Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Thursday, July 27, 2006

why christians should support torture

In a recent article Mark Tooley, head of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), questions Christian support for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).

Tooley's main beef seems to be that the NRCAT is not focusing on torture in other countries, but is pushing the United States government to promise not to use torture. But what does Tooley expect of a national campaign? Any U.S. organization is going to have a better chance persuading its own government than persuading despotic thugs half a world away.

And if we want to have any moral authority to speak out against torturers elsewhere, we need to make it clear that we don't condone the use of it by our own nation. After the revelations from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and secret CIA prisons around the world, the United States has lost that moral authority. Earlier this year Congress overwhelmingly approved the McCain Amendment, banning the use of torture. George W. Bush had threatened to veto the bill, but he backed down after it was approved by a wide enough margin to override the veto. Instead, Bush issued a signing statement explaining that the ban does not apply in all cases.

Because of Bush's moral ambiguity about torture, American Christians need to speak up, to make it clear that we do not blindly support all our government's policies. That's why the NRCAT was formed.

So why does Mark Tooley have a problem with the NRCAT? The answer, it seems to me, is in the nature of Tooley's organization, the IRD. The IRD claims to be a church renewal group. However, in this and other public statements, the IRD appears to be actively attempting to squelch the voice of the church whenever it speaks out against U.S. policy. The IRD wants a lap dog church that lacks a prophetic voice.

For the church to adopt Tooley's agenda, it would have to abandon Christ's agenda.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

With those words, Jesus inaugurated a challenge, not just to the rulers of his day, but to all those who would try to maintain power by keeping others down. The kingdom of God does not work that way. The kingdom of God turns all our expectations upside down. To be great, one must become a servant, a child.

As Mary sang while Jesus was still in the womb:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Jesus didn't come to earth to teach his followers to be jingoistic supporters of their government's morally dubious policies. The Mark Tooleys of the world can complain all they want, but the church must remain true to its prophetic mission. And that means never to align itself with any earthly kingdom, but to stand with the Prince of Peace in calling political leaders to account.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

happy blogiversary to me

I got home late last night from a vacation with my parents and the whole extended family. It was my parents' 40th anniversary, and they wanted to take the grandkids and everybody to Disney World. I thought I'd have time to meet Orlando-area bloggers John the Methodist and Brian Russell, but as events unfolded it became impossible to get away. I don't want to give too many details, but I'd like to ask for prayers for my wife's health.

And one more thing: Amid festivities, Disney, and trips to the emergency room, I missed my blog's anniversary. As of last Saturday, I've been blogging for a year. With everything else that's going on, it's not really a big deal to me.


Friday, July 14, 2006

birds of a feather?

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkens have both, despite being grounded in controversial theological opinions, taken their places among the most popular works of fiction in recent years.

What else do the two have in common? According to Carl Olson of the National Review, more than first meets the eye. In both books, "the institutions of man, especially the Catholic Church" are seen as an enemy of all that is true and good. Both books "are created without much concern for fact and scholarship, but both give a wealth of lip service to supposed research and historical veracity." And both books are neo-Gnostic, in that they "promise special knowledge, or gnosis, to those willing to accept the authors' premises and suspend judgment about the veracity and solvency of those premises."

Olson's article offers an interesting analysis, especially given that many of the fans of the Left Behind series are very vocal opponents of The Da Vinci Code.

The good news about the success of these two works -- good news even for those of us who don't buy into either conspiracy theory -- is that their popularity makes for an easy introduction to talking about faith. The bad news is that, by associating faith with gnosis, these books make it easier to dismiss faith altogether.

A disturbing question raised by the success of these books: Has traditional Christianity become so irrelevant to the popular culture that, to many people, conspiracy theories look attractive by comparison?

What do you think?


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

old testament justice

Is not this the fast that I choose:
 to loose the bonds of injustice,
 to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
 and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
 and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
 the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
 you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

- Isaiah 58:6-9

Some Christians like to make a distinction between "Old Testament justice" and "New Testament mercy," as if God's character changed at Jesus' crucifixion.

It's a strange picture of justice, too. The ordinary meaning of justice -- the one used in the Isaiah quote above and in countless other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures -- is nowhere to be seen. Justice becomes merely a synonym for judgment, as these quotes from the linked article demonstrate:

It is a covenant of the Creator’s righteous justice—or judgment—under the Law!


The Covenant of Law and the principle of judgment (or justice) under the law, therefore, applies to every nation, to every government, and to every people.

In this point of view, justice is the opposite of the mercy that God showed when Jesus gave his life on the cross.

But that's not the way the word justice is used in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Isaiah passage I quoted above, the opposite of justice is "the bonds of injustice" or the "yoke" of oppression. Justice means to share our bread with the hungry, to "bring the homeless poor into [our] house," to cover the naked.

This idea is not limited to Isaiah. In Micah, for example, we are told to "do justice." In this passage, justice is associated with kindness, not judgment:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
 and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
 with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
 with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
 and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice,
  and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

- Micah 6:6-8

In Amos, justice is contrasted with festivals, solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, and praise and worship music. None of these things is as important to God as eliminating injustice:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
 and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
 I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
 I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
 I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
 and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

- Amos 5:21-24

That's just a small sample of what the Hebrew Prophets say about justice. And it's not just the prophets. Psalm 72, for example, begins with this prayer:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Even the Torah -- the legal code of ancient Israel -- contained specific commands for acting with justice. Deuteronomy has a whole chapter devoted to taking care of the poor:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

- Deuteronomy 24:10-15

And some words that might be relevant to today's debate about illegal immigration:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

- Deuteronomy 24:17-22

Charging interest on loans was a sin:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.

- Exodus 22:25

The book of Leviticus offers the earliest bankruptcy protection law, with terms that are very favorable to the borrower:

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.

- Leviticus 25:35-38

So, in a sense, the folks at Renew America are right: The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God of justice. But when the Scriptures speak of justice, they mean social justice. God cares deeply about the poor and the oppressed, and expects us to treat them fairly.

It seems to me that, from a biblical perspective, justice and mercy are the same thing.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

whenever you wish

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.

Mark 14:7

I've written a few times about AECH and its plans to create a transitional facility for homeless people in Wichita.

One of the obstacles we face is the perception that homelessness is a permanent problem, and that there's nothing we can do about it. Some people even quote the words of Jesus, "You will always have the poor with you," as an excuse for not doing anything.

But in context, it's clear that Jesus was not saying we can't do anything. In fact, he was saying just the opposite.