Book Review – “Philosophy: A Christian Introduction” (James K. Dew, Jr. and Paul M. Gould)

Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, James K. Dew, Jr., and Paul M. Gould, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 254 pages.

Long time readers of my blog might have picked up on a habit that I have – I love to recommend books. With only very few exceptions, every book review that I post has the same bottom line, “buy this book.” Even if I disagree with one or more of the salient points that the author(s) make, I like to read books, ponder books, argue with the authors of books, and to be challenged and provoked by books.

Sadly, I’m going to have to break my custom here.

It’s not that this is a bad book, or one that I disagree wholeheartedly with. It’s just that the book does not accomplish what it sets out to do. And that is really sad, because there is a genuine dearth of books written for the neophyte in philosophy, and especially a book that attempts to tackle the thorny issue of relating philosophy to Christianity.

The authors here begin by saying the right things, and I was excited to believe that maybe I had found a source to share with those who might be looking for a true Christian introduction to philosophy. They admitted that books, and university courses, in philosophy can become overwhelming, confusing, and obscure. They regret that, and believe it does not have to be that way. In the introductory chapter they indicate that their book will bridge the gap between secular philosophical studies and a Christian worldview.

In my estimation, and this is purely my response, I just believe they fall into the first category, and fail to deliver on the second promise.

Regarding the first comment. If a book is going to be an “introduction,” the authors need to assume that the reader knows little or nothing about his, her, or their subject. These authors devote a mere 10 pages to an introductory chapter on philosophy, then immediately jump into the subject of epistemology. “Okay class, I’m going to spend 10 minutes discussing the basics of anatomy, then we are going to all participate in a cardio-vascular operation.” No overview of major philosophers, no quick, down-and-dirty discussion of philosophical schools of thought. Just dive into epistemology, and then run head-long into a section on metaphysics. The third major section is even more head-scratching for an “introduction” – and that is a section on the philosophy of religion. That topic would be fine if it were a concluding chapter (or maybe a brief section), but the last section of the book is devoted to ethics. The general outline of the book just makes no sense to me. My response to this book is, if you already know something about philosophy, it might be valuable. But, then, if you already know something about philosophy, why read an “introduction”?

Also related to my first comment, the authors fall into the obscure, confusing and overwhelming trap of most books on philosophy. Their chapters on “Properties and Universals” and “Particulars” are just mind-numbing. The attempt to make such obscure topics relatable by the introduction of Rosie the chicken was commendable, but even that attempt ended up falling flat. In my opinion (and I am not a professional philosopher, as this review reveals), these topics were just way too complex and advanced to discuss as in-depth as these authors attempted to do. These chapters illustrate perhaps more than any that the authors over-shot the understanding of their assumed audience by a wide margin.

Second, if you put “A Christian Introduction” as the sub-title of your book, then I expect a thorough Christian response to the topics you discuss. In this book there is only the thinnest veneer of a Christian reaction, and even that is limited to a Reformed theology. Although this is a weakness throughout, in one chapter the lack of any biblical, and in this regard, New Testament  response, is glaring. That chapter specifically deals with “The Possibility of Life After Death.” You would think, after a general overview of the theories of life extending beyond death, that there would be at least a cursory mention of 1 Corinthians 15. You would be sadly mistaken. After giving grudging credence to the idea that cannibalism might be a legitimate threat to the idea of a resurrected body, the authors do not even mention that the apostle Paul specifically rejects the idea of a reconstituted human, physical body in the resurrection! We will have bodies, Paul makes clear, but  what those bodies will consist of Paul makes no effort to define. What he does reject is the reconstitution of our present, physical, human body. This is not the only time that the authors fail to incorporate biblical teaching regarding the topic at hand (the Hebrew concept of nephesh, for example, in the discussion of the soul), but I will argue it is the most egregious.

I’m just sad to say that, with so much potential, and with such a huge need for a book with this intention, it just fails on so many levels. We – the uninformed masses – need a book that introduces the leading framers and topics of philosophy and at the same time builds a bridge between those topics and the Christian worldview. Maybe that introduction is out there and I have just not found it. As well intentioned as this volume is, this is not it either.

