Globalism/Nationalism, Church/Nation

Flags_of_the_World

One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.

First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.

Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:

In regards to the nation

A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.

“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.

There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.

Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.

Family Metaphor

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.

But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.

I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.

In Regards to the Church

The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.

I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.

That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.

As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.

So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.

First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.

Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.

Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on Government and Church

Programming note for regular readers: I have made an update to my post “A pro-life perspective on the 2016 Election“. Also, after this post I will be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks. I’ll be on a family vacation and/or focusing on other projects.

Disclaimer 1: In summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view I am not saying that I am in complete agreement with it.

Disclaimer 2: This is a summary of Bonhoeffer’s view based on his chapter “State and Church” in Ethics and not on the whole of his work. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar so my summary is limited.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The basis and task of the government

Bonhoeffer begins his chapter by exploring the basis of the government. He summarizes three basic answers.

The first answer is to find the basis of government in the nature of man. This is the ancient Greek/Aristotelian answer. It sees the state as “the supreme consummation of the rational character of man.” The state naturally arises from human nature and is the “ultimate purpose of human life.” Using biblical language we could say that state is part of “creation.” This view has difficulty, however, in moving from the voluntary and natural “community” of “man for man” to the necessity of “government”, which represents the “coercive power” which exists over the state as “man against man.”

The second answer, then, is that the basis of government is in sin. In this view, the need for government – and the necessary element of coercive power – arises only because of the fact of sin. In other words, it is necessary because of the Fall. In this view, the task of the government is to use its power in order to be “the protector of outward justice.” The power from the government is “from above,” that is, it is given by God himself. It is “order in the world, an order which bears the authority of God.”

This second answer is where much of Christian theology stops, but Bonhoeffer presses further. He suggests we must add a third answer, that the basis of government is in Christ. Bonhoeffer bases government in Christ principally because he bases everything in Christ, and this is no less true of all powers and authorities. Christ is the ruler over all other authorities and therefore all authorities and powers, including the civil government, exist for the purpose of serving him. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that each government ought to serve Christ willingly but that, even when a government doesn’t do that, the nevertheless end up serving him unwillingly. For instance, it was the will of God that Jesus should be crucified. When the Roman government killed Jesus, it was failing in its task to protect outward justice (since the death of Jesus was patently unjust), but it was also unwittingly serving the greater purposes of God. Indeed, it was only able to crucify Jesus because Jesus gave it authority to do so.

This leads Boenhoeffer to summarize the task of the government as follows:

“The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

How does the government serve Christ?

The task of the government is “to service Christ by establishing and maintaining outward justice.” Does this imply either the possibility or necessity of theocracy? Does Bonhoeffer’s perspective lead to the idea of a state church? While the idea that a government “serves Christ” might seem to indicate this might be the case, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bonhoeffer does not have a theocracy, or a Church run State in mind.

The reason for this is that Bonhoeffer views the roles of the state and of the church as quite different. The role of the government is limited. Its task is simply to establish and maintain outward justice. That is to say, it has the power of judicial authority. But what constitutes “justice”? This is not a question Bonhoeffer answers completely but he does insist on basing it in Christ. So, he says, the “goodness” promoted by the government “cannot in any case be in conflict with Jesus Christ” and “One might therefore, say that in this case natural law has as its foundation Jesus Christ.” The government knows about this goodness/justice then, “primarily from the preaching of the Church.” In other words, Bonhoeffer does not base the “outward justice” which the government is tasked with maintaining in what might be called “natural law” but in a sort of “natural law” which is informed by and proclaimed in the church.

But this is not to say that the government can be Christian or theocratic. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that in order for a government to serve Christ within its sphere and within its task it must be religiously neutral. Its role is to leave space for the preaching of Christ. Its task in not the creation of a Christian order, but of maintaining an order which leaves room for service to God.

The Government and its relationship to marriage and labor

Government’s role is primarily that of preserver. It is not, itself, life-giving or productive, but guards life by sustaining outward justice. It is only one of several God-given institutions and, Bonhoeffer notes, “finds already in the world which it governs two institutions through which God the Creator exercises his creative power, and upon which it must therefore, in the nature of things, rely; these are marriage and labour” (italics added). These two institutions are unique in that they are life-giving and productive. They are also unique in the sense that they are what we might call “pre-political.” They “possess their own origin in God, an origin which is not established by government.” They exist prior to the state, prior to government.

