Borders We Need: Brexit, Boundaries, and Love

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My son recently started saying “me” and “I” with great frequency.  He shouts “Help me” when he falls down, “I want” when he desires a specific activity, or  points to something he’s playing with or eating saying “me, me,” as in mine.  I love it.  He is learning how to develop and express his needs, wants, and preferences.  He is finding himself, he is learning about where I end and he begins, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Recent studies on childhood development suggest that children aren’t cognitively ready to understand the concept of sharing until they are at least three or four.  That doesn’t mean they can’t act kindly toward other children at younger ages, it just means they don’t understand what it means to share themselves and their belongings. To the child soul these enforced episodes of “sharing” are confusing invasions on their fragile and developing personhood.  Yet most of us parents follow our children around, managing their social interactions and begging them to share anyway.  Typically, these futile interactions with toddlers just end in tears for all.

Children can’t share until they first learn to possess.  They can’t fully give until they first understand what it means to receive, and then to own.  Before they can grow into their social skills, they must first grow into an understanding of their individuality.  Learning to say “me” is crucial for valuing “you.”  A key part of developing as people is understanding where we end and others begin.

It is in finding out what it means to be me and not my mother, my father, my siblings, or other family members and friends, that we equip ourselves with the ability to become healthy individuals and learn how to interact with the world.  Relationships, even in their most foundational and early states, need borders.

For those who still believe in the need for defined boundaries – personal and national – in our increasingly borderless world, who recognize that sometimes “no” is said with deep love, this one is for you.

We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.  Self-autonomy is a foundational component of healthy living.  In order to love ourselves we must rule ourselves.  In order to rule ourselves, and protect ourselves from abuse, we must define ourselves.  We need to know what is ours and what is not.  We need to own all that is unique and personal about our body, soul, and mind. As we grow into this knowing, we grow into an appreciation for who we are and who we were created to be, as well as an acceptance of who and what we are not.

We cannot love that which we cannot define or differentiate.  If I don’t know where my body ends and yours begins, how can I properly take care of myself without trying to involve you in the process? If I don’t know what my opinions are in contrast to your opinions, how can I think for myself?  If I cannot express or choose my own likes or wants but rather let you choose them for me, how can I become autonomous?  If I can’t distinguish my rights and responsibilities from yours, how can I adequately protect myself from being used or from seeking to use and abuse others?

Boundaries are a foundational component of personhood, just as borders are an existential necessity of statehood.  In contemplating the current debate regarding the electoral success of Brexit, the British campaign to leave the EU, I was struck by these similarities.

C.S. Lewis writes in powerful terms about the proper love for country and the many ways this type of love can be distorted in Chapter 2 of The Four Loves.  He begins by describing a love of home, a Need-love or natural love, which can develop for the place where you were born or for the many places where you choose to live over the course of your life.  It is a love of the familiar and a love for the unique ways that your home conjours up that special feeling of comfort and belonging.  The foods, the customs, the peculiar ways life is lived, and how it is governed, all of these features uniquely shape the lives of those who dwell therein.

To define these facets of our home(s) and to cherish them is to love them for their own sake. He notes:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.

If foreigners were to invade and rule our home country and try to impose their customs on our way of life, Lewis continues, we would rightly call for a defense.   Likewise, it is not evil to defend yourself against those who would seek to control you – as an autonomous adult – in how to speak, dress, eat, think, and feel.  To merely love your home, your country, for all of the unique qualities and charming familiarities, to be willing to defend your home when threatened because of that love, is not evil.

Of course, love of country can be used for evil, just as love of self can turn demonic and cause innumerable pain.  But to purely love that which is distinct and familiar, to love that which differentiates our homes or ourselves from others, is natural and necessary.

If you cannot define aspects of a country that make it unique, if you cannot say where that country ends and another begins, then how can you love it?  What are you loving, protecting, or identifying with if not specific attributes, perspectives, or customs found within a distinct border?  People need to know where they begin and others end.  They need to appreciate those features that are uniquely theirs, and so, too, do countries.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

We need to define ourselves in order to love others. A significant part of being able to extend beyond ourselves in love for another person is to first know who and what we are.  Without that knowledge we easily become codependent or domineering in our relationships.  After I understand what it means to be “me,” as my son is so crucially discovering at the age of two,  I can understand and appreciate what it means for you to be you.  This is the foundation of empathy.