For what it is worth, by far and away the best volume I have found to date giving an easy (or at least easier) to understand overview of philosophy, is C. Steven Evans magnum opus, A History of Western Philosophy. (See my review here Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans) At almost 600 pages long it does not fall into the category of an “introduction,” but it is written on a far more accessible level, and covers the basic fundamentals of philosophy much more completely than Dew and Gould’s book. Also, without overtly attempting to do so, Evans provides a much more comprehensive Christian appraisal of the topics he discusses, something that Dew and Gould fail to do, even though their volume expressly claims that is one of their goals.

I really, really, do not like being negative about a book. I strive to find the positive even in books where I disagree with the author(s). As I have stated many times, I can learn very little new from someone with whom I already agree 100%, so it is not that I just disagree with these authors. But, the book makes two significant promises – one, that it is an introduction to philosophy, and two, that it includes a Christian response. On the first promise the book just becomes too obscure and confusing, and on the second, it just whiffs.

Yes, Our Thoughts Matter

I have attempted to write this post several times – each time getting close to posting it, but then finally deciding to send it to the trash. What concerns me is that some people will think I am attacking one specific group of people. I am writing to attack a specific belief, and if that belief is common or commonly espoused by a group of people, I cannot separate the two. I mean no ill will to any group of people, but I have to address what I believe is a serious misapplication of Scripture.

The belief I want to challenge is this: it really doesn’t matter what you think about, or the feelings you hold privately, the only thing that matters is how you might act on those feelings. That is Scripturally false. The truth is that our feelings, our beliefs, and our private thoughts really do matter.

Where I am hearing this the most frequently is in regard to homosexual thoughts and behavior, and mostly from those who wish to promote that a person can be a homosexual, just so long as they do not act out on their homosexual thoughts and feelings. The line I hear repeatedly is this, “a person can have homosexual thoughts, can be ‘inclined’ homosexually, but as long as he/she is celibate, that person is not sinning is his or her thoughts.”

Just to put my cards on the table, consider passages such as Matthew 5:27-30; 12:33-37; and 15:10-20. Those who argue that our thoughts, our feelings, are inconsequential so long as we do not act out on them are not arguing against me, they are arguing against Jesus.

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who is a closet racist, who hates people of a different race in the depth of his heart, but who never verbalizes that hatred?

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who has visions of sexually abusing children (a pedophile)? Would we welcome such a one with no misgivings so long as they promised never to satisfy their dreams?

Would we make the same kind of excuse for the wife who has wild and explicit visions of having sex with a co-worker who is also married with a family to support? Would we just smile and nod and tell her that as long as she kept her adultery “in her head” that there was nothing wrong with her fantasies?

You see, I just cannot justify the logic that is so common in our churches today – that a man can have sexual fantasies about other men or a woman can fantasize about other women and it is perfectly acceptable, just so long as it stays in their heads and never moves below the belt. No, it is not. If Jesus said it was a sin to fantasize about another man’s wife even if there was no physical sex, then it cannot be acceptable, normal, or permissible for a man to fantasize about having sex with another man, or a woman with a woman.

I write this fully aware of my own demons. For anyone to stand and say they are guiltless in the matter is to invite the harshest condemnation – either for willful ignorance or blatant falsehood. I have known no one who did not, at some point, wrestle with impure thoughts, whether they are sexual in nature, or racist, or related to anger and hatred. I do not want anyone to think I am coming from a position of pure innocence.

The fact is that we have swallowed the dualism of Plato so fully that we have  created a false reality. We believe that our heart and our bodies are so separated that whatever one does has no impact on the other. We can think or believe anything we wish, and so long as we do not physically act on that thought, all is well. Or, conversely, we can behave with the most sinful of actions, but as long as “we really didn’t mean it” and “that is not the way I really am” all is equally okay.

No, and No.

