Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Don't Worship Facebook

See that little red circle around the black clock on my browser toolbar? That is a Chrome extension called Stay Focused. I have a list of sites that do not pertain to my work and are especially tempting time wasters. Stay Focused allows me to visit these sites for a predetermined time period. When time is up it blocks access to all the sites on my list. I've found it a great tool to help me manage my online time wisely.

My list of limited sites includes Facebook, Instructables, YouTube, and others.

But something happened the other morning that "got me ta thinkin'" about my use of Facebook. I woke up, and without much thought, reached over to my cell phone and opened my Facebook app. It was the first thing I wanted to do in the morning! I put my cell phone back down and admonished myself for being so shallow and felt really guilty for some reason. Still the desire to pick my phone back up and just scroll through a few updates was nagging me. What's wrong with me?

StayFocused keeps me from squandering internet time
I didn't know at the moment why I felt my desire was bad, why it should be labeled a "temptation" and not just a regular event in life. After some meditation on the subject I realized my danger. You see, the feeling I had toward Facebook was a feeling I had had before toward something else. I realized the desire I had to get up and discover what was happening on Facebook matched a similar desire I have had at times in my life to get up and discover what I could learn from time in the word of God. 

That "at times in m life" phrase may bother you because I am a pastor. Perhaps you believe as a pastor I should at all times be excited about reading my Bible. I confess I am not. Let me tell you why. Seeking God is an exceptional exercise. It is like mountain climbing. There is great reward, but there it requires great struggle. There are moments of ease and comfort, and there are moments that require great sacrifice and endurance. No one should be deceived into thinking that worshipping God is an easy or comfortable activity. But I can testify that it is worth it. The reward is incomparable. So, yes, I can only say that I am sometimes really excited about "getting into God's word" as we Evangelicals like to say. Other days I still make the effort. I still discipline myself to try because in the trying I am building up the endurance and patience and spiritual strength and wisdom it will take to be ready for the next thing the God has for me to experience. I have learned that it is worth it.

Now Facebook (or Pintrest or Twitter or ESPN or whatever .com it is that entices you) comes along and offers a much less rewarding yet more consistent experience of fulfillment. We have built into us a hunger to experience truth. That hunger is only rightfully fulfilled by God, but the internet offers the feeling of truth fulfillment. Social media gives us the feeling of connectedness not only to people but to a vast wealth of knowledge. Where God seems to be stingy with his revelations, the internet will leave no curiosity denied. Our smart phones represent an (apparently) endless repository of knowledge, the ability to know what all our friends are doing, instructions about how to be feeling about the world, and the chance to speak our thoughts in a way that we know will be heard and might possibly get instant feedback. All in a package we can carry around in our pockets.

When we pray to God we often get silence and waiting. When we pray to Facebook (status update) we get likes, shares and comments. When we read the Bible we often have to study diligently and endure puzzling difficulties. When we peruse our feed we don't have to spend time thinking about anything. We don't even need to read long articles; we can just watch the video and be told how to think and feel. When we allow God to speak to us we are often challenged to change out thinking or behavior. When we listen to social media we are reaffirmed in our bias, fears and comforts because we have a self-perpetuating system of likes.

I know it is all silliness. I don't really think Facebook sustains me emotionally or spiritually or intellectually. It just feels like it does. So like a drug gives your body the feeling of health and pleasure for a moment, Facebook can make my spirit feel sustained. Like candy makes your mouth happy, social media can give you an emotional sugar rush of affirmation. But drugs and candy will not sustain a healthy human! 

So if we really want to experience God--that is, if we really want to have a meaningful interaction with our creator in such a way that we are aware that He is real and He is active in our life. If you want to have that experience like I do, then we are going to have to squelch the competition. We are going to have to mute the things in our life that pretend to offer the same things that God does. It is not as easy as blocking tempting sites (though that may be a useful thing to do). There will always be new temptations, new false idols, new ways to be drawn away from a healthy hunger for God's kingdom. I do not want to allow "drugs and candy" to dull my spiritual hunger. I want to be fully alert even if it means temporary suffering, self-denial and waiting. 

Lord, watch over my heart and help me not to worship Facebook. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Suffering for future generations

Same-sex marriage is being allowed based on the idea that marriage is a matter of individual conscience, and as such individuals who practice homosexuality should have the same rights to enter in to marriage as those who do not practice homosexuality.

What is being ignored in this debate is the question of what is the government's role in marriage? Why is marriage an issue of public policy at all? If marriage is simply a matter of individual conscience (i.e. people should be able to marry who they want to) then what basis does the government have for limiting any type of marriage? If we are going to assume individual conscience is the guiding principle for who should be able to get married, then we must soon start repealing laws against polygamy, marrying family members, marrying animals, corporate marriages, marrying fictional characters and the list goes on. To be honest, I don't know if there are laws against all of those things, but I can imagine that human creativity and perversity will force those issues sooner or later.