Lewis aptly observes how this principle works with love for country:

How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

Properly balanced loves – both for who we are and for who or what we identify with – help us appreciate how others are different.  The common bond between all people is not that we share the same ideas or foods or preferences, but that we all possess the ability to have our own ideas, like our own foods, and live out our own preferences.  We share in our ability to love the particular, the specific, the defined, and the uniquely ours.

The problem comes when we want everyone else to think and act just as we do.  Or when we believe that all people should live in the same way and share our same customs, priorities, and values.  Our contemporary society is perilously edging closer to creating a world where borders, be they personal or communal, are no longer recognized or respected.  It is not enough to be left alone to live as we choose in our own homes, or in our own countries, for this is considered an offense or an affront to “humanity.”  But more on that later.

Because we are losing an understanding of borders we are losing an appreciation for differences – ironic in a world that supposedly loves “diversity.”  We cannot understand, appreciate, or defend the differences of other people if we lose the language and freedom that allows us to understand, appreciate, and define ourselves as distinct entities.

There is no need to be threatened by the fact that others choose or value something different than us.  Rather, through the experience of defining our own loves we can come to understand how someone else might appreciate foreign things or come to differing conclusions.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.  True evils result from the debasement of our loves.  One such evil particularly prone to surface in our abuses of how we love our ourselves and our countries is that of a superiority to those who are different.  It is a distortion of our proper loves to see ourselves as greater than others.

Keep in mind the admonition in 1 Corinthians that all members of the body are to be valued and cherished no matter the roles they provide.  That is the image of love we are to follow.  When such love is malformed, replaced by human rankings and castes, and taken to the extremes, it can lead to racism, improper dominion, and dehumanization.

Lewis addresses this type of superiority as “not a sentiment but a belief.” When love of country goes wrong it is no longer is capable of loving the other, and therefore ceases to properly love, or truthfully understand, itself.  He recounts:

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.

Lewis also notes how this type of superiority is tied to our understanding of history.  It is all well and good to derive a certain appreciation for the fables and strengths of our unique pasts. Yet it is downright unloving to believe that any country, just like any person, is lacking the presence of ugly betrayals, persecutions, and failures as facts in their own history.  The mere presence of failure or darkness is no reason to stop loving our countries or our persons.  But acknowledgment of our past mistakes act as a cautionary restriction to temper our appreciation for ourselves and help us view other people or nations with compassion.

As regards Brexit, so far as a person in the UK loves their country for its unique otherness, they have done nothing wrong or evil to assert that autonomy.  Many are suggesting they wish to define and control the borders and governance of their own nation.  Ownership of our personal lives, property, or country – and a desire to protect what we own if trespassed in some way – is not wrong.  It is a natural part of life.

The potential evil is found in those forces who wish for the British to leave the EU because they believe themselves somehow inherently superior to other nations, or to people who come to their country from other parts of the world.  To leave lacking an appreciation for those who wish to remain, to leave lacking respect for those who live differently, is where the danger lies.

No doubt that within the British electorate there are those who sought to define their nation’s boundaries on the premise of hatred and superiority.  But there are also those who merely wished to ensure the right for all British people, regardless of ethnicity or personal history, to choose how to rule and define themselves going into the future.

A question for the British citizenry as they work towards meting out the consequences of the vote to Leave is this: just how many of their own possess hatred for others vs healthy love for country?  As I expect they shall discover, not all people who love their county and wish to possess, rule, and protect it are racist xenophobic bigots.

Knowing yourself, and standing up for the right to control that self is not wrong.  Misunderstanding yourself and your history, believing that you can justly control and lord over others beyond your borders, or to hurt and belittle those who are different within, is the true problem.  Where this evil exists, it ought to be noted and condemned.  You cannot love your country if you hate all other countries, just as you cannot love yourself if you hate all other people.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.  It is not uncommon in the course of our relationships to realize that we need to realign how we interact with others.  Typically this need arises for our own protection.  Sometimes we need to say no because we too often say yes.  Sometimes we need to say no because what is asked of us invades our personhood or our rightly ordered places of autonomy.  Often these “no’s” come after realizing that somewhere along the way we failed to sufficiently understand, define, and advocate for our own limits.