The role of government in relation to these two institutions then, is limited. Governments task is, first and foremost, to acknowledge these institutions. They are not entirely “hands off” but only interact with these institutions to the degree which is necessary to their task, to maintain outward justice. The government’s task is “regulative and not constitutive.” Bonhoeffer continues,

“Marriage is performed not by the government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, art and science, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision, and within certain limits… to its discretion.”

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is careful to say that the government’s limits are critical. To extend beyond these limits in regards to marriage and labor is to “forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.”

The Government and its relationship to the church

As stated above, to say that the government acts in service to Christ does not imply either a church run government or a Christian state. Bonhoeffer states, “the dominion of Christ over government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over the government.” Instead, the government acts in service to Christ by “securing an outward justice by means of the power of the sword.” If the government does what it is intended to do “the congregation [community of believers] can live in peace” and perform its duty of proclaiming the good news of salvation.

With this basic principle in place Bonhoeffer notes that the government may still make claims upon the church and, likewise, the church makes certain claims upon the government.

The Government’s Claim on the Church: The government’s claim upon the church is obedience to its laws (assuming, of course, that they would not force the person to sin against Christ, the ultimate authority). The Christian is expected to practice this obedience, understanding that in acting in this way they are acknowledging the authority which God has given to the civil authority. “As a citizen a Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way.”

The Church’s Claim on the Government: The church’s claim on the government is only that it should fulfill its role as government. “Her aim is not that government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc. but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.” In particular, this means that the church seeks what we might call “religious freedom” and Bonhoeffer refers to as “protection for the public Christian proclamation against violence… against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Christ.” That is not to say that Christianity receives a special privilege. The government “affords protection to every form of service to God which does not undermine the office of government.”

Conclusion:

Bonhoeffer touches on a few more topics: What is the best form of government? Under what conditions is the being of the government (i.e., legitimacy) completely undermined? What happens if the government is completely undermined and fails to complete its task? Etc. But I do not have time to address each of these here, and none of these are fully developed arguments anyway. His argument continuously points back to his primary thesis, namely, that the governments task is that of maintaining outward justice by the power of the sword, thus serving (willingly or unwillingly) Christ, from whom all authority comes.

Implications for today?

I will have to only tentatively put these implications forward. Bonhoeffer lived in a different age and the government under which he spent much of his time – Nazi Germany – was far different from my experience in Democratic America. However, Bonhoeffer spent much time in America and it does seem as if his description of government was at least partially impacted by his time here. And so, I want to conclusion with a few observations.

  • Bonhoeffer believed that the government had a necessary and noble task. He believed that it had a role to play in the service of Christ – the preservation of the goodness of God’s created world and the institutions therein. He probably would have disagreed with those who only expression negative views of the government.
  • Bonhoeffer believed that government performed its task best when it knew what its task was and he believed that its task was limited. It played the role of protector and preserver, not the role of creator. To that extent he believed in “limited government” though that shouldn’t necessarily be understood in terms of liberal and conservative.
  • In regards to marriage: I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with those who argued against the court’s redefinition of marriage. He likely would have seen this as an overstep of the government’s role and as a failure of the government to properly “acknowledge” marriage in its created order.
  • In regards to “religious freedom” Bonhoeffer would likely be a big supporter. One of the main ways in which the government serves Christ, and one of the primary claims of the church on the State, is that the government protects service to God and the proclamation of the gospel. The limit of “religious freedom” for Bonhoeffer would be “outward justice.” The government does have a regulative role, even in matters of church, if basic justice is under threat.
  • In regards to the role of the church and the individual Christian, especially in relation to a less-than-ideal government: First, the individual Christian’s task is to obey the government whenever possible as though serving Christ. Second, the task of the Christian is to serve within his own sphere of influence and thereby indirectly serve the government in a productive way. Third, it is the task of the church, to proclaim the gospel. In doing so, the government comes into a clearer understanding of the outward justice which it is called to protect or, is it may be, is called to task for failing to carry out its God-given role.

