Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC

In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: 

“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].” 

And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.

In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Likewise, Sanders said:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.

She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.

But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”

And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.

WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES

This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.

In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.

What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws.  Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).

Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)

In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”

“Obey the ruling authorities…”

THE “WHISKY BIBLE”

With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.

And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.

It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.

It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.

So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.

And it’s not just me who thinks so  – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).

NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM

In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)

All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.

On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.

“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.

Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.

For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.

Could any sober person miss the irony?

A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH

One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.

Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.

As Alan Jacobs writes (here):

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.

The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.

CONCLUSION

We must do better.

But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.

 


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Beware the “lumpers”!

Beware the “lumpers”!

 

If there’s one thing we could use now in our current state of cultural cannibalism, it’s the ability to do a bit less “lumping.”

(And, no, that’s not a reference to your mashed potato preferences.)

The term derives from Darwin, yet while Darwin used it biologically, Alan Jacobs—Christian author and English Lit professor—uses it to write (here) about our current state of public discourse.

Hint: it’s bad.

We live now, says Jacobs, in the golden age of “lumpers”—as evidenced by our tendency to reduce all those with whom we disagree to a monolithic and dismissive hashtag.

#cuckservative

#whiteprivilege

#RINO

#snowflake

On the one hand, some labels are necessary for human communication, and we can’t escape the use of shorthand. But as Jacobs notes, when we lump and label indiscriminately, we fail to actually think (not to mention “see” and “hear” each other).

In the words of George Orwell, in his essay: “Politics and the English Language”

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases […] one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.

And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved…

Thank God Orwell never lived to see the land of Twitter.

A CELEBRATION OF “SPLITTING”

But if lumping is a problem under certain circumstances, what is the alternative?

Jacobs calls it “splitting”—and he finds a beautiful example in a pioneer of women’s higher education: Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957).

Sayers was a committed Christian, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, a brilliant writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and a friend of C.S. Lewis.

She was also a feminist, in the best sense of the word—desiring equality of opportunity for men and women.

In her view:

What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.

Her point is not that it is bad to belong to a particular group—be it gendered, racial, or religious.  Nor is she claiming that such differences are mere “social constructs.” (She was not a so-called postmodernist.)

On the contrary, our places of belonging are important, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist (Re: the ridiculous if well-intentioned: “I don’t see [skin] color.” Seriously; unless you have macular degeneration, don’t say that.)

It’s not wrong to recognize our differences and groupings.  But when we “lump” all members of a set together in dismissive ways, we often say things that erase one’s individual humanity.

Thus our Twitter and Facebook posts end up as some version of the following:

“God” (used either as curse-word or a prayer), “thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this [Liberal, Conservative, secular, fundamentalist, millennial, baby-boomer, Muslim, Trumpist, Social Justice Warrior].”

Depending on one’s in-group, the words within the brackets will vary, yet the commonality resides in a self-righteous “lumping” under dismissive labels that reduce the shared humanity of others.

Hence the title of Sayers’ provocative essay: “Are women human?” (here)

Now my favorite quote.

Drawing on her own experience as one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford, she writes:

When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?”

The answer is not that all women would be better for knowing about Aristotle […] but simply: “What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. 

I, eccentric individual that I am […] and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him

As Jacobs’ notes, there is a kind of “blessed selfishness to this cry.”  It is a celebration of the “eccentric individual” who doesn’t give a rip whether Aristotle is perceived as useful for her “class”!

In the words of the Roman poet Terence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.”

Here, here!

Or as Jacobs concludes: “Let a billion eccentric individuals flourish.”

Even lumpers.

 


 

See here for Alan Jacob’s fantastic book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds – from which much of this post was proudly stolen…

Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

But take the real “evangel” with you.

When I typed up a quick blog post yesterday, I did so assuming that Roy Moore was about to win the Alabama Senate seat.

I was wrong.

Thank God.

To some, that may sound rather strange.  After all, I am precisely the sort of person that was supposed to carry Judge Roy to victory: I am Pro-Life, white, and evangelical in my theology.

According to the media, I am supposed to belong to that very “base” that was going to make the difference–despite no fewer than nine allegations of sexually predatory behavior toward children.

