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Both Sides Now

I saw this tweet last night from conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who considers herself a Christian, following yesterday’s press conference by President Trump:  “Trump is already head of state.  After that press conference, in my eyes, he’s now head of church.”

Responding to this, one Christian writer (admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek) speculated that the “Left Behind” description of the Antichrist as a “deceitful ruler rising to power who would bridge the longstanding gulf between the United States and Russia, and would get religious people focusing their attention on himself instead of Jesus” fits Trump to  T.

I’m no Left Behind expert or enthusiast and I am not even sure that the antichrist (in the specific singular) can be proven from the Bible but it is odd that two people could come to such diametrically opposite conclusions.

Or maybe not.

I also saw these two post-press conference headlines:

  1. Trump sticks it to partisan press crop
  2. Trump press conference chaotic and full of easily disproven assertions

You could make a solid case to prove that both are right but it might also be that there were two press conferences and I missed one.

But I suspect that the real answer is that people will always read these things through their own biases and preconceived notions.

Except me of course; I am always objective and unbiased.  You probably are too, unless you disagree with me on these or any other issues.

Everybody Loves Lily

Well, you probably do even if you don’t remember her name.  Lily is the AT&T Wireless commercial spokesperson we’ve seen in ad after ad.  She is perky, enthusiastic, nerdy, a hopeless romantic and sometimes a little awkward.  She has done over 40 AT&T commercials. She was originally supposed to do one but people loved it so much that she has gone on and on.  Lily is almost like a member of the family.  She is that sister or cousin that everybody likes.

But do you think you’d like Milana Aleksandrovna Vayntrub?  She and her family fled Uzbekistan hoping to find religious freedom and asylum in America.  It was a long, multi-year process to get here because, contrary to what some believe, it never has been easy to come to this country as a refugee.  The screening always has been pretty intense.  I know because in my missionary days I worked on getting visas for Christians from other countries that wanted to work with us.  Even short-term tourist or religious worker visas took a lot of time and a great deal of screening; residence visas often took years.

I have to wonder if Milana, who you probably have guessed by now is the real person behind Lily, and her family showed up today how many of us would welcome her.   How many of us would view her with hostility and suspicion?

Beyond AT&T commercials, Milana has been active in trying to change the world; to help refugees like herself.  She is part of the “Can’t Do Nothing” movement that has inspired nearly a quarter million people to crusade for the rights of refugees around the world by using those AT&T smartphones to make You Tube videos of themselves helping refugees.  Lily would be proud.

I will let you in on a secret.  Not only is the American immigration process long and arduous, it is humiliating.  It is guilty until proven innocent.  It can be deliberately insulting just to see how you react.  While I have no problem making it more secure, particularly if we can make it more efficient, don’t make the mistake of thinking it is lax now.

As we work to better screen out the few who might do us harm, let’s not forget that there are thousands of Milanas out there too.

Wanting to Believe

“… the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right?  Did you know that?  Forty-seven years.  I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is.  It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.”

Our President raised some eyebrows a few days ago with that quote above.  Numerous sources were quick to jump in with proof that it was not only wrong, it was waaaaay wrong.  Indeed the rate in 2015, the last year for which we have statistics, was 4.9 murders per 100,000 people while the highest rate over that time period was 10.2 per 100,000.

Meanwhile, down the block, Time Magazine tweeted that our President removed a bust of Dr. M.L. King from the Oval Office at the White House.  Very quickly, the same source that gave me the statistic in the previous paragraph, revealed that story to be entirely false.

The common factor in these two episodes, other than the reality that they were both wrong, is the rapid spread through social media of people agreeing with them.  Even after they had been proven wrong this spread went on and on. Indeed, was beseeched with complaints that they were lying from both sides of the political spectrum when their cherished respective sources were challenged, while, at the same time, were praised for exposing the other side’s story.  Can we say…hypocrisy?

The real story however is the way both sides wanted to believe the flat out lies they heard.  (In Trump’s defense, there is a possibility that he was not lying; that he simply did not know the murder rate and was only making it up.)  This pairing is just one of dozens of cases where it seems that nearly all of us want to, almost desperately want to, believe bad things about people we disagree with.  This overpowering need to believe that the other guy is evil to the core is the fertilizer that causes fake news to blossom.  Who should be the first people to refuse to do this?

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  James 1:19-20

The “A” Word

With the appointment, and highly likely approval, of judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court it appears that President Trump has made good on a campaign promise to appoint pro-life justices.  It is helpful that judge Gorsuch’s credentials are exemplary.  In the long run however this simply restores the balance the court had when Justice Scalia was on the bench; it does not overturn the 5-4 margins that have leaned away from pro-life decisions so it is really the next opening that matters.

