The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we can opt out of, and intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It is simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, ineliminably requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like, but we can know it doesn’t it doesn’t look like hate.

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Interview with Dorothy Greco, Author of Making Marriage Beautiful

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Making Marriage Beautiful stands apart from the many marriage books that flood today’s publishing markets. In its pages, Dorothy Greco draws on her twenty-five plus years of marriage and her wealth of experience in writing and ministry to highlight essential components of a healthy marriage and exhort readers to aspire toward inculcating such a vision in their own relationships. Greco’s book and the principles she offers are motivated and undergirded by her Christian convictions, and reading the book is pure joy. With its lived wisdom and gracious tone, Making Marriage Beautiful is a unique and important resource. And, as our interview below demonstrates, there is plenty of overlap between our concerns here at MoralApologetics.com and the issues Dorothy considers in this volume, most especially questions of the value of persons and God’s provisions for meeting the moral standard. Marybeth Baggett: Based on what I’ve heard from you and on the book itself, it seems that writing Making Marriage Beautiful is something you felt called to do. On a Christian picture, this idea of calling is connected to the notion of human dignity, that God has created each one of us for a purpose, a specific way in which we image him. Can you talk a little about that in regards to your writing of this book? How do you feel that God prepared you to do this work? I’m especially interested in how he made this charge clear to you.

Dorothy Greco: Much like the story of Joseph, it can often seem that the place of our greatest pain or wounding intersects with our calling. I can see this clearly in my own life.

I believe that every follower of Christ must yield to the call to love their neighbors. Some of us are called to love specific people for a life-time. Neither of these invitations has come easily for me. Due to a challenging childhood, my highly sensitive nature, and some deep relational hurts, by the time I graduated from college, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. I mistrusted others and chose independence, rather than healthy interdependence.

I know it’s unusual, but I did not grow up inserting myself into romantic Disneyesque plots or dreaming of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armor. About seven years after choosing to follow Jesus, I began to detect something stirring in my soul for my now husband. Because I was both guarded and insecure, we had an incredibly tumultuous dating relationship and engagement round one. He eventually broke up with me, and we did not speak to each other for nearly two years. When we finally reconnected, it was obvious that we had both changed.

In round two of our relationship, there’s been no shadow of turning, but we have also had to be intentional and work hard in order to have a solid, fulfilling marriage. We are both strong-willed, stubborn people who seem to have opinions about everything from the bathroom wall color to where the Christmas tree should go. Additionally, life has thrown us some long-term vocational and health challenges. As a result, sparks fly on a regular basis, and we have had to learn how to have productive conflict.

Throughout our 26 years together, we have both felt impressed and emboldened by the Lord to believe that Scripture is true and to step out in that truth. Practically speaking, that means though we’ve had a great deal of conflict, many disappointments, and significant loss, we continue to trust that because God called us to commit our lives to each other, He will empower us to love well.

When I approached my agent about writing a marriage book, she warned me that they are one of the most difficult genres to break into, especially if one does not have a substantial platform. My platform is modest, I am not married to a famous athlete or movie star, and I had no intention of doing anything scandalous in order to sell books. Despite her dire predictions, I strongly believed that God was nudging me to go for it. I felt a divine compulsion to write this book (maybe because I needed it)! After following Jesus for nearly 40 years, I’ve learned to trust the impulses and believe in his provision.

Baggett: Morality may involve rules and law, but as we know, guidelines and prescripts do not exhaust what living a moral life requires. As scripture teaches, love is the animating force behind the law (Matthew 22:40) and its fulfillment (Romans 13:8-10). In writing a book on marriage, did you find it challenging to balance offering particular advice, rules for readers to follow, with exhortations toward love, more holistically understood? If so, how did you address this tension? How do you understand the relationship between following rules and the law of love?

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Greco: I really chaff at books with titles such as Forty Days to Transform Your Husband or Ten Steps to a Perfect Marriage. Though we might want it to be, life is not formulaic. We should not assume our relationship with God will be formulaic either. I certainly rely on both the specifics and the abiding principles which undergird certain rules (e.g. the Ten Commandments), but I have not found a rule-based approach to relationships at all helpful. It was not really a struggle for me to approach writing this book in a more nuanced and organic fashion.

I am, first and foremost, a sinner saved by grace. As such, I am always aware of my sinful tendencies whether it’s to curse someone who cuts me off in Boston traffic, or to withhold love as a passive-aggressive retaliation for a minor infraction committed by my husband.

In the case of marriage, it’s quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God is about monogamy. The clarity of Jesus’ words on marriage (e.g., Matthew 5:27-32) awaken me to God’s high standards, which exist for my own good, and then simultaneously reorient me toward Him. So if I’m being mature and living in a posture of humility, God’s rules strengthen and empower me to love more like Jesus.

Baggett: A point you made in some of the marketing material you sent along before this interview struck a nerve with me—you said that one of the hardest things you faced writing the book was ensuring that you had the integrity to do so, if any marital struggles you went through somehow undermined your credibility. This resonated with us at Moral Apologetics, since we’re writing about morality and ethics, and some might think that, in doing so, we’re claiming we’ve arrived. Of course we know we have not—as you know that sanctification is an ongoing process. Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with this doubt while writing your book? Did this self-reflection reveal anything new to you about that process of sanctification? For purposes of this interview, I’m wondering especially how you think God uses marriage in that process.

Greco: It would have been super easy to write a book on having an awesome marriage while mine was less than awesome. (Who would know other than my husband?) The idea for this book actually emerged when we were going through one of the most painful seasons in our lives together. The crisis was not marital, but of course it deeply affected us as individuals and as a couple.

Because we had already been married for 20+ years and had been doing pastoral care for almost that whole time, I could have gone through the motions of being married and simply relied on my experiences to pull this book together. That felt rather disingenuous to say the least. As followers of Christ and leaders, my husband and I have always felt that our offering will be tainted and perhaps even poisonous if we lack integrity. We’ve each benched ourselves from doing ministry at various times along the way, knowing that we were not in a good place and needed to take a break.

I can assure you, I expediently confessed and repented of my sins when I was writing Making Marriage Beautiful. I have enough fear of the Lord and enough knowledge of Scripture to know that how we live matters a great deal to Him.

As I was polling friends about possible titles for this book, one response really struck me. This woman, who is in mid-life and has been married for more than thirty years, wrote, “I have been married a long time and don’t feel the need to learn more. I’m good.” I literally gasped and then started to cry. I immediately prayed, “God, don’t ever let me become complacent. May I always be willing to keep learning and keep growing.”

One of the most significant lesson I learned when writing this book (other than that writing books is so much more difficult than I ever imagined!) is that I have not arrived: I am not a marriage expert and never will be. I’m simply a middle-aged woman who endeavors to love her husband with a fierceness and consistency that allows him to flourish. Though we have experienced glimpses of God’s sublime love breaking into our marriage, learning how to love my spouse is a life-long process.

Baggett: Lately I’ve been meditating on scripture passages that explain fear and love as opposing forces (I John 4:18, for example), and so (in reading your marketing materials) I was especially interested in your description of newly married self as fearful. Can you talk a little about how you opened yourself up to your husband’s love? What risks did that involve, and how did you gain the courage to take that risk? Have you found that love itself, as you grow deeper in it, has given you more moral courage?

Greco: By the time I turned 21, I assumed that people were generally not trustworthy and if I made mistakes, I would be abandoned. That’s a lot of fear—and a lot of pressure to make no mistakes. Early on in our marriage, I attempted to be perfect in an effort to quiet my anxieties. Of course, anyone who goes down that road knows that not only is it impossible, but the pressure to be perfect causes more anxiety.

One of the ways I learned to trust was by incorporating confession as a regular discipline into our marriage. By committing to confess my sins, no matter how small, my facades fell. My husband saw me as the broken, weak woman that I truly am. Miraculously, he kept loving me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been a constant reassurance that he’s not looking for or expecting perfection. He has always been quick and gracious to extend forgiveness to me. Over time, we have accumulated a great deal of relational equity which we draw upon as needed.

