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.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Disappearing Art of Communication (Or, Why it is Important to Listen/Read Carefully)

The digital world has increased our ability to communicate with each other, and has also made exponentially easier to totally misunderstand each other. Never before in the history of mankind has it been this easy to talk around and beyond those who are supposedly our communication partners. To illustrate, I will use myself as an example.

I am on record as saying I do not believe the Bible can be used to prove the age of the earth. Because I have said (or written) that, I have been accused of denying the inspiration of Scripture, of being an evolutionist, of having my Christianity questioned, and worse. I have never said I do not believe in a young earth, or that I believe in evolution; I certainly have never denied the inspiration of Scripture (quite the opposite, in fact); and, to be honest, I do not know any human who is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. So, what did I say (or write) that was so controversial?

To repeat – I do not believe the Bible can be used to support either a young earth, or an old earth. It matters not one little bit to me that people believe one way or the other – what bothers me is that the Bible is being used in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. And, in that sense, I feel like God’s word is being abused.

I am a stickler for consistency. I would much rather argue with someone who is tediously consistent than someone who constantly changes the rules of the discussion. And, to a large extent, I believe that is what is happening in the current debate over whether Genesis should be read “literally” or not. For many, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of creation in six days means that you have to accept six literal, 24 hour periods of time, or you deny the inspiration of the Bible. But here is the fly in that ointment – the sun was not created until the fourth “day.” Now, logically and scientifically, you cannot have a “day” without a literal, physical sun. Without a solar time-table you cannot have a 24 hour cycle. It is true that light was created before the sun, and that you do not have to have the sun in order to have light. But you cannot have an “evening” and a “morning” without a sun.

So, in order to have creation in six, 24 hour periods, there has to be a suspension of literal, “scientific” accuracy – you have to suggest that a method of keeping time existed before the only method of keeping time that the ancients were aware of. Now, this is perfectly acceptable to me – but it has to be clearly understood that a suspension of a literal and scientific understanding of time has been suggested here. If there was a method of keeping time before Genesis 1, it was not mentioned or described in Genesis. Therefore, a “literal” and scientific 24 hour “day” did not exist before the fourth “day.”

So, in order to prove that the world was created in six, literal 24 hour periods, you have to re-define the meaning of the word “literal” (or, “scientific”) to mean something that supersedes literal, scientific precision.

Which is exactly the point I am making when I say that you cannot use the Bible to prove the age of the earth. In order to do so you have to make some statements that were never intended to be used with scientific precision to be scientifically precise, and you have to take some other statements that appear to be “literal” in very non-literal (i.e., metaphorical) ways.

How old is the earth? It simply does not matter! I cannot stress that fact enough. The Bible nowhere states how old the earth is, and to make a belief in the age of the earth a measure of someone’s faithfulness is to become the most pharisaic of Pharisees. It goes way beyond straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. There are really good Christians who believe in a 6,000 year-old earth, and there are really good Christians who believe in a millions-of-years-old earth.

What does matter, and what should concern all of us, is how the Bible is being used, both by its “friends” and its enemies. Those who claim to believe in the Bible, yet use that Bible solely to promote a conservative political or social agenda, are no more friends of the Bible than those who openly ridicule it. In both cases the result is the same – the Bible simply becomes a pawn in a vicious power struggle.

I have a much better solution: let us speak where the Bible speaks, as the Bible itself speaks, and for the purpose for which the Bible speaks. That way we can hold our private opinions, and can even try to convince others of the correctness of our opinions, without treating the Bible with contempt or disrespect.

Speaking of communication – I think that is the way God wants his word to be read and understood – as HE intended it, not as any old way we want it to be understood!

What Are We Left With?

I got to thinking the other day. What started it was the ever-present demand by those who want to re-construct our understanding of biology (and especially of the roles of male and female) to eliminate from Scripture any reference to gender differences and the roles attached to the separate genders. So, if they cannot explain away certain passages, they just eliminate them as being the uninformed opinions of bigoted males – the apostle Paul being the chief culprit. It the author of a particular passage was a male chauvinist homophobe, then we do not have to listen to anything that he said, or wrote.

So, in the spirit of this line of thinking, I got to thinking – why stop there? Let’s continue and remove any language that can be deemed to have roots in a patriarchal society. Let’s purify the Bible of any semblance of male superiority. That would mean excising all references to God as “Father” and Jesus as a male. In fact, let us be done with all the male/female binary language in the Bible. Eve should not be singled out as the “mother of all living,” as that reduces her to a mere object for male dominance. In fact, the language extolling any kind of human attraction and love needs to be cut out – think of the horrid descriptions of the female body in the Song of Solomon!

While we are at it, let us not forget to eliminate any references to a hierarchal/dictatorial culture. The chief offender here is any idea that God or Jesus could be “Lord,” as that is the pinnacle of a repressive society. The warrior language is especially galling – who wants to worship a God who wields swords and who commands his people to utterly destroy their enemies? Gone also will be any views “from below,” – words like obey, or submit, as they merely work to institutionalize systems of dominance and power.

