Friday, September 14, 2012

Interesting Times

A purported ancient Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times," and so we do. Important events seem to occur about once a week these days, and over the past week, in my estimation, we have witnessed at least two of them. One happened right here in Charlotte, North Carolina, while the other happened a few days later a world away.

The first of these, which took place last Tuesday, September 5, 2012, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, concerns the re-inclusion of references to Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to God in the official Democratic Party National Platform. Earlier in the week, the exclusion of these terms had been made public, and the reaction to them from Joe and Jane American was decidedly negative. Thus, the decision was made, evidently by high-ranked party leaders—President Obama himself certainly gave his approval—to return the pro-Israel, pro-God language to the platform. To do that, however, a two-thirds majority of the assembled delegates had to approve the reinstatement.

The matter was brought up in Tuesday's session. The convention chairman, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought the change to the floor for a voice vote. The video of this is clear: He did not get the required two-thirds majority. In fact, Villaraigosa had to ask the delegates three different times, and each time it sounds as if the "nay" votes became louder. After the second request, the L.A. mayor was clearly perplexed, and a Democrat party official had to advise him, "You got to let them do what they are going to do," which he took to mean that he was to ignore the crowd and its reaction. He asked for their votes a third time, and then read the scripted response from the teleprompter: "In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds have voted in the affirmative. The motion is adopted, and the platform has been amended as shown on the screen."

While the official platform now retains the mentions of Jerusalem and God, it cannot be denied that the original document purposely left them out, and further, that the sentiment of the convention delegates was at least evenly divided on the matter. Those who shouted, "No!" louder and louder each time were clearly agitated that the approval had been rammed through over their objections. How ironic that the party that proudly bears "democracy" in its name did not abide by democratic principles on this issue but applied the heavy hand of authoritarianism to do its leaders' will. If the parliamentary process had been followed at the convention, God and Jerusalem would not have been part of the party platform.

What is more, some commentators have made a point of drawing a line between the three nay votes on this issue and the apostle Peter's three denials of Christ before His crucifixion, which is found in all four gospel accounts (see Matthew 26:31-35, 69-74; Mark 14:27-31, 66-71; Luke 22:31-34, 56-61; John 13:36:38; 18:17, 25-27). Like Peter, the Democrat Party has a longtime association with Christianity and Christian values and claims to be doing the Lord's work in caring for the poor and powerless in society. However, when its delegates are asked to choose to support mere language about God and Jerusalem—when they must take a stand one way or the other—they, in effect, deny Him.

Since those at the convention were delegates of Democrats all over the nation, the loud denial makes one wonder how closely they represent party members at home. Does at least half of the largest political party in the nation want nothing to do with God? Have America's citizens drifted so far from its religious roots that association with God and Jerusalem are considered a political liability? These are serious questions because of what Paul calls a "faithful saying" in II Timothy 2:11-13, part of which reads, "If we deny Him, He will also deny us" (verse 12). That has truly frightening implications.

The second "interesting event" occurred in Benghazi, Libya, on the eleventh anniversary of the al Qaida attacks on September 11, 2001. Protesters stormed the U.S. Consulate there, and in a night-long, well-planned and well-coordinated attack by professional militants—a violent, anti-Gadhafi group connected with al Qaida—the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other embassy staff members. When the killers attacked the U.S. compound, they were heavily armed with anti-aircraft automatic cannon and rocket-propelled grenades.

The news media reported that the attack was in response to a YouTube trailer for a low-budget, anti-Muhammad film, Innocence of Muslims, made by a Christian Egyptian-American filmmaker in the U.S. Many Muslims across the Middle East consider the film blasphemous for its negative depiction of Islam's founder. According to Reuters, the film trailer portrays Muhammad "as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake," while others add that the movie characterizes him as a pederast, a murderer, and a homosexual. However, as more information surfaces, it appears that the attackers used the protest over the film to carry out a terrorist strike against the United States, if nothing else, to commemorate the 9/11 attack.

It has also been reported that vital intelligence files have gone missing after the attack, including sensitive documents identifying Libyans working with the American government and private information regarding oil contracts. Also missing was information locating the supposedly secret safe house where much of the consular staff had retreated and which itself came under attack later that night.

Worse, the Independent reports:
According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and ‘lockdown,' under which movement is severely restricted.
This is being called "a serious and continuing security breach." The Obama administration denies that the information was actionable.

To this point, the U.S. response has been tepid, issuing an apology to Muslims for the insult against Muhammad, condemning the attack, and sending a Marine response team to Libya. Two Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles have been dispatched to patrol the Libyan coast, and drones have begun flying over the country to search for the perpetrators.

