Friday, December 30, 2005

Twenty Years On

It just occurred to me that January 16, 2006, will mark the twentieth anniversary of Herbert W. Armstrong's death. I remember that day quite clearly. I was a sophomore at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, and employed by Church Administration to assist the office in various functions (in the vernacular, I was a "gofer"). When I reported for work that morning at 8, there was a palpable feeling that something big had taken place, and it took me all of three seconds to find out that Mr. Armstrong had died earlier that morning.

His death was not unexpected, it being common knowledge that his health was rapidly declining. Joseph Tkach, the new Pastor General, quickly put a transition team into action, and plans were put into motion for announcing Mr. Armstrong's death to the church and the press, arranging his funeral, developing a tribute telecast, informing the students and employees on campus, making legal adjustments for the smooth operation of the church, and doing a host of other activities. Condolences began pouring into Pasadena from all over the world by telex and fax and phone; I remember being handed a thick stack of them and being impressed by all the "big names," both foreign and domestic, who took the trouble to relay their sympathy.

The next few days and weeks were, to me, a blur of activity, highlighted by specific events that loomed large at the time: Mr. Armstrong's funeral, the huge response figures for the tribute World Tomorrow program, the introduction of the new World Tomorrow presenters, the move "upstairs" by Joseph Tkach, the inaugural church visits around the country and the world (on one of which, to Chicago, I was permitted to go), the "We Are Family" campaign, etc. Those were heady days. The church appeared to have transitioned peacefully and prosperously to the new regime.

It did not take long for those exhilarating days to end.

Most people are unaware that the doctrinal changes began to be enacted almost immediately. It began with "little things" slipped into a Pastor General's Report or implemented without much fanfare as counsel in individual cases. The first may have been backpedaling on teaching that married women, especially those with children, should be homemakers. There were flip-flops on applauding special music and the wearing of makeup. Many of Herbert Armstrong's booklets were edited, demoted, or retired and replaced altogether. The church's teaching found in The United States and Britain in Prophecy was questioned, ridiculed, and subsequently dropped.

The first core doctrinal change—concerning faith, Christ's sacrifice, and healing—occurred in early 1987. Elements of this change were theologically correct, for instance, that sin is sin, no matter whether it is physical or spiritual in nature. However, the practical effect of the change was to remove faith from healing—and really, from anything else—to such an extent as to make it negligible. Once this major tenet of the church's teaching fell, others, like dominoes, were doomed also to fall. Soon, certain Sabbath teachings were loosened, hints of Trinitarianism began to bubble out of headquarters, and the gospel of the Kingdom of God was downgraded in favor of "the gospel of grace" and "the gospel of Jesus." All of this took place before 1992 began, and many more changes would follow.

In a relatively few years, then, the work of Herbert Armstrong, which had taken about sixty years to build, was dismantled. Certainly, a decade after his death, the Worldwide Church of God was essentially unrecognizable as the church God had raised up through him. Twenty years on, it is seeking not even to be called the "Worldwide Church of God" any longer because, in the words of Joseph Tkach, Jr., "Our current name does not properly represent us." He is right. His organization does not deserve the name!

Notwithstanding such praise, Herbert Armstrong was a fallible man, and some would argue that he made many mistakes. He was not always right, even on doctrine. His fixation on preaching the gospel, while commendable, blinded him to other areas that should have received his attention, particularly to many church members' desperate need of strong, deep instruction in God's way of life. In addition, his authoritarianism is legendary, but it was effective in promoting and accomplishing his vision of God's work on earth. A person cannot head a global evangelistic organization without these traits.

It is too bad that, for many people, his negatives overshadow his positives. He was a wonderful teacher, due in many respects to his advertising skills. He could bore right to the heart of an issue, collect what was necessary for understanding it, and explain it in simple terms so that a person of average intelligence could grasp it. Unlike many in these "nuanced" times, he was at times painfully, even offensively direct, but there was never any doubt where he stood on an issue. He was also doggedly stubborn, refusing to change a doctrine until he was absolutely convinced that the change was biblically correct. These qualities, combined with the sheer force of his charisma, kept the church's teaching relatively stable for many decades, which produced much good fruit.

William Shakespeare wrote, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." The skein of Herbert Armstrong's life contained more good yarn than ill, and for that, we can praise God that He weaves the lives of such servants into ours. Would there were more of his fiber!

Friday, December 23, 2005

A Sanitary Christmas

The winter solstice has just passed, beginning the coldest three months of the year, and this means that Christmas is only days away. It used to be that the solstice and Christmas coincided—a remarkable coincidence (wink, wink)—but because of the inexactitude of our calendar, the solstice has crept forward a few days over the past few centuries. If we were to stick around long enough, we could witness Christmas celebrated in springtime! Come to think of it, a hefty percentage of the world's population already celebrates it as the heat of summer arrives—but for reasons altogether different!

Lately, Christmas-keeping Christians have been forced to stand up for Christmas. Atheists, agnostics, and the ACLU-crowd have been clamoring for the removal of religion from Christmas celebrations. They want advertisers to market the season without reference to "Christmas," instead using the innocuous "Holiday" moniker. They want businesses to ditch playing traditional Christmas carols over their in-store audio systems in favor of "winter music"—in other words, to play "Sleigh Bells" instead of "Away in a Manger." Countless courts have weighed in—some on one side, some on the other—concerning Christmas crèches on public property. Christian groups have had to file lawsuits to force school systems to allow their students to sing "Silent Night"—and not some wintry parody—during winter concerts!

This is all extremely ironic—even hilarious at times. Christmas-celebrating Christians rush to the barricades to defend this most sacred holiday from the godless hordes, all the while totally missing the fact that they are defending the indefensible! Where is their authority to keep the day in the first place? Rome? Probably. Jerusalem? Nope. Bethlehem? Hardly. The Bible. Not a chance!

In reality, by its materialism and syncretism, this world's Christianity has helped the modern, secular world sanitize—not Santa-ize—Christmas. This supposedly Christian holiday has been systematically disinfected of its biblical "taint" simply because it is fundamentally unbiblical! Its only scriptural basis is the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, and they prove that the traditional Christmas teaching sits on foundation of sand.

The Nativity—a fancy word for "birth"—of Jesus Christ is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Try as one might, a birth date for our Savior cannot be found in either, and in fact, honest, objective scholars and theologians admit that a winter date is perhaps the least likely time. December, as any biblical geographer will attest, is the beginning of the rainy season in Palestine, and shepherds would have stopped leaving their flocks in the fields at night a good month or two before then. Majority opinion places Jesus' birth in the autumn, probably on or near the fall festivals of Trumpets or Tabernacles.

Other aspects of the traditional nativity also fail the test of biblical authenticity. For instance, the Gospels do not say that there were three wise men, nor are their names anywhere recorded in history. In this case, the number three has its source in the number of gifts the wise men gave to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is certainly possible that He received other gifts from them, but Matthew decided to highlight these particular three for symbolic reasons.

Many of the manger scenes even get details wrong, like the fact that when the wise men showed up, Jesus was no longer a newborn lying in a manger, but as Matthew writes, a "young Child" living in "a house" (Matthew 2:11). Traditional Christmas crèches also tend to combine Luke's account of the shepherds' arrival almost immediately after His birth with the coming of the wise men, which evidently occurred perhaps weeks or months later (see verse 16: Some contend that it could have been as long as two years later!). And, of course, none of the Nativity participants wore halos!