Futility and Toil (on Psalm 127 and Ecclesiastes)

Both Ecclesiastes and Psalm 127 are historically attributed to Solomon and it’s easy to see the connection. Both deal with issues of futility and toil. The central theme of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness and utter futility of life “under the sun.” Likewise, Psalm 127 warns that if “the LORD does not build the building, the builder labors in vain.” But neither portion of Scripture leaves us without hope. Life need not be futile. Here are two things we can do to deal with the often apparent (and real) futility of our labor and our lives.

Receive

We begin with a basic principle: God gives. The world exists because God gives. Any meaning which we may find in life comes out of this first and most basic of principles. God’s actions are prior to ours, and so his purposes are prior and foundational to our purposes.

God gives wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:26), he gives life (5:18, 8:15), he gives possessions, and sometimes the ability to enjoy those possessions (5:19), but not always (6:2). In Psalm 127 we see that God gives sleep (Psalm 127:2) and children (127:3). (Apparently he just doesn’t give them at the same time.)

Our first response as part of God’s creation, then, is to simply receive those gifts with gratitude – to enjoy them. While receiving a gift seems simple enough, it’s harder than it looks. Those who do not receive the gift of God’s rest, but instead buck against it in self-reliance, rise early and stay up late, toiling away “in vain” (Psalm 127:2). Those who receive great wealth, but not the ability to enjoy that wealth, suffer a grievous evil (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

The writer of Ecclesiastes himself was a man of great wealth, great wisdom, and great accomplishments, and yet he spent much of his time in misery. One of the great lessons he learned was that it was in a man’s best interest to enjoy the life which God had given him (Ecclesiastes 9:9).[1]

Our first response to the futility of life is to receive what God has given us, and enjoy it as a gift from him.

Align

Our second basic principle is this: God’s actions have the ability to establish our actions.

Psalm 127:1 establishes this principle.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.”

There are two ways to express this. Positively we can say that if God’s actions coincide with our actions (God builds and the builder builds, God watches and the guard watches) our actions are not in vain. They are “established” (Psalm 90:17). Negatively, we must say that if God is not present with us in our actions, or if he opposes our actions, then our actions will be in vain.

Our task, then, is to align our deeds with God’s deeds. But how do we do this? How can we know what God is doing? Do we need to discern God’s will? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There is a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his moral will. His sovereign will – much of it anyway – is a mystery to us and will remain so this side of Heaven. But his moral will is something he has made known. It is available to us in his Word.

When I say we need to “align” our actions with God’s I mean, simply, that we must obey what we know of his moral will. To do so will lead to our actions being established. This can most easily be seen by looking at its opposite.  Consider the following syllogism:

  1. If God is does not participate in an action, it will be futile.
  2. And, God never participates in sin.
  3. Then, our sinful actions are always futile.

Conversely, then, it would make sense that our actions which are “in step with the Holy Spirit” are of the sort that God would establish, make “stick.”

But this is certainly not always our experience. Often sin appears to be profitable. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer loss. Does not this reality contradict my claim above? Only if we view things from a purely human perspective. In the end, God the Judge will bring to judgment – for good or for ill – all of our deeds done in the body. Even if our good deeds have no apparent “earthly” reward, we can be assured of God’s heavenly reward, his commendation of us as “good and faithful” servants.

This is another way of restating the preacher’s conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

To keep God’s commandments is to align ourselves with his moral will. To align ourselves with God’s will is to trust in his final judgment.

How does this relate to the futility of life?

First, work done apart from God is futile.[2] If we want the possibility of our works being “established” we need to seek God’s participation, and that means seeking his moral will and obeying his commands.

Second, since God’s works are foundational and decisive, we can trust that He will establish those things he wants to establish. He will give meaning to our lives. Sometimes he works with us. Sometimes he works in spite of us. And, sometimes he opposes us. Even if we do not see meaning or purpose in our lives, we can trust that God is still moving history towards a grander purpose.

