Friday, August 20, 2004

Who Gets Jesus' Vote?

On Wednesday morning, news outlets carried the story of the Texas Faith Network conference in Austin attended by "religious leaders" on Tuesday. The Associated Press reported:
James Moore, co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George Bush Presidential," drew laughter and applause when he offered his view to the moderate to left-leaning crowd of about 250 clergy and lay leaders. 
"If ever there were a bleeding-heart liberal, it was Jesus Christ," Moore said at Congregation Agudas Achim synagogue. "I think the carpenter from Galilee was the original Democrat."
Obviously, this was intended as a laugh line in Moore's speech, but "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). Partisans on both sides of the political aisle claim Jesus' support for their policies, but as far as can be told, none of them has truly studied Jesus thoroughly and honestly enough to determine what initiatives He would indeed support. The article quotes a handful of clergy regarding their views of Christ's "political ideology":
  • Timothy Tutt, pastor of United Christian Church in Austin: "As I read the Scriptures and as I understand faith, God's side is the group that's feeding the poor, caring about children, making sure that people have enough food to eat—not killing others."
  • Michael Jinkins, a pastoral theology professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary: "Based on my reading of the Gospels, I think Jesus might surprise us all on his voting record. He was far less 'religious' than the people who criticized him most."
One says He was all about social responsibility, another opines that He was less fundamentalist and more secular than the Pharisees, who were by all accounts conservative and nationalistic in their politics. Yet, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and other conservative ministers would point to Jesus' moral teachings and claim He would support life (anti-abortion), virtue (pro-morality), freedom (patriotic and pro-Democracy), and strength (pro-business and pro-war, particularly Iraq and the War on Terror).

What side would Jesus endorse? Neither.

The article surprisingly ends with a proper conclusion on this point:
In fact, Jesus might not support Bush or Kerry or anyone else, for that matter.
"Jesus was not one to take sides on political issues," said Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco.
While there were obviously no Democrats or Republicans during the time of Jesus, different groups vied for attention, including the fundamentalist Pharisees, the aristocratic Sadducees, the spiritually devout Essenes and the revolutionist Zealots.
"Interestingly, Jesus never sided with any of these groups but remained above such earthly disputes," Davis said.
Jesus never said anything remotely political. The closest He came was in His adroit answer to the Pharisees' crafty question regarding paying taxes to Caesar: "Why do you test Me? . . . Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:23-25). To paraphrase, he tells us to give government its due—but God or religion is an entirely different matter. The politics of this world and the true religion of God do not mix well.

At His trial before Pilate, the Roman procurator asks, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (John 18:33). Jesus replies, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here" (verse 36). Jesus' Kingdom is still not of this world, as its King remains in heaven at His Father's right hand until the appointed time for His return. Therefore, His servants still should not be involved in the political battles of this world either.

It is interesting to notice that when Jesus returns, He does not join the "right" or "correct" political party, but "in righteousness He judges and makes war. . . . Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Revelation 19:11, 15).

It seems clear that Jesus does not think highly of any human government of any political stripe. In fact, He seems to be for, in today's terms, total war, worldwide imperialism, and installing Himself as benevolent dictator for eternity. The question, then, is not, whose side is He on, but who is on His side?

Friday, August 13, 2004

Tropical (Storm) Punch

The Carolinas are about to experience a one-two, tropical storm punch that it has not been seen in nearly 75 years, according to a local meteorologist. Tropical storm Bonnie, not as strong as expected, dumped needed rain on areas east and south of Charlotte, while the city itself slogged through steady rain for half a day. That was Thursday. Today, Friday, Hurricane Charley, just upgraded to category four, packing sustained winds of 145 mph and gusts up to 160 mph, is set to make landfall near Tampa, Florida, soon. The storm is expected to reach the Carolinas by Saturday evening.

After Hurricane Andrew, Americans became far more sensitive to these mammoth storms. Although only a few each year make landfall, when they do, they make a terrific mess and cause considerable injuries and deaths. Andrew wreaked $25-30 billion in damages and killed 65 people, an exceptionally low figure over which experts still shake their heads in wonder. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed six to eight thousand people, the most by a hurricane in U.S. history. In 1970, a cyclone that hit East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, killed at least 200,000—some say half a million—and another 100,000 were reported missing.

Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, gives us an idea of the power within a hurricane:
A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth; the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don't contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day. A typical hurricane encompasses a million cubic miles of atmosphere and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years. During the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, winds surpassed 200 miles an hour and people caught outside were sandblasted to death. Rescue workers found nothing but their shoes and belt buckles. So much rain can fall during a hurricane—up to five inches an hour—that the soil liquefies. Hillsides slump into valleys and birds drown in flight, unable to shield their upward-facing nostrils. . . . In 1938, a hurricane put downtown Providence, Rhode Island, under ten feet of ocean. The waves generated by that storm were so huge that they literally shook the earth; seismographs in Alaska picked up their impact five thousand miles away. (p. 102)
Such power is nothing to trifle with, which is why emergency management officials recommend wholesale evacuations of areas near a hurricane's landfall.