We need to correct relationships that overstep proper borders in order to preserve our own sense of self.  Such redefinitions can be difficult and often are not without some type of relational cost.  Yet the assertion of our boundaries, and the ability to properly rule ourselves, is typically required for our ability to survive and thrive into the future.  Redefinitions of borders are necessary in order to continue loving ourselves, and thereby necessary for enlarging our ability to love others.

In the context of love of country, Brexit provides an example of how a nation might need to reassert their borders, and their control thereof, to ensure survival as a distinct state.  Again, where that redefinition of borders is motivated by a hatred of others it is wrong.  But where it is founded in a healthy love of self it is understandable and legitimate.

One of the great blessings in choosing ownership and love of self is the ability to control how we use and manage our borders.  Merely asserting autonomy is not a decision to shut-out all people or to advocate isolation from the world.  In fact, rightly ordered personal autonomy can help us extend more grace and love to others.

We can love even as we seek to protect ourselves from those who would misuse or abuse us and our borders.  Just because people who transgress our boundaries or who disrespect our natural rights to self-governance are put at a new distance, does not that mean we have to close ourselves off to all relationships.

Those who respect our attempts to redefine our borders as we grow into our autonomy over the years are our dearest friends and allies.  Those who find offense at our choice to live, think, feel, believe, and govern differently are probably not of the sort we should hold nearest and dearest, or allow unlimited access to our lives or countries, in the first place.  The choice to protect ourselves from invasions, even of a bureaucratic nature, is natural and reasonable.

The British people now have a collective opportunity and responsibility to rise to the challenge of redefinition of borders.  This task is not just for those who voted Leave, but also for those who voted Remain.  There is room for a multitude of ways to walk out the process of leaving the EU behind and reasserting the independence of the United Kingdom (or the individual statehood of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

These choices are much like those presented to the character played by Julia Roberts in the film Runaway Bride.  Chronically co-dependant in her relationships, she needed an opportunity to step back and choose for herself something as small as the way she liked to eat eggs, for she had always ordered whatever her string of fiancee’s liked as her own.  In the end she decided she didn’t actually like eggs, not in any form.  This is exactly the kind of process we all go through when we need to step back, individually or collectively, and redefine ourselves and our boundaries.

The task when undergoing efforts to reclaim our borders is to stay grounded in a healthy love for identity of self and to see this self-love as a means to respect and understand others.  This task does not preclude the hardships that come during seasons where we must define and assert our borders.  There will always be prices paid and sacrifices made when reasserting ourselves as other and unique.  But the costs are well worth the price of staying whole and distinct, be it in our personhood or our chosen statehood.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

Without borders we lose our identity and thereby our purpose.  In spite of all these truths, there is a prevailing trend in our society to suggest that borders themselves are the cause of conflict.  Confident and unique identity, be it personal or national, is perceived as a threat to harmony and peace.  Because our loves are often distorted and abused in practice, all loves for the particular are held in suspicion.  It is thought better to leave boundaries aside all together, or to not stand up for them when threatened, for that is surely the best path to peace, harmony, and relationships.

It is argued that we must all come to believe, act, govern, and live the same way, for this is the inevitable and desirable end of mankind on earth.  Those who resist progress toward an enlightened multicultural cosmopolitan borderless society are bigoted, backwards, or even considered aggressive for merely thinking or choosing differently than their neighbors.

Perhaps the precedent for this type of thinking began in our contemporary society with traditionalists forcibly trying to keep a status quo of the past.  But now aggression with no respect for borders belongs to the intolerant tolerance found within our progressive globalism.

Lewis deals with this concept as well, noting that without borders countries and people are left with a “false transcendence,” one where the only recourse left for mankind is in “presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light”:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds–wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine–I become insufferable…If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

If we cannot love and define our country as unique and separate, we risk putting our actions out of order.  Wars are no longer just about protecting boundaries and homes, they are about defending universals.  Relationships cease to be about respecting and interacting with individuals, they are about the idea of the abstract category each person represents to us and all that we wish to derive from those roles (Family, Spouse, Friend, etc.).