These few scenes are the extent of the Bible's information about Christ's birth. Neither Mark nor John saw fit to add to what Matthew and Luke had already written. Both Mark and John begin their narratives about the time of Jesus' baptism three decades later. Why? In the grand scheme of Jesus' life, His birth is of less importance than His ministry, death, and resurrection. Certainly, it was a wonderful day when God-in-the-flesh appeared among us, but it pales in meaning to what He taught, what He sacrificed for us, and what He now does for us as our living High Priest. Why dwell on His past, helpless infancy when we can rejoice in His present, powerful advocacy?

The Christmas controversy does not hinge on whether it is politically correct to wish someone "Merry Christmas!" but on a factor that is far more significant: truth. Is Christmas true? The biblical facts shout a resounding, "NO!" Then why celebrate a lie? Falsehood is never good, never beneficial, never right. Keeping a false holiday in dedication to Jesus is still a lie. Do we really think He feels honored by a lie, which is sin (check Exodus 20:16 and Revelation 21:8; 22:15)? He receives much more honor when we, instead, keep His commandments (John 14:15; 15:10).

We can only hope that today's swirl over this holiday wakes Christians up—not just to America's eroding Christian values, but to the sad fact that what most assume to be ever-so-Christian is nothing of the sort.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Biblical Canonicity

A trip to the local Christian bookstore to buy a new Bible often turns into a dizzying experience once dozens of different translations confront the shopper. From the venerable King James Version and its successor, the New King James Version, to the helpful Amplified Bible to newcomers like the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible, it can make for a difficult choice. Beyond these, the shelves contain many more modern-language Bibles that are far less literal than these, such as The Living Bible, the Contemporary English Version, the Good News Bible, Today’s English Version, etc. It is enough to make one’s head spin! (See “Which Bible Translation Is Best?”)

Yet, many people ask an even more fundamental question: How do we know that the 66 books included in most Bibles are truly authorized as part of the canon, the authoritative collection of inspired Scripture? How can we be sure that we have the complete Word of God?

It is a good question. Most people believe that the early Catholic Church decided which books were authentic, and we have just received the results of its decision. This, however, is not true. The Catholic Church did not authorize the biblical canon—it only accepted it. The Bible has its own internal authorization protocols that the Catholic Church merely followed, and subsequently, most others also accepted. It is evident from the agreement of the 5,000 extant, ancient copies of the New Testament that the canon was already set before the Catholic Church put its stamp of approval on it.

Actually, only a few books now regarded as Scripture ever raised any questions regarding canonicity: James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John (all disputed due to questions of authorship). All of them are attested in early writings as authoritative. In fact, it has been shown that the “early church fathers” quoted from the canonical books so much that, if the Bible somehow ceased to exist, it could be reassembled in full, minus just a handful of verses, using only their writings. Officially, by ad 140, the visible church (we could call it the proto-Catholic Church) recognized all fourteen of Paul's letters plus all four gospels. The first historical list of all 27 New Testament books dates to ad 367. The Catholic Church did not officially ratify them (by papal decree) until ad 405.

As mentioned above, the Bible contains internal authorization protocols. The most esoteric may be the prophecy in Isaiah 8:16: "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” The early church understood this to mean that the canon would be "bound," that is, finished and authorized, by the time the original twelve apostles had died. The apostle John was the last of the original Twelve to die (around ad 100), and it is supposed that he gathered the present 27 New Testament books together and authorized their use in the churches.

The Bible itself provides a clue that Peter had already begun some of this canonization many years earlier (as early as the mid-ad 60s). II Peter 3:15-16 suggests that Paul's epistles had already attained the status of Scripture by that time (see another hint of a collecting of Paul’s epistles by Paul himself in II Timothy 4:13). It is easy to assume that this may also embrace Luke's Gospel and Acts (Luke was Paul’s longtime assistant). If Peter had indeed begun the canonization process, both of his epistles and the gospel of Mark (understood to be written under Peter's direction) can also be included. This now makes nineteen authorized books. Later, John would include his Gospel, Revelation, and three epistles, making a total of 24 books.

The only questionable books, then, would be Matthew's Gospel, James, and Jude—and there are no legitimate, canonical problems with them, as all three were written by apostles (two of them Jesus’ half-brothers!). This brings up another of the protocols for canonicity: The authorship of a book must be apostolic (exceptions are made for the writings of Luke and Mark, as they were considered to be written under Paul’s and Peter’s direct supervision).

Perhaps the most important protocol for canonicity, though, is what is termed “internal unity,” sometimes called conformity to the "rule of faith." It is evident that the New Testament books agree on doctrine, Christian living, history, and prophecy. They contain internal unity; they are a whole in 27 parts. Other books or epistles—for instance, the Gospel of Thomas or the Epistles of Clement, which have been suggested as canonical—disturb this unity. Many books have been written to show that the canonical Bible does not contradict itself, particularly in areas of doctrine.

A final rule of canonicity is general acceptance by the church. While there were differences among the congregations about which books were to be read in the churches, they all agreed on these 27 books. Eventually, the others were found wanting, and the present 27 were authorized. Again, we should note that all this took place before the rise of the organized Catholic Church in the second century.

The 39 books of the Old Testament have undergone similar tests of canonicity. A few books, such as Esther and parts of Daniel, have been questioned, but in the end, their reliability has been universally recognized. Though some churches accept the Apocrypha—the books of Maccabees, Esdras, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, etc.—even a quick perusal of their texts proves them to be of lesser quality and worth than the accepted books. In addition, the biblical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls attest to the precision of their transmission through the ages. Thus, scholarly debate on Old Testament canonicity has largely subsided to minor disputes on peripheral matters.

There is no valid reason to doubt the authoritative nature of the 66 books of the Bible. What has come down to us is God’s “prophetic word made more sure” (II Peter 1:19), “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). We can absolutely trust what is written in it to guide us along the narrow way to the Kingdom of God.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Coming Home to Roost

How should one describe the news that the world’s largest automaker and the United States’ biggest corporation, General Motors (GM), will cut 30,000 jobs (17% of its 173,000-employee North American workforce) and close a dozen facilities by 2008? By all rights, Americans should consider it to be huge news. Yet, the announcement on Monday has already begun to fade as the news cycle picks up and runs with more interesting stories like the return to Crawford, Texas, of Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan and the pandemonium of Black Friday.

Financial analysts have seen this coming. GM stock has fallen to as low as $20.60 per share in the past year, an 18-year low, while its credit rating has plummeted to junk status. The company’s market share has fallen seven percentage points over the last decade (to 26.2%), as it has struggled to sell cars in competition with, frankly, better designed, better priced, and higher quality foreign models. The automaker lost nearly $4 billion in the first nine months of 2005, and $1 billion in the last quarter alone—and this during its massive employee-pricing sales drive and continued offering of low-interest loans through GMAC, its in-house finance unit.

Beyond this, GM has massive wage and benefits problems. Its unionized employees have perhaps the most generous labor contracts in the industry, and the unions are so far unwilling to make significant concessions, blaming management for the firm’s poor performance. However, its biggest burdens are healthcare and pension costs. Each GM vehicle includes $1,500 in healthcare premiums in its price tag, and unlike most U.S. workers, GM employees do not pay any deductibles on their coverage and only 7% of the premium (compared to about 30% in other industries).