If, you say, the government's interest is to protect people from inappropriate sexual relationships, I would point out that our society has almost completely removed sexual relations as an legal interest in marriage. Marriage is not legally required for anyone to have sex in any way imaginable. Marriage partners are not legally bound to respect the sexual norms associated with the tradition of marriage (i.e. marital faithfulness). There are laws against sexual acts that are seen as a violation of those who do not consent (or are deemed unable to consent with understanding). But even these laws are applied unevenly and without a well thought out ethical consideration. In society's mind some things are still "just wrong." I highly doubt that many people could give an ethical argument for why unwed consensual teenage sex is legal but child pornography is not, yet it seems the majority opinion is that one is okay (or even necessary) while the other is an abomination that requires the shame of going on a permanent, public database with a mugshot and address for the perpetrator. If children cannot responsibly give consent it should not matter who they are giving the consent to. Just because other children are doing the abusing it doesn't make the abuse any less.

Returning to my point, if we are going to have any marriage laws at all we need to have a basis for doing so. The debates have been about rights and equality, but few have addressed the real question underlying these laws--the relationship of the government, the individual and the community.
If those were the terms of the debate then we could talk with reason.

As a Christian I believe that homosexual activity is a sin. I see it as a perversion of the gift of sex that God gave us for the purpose of pleasure and procreation. I do not deny that some individuals may struggle more than others with a temptation toward homosexuality even to the point of feeling "born this way." It is clearly observable that many (most?) struggle with a temptation toward adultery and pornography and all sorts of other sexual perversion, but the presence of those temptations do not make them "natural" in the sense of being acceptable before God. While it may seem cruel for me to ask others to deny themselves the pleasures they feel they were born to posses, we must recognize that we do this all the time. The entire justice system is built on the idea that we must persuade people to restrain themselves from doing what they might feel they were born or compelled to do. I see homosexual activity as a sin that is an affront to God and damaging to those who participate. Because of this belief I would encourage people to find a way to avoid or flee that lifestyle, but I also recognize that it is not currently illegal (in most places). So I can speak in one way about my moral beliefs as a Christian, but what should I say as an American Citizen?

First, my moral beliefs are relevant when it comes to discussions of public policy. Even without evoking the Bible or my personal religious practices, I have a right to speak and promote what I feel is right and wrong for others to do. Liberty is the word we use for freedom in America, but to imagine that all individuals are free to do as they want is logically impossible. Liberty in America must mean a willingness to accept responsibility as a citizen of the People. Ultimately, it is the freedom of the People that is protected by the constitution, not merely the freedoms of the individual. I know that is a radical interpretation that has lots of implications for other debates, but that's how I see it. It is on this point, I believe, that democracy is most vulnerable. There is no final standard for values. The people must decide to agree, or else democracy fails. There is no king to go to to resolve disputes. There is no American Standard Moral Code. We have to agree, compromise, or fight ourselves into oblivion.

Second, as an American I have an interest in a public policy that brings stability to our society. The cold hard scientific evidence shows that traditional families are good for our society. Traditional families promote less crime, higher education rates, higher employment rates, better health, more stable markets. I believe that same-sex marriage is a change to marriage law that will benefit neither traditional marriage couple or same-sex couples. The results will be higher family instability, confusing and damaging legal situations, emotionally scarred children, an increase in divorce, and a decrease in the marriage rate. See AN ECONOMIC ASSESSMENT OF SAME-SEX 
MARRIAGE LAWS by DOUGLAS W. ALLEN from Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy [Vol. 29].

In spite of my ethical and philosophical approach to the idea of marriage I know that most peoples' opinion boils down to a simple statement we hear all the time. "If two people love each other, who am I to tell them not to get married?"

This simple statement is hard to argue against persuasively because it appeals to our American ideal of "live and let live" and an echo of romanticism that still drives pop culture (even though "love" itself has little real meaning beyond a commercial drive for fulfillment. Love, for the masses, is a tool that corporations use to sell their products). We want to agree with the statement, yet a critical eye can see the problem right away. We are not debating love. We are debating legal marriage. There have never been laws dictating whom you can love. Those would be unenforceable. We are not even debating laws about sex, adoption, benefits, photographers, cakes, etc. We are talking about marriage. If two people love each other great for them. When it comes to marriage, the law has it's own requirements and none of them are love. As far as the government is concerned marriage is an institution that simplifies a common situation of a man and woman wanting to unite a household, to support each other economically, and most importantly potentially raise children in a safe and stable environment. Alternate definitions of marriage threaten the intended public policy purpose of marriage. All the laws that currently apply to marriage will be complicated as they must be applied to situations they were not designed for. Future laws concerning marriage will be difficult to craft as they will need to account for all the different circumstances that will (eventually) be considered a legal marriage. The impact on future generations will not be worth the feeling of liberty experienced by a few.