This is the type of oppressive thinking which leads us into perpetual warfare and conflict. There will always be an “enemy” somewhere not living as we think they ought (i.e. not like us) or not upholding the values we deem to be best.  Here we find no room for compromise, negotiation, or a retreat within our own borders, for borders are no longer respected.  The only victory recognized by the borderless is one of complete subjugation where all differences deemed unacceptable or threatening within a person or a country are wiped clean.

Whether it is relational warfare or the actual use of military might, wars and conquests based on these attempts to subdue in the name of eternals are the epitome of death and destruction.  They leave us unhinged, disconnected from purpose, detached from unique loves, and free to attack at will.  The justification for our ruler’s choices, or for the way we treat others, gets confused with the will and role of God.

It is not our place to tell another autonomous individual how they must feel, think, believe, or act (although we may certainly enforce a consequence when those actions break laws or disrespect established boundaries).  We cannot force a certain type of lifestyle, set of preferences, or acts of personhood on another at will, even when it is perceived to be for their own benefit.

Likewise, the power afforded to a state, or a union of states, is not meant to force others to be made in their own image.  Such is not the purpose of any government or form of governance.  Unless, of course, it be the divine governance of God, and even He allows room for choice in pursuit of his purposes and the reflection of his image.  Choice to exist apart from Him is a critical component of the highest love, the love He offers to His creation.

Natural love, as Lewis defines love of country, is separate from our higher callings to affection, eros, and the most beautiful of all, charity.  Although Need-love is not the same sentiment as that which we encounter in most of our personal relationships or in our relationship with God, commitments to things like our home and our country act as models to help train or prepare us for accepting and growing into the higher spiritual loves of this life.

We shouldn’t worship or idolize our countries, but we can love them.  As part of that properly ordered love we need to define what they are and what they are not.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

While we continually grow into our true selves, we can change how we use and manage our borders.  Self-awareness and appreciation creates a foundation for relationship and a respect for those whose countries or attributes differ from our own.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

In loving others we must protect ourselves from any deceitful notion that we are secretly better than those who live, think, or act differently than us.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

When we discover that we are in a relationship that has confused the boundary of what is mine and what is yours then it is time to reassert who we are.  Sometimes we must say no, and sometimes we must say goodbye.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

If we try to live without boundaries we lose guidance on how to respect and interact with others.  Lacking self-definition, we risk turning into the very tyrants we fear from abuses of patriotic and self-love.  Without borders we loose our identity and thereby our purpose.

There are so many ways we can choose to manage our edges and our internals, for good or ill.  But in order to give, in order to relate, in order to love, we must be able to define, own, and protect.  These are the borders we need.

 

For further reading on the importance of borders as a foundation for love, I suggest Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

How We Mourn: Grieving in a World of Division, Gossip, and Calls for Action

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Late last Fall I was watching Gretchen Carlson’s show on FoxNews one afternoon (a choice by default due to nap times) when a segment came on about the tragic murder of Amanda Blackburn and her unborn child.  I had heard about the case through a mutual friend on Facebook and prayed for her and the Blackburn family while she was in the hospital fighting for her life.  Naturally, I was interested in what they would say.  Carlson, a Woman of Faith guest speaker who is very open about her Christian faith, interviewed a fellow FoxNews legal analyst about the investigation.

The two, completely unprompted by any shred of known evidence, proceeded to besmirch the name of Davey Blackburn, Amanda’s husband and pastor of a local Indiana church.  They called into question the nature of his testimony as shared in a few national interviews.  They then suggested that his ability to publicly profess a calm hope in the midst of heartbreak was suspicious.

In fact, Carlson, who noted her Christianity in the segment as a sign of her understanding, went on to say that she couldn’t fathom how Davey could honestly have such peace in the face of overwhelming tragedy.  She suggested that his words of hope and perceived lack of emotion called into question the truth of his statements.  In the minds of these “Experts” this was reason enough to suspect him of involvement in his own wife’s murder.

Never mind that the police had already issued a statement publicly ruling him out of suspicion, never mind that less than a week after this segment aired the real killers were taken into custody and confessed.  To them, Davey Blackburn was a suspect of pure evil because his story was too good to believe.  Moreover, they had the audacity to suggest that we, as the general public, ought to think so too.