We are not dualistic creatures, half mind and half body. We are not minds imprisoned in bodies, and we are not physical bodies with a “mind” that floats somewhere separate and apart. We are unities, we are complete selves, we are whole creations. Our hearts do affect our bodies, and as Paul makes so clear in regard to men using prostitutes, what we do with our bodies does affect our hearts.

Let us be done with this heresy that just because we do not act on sinful thoughts, fantasies, and dreams that we are somehow worthy of God’s kingdom. If it is sinful for a heterosexual to have dreams or fantasies about bedding his neighbor’s wife (or daughter), then it cannot be acceptable for a man to have fantasies about having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman.

Let us rid ourselves of this Platonic dualism. We are whole creatures, created in the image of our God and savior. Let us learn to act – and think – like the truly awesome creatures that we are!

A Call to Confession

I recently read a book review that piqued my interest (in the positive sense). I am always on the lookout for new books, especially those that challenge me and/or provide me with a different perspective than what I currently have. I should say that the book provided me everything I was looking for, and perhaps more.

I am not going to provide my typical “book review” (although, in a purist sense, I never provide an honest-to-goodness review). What I would like to do is to share some reflections after reading the book, which, hopefully, is what any good book is designed to foster.

The book is titled, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, and published by Grand Central Publishing (2001). I have only had a passing acquaintance with the speeches of Dr. King, and have never really spent much time learning about the Civil Rights Movement or of Dr. King’s life. So, reading these speeches was truly an eye opener for me. So, on to my observations:

  • I was struck how, in virtually every speech, Dr. King urged (even begged?) his audience to maintain the purest form of non-violence. Compared to the vitriolic speech of so many today (both white and black), the tone of Dr. King’s speeches is profound. He knew that acts of violence would not achieve his goals, and indeed would turn many people against his movement who might have otherwise been willing to follow him. These speeches are a case study in the process of working against unbelievable hatred using non-violent processes.
  • Reading these speeches clarified for me, perhaps as no other format could, how we as a culture misunderstand the concept of sin. When we (and perhaps I am speaking primarily of the dominant white culture) think of “sin” what we typically visualize are individual “sins” – lying, stealing, cheating, murder, rape, adultery, etc. What we fail to see is that “sin” is systemic, it is a part of the culture in which we exist. I do not want to minimize the reality of individual sins – the Bible is full of lists of individual sins. But what we fail to see is how sin becomes ingrained into the very process of how we live our lives. When we try to eliminate the little “sins” in our lives we are going to be utter failures unless we confront the larger issue of sin. Jesus did not come and die to make us more moral people – philosophers stretching back at least to Socrates (if not further) had been doing that for centuries. Jesus came and died to make us new people. If we lose that reality we have no prospect of addressing the individual “sins” in our lives.
  • Reading these speeches I felt, probably for the first time, what it must have been like to have been denied the right to drink from the same water fountain as a white person, or to use the same restroom as a white person. The “Jim Crow” laws were brutally dehumanizing – and there simply is no other way to state it. Those laws declared black Americans to be sub-human, in the exact fashion that the laws enacted by Adolf Hitler declared Jews to be sub-human in the 1930’s. Christians who rightly shudder in horror over the Nazi pogroms shrug our shoulders when confronted with our own racial atrocities.
  • As I have stated elsewhere, I shudder to think what I would have done if I had been an adult in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I know how hot-headed I was (and still sometimes resort to being!), and I just cannot bring myself to think about what I would have said and done had I been a part of the white mobs that confronted those who were marching for the right to be considered equal, and not separate. It is easy for me to sit where I am today and to say that I would have marched with Dr. King. I hope I would have.
  • I was completely unaware of the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the protest over the Vietnam “war” (we never declared a war, so calling it the “Vietnam War” is a misnomer.) Dr. King expressed some things that I have never heard before, and his words have got me to thinking. I need to study a little deeper – but if what Dr. King said was true, if the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence from France, if they were looking to our Declaration of Independence for inspiration, if they looked to the United States for solidarity in the hopes of becoming a free people, if France did pull out and recommend strongly that we withdraw our military as well – then what I have been told for decades is at the best a white-wash, and outright lies at worst.
  • The lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer share a profound number of similarities. Speaking truth to power demands a special kind of courage, and frequently ends in martyrdom.
  • I could not help but notice, however, how utterly and completely Dr. King’s vision and mission has been hijacked by his latter-day followers. Dr. King excoriated the southern “Dixiecrats” who worked to keep the black people from gaining any kind of power in the south. Today I see the white power structures in the south as just as racist, yet with a peculiar difference – many black leaders have made their peace with these modern “Dixiecrats” and work just as hard to keep the underclass blacks right where they are. After all, if everyone is healthy, where would the need for a physician be? If blacks are truly given all the freedom and equality that they deserve, where will the need for these modern white slave owners and their black minions be? Somehow, I just do not think Dr. King would be happy with the way modern Democrats push policies that are deeply wounding to the overwhelming majority of blacks (welfare, for example, weakens the family structure by providing help only to those who are unmarried; abortion is disproportionately used by black women). To be honest – I do not see much help from the Republican side either. Both political parties are grossly negligent in promoting the vision of true equality that Dr. King sought.

