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On Gun Control

I was asked the other day if I had ever blogged or spoken on the topic of gun control. While I’ve made fleeting references to it, I’ve never dedicated a post to it. The reason is simply this: My own position has been taking a while to solidify. It’s still not totally solid, but given the importance of the topic, I think it is worthwhile to sketch out a few of my thoughts on the topic.

What’s clear:

Gun violence is a horrific evil. Whether in the form of mass shootings, daily crime, or suicide, it rips bodies, lives, and families apart. All people of good faith – conservatives and liberals – want a more peaceful world and grieve whenever we hear yet another act of violence. News of violence should cause us to ask probing questions: Why is this happening? What can we do?

What can we do?

In polarized America, two overly simplistic narratives take center stage.

1) Gun violence is evil. We can solve gun violence with gun control. Therefore, anyone who opposes gun control must not really care whether or not people keep getting shot.

2) Gun violence is evil. Gun control won’t solve gun violence, or it will make it worse. Therefore, anyone who thinks we need gun control is stupid.

These are, of course, caricatures of the arguments, but in a Facebook and Twitter world, that’s about all we’re left with these days. The nuanced arguments are pushed to the side. The fringes get the press.

Most arguments hinge on the second part of the argument: Would gun control actually work to stem gun violence? (I’m setting aside the constitutional question for a moment). To answer that question we’ll need more than simplistic arguments, we’ll need data. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but I’d wager that some gun control ideas might work well, and others might be useless, unproductive, or even counter-productive.

Instead of asking the question: Will gun control work? Perhaps we should instead ask, Will this gun control measure work? To do this, we would need to set aside ideological bias and come to the specific policy proposal open to wherever the data and analysis leads. Approaching the question in this way values the Christian virtues of wisdom and truth.

Joe Carter’s recent FAQ on mass shootings provides an excellent example of this sort of moral reasoning. He concludes as follows: “[W]e must debate the issue in love by following the dictates of a biblically informed conscience that has been shaped by facts and evidence.”

What about the constitution?

I’m no constitutional expert. Ideally, we would find a way to address gun violence without infringing on citizens’ constitutional rights. I’ll leave interpretation to the courts. The answer is surely important and you probably have a strong opinion about this and want me to as well. Sorry to disappoint.

A weak “theological” argument

I want to address one overly simplistic argument I see on the religious right. It goes like this: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The problem isn’t with the weapon. It’s with the human heart.”

I agree with one part of that argument: Evil finds its source in the human heart. No amount of external constraints is going to make people good. We will find a way to injure or harm one another. We’ll use our bare hands if we have to. That part is true.

But this argument dismisses two important truths: First, guns are not entirely neutral tools, but are designed for a purpose. Second, guns make it possible to kill a lot of people really quickly.

Guns didn’t make the Dayton or El Paso shooters evil, but they gave a lot of power to their evil. They made their evil far more destructive than if all they had had was a knife, a fist, or a rock. You’re not killing 9 people in 30 seconds with a rock. Could evil people still make bombs to kill a lot of people? Sure. Could they use airplanes as guided missiles? Sure. But it’s nevertheless true that in our country, guns are used to give lethal power to a lot of people who end up doing a lot of damage, to themselves or others.

If you want to argue against gun control because people are evil, then you need to also ask the question: If people’s hearts are evil, why are we so comfortable giving them the power to kill others so easily?

Finally, a note on Christians and guns

Whether Christians end up owning guns or not, Christians are called to be people of peace. We, of all people, should shun violence, return evil with good, and grieve over the victims of gun violence. We should love our neighbors and think deeply about how we can live in a more just and peaceful world. We should be a city on a hill and a lamp on the stand in the darkness and chaos of our world. Doing that might take a variety of forms – understanding and analyzing the data, proposing and supporting sensible legislation, providing emotional support for people with deep hurts, vigorously opposing ideologies that incite violence, or preaching the gospel of peace… until the Lord returns.

