That was the headline, not from a Christian news source, but from CNN (here).
I live near Tulsa. And like many, my emotions swung wildly this week between gut-wrenching sadness and seething rage. Both are justified.
Yet another unarmed black man killed, a damning video, and the predictable flood of shameful justifications for why “it’s not what it looks like.”
Let’s be clear: it is what it looks like.
And the possibility of drugs in Terence Crutcher’s system doesn’t justify homicide.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte, there was another shooting: a black cop, a black man killed, and the allegation that the deceased was pointing a gun at officers. Buildings were burned, stores were looted, and many were injured–including innocent police officers and civilians.
Two very different scenarios.
Two very different reactions.
Charlotte burned; Tulsa prayed.
To be clear, this is not an attempt to bash Charlotte. And I fully admit that there are things about the broader situation there of which I am unaware.
Nor is it an attempt to “tamp down” protests or anger.
In the Bible, prayer itself can be an act of protest–a revolt against the status quo–and it is sometimes very angry.
Thus my point is only about Tulsa.
WHY I’M PROUD
Because while I am deeply ashamed that this shooting took place, I am proud of how many Tulsans reacted.
A few examples:
There were peaceful protests, with many looking more like prayer vigils made up of persons of all races.
Churches led the way, inviting the community to channel anger and grief in constructive ways, rather than giving the prejudiced deniers of injustice more cause to dismiss the unsettling reality of racism.
The police released the videos almost immediately, in a step toward transparency. This didn’t happen in Charlotte, and many have connected this to prolonged distrust between citizens and the authorities.
The police chief stated immediately and unequivocally that Terence Crutcher was unarmed, because it was true.
The DA’s office investigated promptly, and filed charges against the officer involved. She was arrested and will have a chance to defend herself.
And through all of this, no buildings burned, no stores were looted, and no police officers or civilians were injured by angry mobs.
This is an answered prayer, because one reason for taking police misconduct seriously is a desire to protect and honor brave and honest cops who do a thankless and impossible job.
Sadly, none of this brings Terence Crutcher back to his four kids. And none of it means that the problem of racial injustice has gone away—even (or perhaps especially) in Tulsa.
Still, amid the sadness and anger, I am proud of how Tulsa’s people have responded.
Now let’s work to ensure that such occasions for pride (and shame) happen far less frequently.
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“In a nation of 320 million people, how did we end up with these two?”
That’s the question I’ve heard repeatedly from both my Democratic and Republican friends.
It’s hard to fathom, and almost tragically funny. As if your football team deliberated for months and then used its only draft pick on William Hung from American Idol.
He bangs, you know, and he’s not part of that “Football Establishment.”
~The Dallas Cowboys
So while many have thoughts on who is worse, I want to ask a different question: Why did the worst people win in the first place?
What is so wrong with our system (and ourselves) that we nominated two options that sound like a frightening game of “Would you rather…?”
To be clear, in calling both Trump and Clinton “the worst” I do not mean that they are literally the worst people in the country. I don’t think that.
It is possible that you could find a more unsavory character, say, by
Playing “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” at Riker’s Island,
Or “Marco Polo” at a Kim and Kanye pool party.
Instead, by “worst,” I simply mean that they are—in my limited judgment—the worst people (in terms of character) set forth by their respective parties in the primaries.
True, Bernie may have been more progressive than Hillary, but he was also more honest. And yes, Ted Cruz may have been voted most annoying by pretty much everyone he’s ever met, but he did not accuse an opponent’s dad of killing Kennedy, or insinuate that a disproportionate number immigrants are rapists and murderers (etc., etc…).
In that regard, the worst people won.
And our question should be “Why?”
THE OBVIOUS ANSWER
The obvious answer is simple: we voted.
Somehow, more people thought these were the best options. And while I respect that, I also think it sits among the worst nominations since Caligula tried to make his horse a consul.
But instead of blaming individuals, perhaps we should examine some broad issues that may be propelling unsavory individuals to new heights.
Because whatever we did, we’ve got to do differently next time.