Third, and finally, we need to broaden our understanding of “success.” If we determine success only by outward criteria, many of our sacrifices will appear to be wasted effort. But, if we view “success” through God’s eyes we will be able to see that our efforts are not wasted. Our deeds, when done to the glory of God, no matter how small, find their meaning and value in God Himself, the Person of infinite value, the meaning Maker.

Notes

[1] There is a strong note of irony in Ecclesiastes 9:9

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

It feels like a mixed message. We should enjoy our lives (true), but are those lives truly meaningless? Your life is a gift from God (true), but is that gift no more than days filled with toilsome labor, with spinning your wheels? This is one of the central tensions in the book of Ecclesiastes. The tension arises from the fact that we live in the world post-Fall. God’s gifts are good and we are to receive them with joy, but even all those good gifts are tainted with sin and brokenness.

[2] One of the incredible things about God is that he is able to make meaning and value out of acts that are in direct rebellion to his moral will. Think: Joseph’s brothers selling him to Egypt. This is a wonderful reality, but it doesn’t invalidate the ultimate futility of the act itself. God uses futile deeds to bring about meaningful results.

What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.

Acedia

Acedia (the ‘c’ is pronounced like an ‘s’) is an old word with surprising modern resonance.

Kevin DeYoung covers the topic in his excellent little book Crazy Busy:

“Acedia is an old word roughly equivalent to “sloth” or “listlessness.” … [it] suggests indifference and spiritual forgetfulness. It’s like the dark night of the soul, but more blah, more vanilla, less interesting.”

Like laziness, acedia keeps us from important work. But laziness and acedia differ in this important regard – whereas laziness leads to inactivity or sleep, acedia leads to action. But the action that acedia leads to is generally mindless and worthless.

Richard John Neuhouse describes it this way:

“Acedia is evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education but of narcotized defense against time and duty. Above all, acedia is apathy…” (quoted in Crazy Busy)

Today, acedia rears its ugly head in the world of electronic media. It’s easy to get lost in the inactivity of actively browsing our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, or playing games on our phones. “We are always engaged with our thumbs, but rarely engaged with our thoughts” (DeYoung, Crazy Busy).

In the digital world acedia is combined with addiction. I was listening to a TED talk where the presenter – who was familiar with modern design practices – admitted that the psychology behind the technology in apps on your phone is the same as the psychology behind slot machines. Every time you check for notifications, or refresh your feed, it’s like you’re pulling that little lever, with the same addictive results. Kevin DeYoung describes the addiction like this: “For many of us, the Web is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out anytime we like, be we can never leave.”

And the truth is we may not want to leave. We must ask: “What if we prefer endless noise to the deafening sound of silence?” (DeYoung, Crazy Busy)

So what can we do? DeYoung offers several suggestions but my favorite is to “deliberately use ‘old’ technology.” Read real books. Write on real paper. Take a car ride with the radio off. Spend some time unplugged.

Sometimes doing this is absolutely necessary. When I’m working on a sermon I have found that I am far more efficient spending most of my time preparing for it with my computer shut and my phone in the other room. Otherwise, when I get stuck on a thought, my first reaction is to jump on the web instead of fight through it and think deeply. But if I read a real Bible, and take my notes on a real piece of paper, my mind remains far more focused.

I’m not sure if this solves the problem of acedia (this is an underlying heart issue) but at least it interrupts the disruptive cycle – if only for a moment.

 

A Pro-Life Perspective on the 2016 Presidential Election

First, an overly long introduction:

Several days ago I said on Facebook: “Ultimately, I’m more concerned with the process Christians use to come to their political conclusions, than the conclusions themselves.” To that end I’ve tried to comment on those processes – values, conscience, love of neighbor, concern for life, etc. – and avoid sharing my conclusions. But, I’ve become convicted that at some point I am being passive aggressive in my approach, hinting at my own conclusions without stating them outright. That’s not my goal – my statement above is perfectly earnest – but I think it still falls short.

With that in mind I have decided to offer my conclusion[1] on one particular issue which is a high priority to me, the issue of abortion. I am not a single issue voter, but I believe this issue to be one of the most central issues when it comes to justice. For me it is both a clear issue, and an issue which the government ought to concern itself with. It is a cultural issue to be sure, but it is also a political issue.

