Friday, November 24, 2006

Sacred Cows

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Even though we live in a world deluged by knowledge—after all, our day is known as the "Information Age"—we often rely heavily on our preconceived ideas about many things. On the other hand, if what we believe about a thing is not a preconception, it is often a misconception because we do not take the time or effort to find out the
truth. In other words, some of what we believe is the result of ignorance, rather than true knowledge, while other beliefs are the result of prejudice, rather than true judgment. It is to be hoped that true Christians are whittling away at—or better yet, carving out big chunks of—both of these.

Some of these preconceptions or misconceptions become so dear that they turn into "sacred cows." According to the dictionary, a sacred cow is something "that is often unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition." This term was coined from the Hindu practice of worshipping cows. If any non-Hindu suggested that the cow, as a dumb animal, should not be allowed the run of the country, a Hindu would take great offense. This subject is immune to reason, criticism, or opposition.

A few of our ideas about biblical events or people are sacred cows. To some people, Herbert Armstrong is a sacred cow. They mistakenly venerate him so highly that they brook no criticism of him at all, forgetting that he, like all the rest of us, was human and made mistakes. Too many jump to the other extreme, saying that he did nothing right! Moreover, we have had skewered the sacred cow of an exclusive body of the true church in one corporate organization. Other sacred cows are, for some, church government, a Monday Pentecost, the new moons, postponements, conspiracy theories, etc.

One sacred cow is that the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken into Assyrian captivity, and nearly 150 years later, Judah was taken to Babylon. Generally, this is historically accurate, but it is not the whole story. A few years after Israel's fall to Assyria, a major segment of Judah's population was also taken captive by Assyria! Suddenly, the sacred cow of the Ten Lost Tribes becomes inaccurate. Not only the ten northern tribes were "lost," but even a large portion of Levi, Benjamin, and Judah lost their identities too! Now, in reality, we have thirteen remnant lost tribes! This is one reason why later Bible writers call the Jews "the of Judah."

Most people are ignorant of this because the Bible does not directly mention it. However, the Bible agrees with the historic record: "And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them" (II Kings 18:13). This occurred only about eight years after Israel fell to Sargon. What did Sennacherib do upon taking all these cities? He boasts in his inscriptions that he took 46 fenced cities of Judah and deported 200,150 captives to the same areas to which Sargon had transported Israel. He says he left Hezekiah confined in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage." In the end, only Jerusalem escaped intact. In essence, this means that only those few of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi who had taken refuge in Jerusalem were not deported or killed! How is that for skewering a sacred cow?

Another sacred cow is the occupation of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What did they do for a living? How did they become so wealthy? The movies made about the patriarchs usually depict them as nomadic shepherds. Even though the Bible describes Abraham as immensely rich in livestock, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2), moviemakers usually make him seem just on the verge of poverty, dressing him in dirty brown robes, giving him a hangdog expression, and surrounding him with a few sheep and goats. How much wealth could a landless shepherd amass? Let us notice a few biblical facts:

Genesis 14:13-16 tells the story of an escaped captive coming to Abraham to tell him about the attack upon Sodom and about Lot's capture. Why did the man come to Abraham? Abraham had 318 trained and armed men, which he quickly marshaled and led into battle, successfully routing the forces of the four kings of Mesopotamia. Suddenly, Abraham starts taking on another dimension.

In Genesis 23, the Hittite elders address Abraham as "my lord" and "a mighty prince among us." They then proceed to negotiate ruthlessly with him for Sarah's burial cave, finally agreeing on the price of 400 shekels, a lot of money at the time. The Hittites ruled a vast empire centered in Asia Minor, and they had built it primarily on trade rather than conquest. They haggle with him as a sign of their respect for—not a dirty, poor shepherd—but a successful and incredibly wealthy merchant! It appears that Abraham was a businessman of great skill, intelligence, and power!

If the Egyptians considered shepherds to be an abomination (Genesis 46:34), why did Pharaoh and the princes of Egypt accept Abram and Sarai so readily in Genesis 12:14-16? Simple—Abram was not a shepherd but a wealthy merchant! The patriarchs were shepherds, in a sense, only because vast flocks and herds were necessary to their main occupation: trade! In that society, livestock acted as a form of currency just like silver and gold. Coins had not yet been invented, and some found it easier to trade in livestock rather than in heavy gold and silver. In a way, we carry on this practice by calling our trading centers "stock markets."

We tend to forget Abraham's origins. He was born in Ur, a large, commercial city of Mesopotamia, and he lived there into his seventies. He then moved with Terah, his father, to Haran, a major stop on the caravan route that ran between Babylon and Egypt. Trading seems to have been the patriarchs' business for several generations. Genesis 34:10 shows Jacob and his sons allying with the Hivites to carry on the family trade.

Another proof of their occupation as traders can been seen by mapping the patriarchs' dwelling places in Canaan. The resulting map shows that all of their activities took place at the junctions of major trading routes. The patriarchs lived where their business could profit them the most!

