Tag Archives: Evil

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.

On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”
Book Recommendations

The Cost of Discipleship

Ethics

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community

“Why is something bad happening to me?”

One of the philosophical objections to Christianity is the “Problem of Evil”. Why does an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil in the world? I noted in a previous post how Jesus’ death and resurrection gives Christianity a unique and powerful answer to that question.

But this question is rarely raised in a philosophical void. The more common question everyday people face is this: Why is something evil happening to me? This question is personal and is best answered in a personal context. I got this question while giving a talk in our After School program, and thankfully it was addressed later in a one-on-one conversation between a leader and a student.

Nevertheless, here are some Biblical answers I might give. My exact answer would depend on the particular situation.

We live in a fallen world. God created the world and declared it good, but when sin entered the world that goodness was broken and corrupted. The general brokenness of the world accounts for lots of things that don’t appear to have an immediate “culprit”. We get sick. A relative gets cancer. A natural disaster strikes. These are all signs of our broken world. Our hope is that God will eventually bring about a world where there is no sickness, death, or sudden disaster.

We also hold out home in this life because we know that God is a master at bringing good out of evil.

God may be using this to help us grow closer to Him. Paul says that he was given a “thorn in his flesh” to keep him from becoming conceited. He pleaded with God to remove whatever it was but God didn’t. Instead God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). Through this trial, Paul learned to rely fully on God.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who went through bouts of depression. She told me that during one bout she was able to experience the comfort of God in a unique and powerful way which she is able to return to again and again. Why did God allow her to experience depression? I’m not sure, but he has found a way to redeem at least a part of it for good.

God may be using this to help us grow in character and hope. Paul also tells us that we should “glory in our sufferings,” which is a pretty surprising and counter-intuitive command. We can glory in our sufferings because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope” (See Rom 5:1-5). Somehow, our temporary comfort is less important to God than our hope and our character.

Last week on Sunday we were blessed by having Pastor Emmanuel from Rwanda speak at our church. He is a man who has undergone much suffering. His family was killed before his eyes during the genocide. He lived as an orphan for much of his teen life. And yet, he is a man of incredible character and hope. And his hope runs deep. Did that genocide break God’s heart? You bet. Do I have any idea why God allowed it? Nope. But I do know that out of it God raised up a man to bring the light of Jesus to Rwanda.

God may be using this to accomplish something beyond ourselves. The story of Joseph in the Bible is a great place to go to look for comfort in our trials. In it we see how God uses terrible circumstance (Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers) to raise up Joseph to a place of power. At the end of the story Joseph says “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). God had a plan for Joseph beyond himself.

God has a bigger plan than we could ever imagine and rarely do we get the same glimpse that Joseph did. But we have the same God that he did. His plans for our lives transcend our own lives. In this life we might not ever see the good that can be brought out of evil, but someone else might.

We may have to ask, is there something in my life that needs to change? In each of the examples above, the individual was not directly responsible for their trial. But, if we’re honest, we must admit that much of the time our suffering is self-inflicted. The guy who looks at porn shouldn’t wonder why his marriage is crumbling. The man who cheats on his taxes shouldn’t blame God when legal trouble comes along. The teenager who is a jerk to her friends shouldn’t be surprised when her friends desert her. This doesn’t mean everything that is bad that happens to us is our fault or that others don’t share blame. But, we are wise to examine ourselves. Lots of bad stuff happens because the world is fallen. Sometimes it happens because we are fallen.

But God is a master at bringing about good in the midst of evil. He beckons us to himself whether our suffering comes from others or is self-inflicted. Just like the prodigal son, when we return to God, he runs to meet us with open arms to heal, forgive, restore, and redeem.