In offering my conclusion, I am not dismissing all other possible conclusions. Feel free to disagree. My own family (my parents on down), for as much as we agree on central beliefs and core values, have come to a range of conclusions on this topic.[2] This doesn’t diminish my respect or love for them. I’m sure the same is true in my church and among my friends – even those who are consistently pro-life. If you disagree with my conclusions I will continue to love and respect you. Still, since I love my neighbor – in this case the most vulnerable of my neighbors, and those who are the victims of systematic injustice – I feel obliged to stop hinting and just be out with it and do my best to advocate on their behalf.

The case against Hillary Clinton

This case is perhaps almost too obvious to even mention, but Hillary Clinton is pro-choice. To make matters worse she has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood – an organization that was exposed for unethical behavior and which advocates for the most extreme positions on abortion. Last year I attended a protest of Planned Parenthood[3] and I still believe that the organization should be defunded by the federal government.

Not only that, but the Democratic Party has doubled down on its support of injustice when it adopted a party position which called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment[4]. Hyde is what prevents the government from using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. Clinton is in agreement with the DNCs position.

All of this is to say that I find the DNCs – and Clinton’s – call to care for “all children” bitterly ironic. In a year where a softening of position on abortion could have won over conservatives who are dissatisfied with Trump, Clinton moved in the opposite direction. I feel sad for pro-life Democrats. There used to be at least a small haven in the party for them – not anymore.

The case against Donald Trump

Given what was said above, many pro-lifers, including many who I deeply respect, feel that there is no other option than to vote for the only candidate who appears to have a shot at defeating her: Donald Trump.

But this alliance is a big gamble and, as I hope to demonstrate, self-defeating in the long-term.

The gamble goes as follows: We know that Clinton will appoint justices who will strike down any law limiting abortion. Trump has offered a list of judges who would be friendly to the cause. Therefore, we are morally obligated to vote for Trump.

There are several problems with this gamble and central to that is the core problem with Trump himself – his character. Trump’s character – he’s proven himself to be a bully, to be untrustworthy, to be vulgar, to be disrespectful of others – women, the disabled, foreigners – is antithetical to what it means to be pro-life. To be pro-life is to respect all people, to stand up for the vulnerable, to stand up to bullies, to speak the truth, and to be considerate. None of those characteristics apply to Trump as he has demonstrated over and over again.[5]

The second problem is his shifting position on abortion. He has been pro-choice for much of his life, even supporting partial birth abortion. During the campaign, in one horrendous week, he went through a whole range of public positions on abortion – from saying women should be punished to defending Roe v Wade. All this makes it hard to believe that Trump has any kind of actual principled position on abortion. And given his character issues above, it’s easy to conclude – even if not correctly – that his current position is one of political expediency. It was politically expedient for him to submit that list of judges so that he could “shore up” the “evangelical” vote. It was politically expedient for him to pick Pence as his running mate. Will it be politically expedient for him to actually appoint those judges should he become president?

The third problem is that many of his other positions grate against a consistently pro-life message and seem to undermine human dignity. He is draconian on immigration. He seems oblivious to issues of racial justice. He defended the use of torture. All of these issues are, in my mind, connected to the same root as the issue of life within the womb: the belief that all people are precious to God and should have their basic God-given rights defended. But my problem is not even necessarily with the positions – but who is holding and expressing those opinions. It is one thing for a candidate to say he is a “Law and Order candidate”. Fine, I like law and order. But that only works if law and order flows from a virtuous government, not from a bully president. From a bully it would certainly mean oppression and injustice.

Either the pro-lifer who supports Trump does not believe his character is as bad as it appears to be[6], or is making a bargain. He knows he wants to stop Hillary and so he is willing to go to Trump. Even given all the issues above, he is willing to make the trade. Supreme Court justices are just too important.

But I fear that this trade won’t work out for the pro-life cause in the long run.

The pro-life cause is fought on two major fronts: cultural and political. Both matter. When a pro-lifer decides to vote for Trump they are fighting the political front. Clinton is a sure loss on this front and Trump, if he is true to his word, offers a potential win – Supreme Court nominees.

