Monday, August 25, 2014

What is the Christian's Response to Violence?

The latest Israel-Palestine conflict is bringing an age-old question to a new generation of Christians. When you read much of the media coverage there is a big question that hangs over all of it especially for readers below the age of 50.


I don't mean to suggest that readers over 50 really know why the conflict is going on, but I do believe they've been through the same (or similar) cycle more than once during their adult life. My generation will most vividly think back to the "first" Iraq war, what we called the Persian Gulf War, and remember live CNN reports with journalists in gas masks in Israeli hotel rooms. We were all holding our breath to see if the Patriot missiles would out perform the SCUD missiles.

That actually had little to do with the Palestinian situation. It was merely Saddam Hussein's attempt to rally anti-Zionists to his side against Coalition forces. But it made us wonder about this whole Israel v. Middle East situation. Those of us in the Evangelical world felt sure it was closely related to the Bible and End Times. " the Middle East" was a popular saying for politicians and rappers.

A generation later we have renewed violence between Israel and Palestine and the reaction is all over the map. Some cast the Palestinians as being oppressed and murdered by Israel. While others are rallying behind Israel as champions against terrorism. As I read the analysis I am struck by a philosophical assumption that goes so deep no one is bothering to defend it: death is bad.

But I wonder, why do they assume this? Stick with me a moment. It is a great human tradition that goes back as far as we can remember to assume that one's own death would be a bad thing. That makes perfect sense. It even makes since to feel like the death of your family, friends and business associates would be bad. What I don't quite logically follow is why secularists can assume other peoples' deaths are bad. Now I'm not attacking a secularists right to make moral assumptions. I just wonder if they understand that they are making an assumption that requires justification. Let me put it this way, if we are products of evolution, and if science is the ultimate arbiter of Truth, where does this universal (though selective when you consider the unborn) ethical preference for life come from? Secular society has been willing to question and abolish every other moral/ethical assumption. Why do we hold on to this one vestige primitive taboo and call it humanitarianism? Why does the mandate to save lives trump every other argument in any debate? Is there nothing more important than human life? If so, why are we so bad at protecting it?

I honestly can't claim to understand the situation in Israel. When one tries to find the historical roots of the conflict one finds a tragic story of foreign powers making seemingly inconsequential decisions that end up affecting millions of people for generations to come. As far as I can tell, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others have all lived in the area for thousands of years. No one can claim exclusive ownership of the land based on history or heritage. It has been alternately conquered and and ignored for thousands of years. The Jews, at least, have a theological reason for wanting it, but who is to say that the State of Israel has any right to make a claim based on religion? The rule of Nature would say that whoever is powerful enough to own and posses the land will own and posses the land. The map as we know it was formed by violence at some point in our history. How do we (or how can we) differentiate between the violence of a thousand years ago, and 50 years ago, and 50 minutes ago? Was it justified then but not now? I don't think most people who have formed an opinion have thought through all those issues. I wish they would. I don't know that it would bring a quick solution, but at least they wouldn't sound so flippant in their affirmation of violence on either side.

For the Christian the question is simpler. We value life because God values life. He created people in his image. Therefore we are to respect life as an act of worship toward our Creator. Jesus has freed us from worry about where the "Promised Land" is. The Sabbath he has won for us is not a day of the week or a patch of land on this earth. The Sabbath rest Jesus leads us into--like Joshua led the Hebrews--is a never-ending land "flowing with milk and honey". It is not a day of the week because there will be no night. It is not a place under the Sun because there will be no sun. Jesus will be our source of light. We will not have to take up arms to conquer or defend it because He will put all his enemies under his feet. Forever.

I haven't answered questions about who we should support or how we should support them. Those are things I still struggle with. What I know above all else is that God is not pleased with the destruction of the people that he has created, and neither am I.

ALS Ethical Dilemma

Just wanted to pass some info I found along for those of you in a similar situation to me. I was honored enough to be challenged to the ice bucket challenge. I figured that would eventually happen. I also wondered when some dirt would be dug up on the ALS Association incriminating them in funding some dastardly deeds. That's the way it works right? We all get excited to be helping some cause then a blogger in Indiana finds out that it's a scam or that it is funding golf trips for executives or the torture of hamsters.

As has been pointed out by many this "dirt" came in the form of embryonic stem-cell research. Many sources started pointing out that the ALS Association does fund stem-cell research including one study that uses embryonic stem-cells.

There are mitigating factors to consider. Embryos used are those created as a byproduct of fertility efforts. When in-vitro fertilization is attempted there are usually unused fertilized eggs that parents can choose to donate to science. The research isn't creating embryos to experiment on. Still, does the source really matter? Also, it appears that the one embryonic study that is funded by ALSA is fully funded by one donor, meaning that currently none of the money that you give would be diverted directly to that study.

So what's the problem? ALSA could decide at any time to start funding embryonic stem-cell research.