The Most Interesting Thing: Digital Minimalism

Big Idea: What makes digital tech addictive isn’t what makes it useful

Source: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

More: Many tech companies operate in the “attention economy” where your time equals their money. These companies invest a lot of resources in keeping your eyeballs on their products, on keeping your attention. But while this means more money for them, it’s behaviorally addictive for you, keeping you from more meaningful social connections and work.

Cal Newport isn’t against technology, but he’s critical of the uncritical way we have adopted it. Social media does have value for some people, but not compared to the time the average person is putting into it. Newport’s suggestion is to start with our core values and then only adding in digital technology as it pertains to those core values, replacing those hours on line with more life-giving tasks.

Why is this interesting to me: I sense in myself that psychological addiction and I don’t like its effect on my life.

Critique: While Newport doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, his emphasis on core values, meaningful leisure, social engagement, and the practice of solitude resonates deeply with key tenants of the Christian tradition. I think many Christians would be more effective in their spiritual lives if they adopted his Digital Minimalism philosophy. Personally, this has been a year of making adjustments in how I engage or don’t engage online.

Book Recommendation

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

The Most Interesting Thing: Strong and Weak

The Most Interesting Thing I Read *Recently:

Big Idea: “Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak.”

Source: “Strong and Weak” by Andy Crouch

More: We flourish – fully live within our divine purpose – when we have strength (authority – capacity for meaningful action) and weakness (true vulnerability to risk). This is a paradox. It holds two seemingly contradictory ideas in creative tension as illustrated below.

Crouch labels strength/authority without vulnerability “exploiting.” In this quadrant, we move all the vulnerability inherent in the world to others and close ourselves off from suffering. He labels vulnerability without the capacity for meaningful action “suffering.” In this quadrant, we are victims of the exploitative power of others – a reality for too many people. Crouch labels the quadrant lacking both strength and weakness “withdrawing.” (think: replacing real action/risk with the escapist world of simulated action/risk in the digital world).

Flourishing – embracing both strength and weakness – follows the pattern of Jesus. Jesus exercised authority (healing, preaching, etc.) and weakness (suffering and dying on the cross) in a life of true flourishing. He called his disciples to the same, passing along to them authority and a life of vulnerability and risk.

Why this is interesting to me: I love paradoxes! 2×2 diagrams are one of my new favorite things.

Critique: This makes sense in a fallen world where real risk is necessary, but I wonder if this idea of flourishing fits with life after the resurrection? Either way, this is a good book.

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing

*I have to change this column from “this week” to “recently” because sometimes the “big idea” is something I read a few weeks ago.

Breaking down the anatomy of idolatry

Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.

How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?

Ancient Israel’s matrix of power

When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.

Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:5

He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.

The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.

Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.

While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.

When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.

In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.

With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.

The anatomy of idolatry

Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:

An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.

A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.

An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.

A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).

A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.

How then should we treat created powers?

Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.

But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?

I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.

If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.

God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.

The Most Interesting thing I read last Week: God’s judgment, kinism, and foster care month

Depending on how consistent I am, this will be a new weekly blog installment. It’s a new attempt to curate the media I’m consuming, either in books, online, or via podcast.

Book Big Idea: The Skeletons on God’s Closet

Big idea: In Scripture, God’s judgment is for “insiders” before it is for “outsiders”

More, a quote: “I began to realize that God’s coming judgement is not so much an evangelistic tool used to frighten outsiders into the kingdom, as it is a house cleaning tool used to weed out hypocrisy and call insiders back to the faith they proclaim.”

The Skeletons in God’s Closetcovers three tricky topics: Hell, Judgment, and Holy War. This quote is from the section on Judgment. Butler’s main point is that the Bible usually directs “judgment” language at those who would consider themselves insiders, at people who claim to be God’s people, at the religious, at Israel, and those in the church. God uses judgment language to call his people back to repentance. Butler’s quote fits with the language/order of the prophets (whose call was to Israel), Jesus (who used judgment language for the religious insiders), and Peter (Judgment comes first to God’s house, 1 Pet 4:17).