But, by aligning themselves with Trump they guarantee a loss on the cultural front. They lose any moral ground. They show that you can say just about anything, or demonstrate any kind of personal character and, as long as you give lip service to pro-lifers, you can get their vote. Pro-lifers would go from those who use the political system to advocate for justice to those who are used by the political system to win elections, whose votes are simply bought with empty words. Furthermore, the rest of the culture will see the hypocrisy: You claim moral high ground on the issue of abortion but you debase yourself with a vote for Trump?

In this election we’ve already lost our political power. Let’s not also lose our prophetic voice.

A loss of our prophetic and moral voice is a long-term loss. Generally speaking, politics follows culture. Therefore a cultural loss, even if it results in a political win, will have long-term and potentially devastating consequences for the pro-life movement.

A quick note on Gary Johnson

A lot of conservatives turned off by Trump are turning to Libertarian Gary Johnson. This is understandable. On abortion, Johnson’s position is somewhat mixed. He believes that abortion should be legal up until the point of viability but he also believes that Roe v Wade overextended the reach of the federal government and that states should be able to decide individually. He supports bans on late-term abortions. He also supports mandating parental notifications for minors seeking abortion. Ironically, though he is not strictly pro-life, he might be the most pro-life candidate on the ballot. Still, Christians will have to decide whether or not supporting a candidate who believes that most abortions should remain legal can be done without violating their conscience. For me, that’s too much of a pill for me to swallow right now.

[Update 8/15]

There are two pro-life candidates of note, though both are long-shots at the time of writing this, and it is unclear whether either be on on the ballot in my state. The first is Michael Maturen of the American Solidarity Party, a political party based on Catholic Social Teaching. The second is Evan McMullin, a republican who has broken away from the party and has launched an independent bid for President. I note these two candidates only to make the reader aware of their presence (since they are no part of the vaunted two-party system they won’t likely get much media attention) and not as an endorsement. You’ll have to investigate the remainder of their platforms to understand your own political alignment.

[/ Close Update]

Where does that leave pro-life voters?

From a pro-life perspective this is election is an utter disaster. It’s simply a matter of picking your poison. I think Christian pro-life voters should seriously consider not voting for Trump or Clinton and find a third party candidate to vote for, one which will not sully their conscience. From a human perspective, it’s hard not to be despondent. But we operate from more than just a human perspective.

More than ever we need to put our trust in God and in his sovereignty.

More than ever we need to operate from a position of conscience and love.

More than ever we need to do that hard moral and cultural work of standing up for the most vulnerable.

More than ever we need to support young women in crisis.

More than ever we need to encourage young men to take responsibility for their actions.

More than ever we need to be a prophetic voice of justice for all.

More than ever we need to pray.

Our political weapons look dull and/or double-edged. But our spiritual weapons are as mighty as ever.

Notes and further reading

[1] By saying “my conclusion” I want to emphasize that this conclusion represents me and me only. I am a pastor, but I am not speaking on behalf of my church or its leadership. I expect and welcome a difference of opinion within the body of Christ and the local community. We are each beholden to our own conscience as we stand before the Judge.

[2] The best defense of a Trump vote was recently published by theologian Wayne Grudem, who I have deep respect for. Ultimately I think he is naive about Trump’s character, and I disagree with him about what a Trump presidency would likely mean for our country, but I completely agree with the process by which he came to that conclusion. But, if you Grudem’s arguments seem compelling then please read this devastating response.

[3] My rational for why I attended the Planned Parenthood protest.

[4] Russell Moore on the DNCs shift in position on the Hyde Amendment.

[5] There are many, many articles which have been written about Trump’s character and I’m not going to belabor the point. The “straw that broke the camels back” for me was probably when Trump viciously went after Cruz’s wife immediately after reposting something about how he was going to make Christianity great again(!), but that was only after a long line of more fundamental problems. In addition to his character, and perhaps more fundamental, are what appears to be his core beliefs. This article has some issues, but it still makes a strong case that Trump has a lot more in common with Nietzsche than Christ.