And yes, feeling secure in his love and in the Father’s love has definitely allowed me to be more courageous in all aspects of my life. The deeper my identity in Christ and the more confident I am of my husband’s love, the more risks I can take—like writing a vulnerable marriage book! Truth be told, this level of freedom is exhilarating.

Making Marriage Beautiful can be purchased at Amazon.com. There is currently a special running for the Kindle version, selling for $2.99.

For a Friend Battling Darkness

A Twilight Musing

I just finished an astoundingly blessed conversation with a dear friend and brother in Christ who is in the midst of a struggle with severe depression.  I am aware of the danger of being presumptuous in trying to help someone negotiate depths of horrible feelings that I have not gone through myself, and I can justify it only by believing that in our conversation God was at work spotlighting truths that go beyond either of us—truths that are the bedrock of the relationship that God has with us through Christ.  In that spirit of belief, I will honor my friend’s request to put into writing the thoughts that God prompted during our conversation, so that both of us can refer to them later.

My friend (I’ll call him Peter, since the apostle of that name also experienced deep darkness when he realized he had denied his Lord) had already in an e-mail told me that he was having a really hard time, so after a couple of days I felt strongly urged to follow up that communication with a phone call.  Peter was more than ready to hear from me and to share more of what he had been experiencing.  It turns out that much of his present darkness hinges on unresolved guilt regarding his long-term attempts to care for and help his brother (let’s call him Andy), who, even now, when the two brothers are approaching the end of their two lifetimes, continues to be recalcitrant, angry, and accusatory in response to whatever is done for him.  Peter feels he is and has been a failure, and he can’t get out from under the guilt.

He said that a counselor had suggested that he, through an act of will, detach himself enough from the situation to imagine hiring someone to care for his brother, not just physically but to minister to his deeper needs.  What would be the job description and statement of expectations?  If the worker did everything imaginable to help Andy, and still failed to get the desired results, would he be blameworthy?  If not, should Peter hold himself any more responsible than he would hold the worker?  We agreed that this is a good technique to use, and that it can help Peter to see his situation more objectively.  But the problem—and the answer—goes deeper than that.  Battling the darkness of guilt and depression requires embracing the Light, even when you don’t see it.

I reminded Peter of two things: the supremacy of God’s Light over the Devil’s Darkness, and the function of darkness in helping us to see the Light.  As to the first, the apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, tells us that through Christ, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  The Devil is called the “Accuser of [the] brothers,” who “accuses them night and day before our God” (Rev. 12:10).  But even more relevant for us personally is the fact that he accuses each one of us, not merely to bring sin to our attention (the Holy Spirit also does that), but to speak the dark lie that the sin is so bad that we are unforgiven by God.  But Satan is not only the Accuser, he is also the embodiment of falsehood, the great Liar.  And his most effective agent for falsehood is unresolved guilt.  So Peter (both in the Bible and my friend) needed to realize that the darkness of guilt he is experiencing is a direct work of the Adversary, the Father of Lies, the Master Accuser.  It is a bedrock truth that in the Light of Christ the Savior, we are forgiven, and the only function of guilt in that realization is to lead us back to the incredible truth that we are forgiven.

That leads to the final point I felt needed to be articulated: It often occurs that one doesn’t realize the overwhelming beauty of the Light until he/she is enveloped in the darkness.  I think I can do no better than to reproduce a poem that I wrote years ago. It expresses a truth that goes deeper than my wisdom can take credit for.  I like to think that God knew when he gave it to me that it would speak to “Peter’s” predicament.

Shadows

Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.

Darkness is all, and I am there.

No thought of shadows when

The sun is full, for then

They merely accent the brightness.

When all is shadow, love may thrive,

Though hope be dim; when all is bright,

Shallow bliss holds sway.

Even the Arctic is both night and day.

Darkness gives more to defining light

Than light to the understanding of dark.

I will see the shadow grow,

And dwell in it even, to know

That light is its own verity,

And darkness but an island in its midst.

 

                         --Elton D. Higgs

                           (Dec. 31, 1974)

 

Image: "Wintertime is candletime" by Groman123. CC license.

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Freedom in Christ

A Twilight Musing

As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government.  The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence.  However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition.  It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.”  The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion.  However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.

The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms.  In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery.  In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (Rom 6:17-22)

This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to.  Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."  They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"   Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham.  Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold.  As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights.  But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”

 

 

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

God’s Extravagance

A Twilight Musing

We have a politician on the national scene who consistently speaks in superlatives, a practice which leads to some skepticism about when the superlative is really applicable to the thing he’s talking about—sort of the “boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ principle.  We all have some temptation to exaggerate in order to enhance people’s perception of our talents and accomplishments, but we always run the risk of being caught out by doing so.  The only being who can legitimately speak in, or be spoken of, in superlatives is God, and that occurs frequently in Scripture.  Take Eph. 1:17-22 as an example, in which Paul prays for the Ephesians,

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

Note that the greatness of God’s power toward believers is “immeasurable”; that Christ has been seated “far above all rule and authority” and “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come,” that is, for all eternity, without end.

A little later in the epistle, Paul prays again that the disciples in Ephesus will be “rooted and grounded in love, [and] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17b-19).  Paul is not one to speak in moderate terms when he refers to what God has done and is doing for those in Christ; he wants all of his  readers  to “comprehend . . . the breadth, and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  But that understanding is not to be achieved by human effort, but by the superlative “power that is at work in us,” which is able “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”  The fountainhead of such an immeasurable outpouring of God’s Spirit is the atoning death of Jesus, an unfathomably extravagant gift of the Father, an unbelievably radical act of obedience by the Son.  As Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31b-32).

In the Apostle’s description of his own response to such extravagant love we see the challenge for all of us to be similarly committed, without restraint or reservation: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).  In another place he describes being fully possessed by the Spirit of Christ, keeping nothing of his former self, so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  Jesus Himself expected an extravagant commitment from those who proposed to follow Him, calling His inner twelve to leave their occupations to become fishers of men, bidding a rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor, and challenging people to put the kingdom of God ahead of all other earthly ties.

I will conclude with a poem that depicts a contrast between moderate, conventional responses to Christ and a radical, all-giving act of love.  In the scriptural account on which the poem is based, Jesus draws a symbolic parallel between her action and Jesus’ own pouring out of Himself on the cross: “She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . .  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:6, 8).  We should remember her when we’re tempted to be merely moderate Christians.

 

 

The Broken Jar

(Mark 14:3-9)

 

The ointment with abandon

Runs down His cheek,

Sweetly joining tears of love

Set flowing by her extravagance.

Beauty and prescience

Are mingled there,

While spare and cautious faces

Grimace at the waste.

They advocate the shorter way—

Slipping pennies to the poor,

And making sure the books are kept.

But Jesus wept

That one should share His sacrifice,

And break the jar to pour out all.

 

                              --Elton D. Higgs

                                (Jan 9, 1977)

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

What's a Body to Do? "Summary and Conclusions" (Part 4)

 

A Twilight Musing

What, then, are the practical implications of all of this for our life together within the Body of Christ?

(1) In the first place, we had better all get it right in regard to what power means within the Body. There can be no question about God's expectation that those in authority will encourage and enhance the ability of those in their charge to realize their full potential, perhaps even enabling them to achieve a fuller potential than they realize is possible. We are one in Christ, joint-heirs and brothers and sisters of Him and of each other, without regard to our earthly, circumstantial relationships. No exercise of authority by husband, elder, employer, or parent is to involve demeaning or devaluing those who, under God, submit to them; and with the exception of parents' responsibility to keep their children under control, in none of these situations is an individual in power authorized to demand submission from others. (It should be noted that elders may sometimes have to exercise leadership in disciplining a wayward member, but in my opinion this should be done only in cases of disruptive behavior or bringing shame on the church, and never without consultation with other mature members of the Body, so that the disciplined member is the subject of congregational action, not just excommunication by the elders.) If the attitudes of mutual submission and putting others' welfare above our own governed every member of the Body, there would be no arguments about relative advantages enjoyed by or denied to anyone.