In addition, the company’s pension system is being strained to its limits. Each active worker is contributing to the pension coffers for 2.5 retirees, an increasingly untenable situation, threatening them with the specter of GM eventually walking away from its pension obligations just as Delta Airlines recently did through bankruptcy. Rival Ford has similar problems looming.

Such monumental problems do not just happen—they are caused. GM’s woes appear to be the consequences of sins coming home to roost. Both the Old and New Testaments contain similar principles: Numbers 32:23 says, “. . . be sure your sin will find you out,” and Galatians 6:7 reads, “. . . whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (see also Luke 12:2-3). At the root of American industry’s troubles are policies and practices that are bound to result in conflict, injustice, and perhaps the demise of many once-indomitable companies.

Some might argue that these companies are just poorly managed, and there is some justification for such a conclusion. But why are they badly run? Behind the lack of financial and business acumen is a fundamental spiritual problem, which usually can be summarized in one word: selfishness. Other spiritual failings that may be included under this catchall are pride, greed, hatred, envy, corruption, deception, and a host of others that often come to the fore under intense competition. When careers and big money are on the line, all the stops come out.

The best we can do these days, it seems, is to lament that, for the most part, gone are the days of business providing a quality good or service at a fair price. Perhaps small businesses can still work from this model, but big business is too ruthless to operate on such a “naïve” principle. Good guys do not last long among the wolves of the business world because, by refusing to join the pack in its sordid activities, they find themselves weak, isolated, and marked for attack. Today, if one is not a predator, he is prey.

God prophesied of this condition by the prophets. In Hosea 12:7-8, God speaks directly to businessmen: “A cunning Canaanite [or merchant]! Deceitful scales are in his hand; he loves to oppress. And Ephraim said, ‘Surely I have become rich, I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they shall find in me no iniquity that is sin.’” Here, the Israelite merchant brushes away his sin by saying that his wealth proves he is blameless, yet God shows him for what he is: a boastful, deceitful, and oppressing sinner.

Amos 2:6-7 expands on some of his deeds:

Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble.”

From His vantage point in heaven, He sees businessmen selling out their employees for a little extra profit. He watches them greedily taking advantage of every opportunity to squeeze every last bit of wealth out of customers, especially the poor and the weak. He takes note of every time they corrupt someone to fatten their bottom line. He later mentions their trampling of the poor, harsh terms, and profligate lifestyles (Amos 5:11); their taking of bribes and interfering in the judicial system (verse 12); and their undermining of religious practices, cheating, and selling inferior products (Amos 8:5-6).

Isaiah adds that this condition runs rampant through the entire nation, not just the mighty businessmen (see Isaiah 1:4-6). He suggests that, if the common man were in the high-and-mightys’ shoes, he would do the exact same, sinful things! He mentions them in verses 21-23:

How the faithful city has become a harlot! It was full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards. They do not defend the fatherless, nor does the cause of the widow come before them.

What we are observing in American business was inevitable. The anything-for-increased-profits model of business can only produce inequities, mediocre products and services, and strife, and these, along with the workings of a relentless market economy that punishes inefficiency, will destroy even the mightiest of corporations. And who usually ends up suffering? The little guy, the poor, the weak. We need to watch for these business breakdowns, as they are signs that a crisis looms.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday has crept up on many of us this year. Here in the South, the weather has just turned cool enough to make us wonder if autumn has really arrived. Not only that, Christmas ads began to appear on television and radio just after Halloween, making it seem as if Thanksgiving had been skipped this year. In fact, trying to recall any hullabaloo over Thanksgiving this annum is an arduous task.

Perhaps this suggests that Americans are too busy buying more stuff to be grateful. Why take time out to consider and appreciate all that we have when that time could be better spent getting more? On this end of the year, the holiday calendar—considering only the major holidays—goes from getting candy to giving thanks to getting presents, and which one of these does not look like the others?

Maybe Thanksgiving gets short shrift because its marketing department has not kept up with the times. Halloween has its grinning Jack-O’-Lantern, spooky ghosts, and frightful witches—all in their bright oranges, ghoulish greens, and macabre white on black. It is all quite visually stunning, and participants get mounds of sweets, to the delight of dentists everywhere.

The stars of Christmas, of course—jolly old St. Nick, red-nosed Rudolph, and cute little elves, nicely accented in reds, greens, and pure-as-the-driven-snow whites—are eye-candy, if there ever was such. When the big day arrives, the undersides of living-room conifers are piled high with glistening packages of loot, and revelers spend all of a few minutes ripping and tearing and goggling their gifts. Some even like them.

But Thanksgiving? Front and center are some dour-faced, buckled-down, blunderbuss-toting Puritans and their buckskin-clad sidekicks, the native Indians. Not to mention that no matter how hard an artist tries, it is impossible to make a turkey even remotely cute. And not to belabor the point, but Thanksgiving makes one feel obligated. That smacks of duty, indebtedness, accountability, gratefulness, and recompense, which are all subordinate positions and terribly formal and responsible. We like our holidays to be more uplifting and carefree—and certainly self-indulgent.

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, it is assured that we will see or hear a reporter, microphone in hand, take a quick, man/woman-on-the-street poll, posing the question, “What do you have to be thankful for this year?” We will hear the usual responses: “I am thankful that . . .

. . . I can put food on my table.”

. . . my job is secure.”

. . . I live in the land of the free.”

. . . my student loan is finally paid off.”

. . . I can afford to buy heating oil this year.”

. . . the Michael Jackson trial is over.”

. . . I have lived to see both the Red Sox and the White Sox win a World Series.”

Most of these are wonderful blessings for which to be thankful. Many of us could say the same things. Yet, these are off-the-top-of-the-head, I-really-don’t-have-time-for-this responses. But what would we reply to such a question if we took the time to sit down and ponder what we really appreciate? If we took a deep look at our present circumstances and the state of the world, and imagined what life would be like if this had happened or that had not happened, for what would we give thanks? Whom would we thank?

Being appreciative is fine, but it means very little unless we act on it and actually thank the person who has made a difference in our lives. It is not good enough to feel grateful—all warm and gooey inside. That, in essence, is purely self-serving. One must give thanks for gratitude to be effective. Gratitude is like a present: worthless unless it is given.

The real reason Thanksgiving is not a wildly popular holiday in America is because Americans, frankly, do not want to give Almighty God any credit for their peace, plenty, and power. Why? They realize that acknowledging God’s part in America’s present prosperity or even in their personal lives would make them obligated to Him. They would be obliged to obey Him—and that would spoil all their fun! Instead, year by year, this holiday has turned into Turkey Day and little more.

Christians, more than ever, need to give thanks—and not just on Thanksgiving. Times are becoming tougher, the world is moving faster, and life is seeming more precarious with every passing day. Gratitude helps to lift us above these pessimisms, focusing us on what is good, making us count our blessings, forcing us to remember that we have help. And it reminds us that we do indeed have obligations to meet before God, divinely appointed responsibilities that we dare not shirk. Thus Paul writes, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil . . . giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:15-16, 20).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Man's Natural Spirituality

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It is not uncommon to hear of hardened soldiers—trained to fight, kill, destroy, cuss, and drink—throwing themselves on grenades to save their buddies. Perhaps we catch a news broadcast about a multimillionaire donating a large chunk of his estate to pay for scholarships for the disadvantaged. Maybe we notice a food-and-coats-for-the-homeless drive held by a group of schoolchildren, or we applaud an honest Joe who turns in a lost wallet or a purse full of cash.