Let us not forget that the people who first received the Bible were highly superstitious, and so to purify the Scriptures it is also incumbent upon us to remove any references or suggestions regarding the supernatural. This would include cutting out all the references to spirits, (including the Holy Spirit), demons, miracles – and even prayer itself. Closely related, since these people are considered to be “pre-scientific,” let us be done with all the incorrect and misleading language – all that talk about the sun rising and setting, the four corners of the earth, etc. Think of all those silly metaphors in the Psalms that compare thunder to the voice of God, and the majestic human to a smelly sheep. Surely we can do better than that.

The only question I have after we do all of that is this – what are we left with?

You see, when we (our 21st century culture) start editing the Bible to fit the world in which we live, where do we stop? If we want to eliminate certain verses from the pastoral letters or the Corinthian letters, why limit ourselves to just one segment of our society? When we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” we are making a politically subversive statement: we are bound to obey Jesus as our supreme leader, not some elected official. In reality that is far more offensive than stating that males and females have been given different gifts and ministries in the church! Yet, because we have so neutered the word “Lord” in our language, we can sing about Jesus being our lord with sublime expressions on our faces and utterly miss the significance of what we are saying.

I have to be careful here because I too have wrestled with the question of what are timeless truths and commands within Scripture and what is culturally limited. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. But my anxiety and my questions cannot overturn what basically amounts to 4,000 years of accepted teaching and interpretation.

Standing under Scripture is difficult, because it cuts against every fiber of my rebellious nature. I don’t want to submit to certain texts because it means that I am no longer the master of my life. It means I have to uproot the idols in my life and return Jesus to the center. Idols are idols precisely because we love them and are comfortable with them. Removing them is painful for those very reasons.

But if we no longer have God at the center of our life, what are we left with?

Charlottesville, Racism, and a Chilling Prospect

Trigger alert: the following blog post contains some truths that may be difficult for little snowflakes to handle. If you cannot consider any opinions that differ from your rigid worldview, you might want to skip this one.

I’m sure the topic of the Charlottesville, VA riots were the topic of many sermon addresses this morning. I happened to think my thoughts on the book of Job were more appropriate for the moment, but that does not mean I do not have some thoughts on the events of the weekend. My reaction is threefold:

  1.  The rhetoric and the beliefs which underlie the white supremacist movement are vile, repugnant. That much is without question and every Christian of every ethnic background should be loud and clear in denouncing the “alt-right” movement, the KKK, and every other neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. I have been pleased that the response of virtually every Christian leader that I have seen has been uniform and unequivocal. There can be no quarter given in opposing this worldview.
  2. However, the most troubling response to me is the one I have NOT seen, not after this weekend nor for the past eight years. For these eight years, and largely with the complicity of the sitting president, there has been a racist movement that has rioted, looted, destroyed property, and ruined lives. Throughout these same eight years, I have been told that these racists are fully justified in their actions, that I should wring my hands in horror at the “injustice” they have be subject to, and that I share in the guilt of the nation simply because of the color of my skin. The very spiritual leaders that are (correctly) denouncing white supremacy were either stone cold silent as the rioters destroyed homes and businesses, or they symbolically joined in, trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of their “white advantage.”

Well, folks, racism is racism, no matter what the color or ethnic background of the racist. I am glad to see some preachers, editors, and other spiritual leaders denounce the “alt-right” and their ignorant minions, but their complicity and silence as the “BLM” movement terrorized large portions of a number of cities is deplorable. Why is the racism emanating from one race acceptable, if racism from another race is to be deplored?

3. Beyond the hypocrisy of an astounding number of individuals, there is another terrifying aspect to the events over the weekend. Many are calling for a ban on the freedom for certain groups to be able to speak. This is a chilling development, and if it is not opposed with the most vehement objections we can mark this point in history as the beginning of the end of the United States. I vehemently reject the hate and violence of the “alt-right,” the KKK and the BLM movements. But, as the classic saying goes, I must defend their right to speak (speak, not perpetrate violence) to my dying breath. If they do not have the right to speak their lies, how am I to be guaranteed that I can speak my truth to their lies?

It has already been proposed in many places that limits should be placed on “hate speech” that would include denouncing sexual perversion as a sin. If hate-mongers can be legally muzzled simply because we object to their tirades, what will prevent the prohibition of the preaching of biblical truth? The “slippery slope” argument is an argument that is fraught with danger, but there is another danger here that is real and profound. We must not, we cannot, prevent some idiot from speaking just because we think his words idiotic.

What would have happened this past weekend if those who disagreed with the white supremacists had simply moved to a different part of town and held a counter demonstration, replete with racial unity and a vehement, but peaceful, denunciation of the weirdos across town? But, no – hatred was met with hatred; violence was met with violence, and the world must wonder what ever happened to the great American dream.

As much as I do not want to hear them, I have to allow the bigots to have their say. But I do not have to listen. Let them march – and vacate the entire region around them. Let their words fall on empty streets and vacant buildings. Ignore them – but not their hate! Ignore their presence, but reject their ideology!

Christians must unite to condemn racism. All racism, no exceptions, no excuses.

[editor’s note: I had to correct the location of the riots – sorry, I have been a little distracted, and did not pay close attention to where the riots happened.]

