Category Archives: Theology

Liu Yifei and Cultural Donatism

Liu Yifei has done it. She’s stood on the wrong side of a hot button cultural issue and now the Chinese-American star of the upcoming Mulan remake has risked the ire of Twitter and its oft-fabled, never-forming boycott. The specific issue has to do with support for the Hong Kong police in the midst of “sometimes violent” ongoing pro-democracy protests–to the great satisfaction and delight, I’m sure, of the never-hypocritical ‘blue lives matter’ folks. The specific issue also doesn’t really matter. It’s the confusion of artist with art, producer with product that concerns me here. My political inclinations being well established, it’s safe to say that I stand neither with the protesters nor the police (though, if possible, I stand considerably less with the police), but I also am equally appalled by those who would consider–as one user put it–an entertainment product “destroyed” because a participant did or said something objectionable.

From a Christian perspective–not to mention the perspective of common sense–the most basic stupidity involved in this should be obvious: everyone involved in every piece of art or entertainment has done, said, or believed something which is now (or will be in the future) objectionable. What has changed in the last 24 hours is not the quality of Liu, as either an actress or a person, but our knowledge about her. It is the tearing back of the veil that revises our perceptions and supposedly demands new judgments; after all, nothing changed about Paddington between 2015 and 2017 except the unsettling knowledge that it was produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company.

The problem, of course, is that our ignorance is unfounded. We know and delude ourselves about human nature rather than deal with the fact that our ability to do good–in the greater world or in the arts–cannot be wholly undone by our sinful nature. Christians know that “none is righteous, no not one,” but we set that aside and presume innocence (in deference to the American way) in spite of a universal knowledge of guilt. If your affection for Mulan cannot survive the crumbling of your feigned ignorance–the revelation of the specific manifestation of what you already know incontestably by biblical axiom or the laws of statistical probability to be true–then the problem lies with you and not with Mulan.

(The most ridiculous manifestation of this comes not with new knowledge but with anachronism and hindsight, when we don’t learn something new but become ashamed of not caring about something old. The Confederate statues and flags were not hidden away from public view; the “sins” of Woody Allen were adjudicated–in his favor–by law enforcement. Only standards about acceptable causes and levels of outrage have changed with time.)

The greater issue, however, that Christians seem to overlook when debating whether or not you can still listen to “Thriller” without being a rape apologist–or, put more benignly, if you can separate the art from the artist–is that great Christian theologians of days past have already arbitrated this question and offered us a resoundingly clear conclusion. In the middle of the fourth century, Donatus Magnus took to his cultural equivalent of Twitter with his cultural equivalent of a hashtag activism, calling on Christians to #boycottbadpriests. The Donatist heretics believed that the character of sinful priests had a negative effect on the sacraments they administered, so much so that people baptized by corrupt priests (particularly those who had renounced the faith to save their lives during the Roman persecutions) should not be admitted to the church. The character of the individual, they argued, corrupted the character of the act.

The Church Fathers–perhaps realizing that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God–swooped in to set the record straight. Augustine, a North African like Donatus, made a particularly strong case when commenting on the Gospel of John and reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

For what does Paul say? “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. Neither is he that plants anything, nor he that waters; but God who gives the increase.” [1 Corinthians 3:6-7] But he who is a proud minister is reckoned with the devil; but the gift of Christ is not contaminated, which flows through him pure, which passes through him liquid, and comes to the fertile earth. Suppose that he is stony, that he cannot from water rear fruit; even through the stony channel the water passes, the water passes to the garden beds; in the stony channel it causes nothing to grow, but nevertheless it brings much fruit to the gardens. For the spiritual virtue of the sacrament is like the light: both by those who are to be enlightened is it received pure, and if it passes through the impure it is not stained.

In other words, the goodness of God is such that it cannot be destroyed even if it passes through or is administered by an impure vessel. (Which is good, since that’s the only kind available at present.) The principle extends far beyond the sacraments. Since God is the only one Who is, absolutely, good, all goodness must be by definition derivative from that goodness and good by virtue of its origin in the divine and not because the doer is somehow good. What is good cannot be made evil by the agent that accomplishes it.

My point here is not that movies are like sacraments or even like works of righteousness. Obviously they aren’t. The principle, however, remains the same. In confusing act and actor we accept a humanist fallacy that locates value of any particular thing in a person rather than in some transcendent notion of good or evil.* The Church Fathers, in contrast, echo the Scriptures in which God acts not occasionally or exceptionally but routinely through downright evil vessels, hardening their hearts or rousing them to bloody and devastating wars to accomplish righteous purposes. It is the product and not the tool that is just.

In other words, if viewing a film needs to be evaluated as a moral act, if we must take principled stands about what we see based on appeals to higher virtues, then the criteria by which we judge should always only be limited to the content of the creation and not the character of the creators. Is the film pornographic matters; does the camera man watch pornography does not. Seeing Mulan is not tantamount to supporting the Hong Kong police, and to think otherwise is to accept a particularly silly old North African heresy.


*That may be fine for the secular humanist–though I wish them luck living consistently with the almost certain likelihood that any particular person is a flawed vessel and therefore utterly incapable of good. The world becomes a bleak place when even the work of your own hands is beneath your own contempt.
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Sexual Assault: What’s Doctrine Got to Do with It?