Many of us have scratched our heads over the fact that some unconverted people in the world do a great deal of good. Every community has a handful of souls who lead lives of self-sacrifice and kindness toward others. Some of these people have a kind of piety and faith that puts some of us to shame. Indeed, some would argue that, not too long ago, the average person on the street was more sincere, generous, and devout than many Christians are today. Frankly, these charitable behaviors make Christians wonder whether there is much difference between themselves and those in the world—or even if these people are more converted than they are!

What gives? Why do we struggle to do good, yet some people seem to do it so naturally?

Elihu declares in Job 32:8, “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.” Job’s young friend utters a truth that is self-evident to those whose minds God has opened but is hidden from carnal perception. God has endowed man with a human spirit that places him higher than the animals, giving him intelligence, emotion, speech, skills, and abilities similar to but lower than God’s own abilities. This spirit allows humans to function with free moral agency, to choose what behaviors they will follow.

This human spirit, however, has no moral compass in itself; it is essentially neutral, though it tends to be dragged down by the needs and desires of our flesh. A young child can become a saint or a sinner, depending on the training he receives, but if he is left to his own devices, as Proverbs 29:15 warns, he will ultimately bring shame on his family. This principle results from the fact that Adam and Eve, who, as mankind’s representatives before God in the Garden of Eden, set the pattern of choosing the knowledge of good and evil rather than God’s offer of knowledge that leads to eternal life (Genesis 3:1-6; 22).

Human beings, then, come in an array of moral hues, from black as sin to white as the driven snow and every shade in between. Humanity has produced Adolf Hitler, who attracted millions to his cause, as well as Mother Theresa, who repulsed millions with her Catholic beliefs. At base, we are all mixed bags, capable of the heights of altruism and the depths of egoism. It all depends on what we choose to do, yet our record tends toward the dark rather than the light.

In I Corinthians 2:11-13, Paul explains that man’s essentially neutral spirit is distinct from God’s Spirit. The human spirit understands only what the human mind can discover. If a man wishes to understand and do truly godly things, he must have God’s Spirit, which He freely gives upon repentance and conversion. This Spirit from God is “not the spirit of the world” (verse 12), which is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Paul goes on to say that God’s Spirit teaches us things beyond any wisdom discovered by the human spirit (I Corinthians 2:13).

Within this passage, Paul hints at the fact that the human spirit, when it is under the inspiration of the spirit of this world, can counterfeit the wisdom that comes from God’s Spirit alone (see II Corinthians 11:13-15). A carnal person’s works may seem “right,” but they are still acting under the guidance of the “natural spirituality” that is part of the spirit in man.

Consider the Ten Commandments. Most of us probably know people who agree that they are fine laws and strive to keep them. Does this mean they are converted? No! At best, men naturally follow at least the last six because they can see by the human spirit that they produce an ordered and peaceful society. The first four commandments, however, require God’s Spirit to understand fully.

Paul confronts this issue head-on in Romans 2:14-15, admitting that the unconverted often follow God’s law even if they have no knowledge of it. He calls them “a law to themselves,” meaning that the rules they follow are their own, not God’s, though they may agree with God’s law at points. How? Because the spirit God breathed into Adam in the Garden of Eden allows them to reason out a correct moral sense—at least partially. Generally, though, man’s moral sense is partly right and partly wrong, yet fundamentally hostile to God (Romans 8:7).

Nevertheless, the human spirit is so incredible that, in varying degrees depending on the individual, it can reason out parts of God’s truth on its own and put them into action. But by no means does this mean such people are converted! Jesus and the apostles are unambiguous about conversion being a special calling by God (John 6:44; II Timothy 1:9), marked by the indwelling of another Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16; II Timothy 1:14), God’s Spirit, that is holy and begets us as His children (Romans 8:9-14).

In Acts 5:29, 32, Peter provides the key to the difference between the converted and the “good” yet unconverted of this world: God’s people obey Him rather than men, and God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him. In other words, a converted person will have and use God’s Spirit and obey His law diligently and increasingly, while natural man will be guided only by his “natural spirituality” and be a law to himself. Because He will do what feels right “in his heart,” he will occasionally perform good works with which God would be pleased. As Jesus so bluntly puts it, even evil men give good gifts to their children (Matthew 7:11). Even a blind squirrel finds an occasional nut.

So, while we may be put to shame by someone’s good works from time to time, remember that God’s Spirit working in us makes all the difference: “But we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16)!

Friday, November 4, 2005

What We Don't Know

During its approach to a mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, the German dirigible Hindenburg, filled with hydrogen, went up in flames in less than a minute. Thirty-six people—13 passengers, 22 crewmembers, and one member of the ground crew—died in the disaster made famous by a newsreel dubbed with the radio commentary of eyewitness Herbert Morrison. In it, he uttered the well-known cry of despair, “Oh, the humanity!”

It is commonly thought that the Hindenburg conflagration killed the majority of those on board, and the newsreel footage certainly makes such an assumption plausible. However, only a little more than a third died in the disaster, as there were 97 people aboard the giant airship when it ignited. In addition, most people believe that these deaths were caused by the terrible fire, seen so vividly against the evening sky in the film, but this, too, is a myth. Most of these people died because they jumped to the ground in their fright.

In a sense, what they did not know, or failed to realize, killed them. Hydrogen, being the first element on the periodic table, has an atomic weight of one. As such, it is lighter than air, composed predominantly of heavier nitrogen and oxygen, so when it combusts, the explosion and flames shoot upward. In other words, the fire on the Hindenburg, for the most part, remained above the passengers and crew, who were confined to the gondolas and cabins in the lower part of the ship. Had they just kept their heads, they would probably have glided down to an albeit bumpy landing, yet suffering only bumps and bruises and a few burns.

God makes a similar declaration in Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Of course, the context makes plain that He means Israel will undergo disaster after disaster because she rejects God’s knowledge, the truth about moral conduct and right relationships that produces a stable, prosperous, peaceful society. Yet the principle stretches to cover more than just spiritual knowledge. What we do not know about physics, biology, medicine, economics, politics, business, and so many other matters can land us in a heap of trouble.

Within this truth, however, is a paradox: We do not know what we do not know. How, then, can we avoid disaster due to our ignorance? There are two steps we can take to lessen our chances of being bitten by our lack of knowledge: 1) We can develop a habit of learning, of seeking knowledge, and 2) we can admit that we do not know everything. The first is an action and the second is an attitude, and they must be put into practice together.

One of mankind’s greatest fears is of the unknown. This is what makes death, darkness, and many other phobic things so terrifying; people have no idea what to expect from them, so they allow themselves to imagine bogeymen at every turn. Yet knowledge about these “unknown” matters can alleviate our fears and enable us to conduct ourselves with poise and confidence when they confront us. Thus, with the knowledge provided by God’s Word, death, though it remains a hated enemy, becomes, in Paul’s more comforting term, “sleep” (see I Corinthians 11:30; 15:51; Ephesians 5:14; I Thessalonians 4:14). Without this truth, as we witness in the actions of men ignorant of it, there is no telling what people will do with their lives.

