Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Abortion

Republican affinity #4: Abortion

"You can get more votes for fetuses in Congress right now than for the pork barrel. Maybe I should change my campaign button from a star to a fetus."

~ Unnamed U.S. House member, quoted in Richard Fenno's Home Style: House Members in their Districts.

Planned abortions kill a living creation of God's right hand. There's not much else to say. Abortion should be apolitical and repugnant to all thinking women and men. It should not be politicized, much less the political football it has become. I agree with Drury, who says, "I want the whole nation to reduce abortions to at or near zero, and neither party helps me there."

American society is sufficiently pleasure-seeking, plastic, and disposable that abortion will never go away through legislative or judicial fiat. The only way that Drury's, and my own, vision will be fulfilled is by persuasion, confession, repentance, and tender woman-to-woman ministries that open the door to women with unplanned pregnancies. Noisy evangelism that averts our gaze from the scarred wombs and scarred lives within the Church suffocates us. Drury calls for the just alternative: a Church that proclaims and lives the message, “We Christians do not kill our fetuses.”

"Why seek ye the living God among the dead?"

Many Democrats carelessly disregard fetal vitality, whereas most Republicans highly value it. That said, it is sheepish and imbecilic for a Christian to vote for Republican candidates on the single issue of abortion. When the living poor, the images of Christ on earth, cry out for their withheld wages, Jesus hears them (James 5:4). Republicans neglect them in their incessant cries for further cuts in a tax system that favors the wealthy as it stands. When prisoners on death row - not all of them guilty - cry to the Crucified one, Jesus hears them (Luke 23:43). Republicans execute them. Neither of our two major political parties consistently respects all phases of human life.

My mother, Kathie, who carried her unplanned teen pregnancy to full term, gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and placed her for adoption, once said to me, "Abortion should not be banned, but it should be discouraged." I can't improve on her words.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Gays

Republican affinity #3: Gays

Oh, the Orthodox hate the gays
And the Muslims hate the gays
Roman Catholics hate the gays
Ev'rybody... hates the gays

~ Brett Kemnitz, Milwaukee folk musician, from his song "My Own Religion".

How about a no-party affinity?

There is a political science theorem called Duverger's Law, which says that plurality-vote electoral democracies tend to have two parties just left and right of center. Yet some scholars say that the United States, due to rampant Congressional gerrymandering and our nonsensical presidential nominating system, has become an exception: Democrats run wacko left, and Republicans run nutty right, to win the "real" election - the primaries.

No issue illustrates this anomaly more clearly than gay rights. The Democrats, with a few courageous exceptions [including Barack Obama], believe that gay relationships and gay marriages are no different from their straight counterparts. No sincere, Bible-believing Christian can agree with them. "Male and female He created them in His own image," writes the inspired author of Genesis 1:26-28 - complementary in all ways, but especially so in sexuality and the begetting and raising of children.

To any of my friends reading this who call themselves LBGT: As best I understand, your choice is a venial sin - a sin, yes, but far, far less a divorce from God than pride or stinginess or turning your back on the poor. I am somewhat skeptical of sexuality as a continuum or that some people are born with homosexual inclinations, and (strictly on anecdotal evidence - I've never heard of any 50-year LBGT marriages) a healthier, more lasting alternative awaits you. I'm with Drury when he writes, "I think homosexual behavior is a sin... but I also believe heterosexual divorce and adultery are likewise sins."

As for the Republicans - and again, as with fiscal conservatism, much of the change has happened in the last three years - I have no truck with them here. We have all sinned and fallen short of God's grace, yet He continues to bestow it upon all who believe, not just straight believers. The rank hypocrisy within the Republican Party, where the party hierarchy winks at multiple marriages and affairs but slings mud at gays, nauseates me.

I believe President Bush sincerely acts out of a Biblically motivated desire to uphold straight marriage. But, as with so many other issues, the President has lost control over his party. Dick Cheney, in unholy alliance with the less tolerant wing of evangelical Christianity, effectively controls the Republican stance on LBGT policy.