Beyond its powerful winds, the most lethal part of a hurricane is the sheer amount of water it brings. Most people think of massive amounts of rain, but more deadly is the ocean's storm surge. Water piles up in front of the high winds, flooding the coastal areas up to about 25 feet, as occurred in Mississippi during Hurricane Camille in 1969. If the hurricane's right-front quadrant should hit shore at high tide, the storm surge could be as devastating as thousands of rampaging bulldozers. In both the Galveston and Bangladesh hurricanes, storm-surge flooding caused the most deaths.

We know how hurricanes form and develop, how various factors steer them, and what to expect from them. Our forecasting has improved tremendously, with computer simulations providing highly accurate tracks out to 36 or 48 hours. This allows emergency crews to set up and get the word out to residents and tourists. Building codes have also been stiffened in high-risk areas, reducing property damage and providing better shelter for those who dare to ride them out. These factors are largely responsible for the declining death totals due to these huge storms.

But man may as well be a mouse when it comes to controlling them. The forces that cause and sustain hurricanes are so massive that nothing man can do has any serious effect on their strength or destination. In reality, we just have to take whatever the storm brings. How humbling.

We gain some perspective when we read the words from Job 36:26-33:
Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him. . . . For He draws up drops of water, which distill as rain from the mist, which the clouds drop down and pour abundantly on man. Indeed, can anyone understand the spreading of clouds, the thunder from His canopy? Look, He scatters His light upon it, and covers the depths of the sea. For by these He judges the peoples; He gives food in abundance. He covers His hands with lightning, and commands it to strike. His thunder declares it, . . . concerning the rising storm.
Consider this when watching the weather this weekend.

Friday, August 6, 2004

Our Enervating Culture

Our culture is wearying. Not only is it non-stop and fast-paced, but it is also so full of contention and controversy that it is maddening, stressful, and frustrating. It says something about the way God made us that we can even stand it!

God accurately catches the essence of our time when He tells Daniel, "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase" (Daniel 12:4). The word picture is of a multitude of people scurrying around like ants, but unlike ants, their scurrying is erratic, futile, and unproductive. The New English Bible creatively renders this, "Many will be at their wits' end," suggesting both frustration and a kind of psychosis in the people as they struggle to keep up with and understand what is happening around them.

It is no wonder that many throw up their hands and give up trying to battle the culture. Some of these simply give in and go with the flow, while others check out altogether, finding a place out in the country, throwing out their televisions and having as little to do with the rest of us as possible. Many others, knowing they cannot escape to rural tranquility due to job or family commitments, do their best to withdraw privately from the exasperating culture.

Yet, there is no way to avoid it altogether. Jesus Himself admits this in John 17:15, "I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one." Christians have to live in the world, and we rely on the Father's protection against the worst that Satan and "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4) can throw at us. In this sense, we have to learn to live with some of the unsavory aspects of society because we are too weak to make any effective change in them.

The presidential race is a prime example of American culture gone berserk, and Christians have no chance of altering it for the better. The "apex" of American politics pits two wealthy, egotistical candidates of New England elite extraction against each other. Both candidates employ every dirty, political trick in the book to gain an advantage over the other. The lies, misinformation, spin, and defamation that flood from each campaign staff make the late Baghdad Bob look like a saint. And Americans are supposed to choose which of these two should be Chief Executive?

Perhaps this is overly cynical, but it does point out how our culture, with its 24-hour news cycle and information overload, obfuscates every important matter. Who can be trusted? Fox News? CNN? MSNBC? The 700 Club? The BBC? NPR? Reuters? The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Christian Science MonitorThe Wall Street Journal? WorldNetDaily? The Drudge Report? Who?

These news outlets will run contradictory stories about the candidates. Was John Kerry a military hero in Vietnam—or was he an uninspiring SWIFT boat captain who often disregarded orders and dishonestly won his Silver Star? Did George Bush exhaust all diplomatic solutions to the Saddam Hussein dilemma before committing America to war—or did he, cowboy-style, plan to avenge his father's attempted assassination before he was even elected? We may have opinions about these matters, but do we really know the truth? Can we know the truth?

Modern thinkers would say, no, there is no such thing as absolute truth, and even facts about a situation or an issue are merely data to be manipulated by each observer. The truth is in the eye of the beholder. That is a terribly shifty basis on which to build a functioning and productive society. If a person cannot honestly ascertain whether a thing is true or false, it will not be long before he loses his grip on reality—which truth defines—and begins to behave in anti-social ways. We see this process already at work in our universities, where religious or conservative values are hostilely opposed, contrary to even the First Amendment rights academics so ardently cherish for themselves.

We are warned that things will only get worse as the end approaches (Matthew 24:6, 8, 21; II Timothy 3:1, 13). Society will continue to break down, violence and deception will increase, and persecution of those who live morally will intensify—not a positive outlook as we prepare for the Kingdom of God. Christ, though, advises us, "But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13). If He says it can be done, we can do it!