Human beings do and say stupid things out of ignorance all the time, and it often comes back to bite them. A recent example from the news illustrates this point. Though Americans live in the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, they are among the most ignorant when it comes to economics. Even the simplest workings of supply and demand seem to be beyond them, as we can see in the strident calls for price controls on gasoline and/or punitive regulations on oil companies for taking “exorbitant” profits during the recent run-up in gas prices.

A little knowledge of basic capitalism, however, puts what has happened over the past months into perspective. If either supply falls or demand rises, prices will naturally edge upward. In the present situation, supply has been reduced due to the destructive power of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (among other factors), while demand has remained essentially constant (it has actually decreased slightly). Thus, when the supplies were tightest—right after the storms struck—prices rose, and now that new supplies are coming online, prices are falling back toward their previous levels, though it will take some time for that to occur completely, if ever. This is how a market economy works. If there were a glut of oil, or if demand fell precipitously, the gas price would plunge, and the oil companies would take a financial drubbing.

The most recent financial statements of oil companies belie the accepted wisdom concerning their “outrageous” profits: They are making about ten cents of profit per gallon of gasoline. In percentage terms, they make single-digit profits. In comparison, a profitable stock or well-managed mutual fund will garner 10-15% earnings for the investor over a year’s time. One could easily conclude that the oil companies are, in fact, bringing in only mediocre returns for their stockholders. (By the way, the government makes an average of forty-six cents on each gallon of gasoline in taxes.)

What happens if the government places price controls on gasoline? When this was tried in the 1970s, the price of gas actually doubled as supply shrank (nobody wanted to produce gasoline anymore, since there was no profit in it). Lines of cars waiting to fill up their tanks stretched down the road and around the corner. Despite their promise, price controls end up hurting both businesses and consumers.

What happens if the government punishes oil companies for windfall profits by raising their taxes? The same thing. If selling gasoline is not profitable for the oil companies, they will cut production, and the motorist will suffer higher prices and dwindling supplies.

This is Economics 101, but most Americans seem to know little about it. In their ignorance, they could listen to populist politicians who want to pass legislation instituting price controls and/or taxes on windfall profits—and end up worse off than before!

What we do not know—about the properties of hydrogen, the principles of capitalism, or some other matter—could destroy us. This is especially dangerous spiritually, which is why Peter urges us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18). Similarly, Jesus commands us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), and to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7-11). God promises to answer our requests with gifts that will help us unlock the shackles of ignorance, producing the confidence to live by faith even while the world falls to pieces around us.

Friday, October 7, 2005

Teaching Respect for Property

From last week's essay, it is apparent that Constitutional protections of private property ownership have been eroded over the past several decades, not just by major Supreme Court decisions, but also by the steady encroachment of socialism into American culture. At the ends of the day, socialism is about state control, if not outright ownership, of the wealth-producing mechanisms of a country, and as the axiom says, all wealth ultimately comes out of the ground. When government begins to confiscate private properties and businesses in order to nationalize huge sectors of the economy, socialism is entering its final stages. The United States is, thankfully, not there quite yet.

Nevertheless, the groundwork has been laid. This is seen, first, in the general acceptance of governmental powers, particularly federal power, in areas that the Founders of this nation would be aghast to discover. Originally, federal power was severely limited to three major areas: defense, justice, and foreign policy. Beyond these, Congress was given the power to make necessary laws, coin money, and collect taxes. It was thought that the separation of powers and the various checks and balances would inhibit the growth of the government’s power. However, we now see the government regulating everything from car seats to cold medicine. The U.S. has so many arcane laws—federal, state, and local—that every citizen is a lawbreaker in one way or another.

The basis for full-blown socialism is also seen in the attitudes of the average citizen, especially young people, toward private property. One of the most visible manifestations of this attitude is the proliferation of insular, planned communities in which powerful homeowners’ associations police property owners on such “vital” matters as flagpole and fence heights, paint colors, and yard décor. Does a person really own his property if he can enhance and maintain it only according to the directives of an oversight committee? This is socialism in action.

It is becoming more obvious that children are not being taught to respect private property. Perhaps this is a failing on the part of parents and/or a product of government schooling, which was set up in the early- to mid-1900s by socialist educators like John Dewey. Whatever the cause, children no longer recognize boundaries between, say, public roads and private yards. Back in the day, parents taught their children that a neighbor’s driveway was his property, and that they should not use it unless they had a specific reason to be there and had the owner’s consent. They were also taught not to use neighbors’ yards as a short cut to somewhere else. It was also a given that a neighbor’s yard was not to be regarded as a trash dump for their candy wrappers, drink cans, and other assorted litter, nor was it a community garden in which they could dig holes, take topsoil, and remove mulch, flowers, leaves, branches, and fruits and vegetables at their whim.

Why are so many parents not teaching their children these basic principles?

Perhaps the primary reason is that they do not consider it all that important because they themselves do not have a great deal of respect for others’ possessions. In the great game called “keeping up with the Joneses,” diminishing the neighbor’s property increases one’s own. Envy and competition, hallmarks of rabid American materialism, can cause normally good neighbors to exhibit less-than-stellar attitudes and behaviors, which children are quick to mimic.

Another reason stems from the quickening pace of life; there is just so little time anymore to pass on these necessary principles. Parents are harried from the time they awaken to the time they fall wearily back into bed at night, and much of their time in between is spent away from home, not with their kids. Many parents likely justify this neglect by saying, “Who has time to take little Johnny aside and teach him the wisdom of the ages? Aren’t they supposed to be doing that at school?” But just the opposite of this latter question is true: Public schools, heavily influenced by “social studies” and liberal policies advocated by the teachers’ unions, push social values that sound as if they come from the Communist Manifesto rather than the Bible, the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence.

Yet a third reason, perhaps the most elusive to define, may be a nagging feeling among many adults that they do not really control anything, even what they supposedly own. This malaise arises from a multitude of factors present in American society: the aforementioned ubiquitous government power, oppressive personal and national debt, constant and fruitless bickering among politicians, the constant drumming of the media on bad news, increasing awareness of crime and terrorism, frequent and deadly natural disasters, the looming specter of recession or unemployment—in a word, a kind of hopelessness. Why teach Jimmy to take care of the car when the bank is just going to repossess it anyway? Why scold Sally about defacing her school locker when the government has billions of our dollars to fix things just like that? Why get all hot and bothered about passing on such values when life is worth so little and it may be snuffed out tomorrow? Too many believe that events are spinning out of control, and they are fatalistically just along for the ride.

Despite these purported reasons not to do so, teaching our children to respect the property of others is a righteous activity. The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), acts as the underlying principle of this responsibility, for trampling another’s rights of ownership is essentially stealing from him. At its mildest, it is abrogating his privilege to say how his property is treated. At its worst, it is downright robbery.

In the Gospels, our Savior says a great deal about stewardship, the overarching concept regarding the maintenance, use, and development of property, either one’s own or another’s (see, for instance, Luke 12:35-39; 16:1-8; 19:12-27; also, from the apostles, I Corinthians 4:1-2; Titus 1:7; I Peter 4:10). It is our duty as Christian parents to instruct our children about proper stewardship of first our and their possessions, and then the treatment of other people’s belongings. This will lay the right foundation for the more important stewardship of God’s gifts and blessings that leads to great reward in His Kingdom (Matthew 24:45-47).