Nothing.

That’s a pretty simple answer to a pretty simple question, but for some reason Christians of many stripes and commentators on religion seem to be struggling with the idea that a denomination’s doctrines cannot be blamed for the prevalence of sexual assault in our society or our churches. In the span of less than twenty-four hours, I have encountered three different occasions where this correlation between doctrine and sexual assault has been bandied about, and it is time to lay it to rest.

The first example comes from an old interview between NPR and Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler answered questions on the then-upcoming annual convention over which several high profile incidents of sexual misconduct had cast a pall. The interviewer brought up an earlier blog post wherein Mohler admitted his surprise that this sort of behavior could take root among the Baptists:

We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority. When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.

I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.

It’s to Mohler’s credit that he can see now that he was wrong, but he never should have fallen into the trap of blaming sexual abuse on doctrine to begin with. This is a particularly egregious myth among Protestants, one that has roots particularly in the nineteenth century, when clerical celibacy was blamed for a host of comically hyperbolic Catholic shortcomings: orgiastic lesbian nuns, masturbation-induced madness, and predatory pedophile priests. An institutional culture of silence surely contributes to the problem of abuse among Catholic priests, but doctrine cannot be blamed. It’s time to shed that Victorian paranoia.

Even so, that paranoia finds a progressive voice to parrot it in the NPR interviewer who turns a form of Mohler’s own doctrine-produces-assault logic against him:

But the question is, why do you think that is? I mean, certain people looking at this…[p]roblem say that it is a consequence of your theology, which they believe elevates men to the detriment of women. I mean, it’s considered to be complementarianism, which is a belief that the Bible reveals that men and women are equally made but that – in God’s image but that men and women have different roles. And there are those who say no, this is a consequence of a belief that whatever you call it, it really means that men are put in an elevated position of authority and that women are demeaned.

Celibacy isn’t the problem, but maybe complementarianism is? This is an argument that would likely resonate with critics of evangelicals more broadly. It certainly appears in the organizing logic of complaints about the recent summit at Wheaton on how evangelicals can respond to the #metoo movement. By most accounts, this was a productive meeting with the right attitude of reflection and repentance. Beth Moore, significantly, was a featured speaker; her voice has been critical in convincing evangelicals to reckon with this crisis.

Not everyone, though, thinks repentance and reflection are enough. ReligionNews reports:

Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day on social media, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.

The parallel is pretty precise. Baptists believe that if only Catholics had the right view of sex (no clerical celibacy), sexual misconduct would disappear. Post-evangelicals believe that if only evangelicals had the right view of sex (no heteronormative sex-shaming), sexual misconduct would disappear. Both ideas are equally ludicrous, and someone should probably sit Christians down and explain to them what most secular commentators understand: sexual assault is not about sex. And if it isn’t about sex, then correcting our doctrine of human sexuality is not going to fix it.

The third instance of this flawed logic is more muted. I found it embedded revelations about the independent fundamental Baptist churches, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (there are several parts). Shocked independent fundamental Baptists shared some of the old anti-Catholic prejudices of their Southern Baptist counterparts:

“It’s a little bit trippy, looking at the independent Baptist world I grew up in and thinking, ‘We’ve always heard bashing on the Catholics for their system of religion, for the way they shuffle around perverts,’” said Pat Cook, who unknowingly started a church in 2013 with a suspected abuser, on the recommendation of his pastor.

“Unfortunately, we’ve definitely seen it in the independent Baptist world.”

The article doesn’t stop there though, suggesting that a more intimate knowledge of the denomination was the key to understanding how sexual misconduct could occur there:

To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.

Evidence of this cult-like (and unscriptural) belief in male authority can be seen in testimonials like these:

To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.

“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”

Or:

“My late mother, not long after we had started going to church, my stepfather had asked her to spend no more than $50 at the grocery store. Unfortunately, the bill totaled $52. Rather than put something back to get the bill under $50, she gave the cashier a weak smile and explained apologetically, ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to call my husband about this. You see, we’re a Christian family, and I believe in submitting to my husband.’ So off she went to the other end of the store to use the phone and call my stepfather at work while my brother and I waited at the counter. I could feel my face turning red, and my brother didn’t really understand what was going on, either. Our mother came back with a satisfied smile and informed the cashier, ‘I’m so sorry for holding up the line, but my husband said it was fine. I just had to ask him first because we’re a Christian family.’”

I cannot stress enough that there is clearly something in these churches that is on a different order–structurally and doctrinally–than the other groups surveyed here, and my point is not to excuse or endorse those beliefs. It is only to suggest that the implicit link between bad belief and bad practice is bad logic. Sexual assault is happening even outside the cult-like hyper-masculine space of the independent fundamental Baptists churches, outside the hierarchical and celibate ranks of the Catholic church, outside the complementarian ranks of the Southern Baptists, outside the heteronormative ranks of evangelicals. It’s even happening in the halls of higher education where, if conservatives Christians are to be believed, every sacred orthodoxy that religion holds dear has been publicly pilloried and executed. What is the root of all this evil?