In a recent long and scholarly report the medical journal The Lancet gives a world-wide analysis of abortions that gives us much to think about on this subject.  While it is true that here in the U.S. the abortion rate is steadily dropping (now 27 per every 1,000 women of reproductive age where it was 45 per 1,000 in 1990) the global rate has not dropped at all.  Digging through the data (and it is time-consuming) shows some curious realities that make me think on this subject.

  1. Money is a primary factor in abortion decisions.  Both globally and in the U.S. rates are dropping among more well-to-do areas and remaining the same in poorer areas.  The widespread, although by no means universal, explanation for this is that birth control and sex education play the dominant role in this reality.
  2. Globally, married women are more apt to have abortions than single women. This is not true in the U.S.  This might well be tied to #1 above but we need to avoid developing stereotypes of the “typical” woman getting abortion.
  3. Abortion laws don’t appear to reduce abortions. This was the most shocking finding.  Countries where abortion is illegal have no lower (and no higher) rates of abortion.  Women are terminating pregnancies with or without such laws.  This does not bode well for those pinning their hopes on the Supreme Court.

Let me be quick to say that I don’t think this means pro-lifers should quit the legal war for life. If we’re saying—which we are—that life in the womb is life made in the image of God, then it makes perfect sense that battles for the dignity and honor of that life should extend wherever possible.  But it tells us that making this the primary focus will accomplish little except the driving of women underground.  In fact, it suggests that addressing economic issues is far more promising.

When we consider our brothers and sisters in the early church it gives us some clue to ways to wage the battle for life.  Both abortion and infanticide were normal and acceptable practices among the pagan Roman and Greek cultures that the early church was set in. Baby boys were highly desirable and baby girls were not.  Therefore, it was common for married couples to keep only one baby girl.  If it was thought that a second baby would probably be a girl, the mother would have an abortion, and if the child was born and turned out to be female, the child would be exposed outdoors to die.  Abortion was far from taboo, and even murdering one’s own baby girl was far from controversial.  You can see an example of this in this 1st century Greek letter from a man named Hilarion to his wife:

“Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are [already] delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it. You have sent me word, “Don’t forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”

It is obvious he was more concerned about his wife’s feelings than his baby daughter.  This was the world in which our church was born.  This was the law of the land.

The law told these Christians that they could get as many abortions as they wanted and they could throw their babies in the trash can if they felt like it.  They did not.  But neither did they go around advocating changing laws. They had ZERO political power to do that. But they did have a much greater power. They had the power of the Holy Spirit in them and they let that light shine as bright as the sun.

Because they did this, many pagan women desired to know Christ too and their hearts were changed. In time, they felt abortion was not the right choice for them or their babies, so they made a moral decision on their own to keep their babies.

There is not one hint in the Bible, or early Christian literature, that Christians should try to make the pagans surrounding them change their laws on abortion and infanticide. Instead, Christians simply practiced their convictions and let their light of life and love shine.

While men and boys continued to outnumber women and girls in the pagan communities due to killing off baby girls and abortions gone wrong on women, Christian women and girls began to flourish because their lives were considered equally valuable and worthy of breath.

They knew what we need to understand.  Laws can never bring about heart-change.  If we are truly pro-life, we should focus our efforts on sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom that He offers women and babies – inside and outside of the womb.


Lady Liberty still calls

My wife and I recently came back from a short trip to North Carolina, our former home, and, as has been our custom for some time, looked to see if we could spot the Statue of Liberty as we crossed the Verrazano Bridge on the way back to Long Island.  Within a day of our spotting Lady Liberty we, and the rest of our nation, was embroiled in a fierce debate on President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and anyone from seven largely Muslim countries from entering the U.S.  As I watched and pondered the furor over this step, that symbol was always on my mind.

Whether you agree with that order or not, you have to admit that because our President, and close to half our nation, feels the urgent need to suspend the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” call of Lady Liberty it is a sad day; a day where we cancel that invitation to millions.  Whether we think the move was wise or not, it clearly reverses a generations-old openness our country has been proud of.

Contrary to what many protestors are saying, there is some validity to the move by our President.  Although no person admitted as a refugee has ever been responsible for a terror attack here there is a real claim by ISIS that they intend to slip fighters in as refugees.  Although no person from any of the seven banned countries has ever been responsible for a terror attack here (and several from countries we have not banned were) six of the seven are essentially lawless with no civil government in control to give us assurance that a reliable in-country vetting could be done.  This is not a move made out of hate or ignorance as many are saying.