So, to recapitulate: Our Savior brought the outcasts in. He searches human hearts more intently than we ever will. To insist that gays cannot be saved is a worse sin than to be gay.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Fiscal Conservatism

Republican affinity #2: Fiscal conservatism

It is much more difficult to call fiscal conservatism a "Republican affinity" now than in 2004. Back then, there was unwarranted hope that Republican control of the Senate would rein in the profligacy of George W. Bush's first term. Not only was that a pipe dream, but the leading Democratic presidential candidates are falling over each other to be known as balanced-budget advocates. They're all trying to play catch-up to Hillary Clinton, who can point to her husband's attainment of a fiscal surplus during his presidency.

China and Japan hold most of our $9 trillion ($9,000,000,000,000, or about $30,000 per American) dollar-denominated debt. Right now, neither country could demand or expect to receive payment, except for a barely plausible diplomatic stunt. However, China accumulates its credit in the form of 30-year Treasury bonds. By 2040, China will be much less dependent on the United States as an export market; already, it is cultivating closer trading relationships with Russia, the European Union, and its East Asian neighbors. China won't call our bluff this year, or even in the next decade, but I suspect it will do so sometime in my working lifetime.

If we conduct an immediate, orderly withdrawal from Iraq, as we should, the budget would soon return to the small surpluses of the later Clinton years. If we can't repay our debt as it stands, it would be amazingly foolish to accumulate more debt when our bankbook is already stretched thin. I stand with the Democrats, and I suspect Drury would now agree with me.

The Drury Sequence: Free Trade

Now that I have finished the Book of James, I'm moving on to Keith Drury's 2004 personal political manifesto How could a Christian vote Democrat? Drury, one of the leaders in American Wesleyan thought, names four political issues where he is closest to Republicans and eighteen others where he is closest to Democrats. For the next twenty-two days, I will outline where I stand on each issue.

Republican affinity #1: Free Trade

I agree with Drury here. Free trade is as much a basic human right as bodily freedom or free speech. Autarky, dictatorship, and peonage go hand in hand. The basic principles of free trade, free choice and variety, are also the building blocks for stable democracy. Besides, one protected industry causes ten more to demand equal treatment. Before long, tit-for-tat retaliation by other advanced economies leaves everybody worse off.

Michiganders have always had a hard time understanding secondary consequences. Of course, the auto economy that built metro Detroit is crumbling. Many Detroiters have turned protectionist out of supposed self-interest. Yet the long-term structural weakness of the Big Three is the United States' lack of comprehensive health insurance and pension plans. The Big Three, especially GM, have closed the quality gap of the 1970's-1990's: their cars are nearly as reliable, sleek, and fuel-efficient as Toyotas and Hondas. Nevertheless, legacy costs are bludgeoning their balance sheets.

When Drury says, "I’m willing to reduce America’s standard of living in order to raise the standard [elsewhere]", I agree. Our 4% of Earth's people consume one-fourth of its resources. Yes, we produce one-fourth of global output, too, but at what cost? Would not we benefit from a Sabbath? Letting low-cost producers "undercut" us benefits poor people and hurts rich people, which is what the Gospel message teaches.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

James 5:7-20: God's Purposes

"Elijah was a man like us; yet he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain upon the land." ~ James 5:17

"You have heard of the perseverance of Job," writes James, and "you have seen the purpose of the Lord, for He is compassionate and merciful" (v. 11). What an awesome sight! Every Christ-follower has seen, in creation, in the testimony of the prophets, and in the refining of his or her character, the compassion and the mercy of God. These are His purposes. This is what divides Christianity from all other creeds. We believe, not only in one mighty God, but also in He who suffered and invited us into His suffering (the com-passion).

When the springs of our belief run dry - when we enter into a spiritual drought - how do we respond? James gives different variations on one answer: Pray, pray, and pray ever more! Suffering believers should pray, thankful believers should sing praise, and sick people should ask their church's elders to pray over them (vv. 12-13). When we go astray and feel the separation of our sins, we are to confess and to pray (v. 16) for forgiveness and for accountability going forward.

Inquiring minds may ask, "Why pray?" James' reply is typically succinct: It works wonders. He suggests that prayer will heal and forgive the sins of the sick (v. 14) and the repentant sinner (v. 16). Then, he gives a lesson from the Old Testament. In one of my favorite Scripture teachings, the fervent prayers of Elijah subverted the natural order to render judgment on wicked king Ahab.

Jesus, we ask for too little and we want too much. Let us boldly approach you with our needs. May you fill us with your Holy Spirit.