The problem is not doctrine. The problem is sin. It’s not a new problem–sin generally or this problem of sexual assault. It’s arrogant to assume that if we can simply concoct the right doctrinal formula about sex, about men and women, about clerical behavior or authority, then we can purge sin from the world. The way to alleviate the problem of sin is to acknowledge it, repent of it, and to rely openly and actively on Christ and his church to ward it off in the future. In that respect, the Southern Baptists, Wheaton College, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram all seem to be doing important work. Let’s keep it up.

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(New) Calvinism and Domestic Violence

In a particularly startling bit of news, psychology professor Steven Sandage has just reported the results of a study about the link between theological positions and belief in “domestic violence myth acceptance” (i.e. accepting logic which justifies or rationalizes domestic violence). Here’s what he has to say about the new study:

Many Christian theologies emphasize the possibility of finding meaning in suffering, but the New Calvinism seems to promote a rather stoic and un-empathic attitude that valorizes suffering, particularly among women…There are many contemporary Calvinists who hold progressive views of gender and other social issues. But our research does offer some data suggesting the ‘New Calvinism’ that combines Calvinistic beliefs and very conservative, binary views of gender may be a kind of theological risk factor for the acceptance of domestic violence myths and other socially regressive attitudes.

Now, Sandage’s study seems to be based primarily on poll data from what strikes me as a pretty small (238) and pretty specific (seminary students) sample size. It should be taken with a grain of salt. The coherence of premise and conclusion, however, is suggestive; the logical progression from Calvinism to stoic acceptance of domestic violence is unproblematic (from a coherentist perspective). While the secular thinker in me knows that the truth value of a proposition (or system of propositions, like Calvinism) is independent from its consequences, the Christian in me knows “the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt 7.16).

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Notes from Bluffton: International Day of Peace

UN Day of Peace

Today is the United Nations designated International Day of Peace.  As a general rule, I consider the UN a manifestation of humanity’s misplaced faith in its own ability to effect positive change for the world. Even so, I cannot pass up a perfectly good opportunity to talk about peace as a moral imperative.

The UN was founded in the aftermath of World War II in an effort to promote stability in the international order in the interest of world peace. The actual activities of the UN are,  in practice, often more limited: providing humanitarian aid in war zones or conferring international legitimacy on some wars but not others. (Think how quickly the UN formed and then sent “peacekeeping” soldiers to the Korean peninsula.) Yet long before the secular ideal of limited and pragmatic peace found its intergovernmental champion, Christians had been promoting a more transcendent understanding of peace, one intimately tied to core of Christian values.

Consider the following brief musing on the famed passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13. A devotional on love may seem like a strange choice for the International Day of Peace until you consider its author and context. The following appeared in 1941 in the Medaryville Peace Sentinel, the ad hoc journal for residents of the Civilian Public Service Camp at Bluffton, Indiana. Public Service Camps were the compulsory labor camps set up for conscientious objectors (mostly Anabaptists) during World War II. In spite of the troubled times and in spite of the public and institutional opposition to their pacifism, the Sentinel’s editor took comfort in the unfailing nature of love:

In one of his letters to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul devoted an entire chapter to Love. He said that Love never fails.

Today much of Christianity is saying, “Paul, you are wrong–you are an idealistic dreamer–you are not very practical. Yes, Paul it was
alright for God to love the world enough to send His Son into the world. But don’t you know that we would lose all our sacred rights–we would lose all that is dear to us if we were to be so impractical as to believe that Love does not fail. Surely Paul, you could not have known about such enemies of all that is right and good as Hitler. No, Paul, we will have to forget about Love for a while.”

And so here we are, 132 of us who believe that Paul was right.

Those 132 were not alone. World War II saw upwards of 8,000 conscientious objectors distributed into well over 100 labor camps, working without compensation and being supported financially by the communities from which they had been taken. Even so, Eleanor Roosevelt dismissed their labors, saying these men were doing work “of national importance” but “not the work which the country really requires of these young men.” The country required them to kill Nazis.

Paul suggests that God required something else of them. It always seems to be much harder to find the courage of our convictions than to find exceptions to them. Hitler and the Nazis are the enduring example, the one that opponents of peace (opponents of love) hold up as the unconquerable argument against pacifism. The 132 men at the Bluffton were unconvinced when Hitler was alive, and I remain unconvinced. When Paul declares that “love never fails,” it may be an eschatological promise but it is a promise we can and must rely on nevertheless.

God knows about Hitler. God knows about Osama bin Laden. God knows about Kim Jong-un. God knew about them before they were born. Even so, God calls us to love with a love that, by any definition, must preclude violence and promote peace.

So, in honor of the labors of Christians who have come before and using the International Day of Peace as a launching point, I would like to offer over the course of the next month a series of lessons and inspirational quotes from the conscientious objectors at Bluffton. Their willingness in arguably the darkest moment of the last century to rely on love and promises of God rather than hate and the well-intentioned impulses of the human heart should be an example to us all.

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Beth Moore is a Complementarian, but…

Beth Moore is on a warpath, according to The Atlantic. A righteous, unexpected, contradictory warpath. Moore apparently drew evangelical ire when, in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, she did not immediately excuse the then-candidate for his boasts about sexual assault. She had committed the cardinal sin of letting her actual morals override her commitment to the Moral Majority, and she was punished for it–with declining attendance at her speaking engagements and with individualized boycotts of her work. But she did not recant; she did not repent. Nevertheless she persisted.