1.BOTH PARTIES HAVE BEEN RADICALIZED
Few can deny that both parties have moved toward the extremes of their respective bases. This is where the energy is. And candidates lurch this way to win their primaries. It’s always been this way. Still, it does seem that the “baseness” of the base has increased in recent years.
When this happens, fortune favors the shrill, anger is confused with wisdom, and none of this bodes well for reasonable candidates.
2.THE MONEY MANDATE ENCOURAGES SOUL SELLING
A second reason we might call “the money mandate.” These days, a successful presidential campaign costs around one billion dollars. And with slippery finance laws (“corporations are people, my friend”) and SuperPACs, it seems that some level of soul selling is almost required to amass the needed capital.
Thus while billionaires like Trump are set, for all others, the money mandate propels candidates who are willing to be bought by special interests, corporate giants, and foreign powers. Thus “the worst” have a distinct advantage.
3.PUBLIC DISCOURSE HAS BEEN REDUCED TO “MEMES” AND MEANNESS
A recent study showed that in his speeches Donald Trump speaks English at a fifth grade level. That’s not an insult, it’s an algorithm. And it’s far higher than his “Tweet-level.”
For some, this was proof that the other (losing) Republican candidates were simply talking over the heads of voters, while Trump was, in the words of one supporter, “talking to us not like we’re stupid.”
Still, the real problem is not grammar or intelligence.
A deeper issue is that many have bought the myth that “straight talk” is the ability to pair insults with exclamation points. It is not. And the solution will be slow in coming. Somehow, we must teach our kids that decency matters, not just in one’s personal relations, but in campaigns and on social media. We much teach logic, critical thinking, and fact checking. Because only a thoughtful and virtuous electorate will shun thoughtless and unvirtuous candidates.
4.CROWNING ROYAL FAMILIES IS CROWDSOURCED NEPOTISM
Once upon a time, the American colonies threw off the yoke of monarchy, and with this, the idea that being related to a leader qualified you to be one. In royal families, power is gained by “waiting your turn,” but not so in democracies.
Thus it seems odd to claim that one candidate should win, because she “waited” for years.
To be sure, defacto royal families are nothing new in American politics. And few would disqualify an FDR simply because of uncle Teddy. Yet both of these men were trusted, charismatic, and brilliant in their own ways. So it wasn’t merely that they “waited their turn.”
For this reason, both parties could seriously benefit from a crop of young leaders whose names aren’t Bush or Clinton.
5.THE WRINGER RUNS OFF DECENT PEOPLE
To go through a presidential campaign means submitting one’s self and family to “the wringer” of public scrutiny and character assassination (especially if one is running against Donald Trump). Thus we might ask if the sheer scrutiny of our political process scares off the decent people, while a disproportionate number of egomaniacal narcissists fill the void.
As Shakespeare put into the mouth of Richard III:
“Conscience is but a word that cowards use” (5.3).
And sadly, it is not difficult to picture one nominee nodding inwardly at this, while the other retweets it. #strongleader#Shackspeer
If this sounds bleak, it’s not meant to be.
There are good people out there, and we must find them both now and in the future.
Yet in the meantime, perhaps we should pause from our debates over who is “the lesser of two evils” and consider how we got here.
What if evolutionary science actually posed a problem for the confident atheism of men like Richard Dawkins?
That would odd: first, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist; and second, because believers (especially in America) do not normally see evolution as an ally.
To end the oddity, let’s begin with a picture of a beetle mating with a beer bottle.
EVOLUTION AND PERCEPTION
This past year, a TED talk by the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman went viral with over two million views (here). Hoffman studies evolution and perception at UC Irvine, and gist of his research is this:
Evolution rewards “fitness.” And fitness is defined by how effectively an organism passes on its DNA to future generations. Those adapted to do this best survive, while others die out. Hence: “survival of the fittest.”
Now the kicker. As Hoffman states in a recent interview with NPR (here):
An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.
To simplify, Hoffman is saying that evolution doesn’t care whether your brain accurately perceives reality. Evolution only cares if you pass on your DNA by feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. If this means distorting your perceptions, so be it.
(If this is confusing, see the TED talk linked above.)