He was “analyzed” because the lies they wove and the gossip they created in this segment was more sensational and thereby more newsworthy than the goodness of God in response to evil articulated by Davey Blackburn. They didn’t care about truth or about the hope and peace offered by this courageous and faithful man.  They cared about themselves and their ratings.  With that recognition, I was done.  The TV went off and I never tuned into FoxNews again.

For those of you struggling to understand how to respond in the face of tragedy, for those of you questioning how to express hope in the midst of our dismal public discourse, for those of you tired of politicization and gossip who just want room to grieve and pray, this one is for you.

All people matter.∗  On one hand I think I shouldn’t have to say this.  Of course all people matter.  But if we are honest about ourselves, and honest about our sub-culture of choice, that is rarely how we act or speak.  People matter when we like them, when we agree with them, and when we understand them.  People matter when we can sympathize with them or when we look up to them.  People often do not matter to us when they look different than us, when they believe different things than us, or when they do or say something we cannot understand or condone.

Yes, someone may choose to do a terrible thing and they – like us all – will have a price to pay for their evil deeds.  These costs and consequences come in many forms, both temporal and eternal.  But the existence of justice does not change the fact that even our enemies, even the criminals who shoot and maim and kill, are people who matter.

God loves them all.  His grief is not just for the victims.  God’s grief is also for the tragedy of the perpetrators.  He grieves that their life’s purpose turned so contrary to His plan for their story.  He grieves the many ways that we hurt and wound one another as creations made in His image. God does not hate any soul and neither should we.

We may hate the evil in the world, we may grieve for the destruction left in its wake, we may need to enforce a painful consequence against another, but we are not to hate anyone.  Just like God, we grieve for all who are involved in the man-made tragedies of this life, the innocent and guilty alike. All people matter.

Human dignity demands respect for truth.  In the era of 24-hour cable news and internet reporting there is little room for patience in how we interpret tragedies.  Given that most of our news outlets have dismissed reporting in favor of endless analysis, the tendency toward rumors, slander, and gossip (like the FoxNews story on Davey and Amanda Blackburn) runs rampant. It brings us all to low places in our thoughts and words.  I think gossip is one of the most undiscussed yet pervasively  destructive sins in our culture today.

Gossip is not only talking about others without their knowledge or using information about others and their circumstances for our personal gain, but it is about projecting motives or thoughts upon others in a way that transcends our personal knowledge of the situation.  Gossip is talking in an underhanded or unkind way about people we know or about total strangers, often with the intention to wound or suppress.

Because gossip distorts truth and has the potential to hurt and ruin lives, it undermines the innate dignity of humanity.  So much of the way we take in, receive, and relay information about news, be it personal or public, quickly devolves to this low level.

Therefore, when in doubt stay silent.  This is hard to do given the reactionary platform of social media that most of us carry in our pockets and purses everywhere we go. But the fact remains that we don’t need to have an opinion on everything, and we certainly don’t need to publicly express those opinions every time we encounter an opportunity to do so.

I know some charge that silence in the face of tragedy is a sign of disrespect or lack of engagement in the world’s atrocities.  But I suppose the question to ask is, what kind of silence is it? Sometimes the wisest course of action when met with tragedy, apart from prayer and offering condolence, is to remain quiet and leave room for those impacted to grieve. Truth takes time to be revealed in this messy world, and often special or personal knowledge is required for an event or a choice to be correctly understood.

We each encounter many situations in life where we will never know all the facts required in order to speak with authority and certainty about another person or their actions.  We should be cautious in our response to pain and controversy.  Because all people matter, the way we talk and think about them matters too.  Human dignity demands respect for truth.

No one is defined by how they die. It is easy in this world that glorifies the gruesome to view how someone dies as an integral part of their identity.  To do so belittles our personhood and ignores the truth Christians claim regarding the eternal nature of all human life.  Everything that comes before and everything that comes after death is what matters most.  Our deaths, and particularly their means, are mere footnotes to our entire glorious story.