How does skewering this sacred cow benefit us? It is definitely not knowledge necessary for salvation, but it is the truth. It is not a preconception or a misconception. It is a small piece of knowledge that may help us understand more important things. For instance, God certainly has nothing against His children being in business and making money. In addition, we can better relate to some of the problems the patriarchs had to overcome.

It should certainly make us more careful in our Bible study to avoid relying on preconceptions. Proverbs 15:14 tells us, "The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness." We should be seeking the knowledge that will help us to understand the truth and shun the foolishness of sacred cows. This will help to show God that, rather than believing the lie, we have received the love of the truth (II Thessalonians 2:10).

Friday, November 10, 2006

What If ... ?

Over the past year I have read three books by science fiction author Harry Turtledove. He is well known in science fiction circles as the current master of the alternate history novel. For example, in one book, Gunpowder Empire, he tells the story, set in our modern world, of life under a Roman Empire that never declined and fell. In another, Ruled Britannia, he sets out a scenario for Elizabethan England conquered by the Spanish Armada. In a third, The Guns of the South, he ponders just what might have happened if the Confederacy had been victorious in the Civil War. They make for interesting, if not escapist, reading.

As we watch historic events take place, it is easy to fall into the habit of wondering, "What if. . . ?" What if the Soviet Union had invaded Western Europe after Berlin fell during World War II? What if Douglas MacArthur had gotten his way in Korea? What if John F. Kennedy had not been struck down by an assassin's bullet? What if Richard Nixon had played things square and fair? What if American forces had won in Vietnam? What if Jimmy Carter's botched rescue attempt during the Iranian Hostage Crisis had instead been successful? What if Ronald Reagan had been killed by John Hinckley? What if Gorbachev had not torn down the Berlin Wall? What if Bill Clinton had responded with force to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center? What if Al Gore's chads had given him the presidency in 2000? What if Iraq's Republican Guard had put up a real fight against the Coalition of the Willing? What if, what if, what if!

The mainstream media is portraying the 2006 midterm elections as a historical event of like proportions to those just mentioned. They are treating it as a world-changing event, the likes of which we have never experienced in our lifetimes. It is the second American Revolution! It means sweeping change for America! The Iraq quagmire will be solved! The world will love the United States again!

Does it mean these things? Hardly. Let's not be oversold. But what if the Republicans had not lost?

Most of us have heard the expression, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties." This is not really true. There is a great deal of difference between the parties, as one covers the vast expanse of the far-left to the center of the political spectrum, while the other holds the equally vast far-right to the center. In other words, the parties are two very large tents, within which are wide-ranging differences in ideology and approach. For instance, the Republican tent includes not just anti-sodomy evangelicals, but also Log Cabin Republicans, a group of homosexuals who support the party's fiscal policies. In the same way, the Democrat party houses both patriotic American soldiers and anti-war zealots. Looked at this way, it is a too general statement to say that Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative.

However, each party has a solid base, and it is here that the labels "liberal" and "conservative" can be applied to Democrats and Republicans respectively. On the Democrat side, the liberal base supplies the party with its bread-and-butter issues: minority rights, entitlements, increasing taxes, multiculturalism, cutting military spending, and the like. For Republicans, the conservative base calls for a strong military, reining in federal spending, smaller government, reducing taxes, privatization of Social Security and health care, strong foreign policy, etc. These general aims bob to the surface in just about every election.

One would think that, all things being equal, if a politician would support all the major ideals of his party's base, he would garner plenty of votes to win whatever office he desired. The problem is that not all things are equal. Essentially, each party's base matches the other party's base, but the great mass of people on either side of those bases is large enough to swing an election either way. Ergo, a politician will have difficulty winning, especially a national election, by clinging to the principles of his party's base. In other words, he must campaign as a moderate, a centrist, while giving lip-service to his base. This strategy has worked splendidly for every winning Presidential candidate since the 1988 election.

So, what if the Republican party had managed to hold on to both the House and the Senate on Tuesday? From this perspective, very little would have changed. Only a few true conservative Congressmen and women were voted out of office, and very few truly liberal ones were voted in. In essence, there was an exchange of moderates in our nation's most august chambers, the only difference being a few more blue jerseys than red ones. At least one pundit at a major news organization has speculated that in order to win, Democrats had to run more conservative candidates to beat sitting Republicans, thus Congress may actually be more conservative now than before! However, the Congressional leadership is almost entirely liberal, so the legislation that will come up before both Houses will likely reflect liberal ideology.

In effect, the American people voted for the status quo but with a liberal lean, whereas before it was canted conservatively. Unless a major crisis ensues, this should not produce too great of an effect on American culture and morality over the next two years due to the almost certain gridlock that will overcome Washington under a narrow Democratic majority and lame duck George W. Bush.

The real prize, the 2008 Presidential election, will more clearly indicate America's course. We can expect the winning candidate to run as a moderate, castigating his or her opponent for extreme ideas that will spell the ruin of this great nation. The electorate will vote for the candidate who promises them more of the center of the road—in other words, not a leader but a place-holder after what they consider to have been a reckless, controversial "cowboy" regime. While that may seem to be the safe way to go, they will not consider that a person sitting in the middle of the road is in danger of being hit from either or both sides.