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Obsolescing Right

Thursday, September 29, 2005, the Cato Institute’s “Daily Dispatch” ran this item concerning the debate over President Bush’s choice of John Roberts, Jr., as the seventeenth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court:
In “The Key Issue for the Court Isn't Abortion,” Edward H. Crane, founder and president of the Cato Institute, writes: "[A]bortion is a serious issue. . . . But the fact that the abortion debate so controls the debate over judicial philosophy is unfortunate. There are more important issues out there, such as federalism and private property rights, the cornerstones of our liberty."

The Cato Institute is a libertarian or “market-liberal” organization, stressing Constitutional freedoms along with a laissez-faire economic philosophy. As such, it tends to uphold individual rights as understood by the more conservative, constructionist jurists, though not exclusively (for instance, its support of medical marijuana runs counter to many conservatives’ positions).

It is in this light that we should see Crane’s comments regarding the “right” to abortion versus private property rights. That a woman should be free to kill her fetus was never even remotely contemplated by those who attended the Constitutional Convention, while property rights were front and center, since many of the representatives were wealthy landowners. They were there to embed basic rights and protections regarding property ownership in the very bedrock of American government. They understood that private ownership of property, particularly of land and of businesses, was a bulwark against tyranny and autocracy.

However, over two hundred years later, private property rights in the U.S. are slowly being abridged and are creeping toward obsolescence. Perhaps the greatest blow to this essential freedom occurred just a few months ago, as Crane notes, in “Kelo v. City of New London, where in a 5-to-4 vote the Supremes ruled it was fine for a local government to use the frightening power of eminent domain, not for public use as stated plainly in the Fifth Amendment, but for private gain that would generate added tax revenues for the city.” In response to the groundswell of opposition to this foolish decision, perhaps Congress, in concert with the states, will soon act to reverse Kelo.

Beyond this singular decision, property rights have been increasingly eroded as long as socialism has expanded in American government and culture. On its face, socialism—the, to some, outwardly beautiful, natural child of communism—emphasizes the larger group, in this case, the state, at the expense of the individual. It engulfs a person under wave after wave of restrictive laws and social programs that make him both increasingly subject to and dependent on the state, since his wages are confiscated through heavy taxation and government services are proffered in return.

As the socialist state approaches outright communism, it further curbs private ownership and simultaneously nationalizes both land and critical business sectors (utilities, communications, transportation, etc.). Though the U.S. has not reached this point—and fortunately the American psyche is highly sensitive to restrictions on private ownership—the process is underway, as growing federal holdings, extensive environmental building restrictions, and numerous centrally planned “growth” schemes indicate.

While some try to see a biblical basis for socialism in the experience of the early church (for instance, Acts 2:44), the overwhelming perspective of the Bible upholds private property rights. As early as Abraham (Genesis 23:17-18), God’s people are shown buying and selling all manner of property. Moreover, the laws God gave to Israel concerning property assume individual ownership—indeed, one could say that the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” etc.) makes property ownership a sacred right. Each person is to be satisfied with what God has blessed him and not crave what his neighbor owns.

Bits of biblical property law appear throughout the Old Testament, as in Deuteronomy 19:14, “You shall not remove your neighbor's landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land. . . .” Simply put, each individual or family owned specific plots of land whose boundaries were not to be violated. God later promises terrible retribution on Judah for doing just this: “The princes of Judah are like those who remove a landmark; I will pour out My wrath on them like water” (Hosea 5:10).

A main feature of the Jubilee was the repossession of land by its original owner, even if he had been forced to sell it due to debt in the intervening years (Leviticus 25:13-17). God set down rather strict rules regarding the sale and purchase of family lands so that Israelite society would have its base in individually owned properties that remained within families through inheritance. For example, when Ahab pressures Naboth to give him his vineyard, the Jezreelite responds, “The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” (I Kings 21:3). After Naboth is dead through Jezebel’s machinations, and Ahab has taken possession of the vineyard, God harshly condemns their blatant abuse of authority, cursing them to ignominious deaths (verses 17-24).

In the New Testament account of Ananias and Sapphira’s sin, Peter voices the basic, biblical principle of private property ownership: “While it [their land] remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it [the profit] not in your own control?” (Acts 5:4). Even while the brethren “had all things in common” (Acts 4:32), private property rights were not set aside. The entire New Testament operates under this view, to the point that the Mark of the Beast involves abolishing true Christians’ right to buy and sell (Revelation 13:17).

God believes in ownership: “For the world is Mine, and all its fullness” (Psalm 50:12). He allows us to own things under Him to teach us wonderful lessons pertaining to stewardship and authority so that we can learn to be more like Him and eventually exercise great responsibility in His Kingdom (see the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27). Sadly, the ever-weakening right to property in this nation is another state of affairs that exposes just how far America has drifted from God and biblical principles.

Friday, September 2, 2005

The Thin, Frail Line

In the huge water bowl that is the city of New Orleans now, the looting began not long after the worst of Hurricane Katrina had passed. Some of those who had stayed behind to weather the storm ventured out into the still wet and windy streets and began plundering grocery, electronics, clothing stores—anywhere unguarded items sat "free" for the taking. Authorities were overwhelmed by rescue operations and damage assessments to pay much attention to the millions of dollars of merchandise being pilfered in plain sight.

On Wednesday, TV viewers across the nation woke up to the news that someone had taken a potshot at one of the rescue helicopters near the Superdome, and that several pilots refused to land after they saw gun-toting individuals in the crowd below them. That same day, a sniper interrupted a patient evacuation at Charity Hospital with several shots, and someone opened fire at the rear of the hospital not long thereafter. The same hospital had earlier been forced to move its patients to higher floors to escape looters down below. New Orleans police informed CNN that groups of armed men roamed the city at night, and that officers were removing ammunition from gunshops to keep it off the streets. Only 2,800 National Guardsmen were available to restore order in the city on Wednesday, though as many as 24,000 were expected by next week.

The situations at both the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center became tense and potentially explosive as the days wore on. Authorities promised food, water, medical assistance, and basic hygiene supplies, but there was little to go around. They pledged buses to take the refugees to other shelters, but the slow process and frequent disruptions ratcheted frustration and anger to the breaking point. Dead bodies, crying infants, sickness, and human feces added nothing helpful to the growing discontent.

Consider these conditions in contrast to a mere week before. In one day, a thriving city of a half-million people endured nearly complete devastation. Its infrastructure was destroyed to the point that even basic services—electricity, water, sewer, transportation, communication—functioned at a bare minimum, if at all. Relief of any sort had to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away, as the 75-mile swath of the hurricane’s destruction stretched far to the north. Yet, Katrina's almost unfathomable power had cut or clogged many nearby land and watery arteries, making movement of goods and services almost impossible. As London's Telegraph so succinctly phrased it, New Orleans swiftly descended into a "pre-industrial" condition.

Almost as quickly, the thin, frail line between civilization and anarchy began to crumble. The suddenly primitive conditions brought out many individuals’ basest natures. The book of Judges describes a similar situation in Israel before a monarchy brought order to the nation: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; 17:6). Any thoughts of “all for one, and one for all” were quickly submerged under loud and insistent cries of “each man for himself.”