Why this is interesting to me: In general, I find theology and biblical study interesting. In particular, I am reading and preparing to preach out of Jeremiah, which is full of the language of judgment.

Critique: I found the first section of this book, on the nature of Hell, somewhat weak. But I think Butler is spot on here. The Bible talks about judgment in two main ways (1) Purification for his people (2) Salvation by kicking evil out of God’s good world – Butler hits on both of these themes.

Articles/Podcasts worth sharing: 

I’ve been haunted all week by the fact that the Synagogue shooter attended an evangelical church and proclaimed an evangelical faith. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting.

An explainer at TGC by Joe Carter: Kinism, Cultural Marxism, and the Synagogue Shooter

A call to repent of Christian Nationalism, by Mark Galli at Christianity Today.

Additionally, May is Foster Care Awareness month. To that end, I recommend this TGC podcast: How You Can Encourage Foster Parents.

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of political bias I have been seeing from fellow believers. Here are two articles worth reading:

First, a response to those who were offended by the use of the term “Christian Worshippers”. Frankly, I believe that pettiness on this issue does real and needless damage to our Christian witness.

Second, a call from Ed Stetzer to stay on point in the Age of Outrage.

One more thing: Did you know our churches publishes our sermons? Check out Pastor John’s most recent sermon. As a bonus, you get a great explanation of the conscience.

 

What’s the most interesting thing YOU read this week?

“Why do they feel the need… ?”

Most of the time, when I tell people that we are a host family for Safe Families for Children I receive a positive response. People see the value of the ministry and are glad to hear we are playing a part in it. Sometimes, though, we hear (directly or indirectly) a critique like this: “Why do you/they feel the need to do this?”

For those who aren’t familiar: Safe Families is a ministry that provides homes for kids whose families are in crisis. Perhaps the closest reference for most people is foster care, except that Safe Families is more of an alternative to foster care when the crisis is temporary. The parents don’t lose any parental rights, and participation is fully voluntary on both sides. Parents can pull out at any time and host families don’t get paid.

My family serves as a host family, so sometimes we have an extra child living at our house. That’s the case right now.

We don’t go it alone. We’re supported by others in our church, and even from people in other local churches. This community is essential to our ability to participate. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.

Then comes the critique: “Why do you feel the need to take care of someone else’s kid? You have your own children, your own set of responsibilities, your own set of cares. Why should you add someone else’s cares to your life? Is it responsible? Do you think you have to solve the world’s problems? Can’t someone else do it?”

Part of me wants to get angry: Hey, we’re trying to do something good here and you’re criticizing us?

But part of me understands the critique and sees the legitimacy of it. After all, our motivations could be poor: We could have a “Messiah complex” imagining that it all depends on us to take care of the needs of the world. We could think that this “good work” somehow merits salvation! Or, we could be acting irresponsibly, neglecting our own children so that we can look good to others of feel good about ourselves.

By God’s grace, I don’t believe that those are our motives. So why do we participate in Safe Families?

For me, it’s less because of a sense of need and more a sense of gratitude.

God has showered his grace on us. He has saved us, forgiven our sins, adopted us as his children, and welcomed us into the family of God. On top of those spiritual benefits he has given us material blessings. We have a warm house. We have sufficient food. We have enough money. We have stability, rooms, and resources. We have energy and health. In other words, we have been blessed not only with our daily bread, but with daily bread to share.

When you realize your blessing, it makes sense to share that blessing with others. That’s why we are a host family.

Not everyone is called to be a Safe Families host family. Most aren’t. But as we looked at the need (children in unsafe environments) and the benefit (providing stability in a family crisis) and the set of resources we have been blessed with, it just fit. Add, on top of that, the commands of God to love and serve our neighbors and the gratitude that comes from God’s grace, and it just makes sense for us.

“Raised to life for our justification” … Why do we need the resurrection to be justified?