These two events, occurring within days of each other, seem to be signs of the time. It makes one wonder if the two are linked—a quick response from God to show what happens when a people thinks to remove Him from their lives. Will this nation recognize God's warning (see Amos 4:6-13)?

Friday, September 7, 2012

The False Morality of Compassion

Flipping channels on Wednesday night during a commercial break in the Giants-Cowboys football game, I landed on the local PBS station that was airing the speeches from the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte. Former President Bill Clinton had just begun to give his long nomination speech:
We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think "we're all in this together" is a better philosophy than "you're on your own." 
Who's right? . . . 
It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty, and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure, and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.
On the surface, this sounds good, and the delegates on the floor of the convention hall loved it. His words skewered the Republicans and at the same time reconfirmed their own political beliefs. In effect, the former President was saying that members of his party hold the moral high ground because their policies help the poor and disadvantaged and lift everyone up equally. As the more compassionate of the two parties, he implied, the Democrats have the answers to humanity's problems that will last the test of time.

Perhaps that is overstating what he meant, but he and the Democrats certainly believe that they are more compassionate than and thus morally superior to cold-hearted Republicans. As some of the campaign ads imply, Mitt Romney and his supporters want nothing more than to do away with all welfare, push Grandma and her wheelchair over a cliff, pollute America's air and water, force everyone to own a gun, and unleash unfettered greed on the nation. While these are, of course, exaggerations, they illustrate the vast gulf that many Democrats see between themselves and their rivals across the party divide.

Seeing this "compassion deficit" in the image of the Republican Party, George W. Bush and his Republican cohorts in the 2000 Presidential election coined the term "compassionate conservatism" to spotlight the fact that people on the right care too. Unfortunately, this led President Bush to compromise on several social issues, particularly education and prescription drug legislation, to prove that he and his party had soft hearts. Democrats vilified them anyway, and many conservatives threw up their hands in dismay at the undermining of their principles. Vestiges of "compassionate conservatism" still linger in the thinking of the leadership of the Republican Party, which has contributed to the rise of the Tea Party.

It is apparent that this crude dichotomy remains in people's perceptions of the two parties. Because of their advocacy of minority rights, welfare, universal healthcare, amnesty, labor unions, choice, and the like, Democrats are considered to be more compassionate than Republicans are. However, as Christians, we need to realize that compassion is not an inviolable virtue—and in fact, it is difficult to think of any virtue that cannot be abused by impure motives. Just as love can be feigned to get a spouse's money or loyalty can be faked to attain a promotion, so can compassion be put on to gain sympathy, votes, and power.

Unless a person has a heart of stone, he will feel compassion for those who are suffering, and that emotional reaction often fuels a helpful response in the form of aid, much like the Good Samaritan had compassion on the man who was wounded by thieves on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:30-37). He saw the man in his plight, sympathized with him, and selflessly cared for him at his own expense. Jesus shows that we should "go and do likewise" (verse 37), as such compassion is the mark of a true Christian. We see compassion similarly encouraged in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where the righteous sheep help those in need, expecting no reward (Matthew 25:31-46).

It is instructive to see Jesus showing compassion in the few times it is mentioned in the gospels. The first appears in Mark 1:41, where He, "moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched [a leper], and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.'" Another time, recorded in Luke 7:13, He feels compassion for a widow who had just lost her only son, and He raises him from the dead. In Matthew 20:34, He has compassion on two blind men and heals them. Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus had compassion on the multitude that had followed Him "because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matthew 9:36; see Mark 6:34). He also has compassion on multitudes because they had nothing left to eat (Matthew 15:32Mark 8:2) and because many of them needed healing (Matthew 14:14).

In each of these cases, Jesus shows compassion for people whose circumstances had reached a point of dire need, and they had no ability to help themselves. He then performs a miracle that alleviates the problem. Notice, however, that, like the Good Samaritan, He asks for nothing for Himself, except perhaps that they keep the miracle to themselves. He has little or nothing to gain by helping them—and in fact, His miracles could draw the unwanted attention of the authorities—but He helps them anyway out of outgoing concern. His compassion has no ulterior motive except to draw them closer to God.

Jesus was not a politician; He never demanded a quid pro quo. True compassion, as He practiced it, is an outpouring of agape love, a selfless concern for the ultimate well-being of another expressed in sacrificial action in the other's behalf. His compassion for humanity went so far that He gave His life for us "while we were still sinners," unworthy of aid as His enemies (Romans 5:8, 10). His compassion for our weakness and suffering will ultimately lead to our eternal life in His Kingdom, for when He expresses His love for us, it never ends (I Corinthians 13:8).

Examining Christ's true empathy beside the contrived compassion of America's political parties exposes the latter as mercenary, trite, and false. Neither party has any moral high ground to stand on because both use it to curry favor and attract votes, not to solve endemic problems. As the psalmist writes, "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. . . . Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help" (Psalm 146:3, 5).