I am not defined by either my most embarrassing failure or my most amazing triumph.  Our eternal beings are a totality of life in both this world and the next.  While it can be hard to remember this perspective, and it is certainly not our place to render the eternal judgement reserved only for God, I think we are each called to look to the entirety of a person’s existence, as best as we know and understand.

Were you kind or righteous on this earth? Did you know and give love? Or did you hurt and use and abuse?  What about after death?  How will you respond when you stand before Jesus and see Him face to face?  These are the questions that matter most.  The way that we leave this world is not the be all and end all of our existence.  No one is defined by how they die.

Hope is real.  It was shocking for me to hear Gretchen Carlson, a woman supposedly so matured in the faith, unable to recognize the peace and hope God gifts to us in in the face of evil when expressed so poignantly by Davey Blackburn.  I am sure he sobbed and cried out to God in private those days following his wife’s death.  He probably still cries when grieving for his tremendous loss.

But he also knows that the pain wasn’t pointless and it wasn’t the end.  He knows what all Christians are meant to claim.  For all the unanswered questions, for all the tragedies of life, and for all horrific acts of violence this world has to offer, we have a profound reason to find peace and healing in the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus Christ.

The awesome truth of Christianity is captured in the hope of a future where there will be no more mourning and no more pain as we worship before the throne of the Lord.  Hope and faith is comprised of our assertion that a future eternity with God is real and that this reality is more beautiful than any joy or delight found on this earth.  Once reunited with our Savior, the purpose of hope and faith are fulfilled and only love remains in its fullest and most complete form. There we shall dwell together shrouded in this love for all eternity.

Some evil is just too awful for us to comprehend a response or know what to say.  That’s why God gives us His words, even when those words come out as groans and silent yearnings in the Spirit.

I believe the Holy Spirit gave me words to remember Christina Grimmie, just as he gave Davey Blackburn the words to remember his wife, so that He could point all of us to the place from whence the shadows fall.  When God uses you for such a powerfully important task, be it person to person or on national TV, it is moving, humbling, and life changing.

Testifying of His goodness in the face of darkness is a miraculous way to embody the message of the Gospel.  It is a working out of the promises God expresses to all of us each time we spot a majestic rainbow after a storm.  Hope is real.

Grieving is enough.  Our culture likes to put emphasis on doing and achieving and not quite as much on simply being.  The temptation when faced with life’s tragedies, big or small, is to feel like we have to “do something” in order to give meaning to the pain.  While calls for action in the face of evil can lead to good things, like sending flowers or donating blood, they can also distract from the heart of the matter.

When the unspeakable occurs, where there is heartbreak and sorrow, there is often very little that can be done to make it better or help the pain disappear. I think this is where our discourse goes astray.  The minute we try to fix the heartbreak in order to give a tremendous loss some kind significance, we belittle the most important calling and response available to us: grief.

Grief doesn’t have to do, it can simply be.  Grief sits beside you while you cry, often in silence.  Grief gives space and time and opportunity to feel the pain.  Grief lets us each process what has occurred in our own ways and in our own time.  Grief walks forward while still acknowledging a loss.

I understand why so many look for answers in the form of social action or public debates, especially in a world that struggles to recognize as truth messages of hope spoken in the midst of grief.  And there may be room, in time, in certain circumstances, to seek action in some way to prevent further evil.  But the immediate aftermath of any tragedy is rarely a time to fix, rather it is a time to feel.

In reality, when faced with wounds created by a great evil, no amount of fixing will ever be full enough to infuse sense into the senseless.  We shouldn’t belittle the importance of grieving, even when that grief is silent, for the sake of some greater “cause.” The cause of remembrance, fellowship, and condolence is sufficient.

Because hope is real, we can grieve with hope.  To do so, in and of itself, is a powerful and consuming act.  Grieving with hope asks us to live within the tension of the already and the not yet.  We can affirm that hope is real and yet still find the losses of today difficult to bear.  Picking ourselves up in the face of tragedy to walk onwards with hearts full of sorrow, yet choosing to remain faithful still, is one of the most powerful forms of Christian witness gifted to man.

In order to give tragedy purpose in our life or the lives of others we don’t need to do any more than what each traumatic situation begs of us in order to bring about healing.  We mourn by acknowledging that all people matter and that human dignity demands respect for truth.  We heal by proclaiming that no one is defined by how they die and that hope is real.  Grieving is enough.