[6] I have heard it argued that Trump has one public persona and one private persona and that the private persona is far more kind and gentle. That private persona, it is argued, it the “real Trump.” He’s brash and bombastic for political purposes. My response to that is two-fold. First, doesn’t that imply duplicity on his part and strengthen the argument against his trustworthiness? Second,. I don’t have access to private Trump and so the only judgment I can make is the one he himself presents to me. You know a tree by its fruit. You know a man by his words. His words are what is most self-condemning.

[*] The pro-life argument against Trump has been made on a couple other occasions. Here’s one if you are interested. Mere Orthodoxy.

E, S, V, P

First, let me just say that in the past 36 hours I have come up with some of my best political one-liners ever. They were funny. But they were probably also unnecessarily divisive. I also wrote half a blog post dealing on parts of what is currently happening in Cleveland. And yet, I practiced self-control and didn’t post any of it on FB and I deleted my post. I think I deserve a prize. Mint chocolate chip ice cream sounds pretty good…

Today’s post is quite different in nature, and it is particularly geared toward preachers.

I attended a training today at my engineering job. At the start of the training session we had an ice-breaker. Each person was instructed to state their name and whether they were an E, S, V, or P. “E”s are explorers, they are people who are very interested in the content of the class. “S”s are shoppers, they are interested in some of the material. They are looking for one or two takeaways. “V”s are vacationers, they aren’t really interested in the class but it got them out of their routine and they have no better place to be. Finally, “P”s are prisoners, they are in the class against their will – their manager made them come.

On any given Sunday, there is a mix of ESVPs in your congregation. This might be helpful to recognize.

When I prepare to preach I tend to “categorize” my audience and try to gear my preaching to a broad based of listeners. The broadest category is “believers” and “unbelievers.” I try to include a call to believers and a call to unbelievers. In other words, I try to both disciple and evangelize.

I also think through people in different life stages. How would a student understand and apply this message? How would a retiree? How would someone who is feeling sad about a recent loss? Etc.

I think I will add ESVP to my lens as well. How would this look?

Explorers: Explorers in a church setting are those people who come eager to learn. They love the Bible. Even if they can’t directly apply the message to their lives, as long as you faithfully expound the Word of God, they will stay tuned. These are the easiest to preach to. A seeker, even if not a Christian, could also be an explorer. They may still be interested in the message even if they don’t (yet) agree. I’m not sure you really have to do anything extra for the explorers, but it’s good to acknowledge that some people are eager to learn Scripture. If nothing else, this should encourage the preacher.

Shoppers: Some people are not really that interested in the whole service. Some might particularly like the music, or the social aspect, or perhaps they are looking for one or two “take home” points from the sermon. You have to work a little harder for their attention. Maybe they’re not interested in the “big idea” of the sermon because it’s not what they’re shopping for. We still, if we’re going to be faithful to the text, will want to draw them in. Here’s where a good “tension creating” intro can go a long way.

Vacationers: These are people who are really just apathetic. They aren’t hostile. Church is just another thing which breaks the routine. They don’t really have a better place to be – or the cost of getting to that other place is too high. I think the goal here is to awaken their passions and to do that by passionately proclaiming the gospel.

Prisoners: Prisoners are people who don’t want to be there. They were dragged by a spouse or a parent or were pressured by a friend. They are hostile. According to preaching books I have read the best ways to communicate with those who are hostile are with humor and story (two of my weakest preaching abilities).

Perhaps it might just be good to acknowledge that we have a mix of people in the audience. It’s not all explorers, it’s not all shoppers, it’s not all vacations, it’s not all prisoners. Assuming everyone is an explorer will grant you permission to be boring. Assuming everyone is a shopper will cause you to just focus on the “takeaways” without getting to the meat. Assuming everyone is a vacationer might make you force in passion where it doesn’t come naturally, or assume everyone’s problem is that they are “lukewarm.” Assuming everyone is a prisoner will likely either make you hostile and angry or overly deferential.

Sometimes I address a particular group: “perhaps you are here and you have never placed your trust in Jesus” or “perhaps you are here and you are really struggling with a loss right now…” Maybe I could do the same with ESVP… “perhaps you are here and you feel like a prisoner, you really don’t want to be here…” That acknowledges those “prisoners” where they are at and allows you to address them directly. “Yes, that is me, what’s he going to say?”

Preacher or congregants, what do you think, is this helpful?