As Hoffman argues, we do not perceive reality in itself. We only perceive what the neurons in our brain present to us. The brain constructs and reconfigures reality in this process. And while we might think that accurate perception equals “fitter perception,” that is not necessarily the case.
We once thought that the earth was flat, because it looks that way. But we were wrong. Appearances can be deceiving. On top of this, Hoffman claims that our brains add to the deception.
As evidence, we return to our besotted beetle.
WHY THE BEETLE LEFT HIS WIFE FOR THE BOTTLE
The Australian Jewel Beetle is shiny, brown, and dimpled. The males fly. The females don’t. And when a male beetle finds a shiny, brown, and dimpled female on the ground, he mates with her, favoring the bigger ones.
But there’s a problem.
The Outback is now populated with another species (humans). And this species also likes shiny, brown, and dimpled objects (bottled beer). Thus, as bottles began to litter roadways and campsites, a strange thing happened: the Jewel Beetle nearly went extinct.
Males ignored the females, and passionately embraced “the bottle.” Just like a Merle Haggard song.
As Hoffman notes: “Australia had to change their bottles to save their beetles.”
Similar cases of cognitive distortion (minus the bottles) can even be found in more complex species, including mammals.
As Hoffman, argues: Natural selection gave the beetle a “hack” to be successful in passing on its DNA: Good mates are dimpled, brown, and shiny—the bigger the better. And this worked for thousands of years. Until it didn’t.
So does evolution actually favor the accurate perception of reality? Hoffman, along with many other evolutionists, say “No.”
But what does this have to do with Richard Dawkins?
Enter Alvin Plantinga.
The now 83-year-old Plantinga is an institution amongst Christian philosophers.
He now holds an Emeritus post at Notre Dame, and according to many, is largely responsible for a quiet revival of theistic philosophers in the American university.
Among his more famous arguments is his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN). This can be found, most recently, in his 2011 book: Where the Conflict Really Lies.
While the details are complex, the gist is similar to Hoffman’s argument. As Plantinga writes:
The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low (p. 314).
This is essentially Hoffman’s claim.
But then Plantinga continues:
If I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true (p. 314).
For Plantinga, “naturalism” is the view that “there is no such person as God, or anything like God” (p. ix). Yet it is stronger than mere atheism in at least two ways: First, it rises to the level of a “quasi-religion” in claiming to answer life’s ultimate questions. And second, it proceeds with a religious zeal in confidently asserting that all religion is obviously irrational and silly.
In short, naturalists like Richard Dawkins place massive confidence in the power and reliability of their cognitive faculties. Yet—and this is key!—Dawkins’ very discipline (evolutionary science) is now calling into question the reliability of one’s cognitive perceptions.
Perhaps, say some evolutionists, we are more like the beetle on the bottle than we like to think.
The conclusion is this: You can claim with evolutionary naturalists that our cognitive faculties are deeply unreliable. But you cannot claim this while simultaneously placing a god-like confidence in your own cognitive faculties.
That move is self referentially incoherent.
A CALL TO HUMILITY
So what’s my take?
While Hoffman’s research is fascinating, I really doubt that we are essentially in the same position as the beetle on the beer bottle (Merle Haggard and George Jones songs not withstanding!).
Then again, part of my reasoning rests in a Creator who has ensured a general, though not perfect, correspondence between reality and our ability to perceive it.
As for Plantinga, I think he is quite right to challenge the confidence that Dawkins has in his own cognitive abilities. Yet I suspect that he paints too monochrome a picture of the current evolutionary science.
According to a friend of mine in the field, the claims of Hoffman and those like him are hardly universally accepted. And even if they were, it would not mean that our cognitive perceptions are flatly wrong (thus as even Hoffman notes, you shouldn’t try jumping off a cliff…).
Instead, these new findings only mean that we should be more humble in our cognitive assertions, especially about ultimate reality.
And perhaps that’s the problem with both Dawkins and many Christian apologists: a general lack of epistemic humility regarding what we can demonstrate by way of our own brilliance.