(2) Given our frailty and flaws in the flesh, disputes and accusations will arise, and those in authority will too often abuse their power and advantage. What are those for whom God has commanded submission to do? One form of this question was poignantly expressed to me by a dear sister in Christ: "How do I separate my own continual need for humbling and molding, obey Jesus' command to 'bless those who persecute,' but still stand up against what really, honestly seems to me to be sinful, destructive power structures in our church?" The first thing to be said is that submission doesn't mean not being able or willing to voice opposition to "sinful, destructive power structures" or to a leader’s obsessive and inordinate use of power. If those involved in such behavior are not willing to listen to respectfully presented objections, then they, like the sowers of dissension, are "self-condemned" for their lack of humility and of concern for those for whom they have been given responsibility. Husbands and church leaders, they must remold themselves to fit the paradigm by which they actively cultivate the ability of their wives and the women of the congregation to contribute to family, community, and congregational life in such a way as to demonstrate and appreciate their value as co-workers in God's vineyard, not to humiliate them. Precisely what the effects of this paradigm are may differ between specific families and congregations, but what in all instances it must mean is that women are given equal honor with men; that whatever submission they offer is taken as the voluntary fruit of their relationship with God, and not imposed upon them; and that any limits imposed upon their activity within the congregation be determined through communication and dialogue with them, not by edict from the leaders.

In this context, I must hasten to add that women should not put themselves or their children in jeopardy when a husband has proven to be abusive. When a husband so grossly perverts his power and his physical or social advantage over those who are weaker, those who are in danger are not obligated to be enablers of his abuse, and he must be curbed by the discipline and control of both civil and church authorities. As Paul used all legal means to avoid unjust treatment, so in such cases should contemporary women in free societies avail themselves of all legal means to deliver themselves and their children from physical abuse. Preachers and elders who pressure wives to continue to live with their husbands under such circumstances are not reflecting the biblical principle of submission, but are making yet another legalistic application of it which demeans and injures the weak and brings reproach and shame on the church.

(3) The third point to be made here is that joint prayer is a marvelous leveler in the fellowship of the Body. It is very difficult for people to go on their knees together before God, sincerely submitting themselves anew to Him, and at the same time maintain the barriers to communication often raised by perceived abuses of or challenges to power. In times of prayer like this, we have a tangible manifestation of our being "all one in Christ Jesus," where we are "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female"--that is, where all the distinctions of authority and submission are set aside as we come humbly before the Lord as equals in our experience (and need) of His grace.

I know of no better place to conclude this study than "on our knees together before God," and this is the prayer that I would leave with you:

Dear Father, enable us to think as Jesus thought, and thereby act as He acted: in humility, servanthood, obedience, and submission to the will of God. Help us also to know the power and strength of allowing these qualities to govern our lives; the freedom of grace that comes from trusting you for the outcome as we obey You; the sweetness of fellowship as You blend us together in the Body of Christ; and the certainty of our final redemption when all submission will be subsumed in our glorious eternal worship together before Your throne. In the Name of Jesus Christ, our King, amen.

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Church Bombing

A Twilight Musing

Our church was bombed last night.  Everybody in it was injured; time will tell whether there were any fatalities.  I’m sitting in the rubble, stunned at the damage, as I suspect many others are.  Even those who were not in the building at the time experienced collateral damage from the bombing.  It’s hard to sort out the extent to which any individuals or any group of people were responsible for the damage, but we are all corporately culpable for not adequately defending against it.  Although the maker and dropper of the bomb was outside the church, the church had adequate warning of his intentions.  Such things are disturbingly ordinary in the history of the Church and its individual congregations, and it’s disturbing that in spite of that instructive history, too few congregations are completely armed to defend against the implacable and always active Enemy.

The physical building occupied by the church is still standing, and passers-by will not see that anything has happened.  The destruction was wrought on the spiritual building made up of God’s people.  As a part of that group, I share the group’s failure to defend adequately against what happened to us.  As I told my wife this morning, I am very tired of dealing with human frailty and inadequacy, including those qualities in myself.  In my deep sorrow at what has happened, I feel a desire for God’s release from the battle, since I’ve had such limited success against the Adversary.  But even if we are merely survivors of the Enemy’s bomb, as long as we are alive, we must assume that, although God must be as tired of working with us as we are with ourselves, He means for us to continue.  The question is, how?

I will speak for myself, and others must judge by the Spirit of God whether my convictions have wider applications.

  • First, I must severely examine my own motives and actions and acknowledge any specific instances of manifesting pride, defensiveness, self-righteousness, self-interested slanting of information, or assuming the worst rather than the best in the motives of others.
  • Secondly, I must be so saddened by the outcome of all the strife that led to the “bombing” that my governing and overwhelming attitude toward the outcome is deep sorrow for the pain and injury that people on all sides of the issues have experienced. It is incumbent on me to suffer with those who suffer, even if I think that their opinions and motives are wrong.  Nobody won last night.  We all lost, and the only victor was the Adversary.
  • I must try to get past determining who was (or is) right or wrong. In the midst of high emotions and the compulsion to draw clear lines, I must acknowledge that only God knows the hearts and minds of people and can sort out their motivations.  And even if I am thoroughly convinced that the evidence supports a clear indictment, I must be careful not to take over either God’s role as judge or the Accuser’s role as prosecuting attorney.  If I am obligated to pray for my enemies, how much more must I pray sincerely for a brother or sister whom I believe to be in error.
  • Finally, I must not assume that any rupture in fellowship is beyond repair, if the estranged parties submit mutually to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I am not allowed to assume that attempted reconciliation is entirely the responsibility of the person or persons I am at odds with.  Whatever led up to it, alienation between God’s people is not something that can be merely accepted as irresolvable.  If we take the risk of moving toward mending the breach, God will take it from there.

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

The Heady Cocktail of Righteous Indignation

A Twilight Musing

Recently I have been made aware of some confrontations between Christian brothers and sisters that highlight how easy it is for people who differ to retreat into opposing fortresses of righteous indignation, thereby effectively guaranteeing that there will be no resolution of their contentious differences.  Of course, this happens in the secular realm as well, as the present polarization of political groups in our nation illustrates.  But this kind of standoff is especially distressing in a Christian context, where humility and mutual charity are the prescribed norms for attitudes and behavior.  It’s worth examining why Christians are so easily led to indulge in the heady and dangerous cocktail of righteous indignation.

As in every human argument, the fleshly way of dealing with conflict is to concentrate on defending one’s own point of view.  Particularly is this true when the opposing point of view is seen to be unjust, unfair, or unscriptural.  That perception pushes us toward taking on the role of defender of the faith or champion of the oppressed.  Certainly it is sometimes necessary to launch bravely into these roles, but doing so always carries with it the danger of very easily slipping into the feeling that we are morally superior to those we oppose.  This attitude will lead quickly to the mutual entrenchment that leads to church splits and divorce, as well as to political deadlock in the secular realm.

How do we avoid getting to this kind of impasse?  A good place to start is the admonition of the Apostle James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20).  Anger is one of the first ingredients to go into the cocktail of righteous indignation, following immediately on the shock of learning that we or somebody we feel responsible for has been abused or treated unfairly.  Taking the trouble to listen carefully to someone we feel in conflict with slows down the kindling of anger, and delaying speaking provides time to examine whether we have correctly understood what we have heard.  Speaking too quickly tends to harden our position prematurely, to lock us into our words and make it more difficult to make concessions that can lead to a middle ground of agreement.

Another key element to avoiding intoxication from that “heady cocktail” of self-righteous rigidity is the cultivation of humility, coupled with its companion, a desire to think the best of others, so as not to assume that their actions or opinions necessarily indicate malevolent intent or perverse objectives.  As Paul puts it, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Humility enables each side in an argument to reaffirm that we are all fallible and subject to error, even when we behave with the best of intentions.  Humility is a retardant to assuming the worst about our opponents, because we value them as much as we do ourselves.   Humility makes us keenly aware that all of us are of equal value in the eyes of God, all equally in need of and receiving His love and grace.  Humility prevents the emotional detachment that enables us to demonize and depersonalize an opponent.