The title of the book is A Call to Conscience. For me it was a call to confession. I see the world a little differently now, and it is not at all comfortable. The last few days I have been challenged, and I hope (and do pray) that moving forward I will look at my world a little more clearly.

Thanks for “hearing” my confession.

Trump’s Wall and the Cross

[SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST TAKES AN UNABASHED, “NO-HOLDS-BARRED” POSITION REPUDIATING THE BUILDING OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S BORDER WALL WITH MEXICO. IF YOU CANNOT HAVE YOUR SUPPORT OF TRUMP OR HIS WALL CHALLENGED, PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.]

First, this is a theological blog, not a political one. However, there are times in which issues which have their origin in politics impinges so directly and so profoundly upon theology and ethics that to ignore them means a retreat from Christian convictions. This is one of those times.

Second, I admit there is an immigration problem to be addressed by the lawmakers of both the United States and Mexico (and possible other nations). This is a serious, and I dare say, entrenched, problem that calls for thoughtful, deliberate, and above all, a unified approach if it is to be solved.

Third, I support policies that provide for safe, legal immigration to the United States, and also defend the sovereignty of this nation. Those who are drawn to our country are drawn to us for a myriad of reasons – and they should be given every opportunity to do so LEGALLY. The line between legal immigration and illegal immigration is not really all that fine. It should be defended and protected.

With all of that being said, a few days back I made a comment on my Facebook page and also on Twitter that apparently upset some folks. Without repeating everything, I just pointed out how not all that long ago President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I opined that the same people who thought that was a wonderful idea are now supporting the building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – kind of a strange, and in my eyes, a wicked form of hypocrisy.

I was challenged, and I must say in a very polite and generous manner, by a young man who had the dubious honor of being one of my students. I regard him as being thoughtful and sincere almost to a fault. But, in his defense of Trump and the wall, I must say he (and those who think like him) are just wrong.

To my young friend there is no difference between the wall and other forms of “security” such as the walls Israel has constructed – or any nation for that matter (I pointed out that Communist nations have had walls for decades if not centuries, but that did not impress). For him, as for many Trumpsters, the wall represents security and national sovereignty.

To that I say, “Exactly how?”

Let’s just cut to the chase – building the wall will make the U.S. no safer, and will not solve the immigration problem, to any greater extent than the confiscation of every firearm will solve the problem of violence in America. If you think that a little bit of steel and concrete will stop human trafficking and the influx of drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S., then I would politely, yet pointedly, suggest you are under the influence of a special kind of logic inhibiting drug. Let’s unpack that a little, shall we?

Proponents of banning all guns (or at the very least, all handguns) in America argue that without guns, America will be safer. Those who defend gun ownership respond (and I agree) that is a specious argument. There will never be a way to confiscate all handguns, what will happen is that criminals will always have access to handguns, and only the law-abiding citizen will be damaged by such a ridiculous proposal.