Monday, September 3, 2012

RBV: Psalm 146:3

"Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help."
Psalm 146:3

The psalmist's advice in this verse is an oft-repeated notion throughout Scripture. Psalm 118:8-9 reads, "It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes." Jeremiah 17:5 puts it even more bluntly, "Thus says the LORD: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD.'" 

This is the essential understanding of this verse: Human beings, compared to God, are fundamentally untrustworthy. While people must be trusted from time to time in everyday life, in the most important matters, however, we cannot afford to lean on the broken crutch of human aid. Ultimately, we are bound to be disappointed because peopleeven the most well-intentionedwill fail us.

There are several reasons for this. First, people are weak; even the most powerful of men are limited in what they can do. Unlike God, they do not have sovereign control over people, nations, nature, or time. Their limitations make them inconsistent, unable to help when it is needed most.

Second, men are mortal. Several of the other scriptures that warn us not to put our trust other human beings mention that people are here today and gone tomorrow. For instance, Psalm 62:9 tells us, "Surely men of low degree are a vapor, men of high degree are a lie; if they are weighed on the scales,
they are altogether lighter than vapor." And of course, the verse after our subject verse reads, "His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish" (Psalm 146:4). Because men live and die so quickly, they  lack both the wisdom and the perspective to be trusted on the "big questions" of life. Only God has the eternal knowledge and experience to give us right help and answers we need.

Finally, human beings are unreliable. They blow hot and cold, as it were. They have self-interests that sometimes align with our own and at other times do not. Princesleadersespecially, do not have our best interests in mind, as they have, not only personal desires, but also political goals to pursue. God, however, though the greatest Leader in the universe, always does what is best for us. Moreover, He is always faithful to what He has promised (I Corinthians 1:9), so if we go to Him and ask Him for help that He has pledged to us, He will give it.

This verse gives us good advice. We would do well to heed it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

RBV: Ezekiel 35:6

". . . therefore, as I live," says the Lord GOD, "I will prepare you for blood, and blood shall pursue you; since you have not hated blood, therefore blood shall pursue you."
—Ezekiel 35:6

We see from the beginning of the chapter that God addresses this prophecy to "Mount Seir" (Ezekiel 35:1-2), which is an alternative name for Edom, descendants of Esau and cousins of the Israelites. About a thousand years before this prophecy, the family of Esau had migrated from Canaan southeastward into the rugged wilderness area beyond the Dead Sea (Genesis 32:3). Here, the people of Seir lived, and within a short time, the two families had merged into the nation of Edom. There is an indication that "Mount Seir" may specifically refer to Edom's central leadership (see verse 15).

From the beginning, the Edomites harbored a brooding hatred for their uncle Jacob's descendants, whom we know as the children of Israel. Clearly, the original bone of contention was Jacob's stealing of the patriarchal blessing from Esau (Genesis 27), as well as his procuring of the birthright for a song when Esau was desperate for food (Genesis 25:29-34). The two branches of the family have been in near-continual conflict ever since. The first people to harry the Israelites as they came out of Egypt were the Amalekites, one of the clans of Esau's line (Exodus 17:8-16), and at the end of that battle, Moses prophesies, "[T]he LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16).

As Israel approached the Promised Land nearly forty years later, Moses asked permission of the Edomites to pass through their land, but they refused (Numbers 20:14-21). As the generations passed, the two fought sporadically, and Edom invariably sided with Israel's enemies in other actions. The Edomites earned the reputation of taking advantage of Israel or Judah when they were down, raiding and plundering in the wake of military defeats. Through Amos, God castigates the Edomites, "I will not turn away its punishment, because he pursued his brother [Israel] with the sword, and cast off all pity; his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever" (Amos 1:11).

This is the background of Ezekiel 35. When the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar attacked and conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple and deporting thousands of Jews to Babylon, the Edomites allied themselves with the Chaldeans. God mentions this in verse 5: ". . . you . . . have shed the blood of the children of Israel by the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, when their iniquity came to an end. . . ." Their perfidious activity at this time is detailed in the book of Obadiah.

Thus, because the Edomites were so eager to shed blood"since you have not hated blood," as God understates it—they would have to experience their blood being shed. God would set them up—"I will prepare you for blood"—to be conquered and laid waste in punishment for their atrocities against His people. He promises, "I will make you perpetually desolate, and your cities shall be uninhabited; then you shall know that I am the  LORD" (verse 9). Soon thereafter, their "ally" Nebuchadnezzar took over their lands as he had done to Judah (see Jeremiah 27:3, 6), and it was not long before the Nabateans pushed them out of their ancestral homeland and into southern Judea, where they remained a subject people.