Finally, just as going into battle gets the adrenalin flowing, so sometimes the thrill of defending what we regard to be a just cause or belief tempts us to make an emotional investment in it that overcomes both our objectivity and any desire to do the hard work of maintaining or restoring harmony.  The battle assumes a life of its own that perpetuates and escalates the conflict, each side feeling increasingly justified by the literal or figurative atrocities committed by the other.  In other words, we imbibe in the emotional high of battle, rather than sipping on the profounder and more complex nectar of swallowing our pride and giving up our partisanship in order to pursue the sober work of being peace-makers.  We are instructed to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3-4).

Although Paul’s words in Eph. 5:18 are addressed to literal drunkenness, they also apply as cautionary words against tippling in the heady cocktail of righteous indignation: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

"Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: "Good Samaritan"  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

Election Reflections

A Twilight Musing

Along with many other citizens, I’m sitting here the morning after the election trying to sort out where the results leave us as a nation, and especially as Christian citizens.  I’m relieved, as are many others, that the long, shabby campaign is finally over and we’re no longer bombarded by political junk mail, phone calls, attack ads, and sleazy discourse.  It has been widely stated that this campaign has been more flawed and ignobly pursued than any in living memory, and many are disillusioned as to the future of our democracy.

But perhaps this is a suitable reminder for Christians that nothing in Scripture indicates we are to expect government to do more than maintain public order and curb criminal activity. According to Paul in Romans 13:1-7, The proper response of Christians to governmental authority is submission to it and obedience to its laws.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

An additional duty of Christians toward government is stated in 1 Tim 2:1-3: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made . . . for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Certainly submission to civil authorities, abiding by the law, and praying for political leaders are commands as applicable to us as to Christians of the first century; but it is also true that people of God who live in a democratic republic have broader opportunities to influence government than did our brothers and sisters in earlier times, and therefore we have more responsibility as citizens.  However, such opportunities and responsibilities can easily tempt us to place more emphasis on our own efforts than on seeking discernment from the Lord as to how to conduct ourselves politically.  In response to this or any other election campaign, we should not be elated in pride if the candidate we agree with wins, nor cast down in bitterness if our favored candidate loses.  Especially in the aftermath of such a heated and vituperous campaign as we have just seen, Christians need to rededicate themselves to being models of sincere concern for public officials, whether we voted for them or not; and models of mutual respect as we deal with our social and political differences.  The best testimony that Christians can give at a time like this is to be agents of healing, rather than strident voices of either self-righteousness in victory or bitterness in defeat.

 

 

Image: "election chalkboard" by Jeff Warren. CC License. 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Vote Your Conscience

Editorial

“No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless [. . .]; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.” – William James, “The Will to Believe”

 

In an episode from season two of The Good Wife, the central character’s law firm has to decide whether to sue someone accused of a horrific sex crime. Evidence for a strong case eventually mounts, and it looks likely that they could win the potential suit.

But there’s a rub. The accused man is someone who has done a great deal of good in Africa. For his promotion of women’s rights and justice for the underprivileged there, he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is known throughout the country for this humanitarian work, which has done much good for many people. Pursuit of the case against him could very well permanently undermine the advances gained by his efforts. At least that’s the argument put forth by the man’s wife when she pleads with the firm not to pursue the lawsuit.

The episode makes an illuminating case study in which a moral conflict arises between doing the virtuous or dutiful thing, on the one hand, and promoting the best consequences on the other. This is, of course, a well-known dilemma that often pits deontologists—those who emphasize the rightness or wrongness of the action itself—against consequentialists—those who determine the rightness or wrongness of an action based on outcomes.

Sometimes, such as in the episode described above, doing the dutiful thing would seem well-nigh certain to produce bad consequences overall, whereas other times aiming to maximize utility would call for an intrinsically unjust action. Such conflicts have been the fodder for many an amusing and engaging ethics debate in philosophy classrooms.

The strictest deontologist would suggest that avoiding horrific consequences never justifies violating a particular moral rule. No number of lives saved, for example, could validate torturing the child of a terrorist. But not every rule is nonnegotiable. We’re rather inclined to think that, in the aforementioned episode, bringing the wrongdoer to justice would be the right thing to do.

What about lying to protect Jews during the Holocaust when a German soldier comes to the door? Kant was notorious for insisting that there are no legitimate exceptions to lying, but one could question this conclusion based on Kantian principles themselves. For example, on the basis of what maxim is one considering the lying? Some maxims are universalizable, while others aren’t, so which is it?

The present point, though, is more about this question: What do we do when doing the right thing would be harmful overall? What would a teacher do, for instance, if on the eve of graduation she discovers that a senior has egregiously cheated, a senior with a full scholarship to a prestigious university? Or choose another example when doing the right thing seems unlikely to yield the best outcome.

This is a question neither for the strictest Kantian nor the strictest consequentialist. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between, and rightly so. And so most of us will likely encounter a scenario where doing what we are convinced is right will not likely produce good results. It may even produce a bad one, or at least contribute to it. In such cases, what should one do?

This is no mere academic exercise, because many people are currently struggling with this very question in the upcoming presidential election. I’m thinking particularly of conservatives who can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump, but they are no less opposed to his competition. Such conservatives are finding themselves under increasing pressure to capitulate and support Trump despite their deep reservations.

Popular arguments along these lines come from evangelical leaders like Eric Metaxas who sees Trump as “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.” While Metaxas says that Christians “must” vote for Trump, Robert Jeffress does him one better, attributing to pride rather than conscientious principle the motivation for any Christian withholding support for Trump. And here, too, Jeffress points to the probable outcome of such abstention: “I think it would be a shame for people to allow Hillary Clinton four or eight years in the White House.”

Such arguments leave many conservatives who cannot support Trump genuinely perplexed as to what to do. Despite their conviction, do they have an obligation to vote for the one they, or others, consider the lesser of two evils?

To be clear, we’re not taking a position on whether they’re right about Trump’s (or HRC’s) candidacy, but simply pointing out that this sort of dilemma is a real one for many. We would, though, like to offer these specific voters some perspective on this situation.

Radical consequentialism might sanction a vote for one of these two nominees, but we submit that such voters should not support either candidate. The often-repeated refrain, that a non-vote for one candidate is positive support for the other, should hold no water for such individuals. If someone thinks that voting for either candidate is impossible to do in good conscience, we submit that they should refrain from voting, or should vote for a third candidate they can support. The right course of action in such a case, without consideration for the electoral outcome, is to withhold support for either Trump or Clinton.

Both voting for a third candidate and abstaining from voting altogether are potentially legitimate, available alternatives. On occasion we are genuinely forced to choose the lesser of two evils, when, for example, no third option is available. But that is not the case in this year’s election. This is no either/or situation, without remainder. The remaining options provide a way to preserve the courage of one’s convictions and resist the pressure to outsource one’s conscience. The worst case scenario would entail refraining from voting altogether.

To reiterate, this analysis is predicated on the assumption that the prospective voter thinks that voting for either leading candidate would be wrong for them. They should, to our thinking, follow their conscience, and either refrain from voting or vote for a third candidate. Admittedly, doing so may result in, or at least contribute to, a bad outcome. But allowing that consideration to, well, trump would represent a tacit acceptance of an objectionably consequentialist approach to ethics.

Someone might say that it’s not the bad consequence per se that they wish to avoid, but the deontological values that would have to be sacrificed in that case. Their aversion to contributing to such an outcome, then, is more than consequentialist. That’s fine, but if they think that those values are enough to warrant voting for, say, Trump, then they are not the focus of this analysis. However, those who think it would be wrong to vote for either should vote for neither.

One more brief consideration is germane to people of faith in particular. Usually when we do work in moral apologetics, we start with clear cases of moral right and wrong, good or evil, and invite our interlocutors to locate our shared moral ground. From there we can search for what best explains such obvious moral truths. But there’s another way to do moral apologetics using dilemma cases such as the type we’ve been discussing.

Suppose we’re confronted with some really horrible choice between two evils. Either the choice is forced, or it’s not. If it’s a forced choice, the action in question may well produce bad consequences, but still may be obligatory, in which case it ought to be done despite the (at least temporally) bad outcome. That’s a case where choosing the less bad option is permissible. If the choice is not forced, but there’s a viable third alternative, then that option ought to be chosen, despite that it, too, may not contribute to a good overall outcome, or even might contribute to a bad one. We submit this election is just a case for some, and the third option is either a good third candidate or not voting at all.