In the end, we may not be as deluded as the beetle on the bottle. But we are limited in understanding.
So here’s to some humility to season boldness.
And as a “thank you” to the insect who helped illustrate this important truth, here’s a tribute to his unrequited love (here).
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When I was in second grade, my favorite song in the world was the patriotic power ballad by Lee Greenwood: “God Bless the U.S.A.” I still remember singing it, with a lump in my throat, while reverently cradling my glued-together replica of an F-14 fighter jet.
The lyrics epitomized my second grade existence:
If tomorrow all the things were gone
I worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can’t take that away!
That’s right! Try and take it Commies!
Later, I learned to play it on my saxophone.
And around that same time the Iron Curtain fell.
Coincidence? You tell me.
The point is: I was VERY patriotic.
And in certain ways, I still am. I remain tremendously grateful to those who have sacrificed so that I can live in relative safety and freedom. And I am reminded of what a rare opportunity I’ve had to better myself through education, despite the fact that my family was not wealthy by American standards.
Yet as I grew older I began to grow more wary of certain forms of “patriotism,” and especially as I came to view the Christian gospel differently.
WHEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES IDOLATRY
In short, the problem occurs when patriotism becomes nationalism.
For sake of clarity, Ryan Hamm defines the terms like this:
Patriotism is simply love of country.
Nationalism is a love of country at the expense (or disrespect) of others.
What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the idea of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.
So here’s the question: When exactly does patriotism become nationalism, and what are some clues that Christians can use to recognize when our love of country has become an idol?
When we fail to see salvation as a change in citizenship.
The contradiction of a “Christian nationalist” is contained within the gospel itself.
To be “in Christ” according to the Scriptures, is to undergo change in primary citizenship.
As Paul argues, “our citizenship is now in heaven” (Php. 3.20). And we exist now as strangers, foreigners, and sojourners in our home countries.
To be sure, this did not change the fact that Paul himself remained a Roman citizen. Yet this identity (as with his Jewishness) was clearly secondary. Thus it is hard to picture him chanting “Roma! Roma! Roma!” while gladiators reenacted Caesar’s Gallic wars.
His primary concern was not to make Rome great again (let’s be honest, Nero was no Octavian), but to serve the King of kings.
When we get angrier at unpatriotic actions than at ungodly ones.
You can sometimes tell your idols by what makes you really angry.
In recent weeks, the internet has practically overheated over a football player who refused to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. And while I’m not endorsing this behavior, I can’t help but notice that many Christians seem far angrier over this than over the spate of players who have been busted for serious crimes including rape, child abuse, and domestic battery. Why is that?
The point is not to endorse a lack of national pride, but to issue a word caution: When you get angrier over things that are deemed unpatriotic than over things that are violently ungodly, you’ve got a problem.
When we feel more kinship with unsaved countrymen than with Christians from around the globe.
While I don’t always agree with John Piper, I think he’s right in this:
Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial … Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.
The issue, once again, is one of primary citizenship.
When we are blind to the sins of our nation while being acutely aware of those of others.
Every culture and country has uniquely beautiful and uniquely broken aspects.
In America, I’m proud of our general respect for things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. I also celebrate our “can do” mentality, our constitutional design of a balance of power, and our stated belief (not always lived out) that all persons are created equal.
Yet a danger in patriotic pride is that it would overlook the uniquely broken aspects that are there as well. There must be a balance.
On a recent TV show, I watched a correspondent ask a group of political convention-goers to name a time that America was truly great. The responses were hilarious and deeply saddening.
It was amazing how many individuals took us back to the era of slavery or segregation as the time when America was really “nailing it.” To be honest, most of these folks were not intending to condone such acts, but they did portray a startling historical amnesia.
In the end, the solution to patriotism gone wrong is not national negativity but the power of the gospel.
In short, Christians must come to see salvation not just as a change of mind, a change of behavior, or even a change of final destination. In addition, it also a change of primary citizenship.
And (on a lighter note) for those still wondering if a man and his saxophone can change the world, I leave you this, and rest my case.
 Credit for this point goes to a former student, Matt Atwell, as he noted in a post last week.