How far is any one of us from acting out of pure selfishness? In reality, that is all that lawless behavior is; it is base human nature desperately trying to preserve itself and get as much for itself as possible without concern for anyone else. It falls at the far end of the spectrum from God’s way of life, the way of give and loving concern for one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:39; I John 3:16-19). This is why the apostle John defines sin as lawlessness (I John 3:4); it is failure to consider and conform one’s actions against God’s standard of behavior. Paul informs us that “the carnal mind [human nature] is enmity against [hostile to] God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Anarchy, as we have seen in New Orleans, occurs when the majority of human conduct devolves to each person deciding for himself what is best, despite any recognized standard—and the Devil take the hindmost!

Now is a good time to consider how a disaster like Hurricane Katrina would change our behavior. Would we continue to abide by the laws of the land—and the laws of God—or would we become a law unto ourselves? Would we rise to the occasion or sink into the chaos of disorder? Would we lend a hand to others suffering with us, or would we be like Ishmael, “his hand . . . against every man” (Genesis 16:12)? Would we cooperate or compete?

Each of us would like to think of himself as a good person, one who would always do the right and honorable thing. But perhaps the looters and shooters in New Orleans thought of themselves in the same way just a few days ago, and look how they are behaving now! Severe trials can pressure a person into doing things he never imagined doing before they hit, and this is why godly behavior is a matter of character. One’s true character surfaces in tough times, and to be effective, it must be developed before the calamity strikes.

The crisis at the close of this age “is nearer than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). What kind of character will we have to work with when it arrives? Will we endure on the strength of faith, hope, and love, or will we buckle under the onslaught of selfish human nature and let out the ravenous, depraved beast of lawlessness? Now is the time to thicken the veneer that separates us from the depths of human carnality, and we do that by strengthening our relationship with God (James 4:7-10).

Friday, August 26, 2005

Open Mouth, Reveal Heart

The news of the week—beyond the Cindy Sheehan hysteria down in Crawford, Texas—involved the latest verbal blunder of televangelist Pat Robertson. The 700 Club and Christian Broadcasting Network founder has felt the fury of the media before, (c)PatRobertson.comparticularly just after 9/11 when he and Jerry Falwell agreed that America’s tolerance of homosexuality, feminism, and abortion, among other sins, made her deserving of some divine punishment. This time, he forayed into American foreign policy, opining during Monday’s broadcast:

You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if [Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.

It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and . . . this is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly.

(c)CBN.comWe have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

On Wednesday, Robertson defended his comments, saying:

I didn't say ‘assassination.’ I said our special forces should ‘take him out.’ And ‘take him out’ can be a number of things, including kidnapping; there are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the [Associated Press], but that happens all the time.

His belated and rather limp justification does nothing to explain why a supposedly Christian minister would advocate removing foreign heads of state from power, either by assassination, kidnapping, or some other method. Another “Christian” leader, Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, said in a recent interview in which Robertson’s comments were discussed, held that assassination was biblically justified in time of war. The only problem is that no one seems to be able to find the chapter and verse where such views are condoned.

This thinking has its roots in the “just war” doctrine, the brainchild of the Catholic theologian, Augustine, in the late fourth or early fifth century. In it, he posits that war is sometimes necessary and just, and that, in such just wars, Christians must comport themselves in a moral fashion. Not all “Christian” nations have subscribed to this teaching, but most give it lip-service to justify its military actions. Strangely, religious conservatives—especially in the last four years—have embraced it almost wholesale in support of the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war on Iraq. “Stand by Your Man” comes to mind.

Despite so many religious leaders’ endorsement, the “just war” doctrine is antithetical to Christianity. The sixth commandment absolutely forbids it. Jesus’ teaching in the four gospels and the apostles’ teaching in the rest of the New Testament clearly stand against it. What can be simpler than “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), “You shall not murder” (verse 21), “. . . turn the other [cheek]” (verse 39), and “. . . love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (verse 44)? And these plain instructions are from only one chapter!

The apostles are similarly of one voice in this matter. Paul writes:

Repay no one evil for evil. . . . If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord [Deuteronomy 32:35]. Therefore “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head [Proverbs 25:21-22].” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

He later says that “we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (II Corinthians 10:3-4), meaning Christians do not fight with physical arms but spiritual powers. James calls Christians who “fight and war” “adulterers and adulteresses” who make themselves enemies of God by applying the unrighteous methods of this world (James 4:1-4). Finally, John writes, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:15).

Some may contend that these teachings do not apply because they are instructions to individuals—but are not nations merely large, organized groups of individuals? The principles apply just as well in a macrocosm as in a microcosm. Killing on a national scale is just as ungodly as killing on a personal one.

The Robertson fiasco only highlights a major problem in today’s Christianity, even among so-called fundamentalists: hypocrisy. The vast majority of supposedly Christian ministers and churches have traded the truth of the Bible—the Word of God—for unrighteous mammon, political gain, or popularity. Their unregenerate hearts are revealed by what comes from their mouths, “for out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders . . .” (Matthew 15:18-19). Rather than walk the difficult path to eternal life, they have taken the broad way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14), the way that is “right in [their] own eyes” (Judges 21:25), the “way that seems right to a man, . . . the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). Jesus Christ will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matthew 7:23).

There is a great deal of wisdom in the old saw that religion and politics do not mix.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Bad Weather Is Not Climate Change

Most of the United States suffered severe—indeed, paralyzing—heat this past week, relieved by a cold front that slogged its way across the nation at a snail's pace. Charlotte, known for its sauna-like summer weather, endured consecutive highs of 100° on Tuesday and Wednesday, which, although they were not record highs, were debilitating to just about everyone. The water in the kids' pool in the backyard was as hot as bathwater, and rubber-soled shoes felt as if they were melting after just a few minutes exposure to the asphalt. We think that is bad—temperatures reached as high as 124° in parts of Arizona!

The U.S. is not alone in its weather woes. The United Kingdom's Telegraph newspaper reported:

At least 200 people were feared dead last night after two days of freak monsoon rains flooded India's Maharastra state, leaving up to 100,000 stranded in Bombay, the country's financial capital.

Aerial photos of the city showed thousands of cars left abandoned along dual carriageways which were turned into rivers after 37 inches of rain—the average for the entire month of July—fell on the city in a single day on Tuesday.

. . . the rain [was] forecast to continue for another 48 hours. . . . (Peter Foster, "37 inches of rain in one day," July 28, 2005)

The Telegraph also reported on a rarity in the island nation: "At least 12 people have been injured, three seriously, after a mini-tornado struck part of south Birmingham. The tornado felled large trees, overturned cars and left parts of the Moseley and Kings Heath areas of the city strewn with glass, masonry and furniture" ("At least 12 hurt as tornado hits Birmingham," July 28, 2005). Though tornadoes can occur anywhere the conditions are favorable, one expects to hear about them mowing down parts of rural Oklahoma or Kansas, not the UK's second-largest city.

Other parts of the world are experiencing crazy weather as well. In Europe, this summer's severe weather has killed dozens of people. Heavy flooding has occurred from Germany to Romania, yet wildfires are being ignited by hot, dry weather from Sweden to Portugal. In addition, this year's hurricane season is off to a record start in that there have already been seven named storms (Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Franklin, and Gert)—and the peak of the season is still another month away.