But what the believer can hold onto in either contingency is faith in a good God who will ensure ultimate good ends and the embrace of justice and peace even when we, owing to our finitude and limitations, are unable to contribute to or effect them on our own. Producing the best outcomes isn’t always our responsibility, but we can rest assured it is Someone’s.

Necessary, but not Sufficient

A Twilight Musing

In philosophical writings one reads of proofs or segments of evidence that are “necessary but not sufficient,” which I take to mean that a substance or idea or argument has several constituent parts, all of which, in the right proportions and quantities, are necessary to complete the whole.  Water consists of 2 units of hydrogen and one of oxygen.  Each unit is necessary, in correct proportion to the other, but not sufficient in itself to be called “water.”  There are also some interesting biblical passages and stories that illustrate this principle.

For example, when the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus answered that he should obey the commandments of God (particularly the Decalogue), the Young Ruler replied that he had done so from the time of his youth.  Jesus then delivers the answer that turns him away: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).  All of the Young Ruler’s  good works were necessary (though we might question whether he was as good as he thought he was), but not sufficient to make him a part of God’s kingdom.

Similarly, Jesus faults the Scribes and Pharisees for trying to be righteous through minute attention to the command to tithe.  Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.  These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:23-24).  James makes much the same point in his discussion of faith and works: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” for “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:18, 20 [my italics]).  As Abraham’s faith was manifested by his putting Isaac on the altar and taking up the knife to slay him, and Rahab’s was shown by helping God’s spies to escape, so all who express faith must complete faith by obedient works.

But as shown by the insufficiency of the virtuous works of the scribes and Pharisees, good deeds without faith are also insufficient for pleasing God.  Both faith and works are necessary, but neither apart from the other identifies us as children of God and members of His kingdom.  In the Old Testament, the prophets often pointed out the insufficiency of ritual obedience to make a wayward people right with God, as in Amos 6:21ff.  (See also Is. 1:10ff.)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of them I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

How, you will say, is this to be applied to our modern situation?  I think of the frequently heard comment of people questioned about their religious identity: “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” by which they usually mean, “I believe in a spiritual reality that transcends the surface meaning of the material world, but I don’t thereby feel required to accept a personal God or to be a participant in any religious organization.”  Certainly we as Christians see some sense of supra-material spiritual reality as necessary to knowing God, but it is not within itself sufficient to bring us to God.

But the application can be closer to home.  In what ways do we Christians try to turn “necessary” things into “sufficiencies”?  Good Christian fellowship is a necessary part of being a church, but it isn’t sufficient to be the whole reason for attending services, nor is the absence of fellowship that “meets our needs” sufficient reason to forsake the assembly.  I Cor. 13 presents a number of activities that are necessary to Christian character (generosity, willingness to die for Christ, powerful use of spiritual gifts), but they are insufficient virtues if not embedded in love.  Tolerance, compassion, and social justice are both necessary characteristics of Christian living and commonly held secular principles, but when they are made sufficient within themselves, they are often given precedence over adherence to God’s commands and His Truth.

Ah, yes, Truth, which together with Beauty and Goodness constitute a traditional metaphysical triad that evokes the only Reality wherein each of its parts is sufficient to be counted as the whole: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Three-in-One and the One in Three.       Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, for in the Son “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 1:9, KJV).  The whole of John 14 is devoted to Jesus’ assurances to His disciples that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, and that after Jesus is gone from the earth, the Holy Spirit will be the new Presence of the unified Son and Father, functioning as Comforter and Teacher for the disciples.  Embracing the Light of the Holy Spirit banishes the darkness of our poor attempts to find sufficiency in anything but God Himself. The best antidote to substituting any part for the whole is submitting wholly to the total sufficiency of God’s love and grace, wherein we can integrate the parts of our lives.

Image: Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler By Heinrich Hofmann - Riverside Church, New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14265296

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Ambiguous Nakedness

A few months ago, I alluded to the following poem:

 

“And they realized they were naked . . . .”

(Gen. 3:7)

 

What mystery was shrouded

By the fig leaves of our forebears?

Primordial tailors,

Their hands’ first fallen craft

Was born of shame,

The name of sin but freshly formed.

Why that immediate, desperate need

To cover their suddenly secret parts?

Their hearts alone have known

Both nakedness with innocence

And clothing worn in guilt.

For us, their heirs,

Only cloaked desire

Mingled with pain.

                                                     Elton D. Higgs

                                                     Oct. 1, 2009

 

In speculating about what life in the Garden of Eden was like before the Fall, we can only project the other side of the coin from the present state of evil that we know all too well.  Of course, we have the picture of the eternal state in Rev. 21 and 22, in which there will be no death, no disease, no sorrow or weeping, no environmental disorders to disrupt and destroy life.  But what is the flip side of the evils attendant on our sexual desires?  We must assume that Adam and Eve’s becoming “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) meant that their relationship before the Fall involved sexual intercourse.  The perfection of their sexual intimacy seems to have been symbolized by their uninhibited, shameless nakedness (Gen. 2:25).  It is also significant that the first consciousness of their changed state after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit was that “they knew they were naked” and felt compelled to cover up their genitals.  The first victim of lost innocence was the unalloyed enjoyment of sex.

It’s also interesting that Adam and Eve’s recognition of their nakedness had immediate spiritual consequences, causing Adam to hide from God (Gen. 3:10).  Surely it was not merely his physical nakedness that Adam didn’t want God to see, but at a deeper level, he was not able to endure God’s looking at the nakedness of his now-corrupted soul.  God Himself makes the connection between the two levels of being unclothed: “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Gen. 3:11).  Adam would not have known he was physically naked had he not first exposed himself spiritually by his disobedience to God.  The easy pleasure of walking with God in the Garden gave way to the agony of feeling Yahweh’s searching eyes.  The protection of innocence had been permanently torn away.

Among the judgments God pronounced on Adam and Eve and their progeny were two things relating to the couple’s  new-found knowledge of their nakedness (which was, by extension, a painful awareness of sexual vulnerability).  First, He made pain a part of child-bearing and declared that wives would be dependent upon their husbands and be ruled over by them.  Secondly, God provided clothing of animal skins for Adam and Eve to replace the crude fig-leaves they had sewn together for themselves.  Herein we see God on the one hand administering severe discipline to the fallen couple, and on the other showing His mercy and provision, giving symbolic assurance that though they had foolishly and perversely thrown aside the beautiful and unproblematic existence God had given them in Eden, He was still with them, if in humility they accepted God’s judgment and submitted to His commands.  Even in the face of the painful consequences of their sin, they could recover some of the beauty of the innocent nakedness they had experienced with God before they fell.

What might be some instruction we can take from these observations?  First, the sexual communion that came naturally to Adam and Eve in the Garden now has to be worked at by men and women in the fallen world.  The nakedness that they took for granted has to be re-embraced by married couples as a wholesome part of their experience and cherished as a mark of the intimacy that God intends for those who are committed to each other in covenant relationship with Him.

Second, the emotional bond that must have been natural between Adam and Eve is challenged in our fallen state.  God’s decree that a wife is to expect and accept dependence on her husband and be subject to him is very problematic, especially in our egalitarian society.  This dynamic is reinforced in the New Testament (Eph. 5:22-33), of course, so how is a spiritually committed but enlightened couple to work this out?  In the Ephesians passage, the wife’s submission is balanced by the husband’s sacrificial care, and Paul refers back to what Genesis says about the initial relationship between Adam and Eve, that they were to “become one flesh” (v. 31).  For this to occur in the fallen state, the woman has to resist using sex to gain power, and the man has to resist using his power selfishly.  Each must work at respecting and enhancing the other.

As reflected in the last lines of the poem above, sexual desire in fallen humankind is experienced ambiguously as “cloaked desire / Mingled with pain.”