What's wrong with that anyway? (This part is pretty involved. If you're just looking for alternatives to ALSA the skip to the end.)

Well, that depends on when you believe life begins. The Roman Catholic Church's as well as most pro-Life organizations' view is that life begins at conception, by which they mean at the moment of fertilization. Some even within the Pro-Life camp would clarify that they believe live begins at implantation. Further down the spectrum others believe in markers for life such as a heartbeat or brain activity. Finally, there are those who seem to believe that life doesn't begin until a child is born or maybe even several minutes after they are born.

If you are with the majority of Catholics and Evangelicals who believe life begins at conception then you also need to be against embryonic stem-cell research since that would be destroying living humans. You should also be opposed to in-vitro fertilization since that is what makes such research possible to begin with.

If you are with the segment that believes life begins at implantation or even at some point after, there is still an ethical question before you. Just because an embryo is not yet technically alive does that absolve us from any ethical responsibility to it? You see, the question isn't ultimately a scientific one, it is a philosophical/ethical one. Embryos are undeniably living (all of our cells are technically alive). The question is are they to be treated ethically as human beings. It seems clear to me that from the moment of implantation what you have is a viable human life that will, according to the rules of nature, progress if left unhindered into a fully formed self-actualized human being. The moments between fertilization and implantation may be a grey area, but what an important grey area! So important, I believe, that it is a far better moral option to avoid the grey area. By that I mean that it is better not to create fertilized eggs that will not have the chance of implantation. Creating embryos that will have no chance implanting and progressing to life is something that should be avoided wherever possible. This type of creation happens in nature (that is, embryos that are doomed to fail), but when we bend the course of nature to create them we become responsible for the outcome of this nascent human life.

So if you want absolutely no part of it, what are your options?

  1. If you've already given to ALSA, take comfort in the fact that it is very unlikely your funds will be used in this type of research.
  2. If you've yet to give but feel obliged to give to ALSA because of a promise or good faith statement or something, you can still do so. Simply stipulate that your funds must not be used for Embryonic Stem-Cell Research. (There are no common ethical objections to using adult stem-cells for research).
  3. If you haven't given yet, but you would still like to give toward ALS research, there are alternative charities. 
    1. I personally would like to suggest St. Jude Children's hospital. They are not currently doing any embryonic research, and while they do not have a clear guideline that they will never do it, it seems they are on a course to avoid that kind of conflict all together.
    2. Team Gleason Is another suggested alternative that I haven't researched.
    3. John Paul II Medical Research Institute Is an organization that explicitly states they do not and will not support embryonic stem-cell research. 
    4. The ERLC has more suggestions.
  4. Give to whoever you want! Honor the spirit of the challenge by keeping the movement going and supporting the cause of your choice. 
Above all, avoid the temptation to become cynical. It is easy to find seedy human motives behind every activity we take part in. The challenge for those of us seeking Wisdom in this life, is to cling to that which is pure and holy wherever we may find it. 

Philippians 4:8  Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (NASB)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Screwing Up: There's a right way and a wrong way

At men's bible study this morning we looked at John 13:21-38. It is the story of Jesus foretelling his betrayal by Judas and his denial by Peter.

Here you have two men. Both of them messed up big time, but their outcomes were very different. Why? Why was Peter's end so different than Judas's? There are probably many reasons, but one big thing stuck out to me this morning.

Judas's sin was covered in secrecy. He didn't tell anyone what he was planning. He hid his intentions so well that nobody believed he could do it. Even after Jesus told John who would betray him John didn't take it seriously enough to do anything about it or tell anyone. He must not have thought Judas capable of such a great evil as outright betrayal. Judas had kept all his intentions secret. He hid his actions so well that the men he spent all his time with didn't have a clue.

Peter on the other hand went ahead and said exactly what he was thinking. He believed he would never deny Jesus even when his life was on the line. He told Jesus his feelings and received a rebuttal and some humility. Of course, he still ended up denying Jesus, but ultimately he was able to be restored to a position of honor and leadership.

Judas probably had good intentions at first. His mind drifted to who knows what fantasies. Perhaps, at first, he thought betraying Jesus would speed up the coming of the kingdom. Maybe he had become disenchanted at Jesus' vagueness about his plans. Maybe he had gotten in trouble financially. Maybe he had hatched a plan to boost their treasury that had been exhausted under his watch. Whatever he was thinking, he hadn't shared it with anyone. When you are the only one evaluating your plan it can start to sound like a really good one. Over time you can fall into patterns of thinking that are so unrealistic they would sound insane if you said them out loud. Which is all the more reason to keep them secret. By being isolated Judas opened the door for Satan to "enter in."By being isolated from his friends Judas gave himself up to the enemy.