Nevertheless, despite these weather extremes, there is no logical reason to believe that the world is experiencing radical climate change, as some environmental activists and politicians would like us to suppose. Such an assumption ignores the basic difference between weather and climate. Any reputable dictionary will explain that weather is "the state of the atmosphere at a given time," while climate is "the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years." In other words, the primary difference between weather and climate is duration: Weather is short-term and climate is long-term. Thus, no spate of particularly bad weather is conclusive evidence of climate change.

Perhaps seeing this in analogy will help us to understand. Let us imagine that qualified doctors at several prestigious hospitals in various places around the globe report that they had delivered babies with twelve fingers. If we were like the radical environmentalists, we would immediately call a press conference to inform the world that the human species is on the brink of worldwide, detrimental, evolutionary change, and that if all the nations of the world did not band together now and voluntarily engage in expensive programs to forestall these terrible mutations, future generations will suffer. In addition, individual citizens should "think globally and act locally," and report all sightings of twelve-fingered people to authorities for prosecution under the new anti-mutation legislation being proposed by sympathetic lawmakers.

Ridiculous, right? Yes, but very much in tune with how radical environmentalists have acted over the past few decades concerning climate change. Indeed, extra-fingered babies are born all over the world, though it is not common. This condition is called polydactylism, and it occurs once in about every 500 births. However, though it occurs, it is not logical to assume that it presages radical, imminent, evolutionary development—good or bad—for the human race. It is merely a birth defect.

This is where the environmentalists and the scientists who support them have gone astray. They have made an illogical assumption from climate models that rare extremes of weather indicate future, catastrophic climate change. It is a non-sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). Terrible heat waves in summer do not mean global warming, nor do bitterly cold winters portend the next ice age.

Climate is far too complex for such simplistic reasoning. Trends over decades or centuries are far more reliable, and honest scientists will admit that the current warming trend is gradual (rising only tenths of a degree) and expected (we are coming off the Little Ice Age that lasted from approximately 1350 to 1850). They will also acknowledge, perhaps more grudgingly, that human activity through the use of fossil fuels cannot make a significant impact on climate, and that solar and volcanic activities are far more likely to be the causes of large swings in temperature and precipitation.

Remember, God may have called us as weak and foolish, but He does not want us to remain so. He warns us to "test all things" (I Thessalonians 5:21), not just to accept them as given. Further, he exhorts us to "shun . . . vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness" (II Timothy 2:16) and to "avoid foolish disputes, . . . for they are unprofitable and useless" (Titus 3:9). In other words, we should not become caught up in the world's futile, godless debates because they will only lead us from the truth.

Besides, the Bible itself tells us that the hand of God, not some climatic disaster, will bring this present, evil world to a crashing halt.

Friday, July 15, 2005

So There Has Been Another Terror Strike

A week and a day have hustled down the track since the 7/7 bombings in London. While the four bombs did not destroy nearly what the 9/11 airplanes did nor kill nearly as many people, they still did significant damage to bodies, bricks, and psyches in Great Britain. With more than 50 dead and several hundred wounded, they aroused the attention of Londoners fixated on the Live 8 concerts, the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and London's recent victory over Paris in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games decision.

I happened to be in France on a church visit when the bombings occurred, giving me the opportunity to "take the temperature" of the average European on the street. Though the common reaction was not, "Oh, yeah? Another terrorist bombing? I'll have a cappuccino and a croissant, thanks," it was nonetheless unremarkable. I got the distinct impression—not from our members but from those with whom I interacted in airports and train stations in France and The Netherlands—that this was just another bombing.

I had to pass through a major Paris Metro station, Gare du Nord, Charles de Gaulle airport, and Amsterdam's Schipol airport the day after the bombings, and though the security was a little tighter than normal—instead of seeing a couple of machine-gun-toting soldiers patrolling the corridors, I saw several—passengers were calmly making their connections. I had the chance to speak with a couple of Britons on a train, and they were essentially unfazed by the attacks. Essentially, their reaction was, "This is the world we live in."

The news reports that I saw—on BBC World, primarily—seemed to support their calm acceptance of terrorism as the status quo. From Tony Blair to the common London commuter, the British stiff upper lip was the typical comment, spoken in a well-modulated, calm voice: "We will not let this bother us. We will persevere. We will not give the terrorists the victory. Life goes on." There may be little or nothing wrong with a reaction like this, but it is curious in its near-apathy. Perhaps it comes across as strange and weak to us in comparison to the average American's reaction after 9/11, which contained a great deal more outrage: "Let's roll! These people are going to pay for what they've done!"

Our understanding of their nearly non-reaction has to factor in Europe's long history of terrorism. The United States has had a long-distance relationship with terror; though the federal government, particularly the military, has dealt with terrorists for decades, only in 1993 in the first World Trade Center bombing did the militant, fundamentalist Muslims begin to strike on American soil. Europe, however, has been dealing with terrorism—and not just Islamic but homegrown terrorism—for decades. Britain's long struggle with the Irish Republican Army goes back several generations, while other European nations have contended with their own revolutionary factions at least since the beginning of the Cold War. Violent riots, shootings, car bombs, mail bombs, kidnappings, and other forms of terrorism occur with such regularity that the general populace has become somewhat inured to them, even those on the scale of last Thursday's atrocities.

This may help to explain why so many Europeans criticize America's War on Terror as an overreaction: They are far past the "fight or flight" reaction and deep into acceptance of the situation as "normal" or at least "commonplace." Since none of the measures taken over the past decades has stemmed the terror tide, they feel that the reasonable, mature response is to shrug and move on. Do not give the terrorists cause to gloat. America's volatile reaction, then, is thought to be childish and counterproductive. It will only incite more terrorism, they say.

We need to take this contrast into consideration from a Christian standpoint. How do we react to the spiritual equivalents of acts of terrorism—trials, temptations, persecutions, etc.? Do we, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, get up, brush ourselves off, and go about our business as if nothing happened? Or are we so offended and outraged that we stand up with our fists balled and a resolute gleam in our eyes? Do we mumble, "Not again," or do we shout, "That's it! I've had enough!"?

Truly, "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (II Corinthians 10:4), so our fight is not the kind the American government wages against Islamic terrorists. But the martial spirit is no less necessary in our fight against sin and the allurements of Satan and his world. The Bible is full of military allusions: from putting on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:13) to "endur[ing] hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (II Timothy 2:3). The Christian cannot be passive or indifferent to the very real struggle "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Peter calls for steadfast resistance (I Peter 5:8-9), and Paul commands us pull down strongholds and cast down everything "that exalts itself against the knowledge of God," capturing and punishing any sort of disobedience left in us (II Corinthians 10:4-6). Jesus Christ Himself is portrayed as a great Captain of spiritual armies, out of whose mouth goes a sword used to strike and rule (Revelation 19:15; see Hebrews 4:12).

Christianity is a religion of action, not passivity. God's children need to be alert and prepared to react decisively to the enemy's attacks, wherever and whenever they may occur. "Be sober, be vigilant," says Peter in I Peter 5:8, and Paul writes, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light" (Romans 13:12).

Sounds like "fighting words" to me.