Proponents of building a wall to stop illegal immigration argue that the wall will prevent all (or at least the majority) of illegal immigration. Again, a specious argument – do you really think someone who is determined to enter the U.S. illegally will be deterred by that silly wall? It might keep out the migrant workers (upon whom so much of our agricultural output depends), but for the hardened trafficker or drug runner that wall will simply be a speed bump.

And, let us be perfectly clear about another issue – the wall will do nothing towards solving the greater problem of WHY people are fleeing oppressive governments and are “yearning to be free” in the land of opportunity. Illegal border crossings are not the disease – they are the symptom that indicates the disease. Building a wall will NOT address the underlying issues that will simply re-appear in different forms somewhere else.

Trump’s wall is nothing more than an ideological symbol of American (read white) supremacy masked as a “law and order” effort to stop “those” people from coming into the U.S.

Christians should repudiate that ideology – and the symbolism – as clearly as we can.

I return to President Reagan’s famous declaration. It was, in one incredibly short and powerful sentence, a statement of the core of America’s greatest gift to the world – that all people should be free, and that walls that create hatred and animosity must be torn down. Torn down, not by military aggression, but by the simple power of human dignity and respect. Trump’s wall creates hostility and distrust – read aggression – between many people who are more closely related economically and culturally than they are to other people in their own countries of legal residence. Trump’s wall is nothing more than a facade – a symbol (and a false one at that) – of security and “legal” obedience.

That’s my political take on the subject. Now – let us consider what Scripture has to teach us.

Consider such passages as Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 5:6; Isaiah 1:16-17, 8:12-13, 55:8-9, 58:6-7; Jeremiah 9:23-24, 22:3, 34:17; Leviticus 19. Consider how God repeatedly told the Israelites to be kind to the alien – as they had been aliens and slaves in Egypt. This is a common, and well noted, theme throughout the Old Testament.

But also consider Matthew 5-7! Read Matthew 23. Read Matthew 25:31-46. Consider James 2:1-13!

Consider Ephesians 2:11-22 where the apostle Paul goes to extreme measures to point out that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” so that he might “reconcile us both [i.e., both Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” You see, in the Kingdom of God there can be no walls. Walls separate, Christ unites. Walls create division and hostility. Christ brings peace.

Just a note, but if you try to argue that the above passages pertain to Israel or to the church, and that he has another set of ethics for the world, then I politely but emphatically argue that I am not an Augustinian nor a Lutheran, and I do not ascribe to the “two Kingdoms” ideology. God may hold those who are aware of and who accept his laws to a higher degree of obedience, but he never, ever, said that he had two sets of ethics or moral absolutes – one for the “secular” world and one for his kingdom. (Read Romans 1-3)

If it was right to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin wall, then it is now wrong to celebrate the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. If it is now right and proper to build Trump’s wall, then it was wrong to applaud and support President Reagan. You cannot have it both ways.

You can attempt to defend Trump’s wall on purely pragmatic grounds – that it will stop illegal immigration. I am fully convinced that is a foolish, even ridiculous argument, but you may have it if you wish. I must add here that the cost of this foolish endeavor is five billion dollars! The building of the wall is immoral simply due to its cost. Just think how that money could be spent on policies that would have an impact on illegal immigration. It just boggles the mind.

You can also attempt to defend the wall on purely political grounds – that it was Trump’s promise before he was elected, therefore he should try to get it built. That, in sum, is why I think most people who support the wall want it built. That wall will be a collective “thumb-in-the-nose” to all those mean, nasty, ugly liberals. However – let’s be real here. Trump will not be president for long, and what kind of reaction will transpire when the next Democratic nominee is elected? Revenge is a dish politicians love to serve hot or cold, and I shudder to think what is in store two, or at the most, six years from now.

However, let us be clear. You cannot defend the building of the wall using any semblance of Christian doctrine or ethics.

