerly rose to its feet in thunderous applause, profoundly moved by the images and music. On that day, America received more heartfelt and enthusiastic worship than Jesus did on the average Sunday. It is tragic when followers of Jesus are more moved by Normandy than Calvary, more inspired by God Bless America than In Christ Alone, and more challenged by the soldier than the Savior.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a patriot who loves my country. Words cannot describe the depth of my gratitude to the soldiers who have given their lives for the sake of others. I believe, while America has done both good and evil in the world, the good has outweighed the bad. I’m not afraid to stand up next to you and admit Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American can still a bring a tear to my eye. But I love Christ more. My allegiance to Him surpasses my allegiance to any person or country. He alone is God and He shares His glory with no one. When Christians elevate country and render worship which is God’s unto Caesar (America) they commit idolatry.

Early Christians would have been confused at our mixing of God and country. In the Roman Empire in which they lived, God and country were the same. To worship the gods was to declare loyalty to Rome. Since Christians refused to sacrifice, burn incense or acknowledge Caesar as lord, they were branded as disloyal and identified as a threat. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, in dealing with accusations brought against Christians in 112, was supported by Emperor Trajan in releasing any who denied Christ by reciting a prayer to the gods and offering incense and wine to the statue of the emperor. For the Roman Christian, patriotism was the acceptance of a god other than Christ – something they could not do. For us, it is more complicated. At what point does patriotism become the false worship of country as a god?

Each person must wrestle with this individually but churches can blur the line between patriotism and idolatry by taking time designated for the worship of God and devoting it to America. Can we imagine the early church singing praises to Rome? Since the state was equated with god it would be idolatry; so is singing praises to America during a time of worship acceptable? Jesus declared in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting…” Honoring those who have served and died and reflecting on their sacrifice can be powerful, but caution is warranted. We have gathered to worship Christ and Christ alone. Anything less is a sad imitation and can lead a congregation into country idolatry.

Turning one’s country into a god destroys the very spirit of unity Memorial Day exists to create. If you make country a god you will be constantly stressed about the direction it is going. You will exalt those you believe are helping it and demonize those you believe are hurting it. It’s not simple disagreement; they’re ruining your country!  You will look down on other places and other peoples as inferior. You will become ethnocentric – caring little about the world because only your country is worthy of attention. If you feel your country is a good god, you will exalt its achievements, but if you feel it is a bad god, you will harp on its failings. You cannot see it objectively because too much is at stake. A country may be a great place to live and a worthy cause for which to die, but it makes for a horrible god.

This Memorial Day, let’s devote our worship services to Jesus and not America. He receives so little of what He truly deserves of our lives that to take time devoted to Him and to give it to a lesser god is a tragic mistake. Then, after we have worshiped Jesus, we can remember the troops, salute the flag, and sing God Bless America.

-Brian

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