James 5:1-6: People Above Things

"Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud!" ~ James 5:4a

James condemns the rich for storing up treasure that rots (v. 2), gets moth-eaten (v. 2), and corrodes (v. 3). This is the first and greatest condemnation of material wealth: since Jesus has given us a share in His death and resurrection, storing up earthly treasures beyond what God grants us is a blasphemy against the servant King of Heaven.

This is the second condemnation of material wealth: it exploits the sons and daughters of God whom we are to love as our neighbors and friends. We don't have to think hard to discover contemporary workers who are being exploited and paid unjust wages (v. 4). Read about it here and here.

In keeping with the Last Judgment of Matthew 25, James treats insults against the poor - as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta so beautifully called them, "the distressing disguises of Jesus" - as insults to the Messiah himself. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees who sent Jesus to the Cross, these rich people have harassed, beaten, and even murdered their employees without cause.

Mighty God, in Amos 6:8 you say, "I abhor the pride of Jacob." Let we, your new Israel across the earth, seek you humbly and thank you gratefully for the blessings you bestow on us. You fulfill our every need; how can we seek more? Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

James 4:11-17: Boasting

"Therefore, to the believer who knows what is good and doesn't do it, to him it is sin." ~ James 4:17

James says, in verse 10, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up." We cannot lift ourselves up unaided. Instead, we can only prostrate ourselves before Jesus, who paid our penalty on the Cross, and by God's grace receive our share of Jesus' resurrected life. Without daily - even hourly - awareness of this precious gift from above, we will stumble into Satan's grip.

Boasting, therefore, has two dimensions. Consciously elevating the self over God is its gross form. In essence, this is what atheists and agnostics do. It permeates most of our popular culture; God is absent (or far backstage), and material facts are the only truths. But James doesn't stop there; he draws his readers' attention to the subtle form, in which believers let worldly business choke and smother God's freely given grace.

This subtle form of boasting has several manifestations. James, with his keen eye for hypocrisy, tells us not to judge each other, for above us "there is only one Lawgiver who is able to save and to destroy" (v. 12). In a passage that speaks to the hearts of businessmen, but also to inveterate to-do list writers like me, James mocks people who make future plans without thinking about God's plans for them (vv. 13-15). We know that God is good, but when we substitute our ideas of what's good for us for Creation and the Word, we sin.

Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with discernment, as you filled the heart of your servant king Solomon, that we may know God's will and subsume our wills to His - for He knows what we need. Amen!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

James 4:1-10: Submission

"Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." ~ James 4:7

Submission to God - "Thy will be done" - is a lifelong challenge for every Christian man and woman. God doesn't want part of us; he wants all of us, for, as Paul preaches in Acts 17, we are also his offspring. We in America, surrounded by plenty, takes a dim view to obligations. Our culture gives us the option to neglect our parents, our spouses, and our children in search of momentary pleasure. There's enough for them; there's even more for us, if we seize it!

James teaches that this attitude leads you to the grave and doesn't get you what you want. He tells his fellow Christians, "You covet but do not possess; you do not possess because you do not ask; you ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." (vv. 2-3). Returning to the Paul-in-Athens metaphor, these believers are Epicurians, lovers of this world and enemies of God.

Yet there's a danger to being a Stoic, too - the insidious danger of pride, of having a life so well-ordered that God floats around the edges. Our hands may be clean in our homes, our professions, even our churches, but Satan still commands our thoughts and our hidden acts. James tells these believers to wash their hands and purify their double-minded hearts (v. 8).

How, then, to resist the devil, when our stumbling attempts at humility fall short? When all else fails, the best weapon is laughter. In the beginning of one of my favorite books, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the author includes an epigraph from Sir Thomas More:

"The Devil... the Proud Spirit... cannot endure to be mocked."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

James 3: Binding the Tongue

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly." ~ James 3:1

I aspire to be a teacher. I've spent a lot of time around teachers, both high school teachers and university professors. Not surprisingly, James cuts to my heart when he warns that my chosen path will lead to me being judged more strictly than Christians in other professions. On my better days, James's words goad me towards working hard, telling the truth, and keeping wholesome habits. At other times, his words sound like a terrible judgment over me.