For Christians, standing on this side of the cross, building Trump’s wall is just flat out wrong – and the whole of Scripture supports me on that statement.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

A Week Without Social Media – A Review

Last Friday I made a radical, and some might add, too hasty decision. I had spent a sleepless night fretting over an argument I was having with someone I don’t even know regarding an issue that neither one of us had any inkling of the truth of the matter. Now, stop and think about that. We did not know each other. We were both making assertions the other thought was wrong. And, in perfect honesty – neither one of us was in a position to know any of the facts of the case. All we had was some quotes and a lot – I mean A LOT – of speculation and incendiary accusations.

When I finally woke up on Friday I thought – phooey with this. Why am I losing sleep over an event like this? So when I got to my office the first thing I did was to deactivate my accounts with Facebook and Twitter. I still have one “social media” account, but I have to admit it is about as useless as it can be. But it doesn’t cause my blood pressure to go ballistic, so I’m keeping it for a while.

Anyway, what I was getting to was this – here are some reactions to a week without Facebook and Twitter.

  • I really, really miss some aspects of Facebook. FB was how I kept up with many of my friends and professional acquaintances. That was how I learned about their joys and their hurts – and got to see some pretty hysterical pictures of pets. Cutting off all of that is pretty disorienting. I wonder if anyone is missing me – but that in and of itself reveals that much of my social media interaction was all about ME, so maybe God was letting me know how selfish I was becoming.
  • On the other hand, I do not miss the political posturing and hate memes at all. I had friends that were all over the political spectrum, and it was pretty distressing to see the vitriol expressed by people who I knew to be good and thoughtful friends. I could not care less who they supported or what issue they hated, but their FB posts made it impossible for me to keep up with them and avoid the drama. I know there was the “unfollow” and “unfriend” options, but then how was I to keep up with them?
  • Twitter, on the other hand, has become a garbage dump. I realized at one point that I was following certain persons – leaders within the Church of Christ with a large following of both real and “internet” persons – who were posting comments that were blatantly unchristian would have infuriated Jesus. They were not just border-line comments that could be excused as opinions or feelings – they were outright scandalous in nature and revealed the most bitter and hateful heart. I now have zero respect for those leaders, and I even question those who support them.
  • I have realized that I am going to pay a pretty steep price for deactivating my accounts. A purely tangential benefit of my FB and Twitter accounts was that I was able to keep up with the newest books and trends in theology. In the past week I feel like I have just had my left hand amputated. Somehow I will need to figure out how to stay abreast of this information via other sources. I just have to find those sources.
  • Another price to be paid – FB and Twitter were two avenues that I used to broadcast my blog posts. Now millions of my devoted readers are bereft of my profundity. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
  • You might be tempted to argue with me that all I have to do is to focus on the good and ignore the bad. The only problem is – FB and Twitter posts were created for the very specific purpose of NOT being ignored. No one posts a meme or tweet and then says, “boy, I sure hope no one pays attention to what I just said!” That is the big lie of social media. You can’t argue, “it’s just my opinion, get over it.” When you disparage a public figure, when you blindly accuse someone of murder, when you post bitter, hurtful words that are clearly intended to cause someone else to hate what you hate, you cannot just say, “I’m entitled to my opinion.” You may be – according to the US Constitution. But since when is being legal being right? Since when were the words of Jesus rescinded – “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” When was it that Jesus retracted his statement that the two greatest commands were to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and the second greatest command was to love others as we love ourselves? If we would not physically treat someone with such disrespect if they were in front of us (and with Jesus standing nearby), why do we think we can get away with treating that person shamefully just because we are “anonymous” on social platforms like FB and Twitter? I confess – I have stooped to the very behavior I am condemning, and it is primarily for that very reason that I deactivated my accounts. “If your FB or Twitter feed causes you to sin – CUT IT OFF!”