Married couples need to realize that although physical and spiritual nakedness with each other is risky, it can be joyful, too, if undertaken with the assurance that the God who disciplines is also the God who redeems.  God is able and willing to use our ambiguous nakedness as an avenue to tasting even in this vale of tears a bit of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

 

Image: By Thomas Cole - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=182975

 

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Two Sides to Every Story? How Triviality Obscures the Truth of Domestic Abuse

Editor's Note: In this slight departure from our standard subject matter, we explore some of the implications of justice and charity in cases of domestic abuse, specifically in light of recent statements by a notable Christian leader. The importance and gravity of this issue merit its coverage here at Moral Apologetics.

Imagine the following: A woman lives for years in a volatile situation, never knowing when a word or circumstance will enrage her husband causing him to unleash emotional or physical pain on her. She tries desperately to manage the environment, to forestall these chaotic and traumatic outbursts—for her own and her children’s sake.

This woman’s home life is toxic; it has strangled her spirit, and what little outside support she has dwindles as the situation worsens. She accepts the blame assigned by her husband, she sees hope for change in small gestures of remorse, and day by day she becomes increasingly anxious, depressed, and demoralized.

Suppose this woman seeks counseling for her anxiety and depression. In this process, she realizes, first, that her situation is not normal and, second, that she is not to blame for the emotional and physical violence perpetrated on her. After laboring so long under the impression that she and her husband were equal partners in creating their destructive home environment, she embraces the truth that her husband has wielded unchecked and unjust power over her. Control, not love, animates their relationship.

Although the journey toward healing and freedom ahead of her is long and difficult, she has taken the first step by appropriating this truth.

Women like this, unfortunately, are all too common, even within the church. Controllers like this exist, too; yes, even within the church. In fact, the church—with its insistence on marital fidelity, its teachings of mercy and sacrifice—often provides unwitting cover for perpetrators like the husband of the woman above. Research shows that Christian women are more prone to stay longer in an abusive environment and to endure far worse abuse than their non-Christian counterparts. Unfortunately, pastors are often ill-informed about, and ill-equipped to deal with, the wicked realities of domestic abuse.

Take, for example, Franklin Graham’s recent Facebook post appealing to Christians to withhold judgment and, instead, pray for Saeed Abedini and his wife Naghmeh. Abedini, as many know, is the recently released American pastor who was jailed in Iran for close to four years, charged with proselytizing and undermining Iranian national security.

After working tirelessly to publicize her husband’s wrongful imprisonment and to pressure Washington to obtain his release, Naghmeh halted her advocacy in November 2015, telling supporters that she had endured “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse” from her husband and didn’t have the resources to soldier on any longer under such circumstances.

During Saeed’s imprisonment Franklin Graham rallied many Christians around his cause. Upon Saeed’s return to America last month, Graham welcomed him to the Billy Graham Training Center for rest and recuperation. While this outcome was the one so many prayed for and sought for so long, Naghmeh’s claims of abuse hung oppressively over any celebration, complicated further by her filing for legal separation on the day Saeed returned to their hometown in Idaho.

And so through his Facebook post Graham attempted a hopeful framework for responding to the murky affair. Wishing to remain impartial, he spoke of the marital troubles facing the Abedinis, called for prayer to ward off Satan’s continued attacks on their family, and reminded readers that “[o]ther than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them.”

Although Franklin Graham is not the Abedini family’s personal pastor, as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and leader of Samaritan’s Purse relief organization, he wields considerable societal influence. How he handles this situation matters beyond the case of this particular family; it speaks to the broader Christian community’s understanding of the realities of domestic abuse. And many will follow the example he sets here.

Graham’s statement seems designed, understandably, to keep rumors in check and encourage Christians to think redemptively on this matter. The charges Naghmeh levied are weighty; no one wants a false claim to shatter an innocent man’s life, especially a man who has endured so much and been a model of Christian faithfulness for so many. And yet Graham’s admonition, evenhanded as it tried to be, reveals a profound naivety about domestic abuse, a naivety that is sadly all too prevalent in the church.

Consider the seeming truism that punctuates Graham’s appeal: “there are at least two sides to every story.” When applied to the situation of the woman described at the outset of this piece, this claim is revealed as nonsense. A man who would inflict physical and emotional violence on his wife probably does have a perspective to share, but what of it? An opportunity to present his “side of the story” would only make way for more manipulation and deceit, this time drawing allies to his side and increasing the pressure on his wife to capitulate.

“There are at least two sides to every story” is valid only in a world governed by fair play, insistent on honesty, and committed to honoring the dignity of others. “There are at least two sides to every story” works for run-of-the-mill marital challenges: how to communicate better, getting finances straight, agreeing on child-rearing techniques. “There are at least two sides to every story,” only when those stories are populated by honorable people behaving honorably.

Conversely, “there are at least two sides to every story” is a monstrous retort to the situation described above. The world of that woman’s oppression is defined by a pattern of unrepentant sin, controlled by someone who has only his own interests in mind. For this woman’s sake and the sake of the many women like her, Graham’s platitude must be rejected and replaced by more sensitive and informed replies.[1]

“There are at least two sides to every story” is an offense to any victim speaking the truth about her mistreatment; it’s an offense to our God who cares about the downtrodden. Rather than bringing light and hope to an emotionally-fraught situation, trotting out this banal expression at such a crucial moment enables actual and would-be perpetrators and further disadvantages victims. Redemption cannot bypass truth.

If there are two sides to every story, in any substantive sense worth emphasizing, is the suggestion that a rape victim has her story and her rapist his own? A sexually molested child his story and the pedophile her own? Holocaust survivors their story and their cruel captors their own? ISIS victims their stories, the terrorists their own? Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham jail his story, his pious segregationist critics their own? Such claims are patently misguided: either trivially true or wickedly false. In situations terribly warped and twisted by sin, unspeakably deformed by darkness and inhumanity, the worst casualty of the polite words of morally tone-deaf evenhandedness is often the sober truth.

I don’t know that Naghmeh’s situation falls into that category. Nor does Franklin Graham know that it doesn't.

 

Notes:

[1] Several Christian institutions and professionals offer training and guidance for pastors on domestic abuse, including the following (along with links to their resources): Lifeway, Focus on the Family, Ministry Matters, and Leslie Vernick.

 

Image: "Broken Glass" by Holger. CC License. 

“Cherish one another.”

Cherish one another.”  My wife reminded me the other day that I often give this aphoristic piece of advice to married couples, especially younger ones and those who are struggling to overcome marital conflict.   She was asking, if I may paraphrase, “Why do you consider those words a starting point in marital relations?”

As I thought about how to enlarge on “Cherish one another,” I considered the difference between that admonition and merely saying, “Love one another,” which is rather the more expectable wording of the idea, and one used often in the New Testament to apply to all human relationships (see, e.g., I John 4).  Since we are talking about marriage, we should refer to the passages in which the husbands are commanded to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25) and to “love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28).  Although the word “love” in these passages (agape, the absolutely selfless love that Jesus shows to His bride, the church) is deeper and more comprehensive than “cherish,” I believe the latter word, just because it is more focused and precise in denotation and more warmly personal in connotation, conveys an idea of core value in marital relationships.

The word “cherish” comes from a root meaning “dear,” both in the sense of “held affectionately close” and “appreciated for its value.”  (In British English, the word “dear” is often used to mean “expensive,” as in “That’s too dear for me.”)  So the appellation “dear” when talking to one’s beloved can be seen as more than a casual term, carrying with it both the joy of companionship and an appreciation for the great value of the one to whom it is addressed.  The cherished one is perceived as a treasure, to be held close and protected.  And the spouse so regarded will be presented to others with all of her/his good qualities showcased, as one deserving to be cherished.

In practical terms, cherishing your wife means, first of all, listening to her intensely and consistently, with both your ears and your heart, in a way that shows you value knowing and understanding her more than anything else that calls for your attention.  Turn off the ball game, put down your newspaper or your tools, quit bending over the work you brought home from the office.  Wives, if you want your husband to feel cherished, understand and acknowledge what gives him joy.  If you don’t value it already, ask him to explain to you why it engages him, and participate in it with him if you can.  When the two of you engage in conversation, even if it becomes an argument, avoid put-downs or condescension or contempt at all costs.  Take for granted the value of hearing what the other one wants to say, and even if it irritates you, glean from it some building blocks of understanding.  The scriptural admonition not to go to bed angry is especially important in the aftermath of a heated disagreement.  Cherishing means offering forgiveness on a standing-order basis, for cherishing and anger can’t occupy the same bed.