The moral of the story (at least the moral I come away with for this one aspect of the story) is that anybody can, and often will, screw up big time. What can make all the difference is how connected you are to a community of loving people to protect you and restore you when needed. Having people who know you to give you reality checks and perspective prevents you from building up a dream world where you set up unrealistic expectations. Submitting your thoughts to others gives you a healthy flow of humility because foolish ideas often don't sound foolish until they are seen in light of another's perspective. And when you do mess up, having a loving community gives you the chance to be restored quickly. Those people give you a "home" to return to when you have gotten lost. They are the ones who know you well enough to see and understand your mistake for what it was. They are the ones who can forgive you and set you back in your proper place. Peter had it. Judas didn't.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Prayer, Depression and Hope

Depression is in the news.
Depression statistics infographic Robin William's death is a reminder of what we already know. People all around us are quietly suffering more than we understand. Most everyone, I assume, has experienced depression of the non-clinical kind. That is to say, everyone has been really sad at some point. I know I have. I've even gone through long periods of what I would call unexplainable sadness. At the time I might have said I was depressed, but looking back I would say those were times when I was simply struggling with life, meaning, contentment...normal parts of growing up.

So I can't really claim that I've faced the worst that depression has to offer. But I do feel sympathy. I know what it feels like when my emotions seem out of control. When you are sad and you don't know why, you get angry with yourself. Your anger adds to the sadness, and it is a cycle that is hard to break. Worse, your human nature drives you away from the very things that might help you and toward the things that will definitely make it worse. Instead of confiding in friends and loved ones and bringing your pain out into the open you suppress. Your natural shyness becomes worse. You worry that you are making other people sad or letting them down. You become paranoid that people are rejecting you (when really they are just naturally responding to your aloofness). Maybe you can see all of this happening, but you feel helpless to stop it. You search for other ways to deal with the pain. Usually these are bad for you too. Drugs, alcohol, deviant behavior. They provide temporary relief, but ultimately make things worse.

What does prayer have to do with it? Well, I've spoken to people in Christian culture who have suffered clinical depression. One of the frustrations they often have is that church leaders generally resort to tried and true advice: "Just pray that God will make you happy." Gee, I hadn't thought of that. Here I am trying everything under the sun and I forgot that all I had to do was pray. 

I'm not saying we don't need to pray when we are depressed. I'm just saying that "Pray til you get happy," might not be the best advice.

The Atlantic Reported that...
A new study published in Sociology of Religion suggests that prayer can help ease people's anxiety, but whether it does so depends on the personality of the God they believe in. That is, whether someone has a relationship with what they perceive to be an angry, vengeful God or more of a friendly figure could determine whether prayer brings relief—or simply more stress.

The article goes on to suggest the correlation could go the other way (anxious people tend to blame God and therefore have a negative view).

Prayer may not be the end-all solution to depression, but it is clear that its usefulness is at least partially dependent on the way we do it. In Luke 11:1-13 Jesus tells some stories about how we should pray. Now from Jesus -- the most "spiritual" man who has ever lived, the holiest human ever, the miracle worker, rabbi of renown, the very Son of God -- you might expect a challenging word about prayer. You might think he would remind his disciples that prayer requires great discipline, intense focus, personal sacrifice, holy preparation, physical alacrity, and spiritual fitness. As I read these stories, Jesus does just the opposite. Jesus tries to unburden his students from worry about how God might react to their prayers. He reminds them that God is like a father but better. God is at least better than a lazy friend. Jesus paints a picture of a God who is willing and eager to hear our requests and give us just what we need. He is careful not to commit God to the status of wish-granter, but he fully encourages his disciples to persistently seek the intervention of God and faithfully expect good outcomes.

This brings us to Hope. That faithful expectation that God is good and will ultimately bring good outcomes is the root of the kind of prayer Jesus was teaching about. Hope is the antithesis of depression. Depression robs people of the hope they need to survive. Suicide (often) is like a death by starvation of the spirit. Even Christians who have their hope assured can suffer from a spiritual malnutrition caused by a squelching of that hope. Life circumstances, health issues, mental health issues, trauma, or outright spiritual oppression can make people feel hopeless even when they have great reason for hope. That is why it is so upsetting for the friends and family of a depressed person to see them suffering. It usually seems needless. It looks from the outside that they simply don't want to be happy. Robin Williams had more reason than most people to have a hopeful outlook on life, but for whatever reason perhaps he didn't feel hopeful enough to go on with life.

So how do you share hope with people who are hurting? Well, I don't think simply telling them there is hope is good enough. It is likely they have already told themselves, and perhaps they could make the rational argument that life isn't so bad. That doesn't necessarily get one closer to feeling hopeful. Experience has shown me that the best strategy for helping is human to human contact. What I mean is, there are some hurts that can only be relieved by the community. Some pain can only be worked out by the kind of prayer that happens while holding hands and sharing food. Some burdens con only be broken through the power of tears shed on another's behalf. Some oppression can only be dispersed by a posse of loving friends who intercede relentlessly. This isn't something you do to or for a depressed person. It is something you do with them. It is not easy or flippant to commit to such a thing, but it is loving. It honors Jesus. It glorifies God.