It is, quite frankly, an inspiring story from a figure who (though I knew nothing about her before today) has apparently made a living inspiring people. Unfortunately, the author of the article, Emma Green, cannot seem to contain her bemusement at this backward Arkie Bible-thumper leading the charge against predatory parishioners, pastors, and presidents. Those are, admittedly, not the words Green uses, but the tone is accurate and unmistakable. Green appears particularly taken with the idea that a complementarian might also be an advocate for women, and she approaches Moore with a certain suspicion, as if the whole different genders-different roles thing might be a necessary or convenient façade:

Like other Southern Baptists, Moore considers herself a complementarian: She believes the Bible teaches that men and women have distinctive roles and that men should hold positions of authority and leadership over women in the home and in the church. Yet her husband, Keith, a retired plumber, sees his vocation as helping his wife succeed. “That’s what I do,” he told me. “I lay blocks so O.J. can run.”

The implication is clear. Moore must be a complementarian in name only because she is the breadwinner for her now stay-at-home husband. That is, of course, absurd. Leadership has nothing to do with economic dominance. The apostles were leaders, and they couldn’t even spare a few coins for the poor. In fairness to Green, modern egalitarians aren’t the only one’s confused about this; complementarians too often confuse Victorian gender roles (in which women are domestic and men are entrepreneurial) with biblical gender roles. Both are equally wrong, and many complementarian households (my own included) consist of a wife who makes more or even most of the money for the home. Leadership isn’t about money; it is about service and sacrifice. (Paul says as much.) The analogy Keith Moore uses here is pretty apt, even if his choice of athlete is a little fraught. Sacrificing his body for the glorification of his wife seems a pretty decent parallel for the way Jesus gave himself up for the glorification of the church.

Yet Green cannot see this. She continues to insist that there is some cognitive dissonance involved–if not outright duplicity–in Moore’s approach to her own role in the world. At one point she describes Moore’s complementarianism as an act, saying that “though [Moore] often performs domestic femininity for her audience, in her own life she has balanced motherhood with demanding professional ambitions.” It is feminism (that good old fashion second wave kind) that taught us all that there is no conflict between professional ambition and femininity, but Green conveniently treats Moore as the turn-of-the-century relic the author surely believes she is. Moore must hold to a view of femininity that precludes professional success; after all, that is the straw man that post-modern feminists have internalized in their quest to uncouple gender from any culturally neutral mooring. Never mind that Moore’s life suggests neither she nor her audience ever bought into that definition of femininity.

In the end, Green can never seem to approach complementarianism on its own terms, and certainly shows no effort to let Moore define the terms of her own beliefs for herself. Green is concerned only with juxtaposing Moore’s life (which Moore herself understands to be complementarian) with the regressive gender model that Green imagines evangelical Christian women hold. The contrast is never more clear than in this passage at the crux of the article:

Moore may be a complementarian, but she is adamant that Christian men should not treat women “any less than Jesus treated women in the Gospels: always with dignity, always with esteem, never as secondary citizens.”

Following Moore’s self-designation with a quote from Moore, joined as they are by an oppositional conjunction, lets Green paint Moore as a walking, talking, preaching, praying, politicking contradiction. Read the same sentence without the oppositional tone artificially introduced by Green: “Moore is a complementarian, and she is adamant that Christian men should not treat women…as secondary citizens.” The consonance of the two positions is evident if Moore is allowed to set the terms of her own identification and beliefs, something that would seem to accord well with contemporary feminism. But the complementarian advocate for the rights and dignity of women is the square-circle of feminist discourse. It simply cannot exist.

In the final passage, Green hedges, concluding her article by pointing out that Moore is not “a liberal, or even a feminist.” Yet if Green is to be believed she’s not really a complementarian either. I hope someone bothered to tell Beth Moore.

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This President is Not Special

62245941aed440947a34cbcc324d988e--march-signs-peaceful-protestThe current presidency is of a different type than anything that has come before. On this, if on nothing else, the president’s detractors and supporters agree most vehemently. This president is so unique that he requires a higher order of loyalty or a higher order of resistance, depending on your inclinations. Though the fact has rocketed into the news in the last twenty-four hours as an anonymous official has outlined extraordinary measures taken on behalf of national integrity, this reality has been understood since the beginning. It has been demonstrated by the apoplectic popular convulsions on the left and has been articulated brazenly by the then-candidate’s himself when he suggested that he could shoot someone in the street without losing a supporter. In the time since, he has had many moments that have seemed to be the public relations equivalent of cold-blooded public homicide, and he has proven more prophetic than deluded in his estimation of the public’s loyalty. In Sean Spicer’s memorable phrase, this president is “a unicorn riding a unicorn over a rainbow.”

But he isn’t. Not really. Not by any appreciable measure. This president is not only not special, not different, not deserving of extraordinary loyalty or rebuke, he is positively typical. His ascendance and style have contravened what Americans had led themselves recently to believe was the “normal” president, but when considered against the canon of distinguished gentlemen who came before him, this president is not unusual.