Cherishing means giving gifts, especially when they’re not expected and the only thing they celebrate is affirming the value of your spouse.  Attach a note that ties the gift to some quality of your spouse that you really appreciate.  Of course, the affirming of your wife or husband can (and should) be a constant flow of “Thank you’s” and frequent acknowledgements of her/his good traits.  (Caution to husbands: make sure your pattern of showing attention doesn’t elicit the mental response, “Oh yeah, I know what he really wants!”  Make your cherishing much more often manifested than your appetites—keep her guessing!)  Wives, be appreciative of the qualities your husband actually has, not just the ones that fit the Procrustean bed of your wishes and expectations.  Many an effort at cherishing has foundered on the desire to create rather than find qualities to admire.

Mutual, consistent, intentional cherishing builds a relationship strong enough to withstand a lot of trouble.  Indeed, it’s in the midst of trouble that mutual cherishing can become even more entrenched.  And it’s that entrenched cherishing that makes a mature marriage rich and still capable of development.  The breeding soil of cherishing is thankfulness for God’s gifts, the chief of which, in a truly committed covenant marriage, is the gift of a spouse who is willing to participate in the exhilarating exercise of progressive cherishing.

While I was writing this article, I fortuitously saw a review of the latest of the Mitford novels by Jan Karon, Come Rain or Come Shine.  The reviewer quotes a comment by Father Tim, who is conducting a wedding, as he tries to answer a question from the bride, “How do we cherish someone?“  Father Tim answers, “A good marriage is a contest of generosities.  Our happiness is ensured when we seek the happiness of another.  The other person always has a choice.  It is our job to generously outdo, no matter what, and discover that the prize in this contest of generosity is more love.”  That reconfirms my conviction that the best succinct advice I can give to two people whom God has brought together in matrimony is, “Cherish one another.”

Image: "Love... just that" by Sippanont Samchai. CC License. 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor's note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

[su_dropcap]T[/su_dropcap]he injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.[su_pullquote]This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.[/su_pullquote]

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

[su_dropcap]J[/su_dropcap]ustice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

[su_dropcap]S[/su_dropcap]elma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 23: “Turning the Other Cheek, Pacifism, and Just War.”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

It might be worth asking whether we can say something more general about warfare, moving beyond divinely commanded fighting. Contrary to the claim that the Bible endorses pacifism, certain instances of violent means seem justified to fight injustice. N. T. Wright thinks one of the insights of the imprecatory psalms is that evil is real and that it needs to be actively battled. Yale professor Miroslav Volf affirms the compatibility of loving one’s neighbor and using force to protect the neighbor. Romans 13 affirms that God does not always carry out divine wrath directly but has partly delegated this task to human governments.

Biblical Considerations

               The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus died for the sin of the world and took the curse of our exile and alienation from God on himself. He stormed into the temple to cleanse it. Although many assume Jesus prohibited any use of force, F&C have their doubts.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). But this admonition is not the response to an attack of violence, but to a gross insult. Jesus is prohibiting returning insult for insult. He is exhorting his followers to break the vicious cycle of exchanging insults and to move toward reconciliation and peacemaking with our personal enemies—even with Roman soldiers who might commandeer Jewish citizens to carry their loads for them for a mile.

Jesus does not absolutize loving one’s enemies. He denounces his opponents in very harsh terms in Matthew 23. He exemplified a spirit of remarkable forgiveness on the cross, but for forgiveness to be complete, it presupposes the offender’s repentance. Even when Christ instructs his disciples to forgive extravagantly, he continues saying that those refusing to forgive will incur the wrath of their master and be handed over to the torturers.

When Christians call for the forgiveness of the likes of Osama bin Laden, we must ask: Is that our rightful place? Unlike the Son of God, how can we simply forgive the offenses of others? What about the victims of their assaults? Should we forgive terrorists while they are planning another attack?

What about not resisting the evil person? For one thing, Jesus himself is constantly resisting evil. Matt. 5:39 is better translated as not resisting “by evil means” rather than “the evil one/person.” This is how other NT writers interpret the words. And even if we take this passage in the traditional way, once again we do not have an absolute prohibition of resisting evil persons. Jesus is routinely driving out evil spirits. The God-ordained state is called to resist evildoers, etc.

While Jesus welcomes sinners and forgives them, he also threatens judgment on his opponents. Repeatedly, we see that Jesus himself doesn’t absolutize forgiving enemies.

Other Voices in the New Testament

Elsewhere in the NT we see the imprecatory psalms reenacted. Romans 12 and 13 illustrate the complementarity of the personal and the official. Romans 12 features Paul following Jesus’ commands to break the vicious cycle of personal animosity to work toward reconciled relationships. Rom. 13 features state officials whose role has been ordained of God to protect the innocent and preserve the peace and punish evildoers.

We also encounter general biblical principles that lend support to the idea of a just war. There is a time for war. Soldiers and centurions are treated quite favorably in the NT. Their status isn’t presented as inherently immoral. The scriptures exhibit a complementarity between being a disciple of Christ and involvement in the God-ordained state.

Historical Considerations: Constantinianism and Christian Soldiering

               Before Constantine

Bainton and Yoder have maintained that the church was uniformly nonmilitary from the second century until the rise of Constantine (AD 312). It’s the spirit of Constantinianism, so the argument goes, that has given rise to the church’s compromising entanglement with the state.

The evidence for this uniform pacifism is not all that tidy. NT is not nonmilitaristic. What about beyond the NT? After the NT and up to the mid-second century, we have silence on Christian soldiers. But after this time, we have clear evidence of Christian soldiers in the Roman army. Nonmilitaristic perspective of several church leaders does not necessarily represent a uniformly held, empire-wide Christian belief during this time. We see hints of just war in Tertullian and Origen, and beyond this, there are a number of complicating factors. Perhaps Christians saw some violence as inappropriate, or some causes unworthy of participating in, but that doesn’t mean all.

The Advent of Constantine

With the ascent of Constantine, the Christian outcast minority would become part of the “establishment.” Constantine is often depicted negatively, but surely his rule was a relief to a once persecuted minority. The church made some big mistakes with the temporal power, but Constantine brought about many positive moral reforms—banning gladiatorial games and the abandonment of children, segregated prison cells for men and women, charitable ministries, etc.

A Brief Discussion of Just War

After the rise of Constantine, thinkers like Ambrose and Augustine would advocate principles for a just war—a view that held sway until the twentieth century. Can there be a just war? Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of those who brought about change nonviolently. But perhaps it’s worth noting that their nonviolent resistance succeeded because the governments to which they appealed were fairly humanitarian and better informed by biblical values than the vast number of ruthless regimes that have existed over time.

Principles of Just War

The just war theorist attempts to deal realistically with unpreventable violent aggression against the vulnerable. Just war theory recognizes the justice of protecting innocent nations from thugs, bullies, and tyrants, recognizing that attempts at negotiation and peacemaking with ruthless tyrants will often be fruitless and that “trust” may be nothing more than gullibility.

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that war or military strength has helped bring an end to chattel slavery in America, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet Communism. Wars don’t always come about because of failure of communication or misunderstanding, or from poverty or inequality. They begin from malicious intent and the absence of deterrence. Often nations become accomplices to evil through inaction.

When it comes to articulating what just war involves, there are seven criteria, although the first three take priority:

  1. Just Cause
  2. Just Intent
  3. Lawful Declaration
  4. Last Resort
  5. Immunity of Noncombatants
  6. Limited Objectives

F&C elaborate by making several points. First, in the context of just war principles, which are universally applicable and rooted in God’s general revelation to all people, it may be helpful to distinguish between “force” and “violence.” Appropriate force is motivated by both justice and love of neighbor; it is aimed at restoring peace; it is carried out by a proper authority. Second, a nation or group of nations may engage in a truly just war, but the fact that missteps may be made does not undermine the overall justice of the war. Third, a war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor, but we must not confuse what love requires. Love for the victim may require removing the source of harm, for example. Fourth, the pacifistic understanding of “turn the other cheek” raise questions about protecting the innocent from injustice when it’s in our power to do so. Finally, we should simultaneously support “just peacemaking” efforts to build bridges of understanding and partnership between nations and communities while not neglecting the appropriate use of force against thus and tyrants when necessary.