I won’t lie and say the past week has been easy. On way more than one occasion I have been tempted to restore my accounts “and just listen,” but then I realize my self-control when it comes to “just listening” is about as useful as putting up a stop sign in front of a hurricane. My FB and Twitter accounts were changing me – and I assure it it was not for the better. You can only drink poison for so long before it takes its effect. I know there are many good things about FB, less so about Twitter. But sometimes you have to put up barriers around your spiritual life to protect that which is the most important to you.

On the positive side, some of my guitars have seen the outside of their cases for the first time in months . . .

Reconciliation

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the sad state of our American justice system. To recap: I believe the problem is the system itself. It is built on an adversarial foundation in which both sides try to “win” the case, and the truth of the situation at hand gets lost in the war. The goal of our current system is either vengeance or revenge (in the form of a conviction and incarceration/execution) or acquittal. In this system neither the victim nor the accused is served any kind of justice. Even if there is an acquittal, the accused is forever branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of having been arrested and tried for whatever crime he or she was supposed to have committed. As one famous defendant said following his acquittal, “What court do I go to to have my name cleared?”

Biblical justice, however, had an entirely different goal – reconciliation. In God’s plan there were no jails, no prisons. An accused was brought before the town elders, multiple witnesses were required to proclaim guilt, and there were steep prices to pay for perjury. Once “convicted” the guilty had to make restitution to the victim or the aggrieved party – thieves had to replace the stolen goods, plus and additional amount of “interest” or “punitive damages.” In the case of actions that were so egregious as to dehumanize the victim (pre-meditated murder, rape, kidnapping), the guilty was simply executed.

Notice that in every case except the last, the goal was the reconciliation between accused and victim. The goal was the repair – as far as was humanly possible – of the relationship between individuals and between the accused and the community he or she violated. In the case of premeditated murder, rape, or kidnapping that restoration was impossible. In God’s justice system there is a line that, once crossed, cannot be restored. When you devalue human life to the point that you intentionally take a life, destroy a person through sexual assault, or kidnap them, then you sacrifice your own life. It is elegant in its simplicity. We have corrupted it by trying to make it more “humane.”

When our founding fathers created a system built on an adversarial foundation, and where the goal is simply to establish a legal standing, they eliminated the possibility of the judicial system working toward reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to function, a different foundation needs to be laid.

  • Critical for the process of reconciliation to work there has to be the genuine offer of the possibility of forgiveness. The offer has to be genuine (not simply a legal fiction), but it cannot be considered to be automatic.
  • The other critical component for reconciliation to work is the prospect of an honest, complete, and unpretentious confession of all guilt. Once the door of forgiveness has been opened, it is absolutely necessary for all accountability to be expressed in genuine repentance. There can be no room here for self-serving confession (“I’m sorry you were offended” is the worst confession ever uttered).
  • The final critical component would be for each party to then agree upon what steps are necessary and proper for the restitution of relationship between the guilty and the victim, and between the guilty and the larger community. Forgiveness does not mean that in most situations there needs to be some form of restitution or punishment. Maybe it would be the full restitution of items stolen. Maybe it would be a public apology. Maybe it would be public service for the victim or for the community. What ever the decision, it would have to be agreed upon by all sides and it would have to be measured. Just as an example, our current system of incarcerating individuals for the mere possession of illegal drugs is both inhumane and unjust. It serves no good purpose at all – except to make some individuals very wealthy (lawyers, judges, prison builders).

A justice system built on reconciliation would look radically different from our current system. I think it can be done, though. I think it has been done before.

I think it was started by a man hanging on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago.

Maybe those who claim to follow that man should think about reconciliation before we demand revenge. Just a thought.

Dancing With Goat Heads

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I think, somewhere back there, I have shared just how much I despise the American justice system. This catches some people by surprise – they equate the American justice system with everything that is good and holy in the world – right up there with apply pie, mom, and baseball. For those who know me the best, it should not come as a surprise that I have a somewhat different take.

The American justice system is the goat head in the garden of life. It does what it was designed to do (cause incredible pain), it multiplies its pain prodigiously, and it puts out a cute little flower to hide its insidious little weapons.