But wait, you say…

  • He’s governing without a popular mandate. This perhaps caused the most immediate outrage back in 2016, when it became evident that the person whom most people had voted for would not be president. Yet this has a long and fairly consistent history. Four previous presidents have been elected after losing the popular vote, including in the antebellum (John Quincy Adams), postbellum (Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison), and contemporary (George W. Bush) eras. The 2016 election wasn’t even the largest margin of victory for a candidate who never ascended to the office. JQA lost to Andrew Jackson by more than 10% but still managed to outmaneuver him in the electoral bureaucracy. In every case, Republicans (or their proto-Whig ancestors) have played the game better than more popular Democrats. With an example as recently as 2000 (and involving her own husband’s successor), you would think that Hillary Clinton would have paid more attention.But that’s the election; what about the man?
  • He’s a philanderer. Sure, and he did what he needed to in order to keep those women quiet and to keep them from influencing the election. If he’s different from other president’s in this regard, it is only that he wasn’t quite as skilled at keeping those affairs secret, though this likely has more to do with the information age than any particular skill on his part. (Consider, for example, Bill Clinton as a parallel.) Other philandering presidents have been careful to keep in on the low. Such was the case with Warren G. Harding, whose affairs weren’t discovered until after his death. Jefferson’s sexual exploits are still being debated, though most agree that he didn’t start his affair with his wife’s teenage slave/half-sister until after he became a widower. You be the judge of how that would play in an Alabama special election, but it’s worth pointing out that thanks to the compromise powers of fellow future president James Madison, at most Jefferson only had 3/5th of an affair.Of course, the standard line now is that it’s not the sex but the pay-off that is the problem with the current president. After all…
  • He’s corrupt and surrounds himself with corrupt officials. Corruption is endemic to government, a point I always try to impress upon my students. Forging private-public alliances to further your own power and interests is just effective statesmanship, and the borders for where that ceases to be moral/legal and becomes corrupt are historically recent and entirely arbitrary. Even so, American exceptionalism is such that the US has produced its fair share of especially corrupt presidents and administrations. It’s hard to name a single past president where private finance didn’t produce scandal. Bush II had the specter of Halliburton, Clinton had Whitewater, Richard Nixon had Watergate, and Harding had the Teapot Dome. (Have I gone far enough back to lose you yet?) Speculation about John F. Kennedy’s mafia ties have at least the superficial ring of familiarity when placed next to the current president’s ties to Russian oligarchs. Sometimes the president himself is brought down by this corruption–they got Nixon after all and nearly nailed Clinton on a technicality–but mostly there are a lot of high level incriminations, resignations, and convictions. Scooter Libby and John Poindexter went down for proper crimes; they followed Albert Bacon Fall, the first member of the cabinet to go to prison. Perhaps more telling for those worried about presidential pardoning power is the readiness of future administrations to rehabilitate these figures. Bush II had already commuted Libby’s sentence, but the current administration pardoned him outright. This wasn’t new though; Poindexter’s conviction held for barely survived the year before they were overturned on a technicality. Fall served his time: one whole year for conspiracy and bribery. Earlier patsies didn’t need to be acquitted, since they were merely censured rather than charged. Corruption, scandals, resignations, and convictions are a great American political pastime, and few are immune. Even squeaky clean preacher, school teacher, and Union General James A. Garfield got embroiled in the Credit Mobilier scandal that erupted in the midst of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency.Yet the current president isn’t just flouting the law…
  • He’s actively corrupting the justice system to serve his own ends. Lindsey Graham said in his opening statement for the now ongoing Brett Kavanaugh hearings that if Democrats want to pick judges they need to win elections. (See point #1.) That bit of gritty realism rings true in America politics, and past presidents have been as or more willing to actively “pervert” the justice system to serve their own ends. The practice actually stands at the beating heart of American jurisprudence, going all the way back to the primordial Supreme Court case: Marbury v. Madison. Most of us learned this in school as the case where the court established its right to judicial review (cleverly by refusing to review that case). Lost in that explanation is the last ditch appointment of a group of Federalist judges by outgoing president John Adams to keep the seats from being filled by his ideological rival, Jefferson. Among the intended appointments was William Marbury, a partisan (in today’s terminology) of the most vocal and unabashed type. Jefferson, exploiting a procedural error, instructed Madison to ignore the appointments so he could appoint his own partisans to the bench. It puts the recent stalling of Barack Obama’s nominee in perspective, to be sure.The courts always serve the ideological interests of the president who appoints them (and arguably that is precisely what the Constitution intended by giving the president appointment powers). When they don’t, past presidents have been happy to press their case outside the “normal” rules of civil administration. When Andrew Jackson didn’t like a Supreme Court ruling against him, he ignored it and apocryphally said the court had made its decision but couldn’t make him enforce it. When Franklin Roosevelt saw many of his key New Deal provisions struck down by the Supreme Court, he turned to court packing in a failed attempt to force the justice system to do his will. Say what you want about presidential tweets about the courts or about the Merrick Garland controversy or the suitability of Brett Kavanaugh; all of that is happening within the confines of US law. When the president starts ignoring or packing the courts, then…well, even then he’s in presidential company.

