Monthly Archives: July 2016

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 responseUpdate 10/10/2016: Wayne Grudem subsequently rescinded his support for Donald Trump here.

[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.

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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?

Can the American Church be Restored? Or, Beware the Egyptians

Since preaching on Psalm 126 last Sunday (link to the sermon) I have been reflecting on the history of Israel, on their fall, and on their restoration. At the same time, I have seen a lot of worry over the status of the American church. Sometimes that worry is overblown, but there is cause for concern. Many are asking, can the American church be restored? And, what would it take for that to happen?

First, let me frame the question: I am not asking whether or not America can be restored, but whether or not the American church can be restored. In the Old Testament national Israel is the people of God. The closest correlation to Israel, is not America, but the Church, the people of God in Christ. Second, I am not asking whether the Church can be restored to cultural prominence – though that would be great, or political power – a mixed bag of good and bad, but whether we can be restored to faithfulness to the new covenant of Jesus, whether we can be restored with spiritual life and vitality, whether our dim light can once again shine brightly in a dark world.

I want to connect that question with the story of Israel.

God brought Israel into the Promised Land and he laid before them the promise of blessings – full, abundant, gracious, and glorious blessings. Read Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to understand the scope and nature of that blessing. God also set before them “covenant curses”, consequences from deciding not follow God. Those curses (warning, tough reading) are spelled out in the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The culmination of those curses is exile, expulsion from the Promised Land.

What we see next is a long and tortured history. Israel falls into a series rebellion and repentance, first under judges and then under kings. Collectively, Israel chooses to turn away from God and God, being faithful to his covenant, brings judgment. That judgment takes the form of foreign nations invading the land and taking the captives of Israel into exile. Israel messed up and they were facing the consequences.

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

As Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. In the aftermath of this terrible event the people asked Jeremiah what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah gave them this encouraging word of God: stay in the land, don’t be afraid of the king of the Babylonians, I have had compassion (Jeremiah 42:10-12). He also gave them this stern warning: Do not go to Egypt! “If you are determined to go to Egypt and settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you to Egypt, and there you will die” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16). Why this stern warning? Because Egypt was still under God’s judgment. To go to Egypt would be moral compromise. And here I think is one of the moral principles of this text: If moral compromise is what got you into the mess, moral compromise won’t get you out!

Israel would have been better to listen to the words of Moses when he predicted the exile in the first place: Repent and return to God and lean on his mercy and covenant faithfulness! (See Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

So is spiritual renewal and restoration possible for the American church? Yes. God makes restoration possible in any and all circumstances. But how will we get there?

Repentance and faithfulness to God.

We will not get there through moral compromise. And, to the extent that reliance on political power, or cultural influence, or methodologies, take us into a place of moral compromise, we will be led deeper into judgment, not out of it. It might lead to short term gain, but it will lead to long-term loss. Going to Egypt isn’t the answer.

I have up in the background of my computer the live stream of #Together2016, a one-day event at the Washington Mall. One thing they are getting exactly right is a call to repentance, not a call to national repentance, but a call to repentance of the church. Louis Giglio put it well, in citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, he said “God is saying ‘my people’, not ‘those people’ or ‘some people’, but ‘my people.’” And the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the redeemed people, the people called by the name God.

If we want renewal within the church, it begins within the church. Recognition of sin starts with recognition of our sin. That recognition leads to repentance. And that repentance opens up the possibility of renewal.

 

Principles of communication applied to #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter

Communication is hard. It’s essential that our words be “full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). In my observation, there’s a lot of miscommunication that goes on between the #BlackLivesMatter folks and the #AllLivesMatter folks. Use those slogans if you must, but keep these principles in mind:

Principle #1: What you say (mean) isn’t always what others hear (interpret). What you hear isn’t always what others say.

Principle #2: When we speak we generalize. When we listen we personalize.

Principles applied to #BlackLivesMatter/#AllLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter:

What is meant (usually, in my experience): I am drawing attention to a particular injustice in society as a whole, I’m not saying that other lives don’t matter (general).

How it is heard, processed (often): Other people experience injustice and violence – cops, working poor whites, (maybe even) me. You are discounting their/my experience (personal).

#AllLivesMatter:

What is meant (usually, in my experience): All lives matter, including Black lives. We shouldn’t have to pick a side (general).

What is heard, processed (often): You are discounting and trivializing my personal experience of injustice, or the experience of Black people in America (personal).

There is, obviously, a difference in emphasis here (“I care about injustice against Black people but I don’t discount injustice against others” vs “I care about injustice towards all, including injustice against Black people”). But, often what I see is a tendency to interpret the other person in the worst possible light.

A request to the who use these slogans:

Please understand how your slogan is, or could be, perceived by others. You are responsible for communicating clearly. If you are challenged, take the time to patiently explain yourself.

Please listen responsibly. Don’t assume the worse possible interpretation. If you think what they are saying is outrageous or insensitive, it might be, but give the benefit of the doubt first.

That last line is true of this blog post too! If you are angry about what I’ve said, or if I have spoken unclearly, please help me to clarify!

Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.