Let me cut directly to my conclusion here: nothing short of the biblical concept of justice will ever count as “justice,” and the American system is designed to make that justice an impossibility.

Basic civics lesson here. The American justice system is built on the principle of adversarialism (I think I made up a word here). The point is we have a prosecution team (the State) and a defense team. The prosecution is intent on achieving a conviction, the defense is intent on avoiding that conviction. As we have seen in far, far too many cases throughout our entire history, the prosecution can and does act dishonestly, and the defense can and does act dishonestly. Innocent individuals are convicted, and guilty individuals are acquitted, and as far as the judicial system is concerned, nobody cares. If a jury reaches a decision, the “system” worked. There are certainly those outside of the court system who care deeply if a wrong verdict has been declared, but the number of innocent people in jails and prisons and the number of guilty perpetrators walking our streets is stark evidence of their relative inability to effect any significant changes.

The problem IS the system. And as long as the system keeps grinding out verdicts, nothing is going to change, and there will be precious little “justice” in our country.

Now, how would a biblical system of justice look different from our current system? For one thing, instead of focusing on “winning” or “losing” a case as the adversarial system demands, both the prosecution and the defense would be focused on arriving at the pure truth of the case. The idea that our adversarial system is designed to get at the truth is the greatest, and most damaging, lie of our justice system. Currently our prosecution teams do all they can to avoid certain truths from becoming evidence – and the defense teams are just as vigilant to avoid letting other truths from being known. Judges, the so-called arbiters of truth, routinely prohibit certain truths from being heard by the jury. If you ever participated on a jury and thought you were getting all the facts – whoo boy, were you ever lied to.

A system based on identifying the truth of a case has profound implications both for the innocent and the guilty. The innocent would have no fear of the judicial system (honestly – how many minorities think our current system is fair?). On the other hand, the guilty could be treated in a much different fashion. Have you ever stopped to notice how in the God’s perfect plan there are no prisons, no jails, for those guilty of crimes? Thieves were to repay what they stole, plus some “interest.” Those guilty of taking a life, albeit with no intention, were allowed to live in a modified “house arrest” (were able to live in a city of refuge). Those guilty of intentionally dishonoring human life (murderers, rapists, kidnappers) were simply executed.

Today our prison mentality has turned the judicial system into a growth industry. There really is no “justice” when a person is sent to prison. There is no restitution, there is no personal interaction between criminal and innocent victim. It is all sterile, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.

To me, no greater example of how this could change the life of an accused and the lives of the victims is the current case of the Dallas police officer facing charges in the death of a young man. In our current adversarial system, we (the public) will – without question – never be told the truth of what happened. The prosecution will tell “their” truth, and the defense will tell “their” truth – but the goal of each will be to “win” the trial. Regardless of the outcome, I will have very little confidence that justice will be served.

In an open-ended search for truth and genuine biblical justice, both sides would sit facing each other, and the accused would be allowed to explain and defend him/herself. Critically, they would be allowed, and even encouraged, to confess their guilt. The victims (or their survivors in at the case of a death) could challenge the presentation of the accused’s story, and ask questions. They would be permitted, and even encouraged, to extend forgiveness and work with the guilty to arrive at an equitable restitution/punishment. The judge would preside to make sure everything was conducted in a civil manner as befits a civilized culture. And, mark this: there would be swift and severe repercussions for perjury! (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) Prosecutors would be severely punished for manufacturing incriminating evidence or concealing exculpatory evidence, defenders would be severely punished for manufacturing mitigating evidence or concealing evidence of wrongdoing. In sum: the purpose of the preceding would be to determine the truth of the situation, and if guilt is present, to determine the appropriate restitution and, if needed, punishment. The most important goal would be to maintain the cohesiveness of the community.

Without the quest for truth, any exercise in a judicial preceding is simply an exercise in futility. We as a people could do so much better – if we had the will to do so. I’m afraid that is the problem. We are all so wrapped up in vengeance and revenge and retribution that we cannot see that we are dancing barefoot in a field of goat heads.