    But…

  • He’s cozying up to tyrants. The same argument was levied against Adams by Jeffersonians who resented the thawing of American relations with Great Britain. (The British, recall, were the arch-tyrants of the American imagination in the late eighteenth century.) This, of course, was long before the United States began to cozy up to the tyrants that it had put in place throughout Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southwest Asia. But I guess those tyrants are okay because they’re our tyrants.But…
  • The Russians helped elect him; they even funneled him money. Would you prefer it was the China?But…
  • He’s filled the government with incompetent toadies and family members. JFK caught flak for appointing his little brother as Attorney General, but that is only because the US had needed only a generation or so to forget its traditional spoils system of government appointments. Until the late nineteenth century (and thanks in part to the assassination of Garfield), the convention in US politics had been to scrub the government clean in each new administration and fill all positions with loyal cronies. Turn of the century reform only went so far, ending the process of a clean sweep but leaving available the highest levels of government for a reboot after every administration. Presidents as recent as Bush II have been accused vocally of cronyism, which it turns out is just another word for presidential appointment power. Invoking Graham again (and again from the recent hearing), where exactly do people expect the president to get his appointees from?But..
  • He’s a racist. Never mind all the slave holding presidents. Never mind Woodrow Wilson screening “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Let’s talk about the most saintly president in US history: Abraham Lincoln (with the big hat). The Great Emancipator, for all the positive effects his actions had for slaves in his times, was not any great warrior for racial justice. He was, as a free soiler, an avowed racist elected by racists to achieve a racist task, something else I struggle to impress upon students. If that strikes you as an offensive suggestion, take the following quote from Lincoln’s 1854 speech at Peoria:

    If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.…What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.

    Lincoln was an advocate of colonization, and he makes his point clearly here. He’d prefer to send African-Americans ‘back where they came from’ and could not abide the idea that they should be politically or socially equal. Actual advocates of racial justice at the time understood this, and commented that the worst thing southerners could do for their own cause was to assassinate Lincoln. Historians agree: Reconstruction was more radical in Lincoln’s absence than it would have been in his presence. In other words, while not ALL presidents have been vocal racists, it’s safe to say that most have been (even the one’s we like to pretend weren’t).

    But it’s not just about words. Lincoln freed the slaves, but…

  • He’s actively imprisoning brown children just for looking different. With some modification for the racial color-coding “white” people are so fond of, the same is true of many US presidents (including, again, some of American’s most revered). Think of the little Cherokee children imprisoned, deported, and killed (directly and indirectly) by Jackson. Think about the little Japanese-American children imprisoned and impressed into labor by FDR. They got off better than the tens of thousands of Japanese children who were among the civilian populations deliberately targeted by Harry Truman for execution. Republicans have explicitly embraced the precedent (if not the language) of Dwight Eisenhower’s mass deportation scheme, “Operation Wetback.” They’re also (situationally) fond of pointing out that deportations ballooned to a then record high under Obama. US presidents (and the government in general) have been imprisoning, impressing, and executing people of color (children and adults) since plantation owners first populated this country. It’s the American genesis narrative. Jamestown settlers and Puritans said, “Let there be whites.” And it was so. And it was very, very bad (at least if you’re of African, indigenous American, or Latin American descent).But…

But nothing. There is no sufficiently general complaint about the current president that cannot be established in firm presidential precedent. Sure, you could say, “No president has ever tweeted out ‘covfefe” before,” and you’d be right. But there have been inarticulate presidents in the past. For every Calvin Collidge wryly quipping “You lose,” there is a Lyndon B. Johnson making a phone call about his testicles. There have been demagogues and dimwits and puppets in the presidency before, meaning that the current president is in good company no matter which of those you happen to think he is.

None of which is to say that the president is a good man or a good president. By all accounts this presidency is a disaster–whether you think that is because of the man at the helm or because of conspiratorial opposition by Democrats, the deep state, or pedophile pizza shop owners. The president has misbehaved morally, politically, and in all likelihood legally. But this, more than anything is what makes him typical.

As a historian, I look for precedents to cite, but it is important to remember that even without particular precedents the president is clearly “normal” from a Christian perspective. In fact, this president’s gross immorality and the corruption, scandal, violence, and deceit console rather than concern me as a Christian. It is encouraging to see borne out in such an indisputable way David Lipscomb’s observation that “the rule of justice, right and virtue in political affairs is a hallucination.” Our historical ignorance and moral lethargy has led us to believe that civil government (or at least our civil government) is at its heart good. Like an unruly child deserving of our love and guidance, it just needs moral intervention from attentive and engaged Christian stewards to return to the straight and narrow.

It was never on the straight and narrow, and it is dangerous to forget that. There is a tendency to think of the government like we might a person, as if it were imperfect but redeemable. Always remember that Jesus Christ came to earth to redeem people from their sins, but the Bible offers a very different message about civil governments. They are not being redeemed, they are being replaced. When history is brought to its culmination, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2.44).

I hope the president gets redeemed (if he isn’t already). In my best moments, I know I should pray for this. I know I should also pray for him as a ruler, not that he might accomplish his agenda and not that he might be thwarted in it. I should pray that he will govern in such a way as to allow me to continue to live in peace and quiet (1 Tim. 2.2), something that has thus far been possible for me (though clearly not for others). What I don’t pray for is the salvation of the US government. It doesn’t need to be saved from this president. This president is its culmination–historically and morally the distillation of everything it stands for and has always stood for.

It’s as if we’ve wiped the lipstick off the pig and are appalled to find something utterly new before us. Let’s not kid ourselves. He’s not special. He’s just a pig.