Whether the move makes us safer, as many are claiming; or puts us more at risk by playing into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda, as others are claiming, is debatable.  Sadly, neither side seems to want to actually debate the issue.  Both sides seem too attached to insults, protests and shouting to actually talk to each other.

As a Christian, my first line of consideration should be how does our faith dictate our response?  There are many online articles, blogs and explanations that are willing to tell me that answer.  Sadly, from the research I have done, it seems as if we Christians are pretty split on this.  There are many, and I do mean many, articles quoting Bible verse after Bible verse that indicates God’s charge to care for the poor, the strangers, the downtrodden must prevail.  It is amusing that so many progressives are using “clobber verses” to make their case as they have long been infuriated by verses quoted by conservatives as proof-texts.

Articles by evangelicals supporting the order are actually more numerous but there seems to be a dearth of available Bible verses we can call on to proof-text this move.  Mostly they say why the quotes by the opposition are wrong and explain how they don’t apply here.  Many of the articles are thoughtful and raise good points but they don’t easily make their cases from Scripture.

But one pro-Trump response sticks in my mind; that by Franklin Graham.  Graham has pulled no punches for years on his highly negative opinion of the Muslim religion so I am not surprised that he wants to keep so many out; I expected him to support this move.  But his cornerstone line has really bothered me.  He claims that this “Is not a Bible issue.”  By saying that the Bible has nothing to say on this he gives himself, and others, freedom from worrying about whether God agrees with his stance.

I have always thought that it is a bedrock principle of evangelicalism to say that the Bible should inform all areas of our lives.  Granted, there are many things in 21st century life that simply are not addressed directly in Scripture.  We are often left using principles and guidelines.  Sometimes these issues are mundane, like how do we apply (if we should at all) teaching about meat sacrificed to idols to modern issues.  Others, like being unequally yoked, are a bit more complex.  Still others like the treatment of refugees or reactions to slavery are profound.  I am shocked to think that an evangelical leader like Graham has, for all intents and purposes, declared the Bible to be irrelevant here.

Frankly I think Graham has said this because it is hard to support his opinion directly from Scripture.  Worse yet, he has tacitly agreed with critics of our faith that the Bible can be declared irrelevant when it suits us.  This is a door I don’t like to see opened.

So how do we resolve where we should stand on this issue?  Frankly, I am not sure.  But I would like to end with a story.  Many years ago I knew a man who was a strong Christian and who also had a taste for a good bottle of Scotch Whiskey.  He was often urged by his Christian friends to stop drinking.  (He was decidedly not an alcoholic.)  He made the decision that, for every dollar he spent on Scotch, he would donate a dollar to missions.  While that whole stance to me seemed silly at the time (and still does) that is a principle I’d like to suggest we follow:

Whatever side you are on this issue, for every article you read, TV show you watch, conversation you have that supports your point of view, spend an equal amount to time reading, watching and listening to someone who disagrees.  Do this not to accumulate debate points but to try and understand.  You may find that those other guys are not as evil as you think.  I think Lady Liberty would approve.

How Pro is Pro

(Note:  This post is about the subject of abortion so it requires me to declare where I stand right up front so you can be ready to be outraged if need be.  Here goes…I am pro-life.  Yet, more often than not, I find I have the ability to anger my fellow-pro-lifers more easily than those who are pro-choice.  I am not sure why that is but I suspect I am about to do it again.)

Yesterday in the world of pro-lifers was Sanctity of Life Sunday, the day set aside to mark, and lament, the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision in 1973.  The church I attended, like thousands of others, focused the sermon on the subject and urged us all to (a) be pro-life, (b) understand why pro-choice people are wrong, (c) be assured the Bible is pro-life, (d) be active in the effort to eliminate all abortions through political methods, (e) pray for those elusive pro-life judges to be found, and (f) last, but I hope not least, be nice as we seek to make sure everyone who disagrees with us has to do what we say anyway.

That last point is the big pro-life hurdle.  Pro-choice people have no obligation to insist that pro-life people have abortions.  (Please spare me from the horror story exceptions you’ve heard about forcing abortions on those that don’t want them.  They are the pro-choice equivalent of pro-lifers who want to kill abortion providers.)   Pro-lifers can’t be content with just being right though.  The stance more or less requires the imposition of pro-life views on others.

Standard pro-life rhetoric is some variation of “stop abortion now” and works through political means to reinstate that as the law of the land.  This is a huge, tricky and difficult goal.  Whipping ourselves into some sort of anti-holocaust frenzy has proven to be good theater those who are already pro-life but done little to win others to our side.  It seems to me that this battle, and a battle it is, can only be won by getting people to want to avoid abortion.