 

Image: "Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (*1934): Non violence, 1995-1999, Bronze" by wwwuppertal. CC License. 

Lying and Reasonable Expectation

Here’s a simple question: What is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it casts some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence would likely count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or a ‘right’) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we are not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry that jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. This definition of lying also includes lying by omission.

The “reasonable expectation view” also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). There are some who vigorously defend the “yes” position, perhaps because of a Kantian influence. Kant is notorious for claiming that lying is always wrong, because it is always predicated on a maxim that cannot be universalized or consistently willed to become a universal law. This is also called the “categorical imperative.” A good example is lying to secure a loan. Knowing you cannot pay it back in a timely fashion, you lie to get the loan anyway. If everyone in such circumstances did so, the very institution of truth-telling, promise-keeping, and money-lending would disintegrate. Kant would say what makes lying wrong is not the bad consequences of what would happen, but rather the implication that one’s beliefs or desires are in contradiction. If we were to universalize the maxim in question—that it is permissible to lie about repaying a loan in a timely fashion—the result would be the destruction of the loaning institution, or the very thing that makes money-lending possible. So one both wants the institution to be there and, in virtue of following such an unworkable maxim, does not want the institution to be there.

The matter, however, is not that easy. For it is not clear at what level of generality the maxim should be cast. This matters because, depending on how the maxim is cast—ranging from “It’s okay to lie whenever one wants” to “It’s permissible to lie when doing so is the only way to avoid a grave injustice”—sometimes the maxim can be universalized and sometimes it cannot. Kant’s sweeping conclusion, then, that lying is always irrational and immoral seems unwarranted.

Contra Kant, most typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them. So my solution to the conundrum is not to say that lying is sometimes justified, but rather that withholding the truth or even projecting a falsehood on occasion is not lying at all.

A worry arises here about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that persecution of the Jews is a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it is because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does the Nazi have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this to a biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The professor noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I did not think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it is the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. Perhaps some of the more difficult biblical passages in which non-truth-telling and/or deception seem to be endorsed may benefit from this account of lying in their interpretations, and show that the Bible is not ethically mistaken after all!

Notes: 

[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.

Image: "fingers crossed" by DGLES. CC License. 

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week's podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.

Moral Knowledge and Loving Our Neighbors

What is moral knowledge and how ought we use it? It helps to first understand what knowledge is. By the account of most, knowledge is a justified (or warranted) true belief. In order to have knowledge about something, I must have a justified true belief about it. Justification can take a variety of forms. For example, if I read in The New York Times that Obama was in China last week, this would be adequate justification for believing that Obama was in China. Notice that knowledge does not require certainty, it only requires that the belief is true and justified. If knowledge did require certainty, as the work of Descartes ended up showing, we could only know a very small list of things, likely just beliefs confined inside our own heads. Building the bridge to anything outside invariably introduces the possibility of being wrong, however slight, thereby precluding absolute certainty. Since Descartes, most epistemologists have realized the mistake in hankering after Cartesian certainty.

Moral knowledge, then, is a justified true belief of a moral proposition. “It is always wrong to torture children just for fun” is an example of a moral proposition.

You might wonder what kind of justification can make belief in this proposition knowledge. As Christians, we can give several different answers. One possible answer is that the proposition about torturing children for fun is “properly basic.” This means that we do not need to provide any reason to think the proposition is true in order to know that it is. A Christian can give this answer consistently by arguing that God has made humans in such a way that they simply recognize the truth of certain moral propositions immediately.

Or, alternately, we might say that justification comes from the Christian view of human persons. Since all humans, including children, are made in the image of God, they have intrinsic value and dignity. Therefore, it is always wrong to torture children for the fun of it. This is an attempt to infer wrongness from the badness of violating a person’s dignity or value. There are number of other ways we could ground our justification of this belief on the Christian view, including an appeal to God’s command to love others as we love ourselves. The bottom line is that Christianity has tremendous resources for justifying our belief in moral propositions.

What I want to suggest is that if you think Christianity is true, then you should be confident that moral knowledge is available to you. We could list a wide range of moral beliefs that a Christian should think justified, like the wrongness of adultery and stealing, the goodness and value of nature and animals, and the dignity of all human life.

Now, this robust kind of moral knowledge gives us both moral authority and responsibility. We have moral authority because we know the truth of certain moral propositions and, since we know the truth, we have an obligation to communicate that in a clear, but loving way.

As Christians, we face a problem when exercising our responsibility to tell the truth about morality: our neighbors often disagree with us about certain moral propositions. We have often been told that the greatest virtues are tolerance and humility. If there is one sin in our culture, it is the sin of speaking with authority about morality. Each person has the right to find happiness wherever and however they can, even if it means acting in ways those dogmatic Christians think disagreeable.

However, when we only practice the virtues of tolerance and humility and exclude the virtue of truth telling, then we actually harm others. If it is really true that torturing children for fun is wrong, then it is not virtuous to say to the child torturer, “Well, for me, torturing children is wrong, but you are entitled to you own opinions. You have your truth and I have mine. If it makes you happy, go ahead. If it causes you pain to stop, then don’t.” This harms the child torturer by enabling him to continue the degradation of his own soul, not to mention the harm he will continue to do to the children. Really loving the child torturer means confronting him with the truth in love.

The principle is generalizable. Consistent with regard and respect for others is the proclamation of truth. Since so many nowadays seem to identify their convictions with their very identity, challenging someone’s belief might be interpreted as something of a personal attack. This, for obvious reasons, makes expressing disagreement more challenging. Although we shouldn’t aim to be disagreeable ourselves, we should be willing to speak the truth in love, winsomely and irenically.

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote about what it means for God to be good. He says,

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see young people enjoying themselves” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all”.

The point Lewis was driving at is that in order for God to be good, he cannot just leave us as we are. Real love is active and not passive. When God loves us, he helps us out of the mire of sin and depravity he found us in. He does not say, “Getting out the muck will be hard and you seem contented enough, so you stay there.” God wants us to flourish as humans and not to continue the process of rotting away. Therefore, God demands moral transformation from us. God desires what’s best for us; His love demands it.

The illumination provided by Lewis can help us think more clearly about our own responsibility to love others. If we truly love others, we will not be merely kind to them. That, in the end, is patronizing and harmful. Instead, we will call our neighbors to a life of rich happiness that is only available when we accept that we must also be holy to be happy. We must help our neighbors out of the muck and mire by telling them the truth about morality, even if they’d rather not hear it. Lucky for us, Christianity provides the grounds for doing just that.

Paul Copan and Kenneth Litwak write,

In our therapeutic age, Westerners commonly view God as a divine therapist rather than as the cosmic authority who commands our obedience and allegiance. To those who trust in him, God gives the Holy Spirit, not the Happy Spirit. God is more interested in our being good and doing good than our feeling good; he is more interested in character transformation than self-authentication. God is not only concerned about sincerity, but also that sincere hearts be aligned with the truth; after all, people can be sincerely wrong, as history amply illustrates. Only by losing our lives for Christ’s sake, by taking up our cross daily, will we actually find what is life indeed (Mt 16:25; Jn 10:10). (The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, p. 55.)

The New Testament provides the earliest and most paradigmatic examples of outreach to an unbelieving world. And though the earliest evangelists were careful to be sensitive to context and to establish a solid rapport with their audiences, starting where they were, they were always true to their beliefs, had the courage of their convictions, and tried taking their listeners to where they needed to be. If this required calling sin out, identifying instances of iniquitous idolatry, calling people to repentance, and warning of the judgment to come, they were willing to do it. And so should we. The Good News of the Gospel is good news indeed, but only after people realize their malady and need for healing.