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The Question of Extraterrestrial Life (less than) Definitively Settled

I am inclined to think that there is no life on other planets. I have heard repeatedly the statements about the sheer size of the universe and the correlative theoretical quantity of planets, among which it is as near a statistical certainty as possible that many can support life and consequently that one does. Yet precisely this mathematical certainly disinclines me to believe that there is life beyond Earth. I am not saying that there isn’t or that it would bother me if there were; only that I am choose not to suppose that there is.

The reason is, therefore, clearly not rational. It is not, however, strictly speaking irrational, which would imply a failure to rationally derive an argument for a proposition. Instead, it is contrarational. Having divined and accepted the rational argument that there is life on other planets, I formulate my belief in conscious opposition to that. What justifies such a contrarational position? It is precisely that beauty, joy, sublimity (or some other vague and subjective term) exist in contrast to rationality.

Again, this is not to say that the rational cannot be beautiful or incite joy or embody the sublime. It merely acknowledges what has been a well recognized feature of art and literature and romance and life. The human spirit is enlivened more by the unpredictable, the unexplainable, and the impossible-but-actual than by the reasonable. Serendipity and providence. Mad, stupid, consumptive, doomed love. Fantasies and phantasmagoria and psychosis.

I believe in a beautiful God, one Who transcends and can therefore contradict reason. The notion that this foolish Deity could have created a cosmos which by its very nature speaks to the mathematical certainty of life on other planets and then refuse to populate any planet but this one fills me with an inexplicable joy in the mere possibility of it. I will rejoice in a God who creates and saves the inhabitants of other worlds as well, but until I know otherwise I prefer to be seized by the sublime belief in a universe that must and a God who flouts such necessity.

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The Ethics of Sport Hunting

Deer season is upon us, and to commemorate it, a Michigan news outlet has posed the question to a variety of clerics: in what context is hunting morally permissible? Four panelists offer responses.

The Jewish respondent concludes from a review of Genesis and the Law that the killing of animals required extraordinary justification but that God Himself has given such a justification. The only question that remains is how to treat those animals who will be killed. “It is acceptable to kill animals, but it is not acceptable to be callous toward animal life.” The response is a laudable beginning, but it leaves so much of the heart of the question unexplored. What constitutes callousness? Killing for the sake of killing? Or is it only killing in an “inhumane” way? The rabbi gives no satisfactory answers.

The Muslim respondent provides a richer, fuller picture of his religion’s ethical stance on hunting and on the slaughter of animals more generally. The result, somewhat unexpectedly, is a decidedly palatable set of rules governing both the ethical treatment of animals intended for slaughter and a strict utilitarian boundary for when such slaughter is appropriate. “Killing is not for sport but only for sustenance.” Yet, even while his regulations for slaughter are better explained and (for my part) better received, his justification for killing to begin with leaves much to be desired. He states, rather matter-of-factly, that animals are going to die anyway, so it makes no difference whether they die of old age or by human hands. Curiously, the same premise could be applied to humanity, but even with Islam’s decidedly different stance on justifiable violence relative to Christianity, sure no Muslim would want to argue that humans are going to die anyway so it doesn’t matter whether we let them die of old age or kill them for utilitarian purposes. At least I hope not.

Next, a reverend gives the traditional and decidedly unsophisticated view of Christians throughout history. God said we could kill animals. Society says we can kill animals. What’s the problem. I mean, in some cases, not killing animals is like disobeying Jesus. That’s no good. Alright…it’s a paraphrase and a parody, but it nevertheless represents the essential message. There is no consideration of the importance of the creation account or the Law in determining the ethical stance of Christians toward animals. Not even a mention of the eschatological place of the natural world in the Christian scheme. A personal inclination matched with a proof text remains the surest Christian hermeneutic.

The same, unfortunately, proved true for the equally unsatisfying response from the Christian vegetarian. He makes the highly dubious claim that God allows animals to be killed only because it is a necessity and that, since it is no longer a necessity, there is no justification for continuing to kill them even for food. Of course, he offers no support for the argument that the permission to use animals for food and clothing is need based nor does he demonstrate that something has fundamentally changed to remove that need. (Incidentally, he also makes the easily falsifiable claim that eating meat is more efficient.) Most importantly of all, however, he seems to be woefully ignorant of the historical fact that meat has only recently begun to play a significant role in the human diet. Precisely because it is such a painstaking and inefficient means of ingesting calories, meat has been a luxury in most cultures throughout human history. Slaughtering an animal and eating it was a significant event reserved for feasts and sacred occasions, a fact typified in the rituals of both Judaism and Islam. The notion that you can eat meat at every meal is a relatively modern, primarily American innovation.

Disappointingly, with the exception of the Muslim, none of the respondents deal directly with the question of the ethics of sport hunting. More disappointing still is the facile responses of both Christians–leading me to believe that some lazy journalist probably just found four clerics who had nothing better to do that day than answer the phone. No one gets to the root of what sport hunting is or why it might be ethically problematic. Hunting, neither out of necessity nor even with any intent to make reasonably full use of the kill, is violence for violence sake, a behavior which is difficult to justify from the viewpoint of any of the three major religions. It is the agonistic modern analog to the gladiatorial arena, only instead of the helpless slave being thrown to the lion for the amusement of the masses it is the helpless herbivore which is turned over to the heavily armed and merciless hunter to end its life for his amusement.