And despite Moore’s claim that “many problems would be solved” if we scrapped all constitutional amendments after the 10th one (Just so we’re clear: the 13th ended slavery; the 15th gave all races the vote; and the 19th gave votes to women).

Well, I do not belong to that “evangelical base”–because, in some cases, there’s nothing evangelical about it.

 

REQUIUM FOR “EVANGELICAL”

As some news outlets have been quick to trumpet, Moore’s strongest support came from the self-styled “evangelical” voter.

The most vexing evidence for such logic, came in a poll showing that a plurality of Alabama “evangelicals” reported being “more likely” to support him after numerous allegations of child sexual misconduct than before.

This left many of us scratching our heads.

Who could possibly be “more likely” to support someone “after” reports that he repeatedly stalked underage girls at the local mall while dressed like the cartoon sheriff from the movie Toy Story?

NOT SO FAST…

As many have pointed out, however, such polls should be viewed with suspicion (see here).

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.09.07 AM

According the Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs: In parts of the country, “evangelical” has become synonymous with “whites who watch Fox News and consider themselves [vaguely] religious”–regardless of church attendance, Bible reading, or basic theological beliefs.

And while I love those people, that is not what the word means.

Evang. venn diagram

In short, the label has been corrupted.

In Roy Moore’s case, it was equated with the worst elements of partisan politics—hence it hangs like an albatross around the neck of many faithful and devoted Christ-followers.

(For what it’s worth, it also hurts the Pro-Life movement in the long run–like making Bull Connor the face of your anti-human trafficking campaign.)

Yet while many of us grieve the (earned) destruction of the “evangelical” label, we also worry that to look back longingly at the smoking ruins is to risk being turned into a pillar of insipid salt.

What, then, should one do with this beautiful but now corrupted label?

THE YEAR IS 1955

It bears noting that in 1955, Billy Graham faced a similar decision.

He had once been a self-identifying “fundamentalist,” back when that word was not synonymous with backwardness and bigotry. In its origin, the term had stood for the fundamentals of the faith. As did Graham.

Yet in 1955, he decided to drop the albatross for reasons that sound eerily familiar: it had been irrevocably tainted by un-Christlike beliefs and behaviors.

Even good words can be turned it seems—like raw oysters in the Alabama sun.

So Graham followed Jesus – out of “fundamentalism” in order to stay true to Scripture and the gospel (the “evangel”).

Or as cowboy Roy might say: “When your horse dies, get off.”

HOPPING OFF THE PENDULUM

What one does next, however, is important.

The temptation for many is simply to flee one rival kingdom for another.

If Roy Moore’s “evangelicalism” has turned a blind eye to egregious sexual and racial sins, one simply runs hard in the opposite direction.  After all, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once remarked:

            The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum.

But what if…?

What if it is partly our love of pendulums that caused this very mess?

NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS 

My suggestion, then, is rather different: flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism, but take the real “evangel” (i.e., gospel) with you

Because the real “evangel” is alive and well.

Just don’t look for it primarily in the halls of power.

That’s the same mistake we’ve been making for two thousand years: we long for thrones and forget to check the manger.

“I sent you prophets,” says Christ, “but you wanted lobbyists.”

“I sent you shepherds, but you wanted merchants of outrage.”

If you want the real evangel, here is some advice:

Look to the local homeless shelter, where Christ’s hands and feet are serving dinner to the other (equally valuable) members of his body.

Look to the recovery ministry meeting nightly in the church basement, sans cufflinks and news coverage.

Look to the crisis pregnancy center, where women who’ve been there reach out to women who are there.

Look to the high school football star (John) who takes my college Bible class even though it won’t count for credit at his eventual State school–he takes it because he loves Jesus.

Look to the college women (that I know) who spend their Spring Break fighting human trafficking in a Southeast Asia, rather than partying on some sandy beach in Destin.

Look to the group of older Christian women (the godly grandmas) who gather to encourage my young wife with wisdom gained from generations of parenting.

Look to the African-American couple serving faithfully in a predominantly white church, because they believe that the journey toward multi-ethnic community is worth it, even if it’s difficult.

And look to the Catholic nun, kneeling peacefully in the cold rain outside an abortion clinic, praying for the souls inside (doctors, mothers, and babies).

This is the REAL “evangel.”

It’s alive and well.

And in that sense, I don’t give a flying flip what happens to the Roy Moore version.