Those who make a profession of teaching rely on their tongues. While books have permanence that talk doesn't (hence, the academic "publish or perish" paradigm), texts lack the human warmth and immediacy of spoken language. Teachers have a special duty to bind their tongues. This is so because the professional teacher, by implication, has something to say that will edify his or her students. A teacher with a loose tongue, or a tongue that speaks what is contrary to God's will for that person, hurts his or her circle of students too.

Yesterday, James said in chapter 2 that anyone who breaks the law at one point has transgressed the entire law. He talks about the tongue in the same way, saying, "Does a spring gush forth from the same fount both pure and salty water? Can a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine figs?" (vv. 11-12). This is one of many passages in the Book of James that call us to deep humility. Why go against God's will and inevitably stumble? Why try to produce olives when God made me to produce figs? Discernment is difficult, and "we all fall short in many ways" (v.2), but we can flee from jealousy and ambition (v. 14).

Lord Jesus, help me to teach heavenly wisdom ahead of worldly wisdom. Let us remember that your Creation faithfully reflects your majesty and your patient care. Let me regard my students' souls, past and present, in every lesson You assign to me. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

James 2:14-26: Faith and Works

"For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." ~ James 2:26.

This is one of the most notorious sections of the New Testament. Martin Luther, convinced that confession alone was sufficient for union with Jesus, called the Book of James an "epistle of straw" and (apocryphally) tore it out of his personal copy of the Scriptures.

The link above raises two crucial points: first, that Luther held nuanced views about the Book of James; second, that most Protestants see God, and not humans, as the Author of their works. "Not me, but Christ through me", the old saying goes. To outsiders, this distinction may seem like hair-splitting legalism, but to believers, it is a practical confession of helplessness and hopelessness apart from the triune God.

Still, I disagree with Luther's critique and side with James. Confession is not enough; repentance is necessary, too. Luther argues that repentance precedes confession; the sinner who is not sorry and has not already taken baby steps to change his or her life cannot confess Christ. But, in a society like ours, where Christianity is privileged, confession tends to come first, then repentance - and it's easy to confess Christ hypocritically, even though confession without repentance is useless.

So, because we are Jesus-worshipers, we are to clothe the naked and feed the hungry (v. 15), sacrifice our most precious gifts like Abraham (vs. 21-23), and keep ministering even when we have fallen short like Rahab (v. 25). Alleluia!

James 2:1-13: Partiality

"For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one place, has become guilty in respect to all of it." ~ James 2:10

Mark Twain once wrote a fascinating essay titled "Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?". He argued that people have an innate tendency to view the rich and famous with awe and adulation. Although Twain would not say so, what we give celebrities - even successful, charismatic Christian ministers - is idolatrous lordship. Instead of worshiping the true God who laughs at the pretensions of worldly success, we love earthly lords. Then, when God, in His majesty, permits Satan to topple them (as Job was), we feel disillusioned.

This is not a new, media-driven problem; James identifies this same problem in the first-century Jerusalem church. His congregation, like the Pharisees, gave the rich places of honor and shunned the poor. James doesn't pull any punches; he says the church has become "judges with evil designs" (v.4). He then explains why Christians cannot judge anyone.

We, ourselves, are incapable of keeping the entire law by our own efforts. Some of us may have been judged as lawbreakers by secular courts. Even more of us have a speeding ticket or underage drinking citation on our records. We may not be murderers or adulterers, but we all have shown anger and lusted (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). We are all condemned; our only hope is in Jesus the Messiah, whose sacrificial "mercy triumphs over judgment" (v.13).

Let us also commit to a preference for the poor and for poverty of spirit, for James writes (v.5), "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A daily discipline

To those who bemoaned my recent lack of posts, take heart: daily blogging will resume tomorrow!

Today marks 60 days until Sally returns from Ukraine. I've set an ambitious goal: 60 posts in 60 days. In case you're wondering, this doesn't count; I will post two entries tomorrow.

I will finish blogging the Book of James, but then I will elucidate my political principles. Keith Drury's controversial 2004 blog post "How could a Christian vote Democrat?" will be my guide as I compare my perspective to his.

In November and December, I will return to the Bible, blogging 1 Peter and 1 John. Between these two books, I will comment on Keith Drury's latest work, There is No "I" in Church. Mrs. Behrenwald, your wish will be fulfilled in due time!

Godspeed and good night to my readers.