It’s Not About Truth – It’s About Fairness – (Bonhoeffer)

It is often suggested that if you really want to know about your church, you need to have an outsider come it and tell you about your church. When we look at something we love, and especially if we are invested in that thing, we will never see it dispassionately.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent almost a year in New York attending Union Theological Seminary. When he returned to Berlin he sent a report to the officials who sent him to America. His report is not a happy read for those who claim American exceptionalism. His praise is effusive for those aspects of American life he appreciates. His criticism is withering for those aspects he finds, well, let us say, less than admirable.

One particular comment I find particularly appropriate for the religious scene in America today is the following:

This characterizes all American thinking, something I observed especially with regard to theology and the church; they do not see the radical claim of truth on the way one structures one’s life. Community is thus based less on truth than on the spirit of fairness. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Report on My Year of Study at Union Theological Seminary in New York, 1930/31” in Barcelona, Berlin, New York 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 10, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p. 306).

This was written in 1931, long before the “Postmodern” scare of the late 20th – early 21st century. Let that sink in – 1931!

If such was true 85 years ago, how much more true is it today? Matters of theology and church do not depend upon truth – they simply are decided based on “fairness.”

I’ll let you apply that observation – or not – to your own situation. But for me, it is a rather chilling observation and one that, quite frankly, scares me.

That is the problem with inviting guests to evaluate what you hold dear. Sometimes they goad you where you least want to be goaded.

Touché, Dietrich.

Can We Admit We Are Wrong?

Pardon me if the next post or two seem to be vaguely connected, yet seemingly confused. Working through some things here “on the fly,” but hopefully something will make sense.

I am struck by a strange contradiction between our words and our actions. We (and I include myself here, but am speaking generically) praise humility and our ability to admit error and failure. And yet, on a very basic level we never do so. We are always, without exception, 100% correct on every single issue 100% of the time. This, amazingly enough, even though another person claims to be 100% correct, and his opinion (or facts) are diametrically opposed to ours. It is a mathematical miracle. Two completely opposite “truths” which are both correct, even though both completely reject the other. (confused yet?)

I shall start (in good prophetic style) by pointing out the error of someone I disagree with, and then (much more quickly than Amos did) step on my own toes. It is a common belief – nay, mandatory conviction – among most “evangelical” Christians that those who have been redeemed by Christ have been saved “by grace alone through faith alone.” The problem with this conviction is that it is only half true. The apostle Paul himself wrote that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8). However, the word “alone” simply does not exist in the text. It is an invention of Martin Luther as a hedge against his Roman Catholic opponents. Yet, try to get a good Lutheran (or Reformed) pastor to admit that simple truth. You may get them to admit the word is not present, but you will never get them to admit the concept is also not present. To believe we are saved by grace through faith is to believe Scripture. Add the word “alone” to either concept and you have fundamentally changed the meaning of the text.

Now, for my own toes. How many times have members of the Churches of Christ said that “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” And yet, and yet…

How many times have you also heard that someone who is divorced for a reason other than adultery is “still married in God’s eyes”? How many times have you heard that God created the world in “six 24 hour periods”? How many times have you heard the world is a mere “6,000 years old”? How many times have you heard that if you consume one “drop” of an alcoholic beverage, you are “one drop drunk”? Now, I do not want to aver that any of those statements is wrong on a propositional level. Each may be 100% true. What I DO want to point out is that NONE of the above statements can be found in Scripture. ALL of them are inferences, or deductions, from statements made in Scripture. Thus we SAY we are only going to speak in words mandated by Scripture, and then we build entire theologies and moral structures on ideas that are NOT in Scripture.

[Self-disclosure: I do believe God created the world in six days (Gen. 1). I do believe divorce is a sin, and that God hates that sin (Malachi 2, Matthew 5, 19, 1 Cor. 7). I do not believe in Darwinistic evolution, and I am most assuredly not promoting the practice of social drinking. I merely pointed these statements out because they appear to me to be some of the most egregious “speaking where the Bible does not speak” – at least in explicit terminology. This is where I can agree in principle, and yet still disagree with the language, and sometimes the motivations, of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.]

Suffice it to say that I have been tripped up enough by my own self-righteous prattle to know that ANY deduction made from Scripture needs to be put under a dispassionate microscope. There has only been one person who lived in perfect unity with God the Father, and that was his Son Jesus. There is only one perfect description of the true and unchangeable will of God, and that is the Bible. All other humans, and all the most deeply studied understandings of that Bible are flawed in some degree or another. To deny that fact is the ultimate in human arrogance.

Simply put, no human can ever be 100% correct about every question or be 100% knowledgeable about every single verse of every chapter of every book in the Bible. Even that which we think we know about the text of the Bible must be re-examined in light of more recent discoveries concerning language, geography, and biblical history.

I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting some post-modern “there is no truth” or “truth is all relative” intellectual garbage. I most assuredly believe there is ultimate truth, and to the extent that God desires that we know it, we as humans can know it, and should strive to learn it.

But Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 scares me, and as one who earns his living by speaking (and writing) words, I believe I am bound to a very precious calling, and I do not take that calling lightly.