My heart goes out to all of those affected by this non-debate. I don't doubt most people's sincerity. I can see that many people feel that they are standing up for what is right. I understand that there are real injustices going on against people who practice homosexuality. I don't deny that the pain is real or that rejection hurts. I'm sorry for that. Honestly, I see ways we could mitigate that pain somewhat in our society, but I don't think this shift in our thinking about marriage will result in less pain for the people of our society. On the contrary, I am convinced that because of this more people will suffer.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

With this ring I... enter into a pre-approval relationship of understood verbal consent for a limited amount of time

Sexual Consent

Where to begin? The Sexual Revolution changed society's view of when and with whom it is morally appropriate to have sex. I am not enough of a historian to say what exactly the views of society were before the Sexual Revolution, but conventional wisdom would have us believe that society was repressive in its values in that sex should only take place between individuals who had procured the legal rights to do so. Those legal rights were influenced partially by religion but more so by tradition. I say this because marriage practices vary from religion to religion, but they almost all carry the trait of defining the proper place for sex to happen.

I am not claiming that sex outside of marriage did not happen before the Sexual Revolution. I am simply stating that it was considered to varying degrees at different times and different places to be immoral--or at least for the most part, less than virtuous.

Now, in 2014, we have come full circle and we are making new laws to define the appropriate situation for sexual relations. Marriage has become... an economic arrangement? I can't think of another way to explain it. Marriage clearly no longer determines the legal bounds of sex or child raising. It no longer is a protection for women and children in dealing with property rights and inheritance. It has boiled down to a tax benefit. So since, marriage isn't fulfilling its role as defining "consent" it falls to college student policy handbooks. Yes, that's right, college student policy handbooks are now coming to the rescue of vulnerable female college students. Fifty years after casting off the restraints of sexual repression we are just now addressing a few of the ugliest results of the Revolution. It is not as if sexual assault is a new phenomenon. Perhaps it has been on the rise due to many factors, but the data is not completely clear. There are problems due to reporting and definitions. Part of the current issue with sexual assault is that society is even having a problem defining what consent means.

I don't mean to claim that sexual assault wasn't happening before the Sexual Revolution. Marriage was meant to be a protection for women, but evil men in every situation find ways to do what they will. Still, in communities where marriage was taken seriously and women were valued, it provided a structure of consent that extended not just to the married couple but to the family and community as well. It goes against our ideas of freedom to expect permission to do just about anything, but permission to do whatever we want is not one of our unalienable rights.

I wonder how far it will go. Currently, it seems they are pushing for verbal consent to be the marker for when it is okay to have sex (at least as a college student). How do they plan on enforcing this? Will college students need to use voice recorders to document their consent? That doesn't seem good enough. Video would be less fallible, but just think of the privacy concerns. Perhaps colleges should require a signature or a photocopy of a picture ID. That would be terribly inconvenient and, you know, really ruin the mood.

Some progressive student government might come up with the idea of pre-approval. Students could enter into contracts that would allow them to have consent for sex without a verbal agreement each time. Since this would put physically weaker students (usually women) at risk of sexual assault they would naturally be cautious about entering in to such an agreement. They would only want to have pre-approved agreements with men that they trusted not to assault them. Having sex without a pre-approval agreement would become risky for men since anyone they had sex with based on merely a verbal agreement would be able to deny making the agreement and thus accuse them of breaking the student policies. So all responsible college students would only be having sex with people that they had a pre-approval agreement with.

For these pre-approval agreements to be legally binding they would need to become a matter of public record to prevent fraudulent accusation. So I assume couples would need to register their agreement with the college. The college, since it has assumed the role of protector of its students, will have an interest in curbing STI's and STD's and will seek ways to limit the number of partners students are having sex with. At first it will have awareness campaigns and offer benefits to students who voluntarily limit their exposure. Then eventually, some heavy-handed institutions will restrict students to one pre-approval arrangement at a time. Before long, after a few lawsuits it will become the de facto policy of all colleges. Colleges will go to a policy of no sex without a pre-approval arrangement and students can only have one pre-approval arrangement per semester.

Of course students will roll the pre-approval arrangements into the social landscape. They will form ceremonies to recognize the formation of a new arrangement and social status will be based on whatever the norm becomes. Knowing the number of partners another student has had will undoubtedly affect students decisions about who to have sex with. Psychologist will have tons of new data to explore.

Perhaps over time social pressure, practicality and policies driven by litigation will limit students to having one pre-approved sexual partner for their entire time in college. Any students wishing to have the legal protection of pre-approval agreements will have to submit to the college's policies in order to have sex. Students who have sex without such agreements risk being assaulted with no recourse or being accused with no defense.

If it is good enough for student policy handbooks, perhaps cities and states will consider providing the protection of pre-approved consent agreements. Then finally we can do away with marriage and replace it with a legally binding agreement that protects women from abuse, provides men the incentive to restrict their number of sexual partners and as a side benefit provides stable social structure for raising children. Wouldn't that be great?