Bible prophecy, of course, says nothing specific about American political events. However, it does say that, as the day of the Lord looms, "the remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15) has a terrible problem with seeking false religion, injustice, corruption, over-taxation, and "mighty sins." God's advice is, "Seek the LORD and live" (verse 6), a call to return to godliness and truth. He does not say, "Vote Republican!" or "Vote Democrat!" but "Repair your relationship with Me!" Elections mean nothing but decline and ruin if the people of this land neglect their obligations to the One who made them and rules them from heaven.

What if Americans actually took God's advice . . . ?

Friday, November 3, 2006

A Polluted National Landscape

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Midterm elections will take place across America next Tuesday. Democrats are licking their chops, confident that they will win back the House of Representatives (most analysts are saying they will win twenty seats from Republicans) and perhaps the Senate (it will probably be close). History shows us that the party in
power often loses midterm elections in a sitting president's second term. Only Franklin Roosevelt held serve, yet that event occurred when Democrats dominated the Senate, holding more than eighty seats.

Church of the Great God is strictly apolitical. We do not endorse any party or any candidates, and we teach that those whom God has called do not have authority to vote. Christians, whom the Bible describes as "the called" or "the elect," have their citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20), so they are strangers and foreigners even in the land of their birth. Just as illegal aliens have no right to vote in U.S. elections, so are true Christians banned from casting a ballot. "No one," says our Lord and Savior, "can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24). It is a matter of loyalty.

Nevertheless, our apolitical stance does not restrict us from commenting on the political scene, especially when the government and its representatives cross the lines of morality and justice. Unfortunately, these lines are crossed all the time, giving us plenty of fodder for crying aloud and sparing not (Isaiah 58:1), a responsibility of God's ministers. Like the prophets of old, it is part of the duty of the ministry to point out where this nation has left the true path and offer godly suggestions for restoring Christian values to public and private life.

The scene today, just days before the nation goes to the polls, contains a plethora of targets for criticism. From mistakes in handling the war in Iraq to foot-dragging on solving the illegal immigrant crisis, from sex scandals to campaign finance violations, from poorly worded "jokes" to biting negative campaign ads, the national political landscape is strewn with controversy, immorality, and foolishness. We can blame these black marks on politicians, who indeed carry a large part of the blame, but that is missing the point. The political landscape is marred because our society at large is sick, from top to bottom, or as Isaiah puts it so much more eloquently: "The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and putrefying sores" (Isaiah 1:5-6).

Isaiah is not speaking, of course, of physical bruises and disease but of spiritual and thus of cultural decay at work. He sees the nation as a body made up of many individuals (much as Paul describes Christ's body, the church, in I Corinthians 12), but because so many of the individuals are spiritually weak and sick, the nation itself is diseased throughout. The head, which he describes as "sick," represents the leadership, while the heart represents the patriots, those who work for the good of the country—and even it is "faint" or weak and faltering. Beyond these two critical areas, every part of the body from sole to pate is unsound. The prophet describes a sorry, almost hopeless condition.

So the old adage is true: "People get the leaders they deserve." While the politicians may be constantly in the public eye, and their indiscretions thus become front page news, they are not altogether unlike their constituents. Can we claim that no voter has ever had a homosexual tryst? Is it possible that no voter ever took some money under the table to smooth the way for a deal? Certainly, no voter has ever hired an illegal alien to sweeten his bottom line! Or evaded paying his taxes. Or smoked pot or snorted cocaine. Or voiced an ethnic slur. Or dumped some engine oil down the sewer, etc. No, even beyond the all-important issues, politicians reflect those who back them.

The liberals are fond of another saying: "Think globally. Act locally." It is a common mantra of environmentalists, who urge individuals to clean up their own acts, their own properties, as the best place to start to reform the whole world. The saying contains a true principle: A person can only change himself, and if we desire a large-scale transformation of behavior for the better, many individuals will have to resolve to change. Right now, the momentum of societal behavior runs steeply downhill toward degeneration and immorality. To shift that momentum back toward morality and Christian values will take a massive effort, one that may be beyond America's ability to achieve.

But it will certainly never even get started if Christians themselves do not live for all their worth according to God's standards (Matthew 19:17). We cannot rely on being joined by thousands of fellow citizens, let alone millions of conservative Americans, in a counter-cultural revolution. We cannot expect media pundits and political leaders to lead the charge back up the hill toward decency and civility. We cannot hope that the fight to return justice, honor, and true freedom to the American character will be swift and easy—in fact, it may well be hopeless. Yet, despite the lack of expectation for society in general, the effort itself is noble and worthwhile to each individual who undertakes it because of the personal transformation it effects (Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 3:18).

Politics is dirty, and because it involves the quest for temporal power, it has always been a nasty business. A moral society can keep this distasteful institution in check by sheer weight of influence, but when society itself is rolling in the gutter, politics has free rein to run roughshod over anyone and anything in its way. As Solomon says, "By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted, but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked" (Proverbs 11:11). The next few years will prove whether the upright or the wicked will prevail.