In my circle of Christianity, when we talk about salvation, we tend to focus all our attention on the cross and neglect the role of the resurrection. Exhibit A is a book sitting on my shelf called The Cross and Salvation: 500+ pages of robust biblical and systematic theology on the doctrine of salvation. I was unable to find a single chapter or paragraph that dealt with the role the resurrection plays in salvation.

The book is excellent, but this lack of emphasis doesn’t seem to square with Paul and Peter’s emphasis on the resurrection. The resurrection played a key role in Peter’s early preaching and Paul saw it as essential (Romans 4:25, 5:10, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

It can be easy to believe that the entire salvation story is summed up in the cross: Humans sinned. Jesus paid for that sin. Since Jesus paid for that sin, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God, freed from the final judgment. In this story, the resurrection isn’t necessary. Or, it is only in this sense that it is evidence that what happened on the cross really matters.

On closer inspection, though, that’s not the “entire” salvation story after all.

The Whole Story:

So, why does the resurrection matter for salvation? What’s the whole story?

I want to tell three different and familiar stories.

First, there’s the story of humanity. We were made to live in communion with God, stewarding the earth for one another’s flourishing and God’s glory. Instead of living under his rule we tried (and try) to usurp his throne… and suffer disastrous consequences. This life of disobedience leads to death. This is the story of Adam.

Second, there’s the story of Jesus. At the incarnation Christ entered the story of humanity. He took on flesh. He faced the devil. He endured hunger and temptation. But, unlike the story of every human the preceded or followed him, he was obedient. He was even obedient to death on the cross.

Jesus took on himself, and completed within his own body, the story of humanity. On the cross he took the death that humans deserve. He took Adam’s death. But Jesus’s story doesn’t end there. He is raised from the dead to new life. He ascends to the throne of God.

Now here’s the third story: The story of little “Adams” who, through faith, move from being “in” Adam, to being “in” Christ. Jesus took our story – and our punishment – so that we could take his story – and his life.

When I’m “in” Jesus, I get his story. I get his death and I get his life. I die with him and I am raised with him. Because I die with him, my sins are forgiven. Because I live with him, I receive a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine, then, what salvation would look like if Jesus was never raised from the dead. If Jesus was not raised from the dead we could share in his death, but not in his resurrection. We could die with him, but not live with him. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s story is incomplete and so is our salvation.

On the Logic of Romans 4:25

This post started while I was reading through Romans with an eye towards Easter. In my reading I came across this puzzling text: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

I opened up John Stott’s commentary on Romans. It offered me this important reminder: Paul believed that we were “justified” at the moment we believed God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (Romans 4:24). In Paul’s language we are justified when we believe God. We are justified by Jesus’s blood (Romans 5:9). And, Jesus was “raised… our justification.” How do these pieces fit together?

Paul equates justification with “being credited righteousness.” We are credited righteousness when we believe God. But how can we sinners be credited righteousness? It can’t happen through works (“there is none righteous”). It has to come as a gift from God. It has to come from Jesus. It has to come through his obedient life, his death, which atones for our sins, and his resurrection, which is the “new life” by which we share in Jesus’s life.

We can’t stop reading Romans after 5:8. Romans 5:9ff spells out a present/future salvation that is only available because Jesus was raised from the dead. We are justified through his blood (5:9), but we also “shall be saved through his life” (5:10)! His life here is the life available in the power of the resurrection, with which we come to share when we have faith: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4). “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:5).

The Christian life without the resurrection

It might seem hard to imagine Christianity without the resurrection, but I fear that sometimes our preaching – if we neglect the resurrection – can lead to a Christian life without the power of the resurrection. How many people have walked down an aisle or said the sinners prayer with a shortened gospel story, a story that tells of the forgiveness of sins, but doesn’t tell of the new life available in Jesus, that invites us to share in Jesus’s death, but not in his resurrection, that rejoices in Jesus our Savior but ignores his life-giving Spirit? May it not be.

This Easter, rejoice in the full story of salvation. Rejoice in the cross. Oh, may we never neglect the cross! But rejoice also in the resurrection, not just as proof of the power of the cross, but as power to live in the life of Jesus.