Hunters who love the taste of venison, who eat whatever they kill and kill only what they will eat, are on ethically safe ground. In more omnivorous days gone by, I have even gladly shared in their spoils. But the point at which hunting is undertaken exclusively or even primarily for the thrill of killing and pride in the trophy, it becomes the exclusive province of lovers of violence, about whom God is quite clear.

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Shane Blackshear, Starting to Get it Right

A minister recently pointed me to this entry by Shane Blackshear–she described him to me as “an emergent church guy” and assured me I shouldn’t feel bad for never having heard of him. Blackshear begins with the gut-wrenching confession to the Christian community: “I’m not voting.” It is a tragedy that it has come to this, come to a point where it requires more than a little courage to say with anything other than youthful apathy, “I will not be voting come November.” Yet this is far from melodrama on Blackshear’s part. My wife finds herself regularly harassed at work and among her relatives when it comes up that she does not vote. Just yesterday, I invited the ire of one of my colleagues by announcing, “I’m not voting. I don’t have a dog in your fight.” The notion that Christian principles could tend toward anything other than full and patriotic participation in American democracy is entirely foreign to the modern mind.

Blackshear, for his part, makes the beginnings of a good case for why he won’t be voting in this election. Proceeding from the principle that he is pro-life, he asks two important questions:

Remember when we had a Republican President and abortion stopped for 8 years?

…Remember when a Democrat was elected 4 years ago and our soldiers were brought home?

There is in this a microcosm of the futility of conscientious voting for Christians, and Blackshear seems to feel it acutely, quoting Psalm 14 and discouraging Christians from trusting “in princes.” Yet he proves willfully unwilling to press these observations to their logical conclusion. Appealing vaguely to the “valid reasons” for voting for each candidate, Blackshear makes it clear that this is a personal protest and not a Christian imperative. Where is the recognition that every vote is a vote for warfare? Why is it so difficult to extrapolate from the last twelve years of anecdotal evidence the profound truth that governments exist solely for the purpose of violence? The logical conclusion is easy enough to draw: in a representative republic, we elect people to govern on our behalf. Every abortion Obama facilitates, every “enemy combatant” Romney “subdues,” it is done on behalf of the voting public and they partake fully in the culpability for those actions.

If Blackshear, making the right stand as I believe he does, really wants to argue that he cannot , as a Christian, cast his vote for another politician who cannot respect life, then it is incumbent upon him to realize that, as a Christian, he cannot vote. At which point, I’ll be the first to welcome him into the rich, historic fold of Christian anarchism.

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Africa and Our Philosophy of Missions

Several weeks ago, I attended a Bible study, the speaker at which had just returned from a mission trip. The study took the form of a mission report, and the woman who led the study had a number of inspiring anecdotes to share as well as some gut-wrenching ones about the rural conditions there (which to my frustration, she seemed more curious about than moved by). Throughout the entire presentation, however, I couldn’t help but wonder why she went at all. Her explanation, predictably, focused on issues like her calling and the personal faith journey it represented for her, as well as obligatory references to winning souls for the Lord.

Here’s the problem. Zambia is a Christian nation. Not in the way America is a Christian nation but actually, constitutionally Christian. More than 85% of Zambians self-identify as Christians, a number significantly higher than the number of Americans who so self-identify. And while Zambia is notable, it is by no means exceptional among African nations. There are more Christians in Africa than there are Americans. Note, that was “Americans” not “American Christians.” More critically, the African church is now being evangelized more successfully and more rapidly by Africans and increasingly Africans are being brought in under denominational headings that are non-existent and often unknown in the West.

In other words, the missionaries claim that while the people of Zambia had been “evangelized” they still hadn’t been “discipled,” came across more like American (or perhaps Baptist) chauvinism than evangelistic concern. African Christianity is thriving and growing in ways that Western Christianity have long sensed even dared to dream of. Long gone are the days of sixteenth century Ethiopian scholar Tasfa Seyvon, quoted by David Northrup as writing:

I am an Ethiopian pilgrim…from the land of the infidels to the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Rome I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

I grew up, as so many of us did, with the missionary work to Africa taking center stage, and perhaps then there was a time for it. I don’t know that I ever attended a church in my childhood that wasn’t sponsoring a missionary to Africa. In truth, though, what the African church needs from Western Christianity is not another round of affluent white people to tell them the Gospel. They have the Gospel and they are taking the commission to preach it to all nations very seriously. Instead of evangelistic missions, they desperately need benevolence missions. Missions bringing doctors, food, the means to access clean water, plans for developing local infrastructure, and modern agricultural techniques.

In other words, don’t tell me about going to a country where more than two thirds of the people live in poverty and expect me to be excited that you taught the local preachers to preach more mature sermons. Don’t show me pictures of a village of people who lack the hygienic facilities and the understanding of disease to wash themselves regularly and expect me to be in awe that you saw a man healed miraculously of his sores. I don’t want to hear the song that the children taught you in their native tongue, not those illiterate, naked children who were as hungry when you left as when you arrived. Callous as it may sound, and perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, the next missionary to Africa looking for support or accolade from me better have iodine tablets in one hand, Flintstones vitamins in the other, and these words on his lips: I am an American pilgrim from the land of the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Africa, I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

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