The good news here is that abortions in America continue to go down and have done so steadily for several decades.  I was told yesterday that over 1.2 million abortions have been performed annually since Roe v Wade.  That is indeed the average.  But in 2014, the last year we have inclusive data, the number is almost 400,000 less than that average and, per capita, less than half the peak number of annual abortions back in 1983.  It appears we are slowly but surely winning this war.  (At this point I will pause and let you think, but please not write to tell me, “even one is too many.”)

The sad fact in this however is that the decline seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the efforts of pro-lifers.  Rallies, sermons, picketing, lobbying and the like seem to be ineffective and in some ways counterproductive as too many of us skip point (f) above, be nice.

There are two factors that play into this decline.  One is science.  The advent of ultra-sound images of the baby in the womb with a beating heart has done wonders.  Who hasn’t seen the pictures proudly shown by some delighted mother or father of the tiny infant in the womb?

The second cause makes many pro-lifers uneasy though.  It is the much freer access to contraceptives, particularly long-term contraceptives available to the poor, often government subsidized.  We want to have our cake and eat it too; no contraception and no abortions.

For me pro-lifers, more often than not, leave themselves open to a stinging charge I heard a few years ago and many times since.  I am told that the vast majority of us are not pro-life, we are only pro-birth.  The pro-birther begins to be concerned only after the woman is pregnant and ceases to be concerned soon after she has delivered.  We are reluctant to address social and economic issues that lead to more pregnancies and similar issues that poor or single mothers face that cause them to be dismayed about rearing the child.

Do I want more pro-life judges?  That would be great.  Am I happy that more and more people, particularly younger people, identify as pro-life?  Yes.  But I don’t think we will see a real sweeping reduction in abortions until we are willing to be more holistic about being pro-life; until we are willing to do the hard, dirty, time-consuming one-on-one work of befriending those who consider abortions and staying with them long past the delivery day.  But listening to sermons we already agree with, congratulating ourselves for right beliefs, and writing an occasional check or going to a rally is so much easier, isn’t it?

Things I don’t get to do

Like it or not, political power in the U.S. is about to shift.  Social liberals have been shoved to the back benches.  We are moving into an era where there will no more fines for religious charities and hospitals, no more transgender-bathroom directives handed down from the White House, no more blatant support for same-sex marriage and legal abortion, no more endorsing of moral and religious pluralism for everybody except overt Christians.

The political sides are shifting.  Democrats who complained incessantly for the last eight years about Republican  tactics of stalling, blocking and refusing to govern are now preparing to do just that. Meanwhile the Republican leader of the Senate is calling those tactics; the very ones he bragged about over the last eight years, “childish.”

In this new situation some cheer, some fear.  In the white evangelical world over 80% are cheering.  The amount of “it’s our time now” commentary I’ve heard in the church is breathtaking.  Not long ago I listened to a godly and well-meaning man wax eloquent about the golden era President Trump is about to usher in.  There seems to be little concern that, among our black and Hispanic fellow-evangelicals, about the same 80% does not agree.

Wherever you and I stand on this cheer/fear continuum, as evangelical Christians we are denied by our faith some of the things that our political selves yearn to do.  Politically this is an accelerated time of mocking, of revenge, of rooting for the other to fail, of false slanted or wildly exaggerated “news,” of putting those who disagree with us in baskets of deplorables.  (Trump supporters – don’t try and deny he does it too; he just puts different people in the baskets.)

All this is off limits to me.  I have to listen to others and be willing to learn.  I have to love people whose political and social stances are repugnant to me and make sure they feel that love, I have to know that I am no more (and no less) in desperate need of grace than they are.  I can’t question the faith of fellow-Christians who disagree with me politically.  In an era where both truth and civility are diminishing I need to relentlessly dispense both.  I need to speak the truth in love and make sure the truth is heard and the love is felt.

Some time ago Tim Keller outlined eight things that characterized early Christians under Rome’s repressive rules:  They opposed bloodthirsty sports and violent entertainment, they opposed serving in the military, they opposed abortion and infanticide; they empowered women; they opposed sex outside of marriage and homosexual activity; they encouraged radical support for the poor; they encouraged the mixing of races and classes; they insisted that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  Isn’t it odd that if you go through that list you will find that today several might be called “conservative” and others “progressive?”    As an evangelical Christian I am not allowed to pick and choose the ones I like.

It’s a lot harder to be a Christian than either a Democrat or Republican, isn’t it?