 

∗ This is not in any way, shape, or form a reference the #AllLivesMatter vs #BlackLivesMatter media “debate”.  It is a statement of fact regarding the foundational human dignity and worth of human life that undergirds our society.

Choose Your Own Adventure: A 2016 Voters Guide for Disaffected Christian Conservatives

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If you are an evangelical Christian and an independent conservative, like me, you are probably incredibly torn on how to vote in the upcoming presidential election.  Even for those of you who are used to seeing your vote in terms of a “lesser of two evils,” you are struggling to identify just who or what that lesser evil is.  You are not alone and your uncertainty is completely justified.  Lacking a natural candidate, we find ourselves faced with a multitude of options and none of them seem particularly satisfying.  So in an attempt to clarify the options before us, I offer this voting guide for disaffected conservatives concerned with Christian values in the civic sphere.

I divided the options open to conservative voters into five major choices: 1) Vote for “The Nominee”; 2) Vote for “Her”; 3) Vote for “The Other Guy”; 4) “Choose Your Own Candidate”; and 5) Vote for No-One.  Skip ahead to those sections most prevalent to you, or read through them all at your leisure.

The premise of this guide is that all of these choices are morally available to us in this country, and as such we should give them due consideration.  While I’m sure some “friends” in your social network are pressuring you to make a certain decision as “the only right one,” I don’t happen to believe such a choice exists before us and there seems to be good reasons for almost all, if not all, of these five options.  Use your own discernment and make the choice that best aligns with your conscience, your faith, and your understanding of voting and citizenship.

If you already know who you want to vote for then good for you! Obviously you don’t need help making this decision so this isn’t a piece written for you.

For my fellow undecideds, if this begins to read a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks where nearly every choice leads you to an untimely end, I feel you.  Yet choose one of these five we must, even if that choice is one of inaction.  I hope that this piece can be one source to help you decide in the coming months how to best utilize your freedom to vote (or not to vote) as you deem best.

A few disclosures before we start: I try to note my own biases where relevant, so for the record I am a white, highly educated, Evangelical (Anglican) Christian millennial, currently a stay at home mom, and a registered Independent who resides in the “purple” state of Virginia.  I am pro-liberty and pro-life which often leads me to support libertarian based policies on the economy, immigration, and foreign policy, with deep reservations over some libertarian perspectives on our common morality.

Prior to this election I mostly voted Republican and in the 2016 primaries I supported Rand Paul and John Kasich.  Before becoming a mom I pursued a series of degrees related to politics (international relations), history, and Christianity and travelled to many countries outside the US, especially in the Middle East.  I am, in essence, the personification of a typical #NeverTrump voter.  However, I try my best to outline which of you might find Donald Trump the best choice this year.

Our choices in 2016 – By the candidates:

1. Vote for “The Nominee” (a.k.a. Donald Trump)

Donald J. Trump likely needs no introduction at this point.  It is the pending nomination of this megalomaniac billionaire as the Republican nominee which has primarily created the conundrum we face.  If you are anything like our family, you watched the primaries with a mixture of shock, horror, and denial.  You still can’t believe the same political party so fixated in the past on public virtue has deemed his antics and rhetoric an acceptable representation of their message.

Yet many public figures, several of whom you probably respect, have come to embrace or even actively endorse him in recent weeks.  Personally, I have a hard time looking past his erratic nature, constant lies, childish personal attacks, racially charged rhetoric, irresponsible policy suggestions and obvious ignorance, but apparently not everyone finds these issues to be disqualifying.  Or at the very least, his failures are deemed to be the lesser evil set before us and thus a vote for him is considered a necessary, if unpalatable, choice.

Why Yes

Even if you ultimately choose to cast a vote for Donald Trump, chances are it will be hard to say you support the candidate himself.  This makes you what I think of as one of the “vote for The Nominee” advocates.  Like many of the current leaders within the GOP, you acknowledge you will probably vote for Mr. Trump, but wish to do so with as little of a connection to the actual man as possible.  You remain concerned about a number of issues raised by Trump’s candidacy, but you think a Republican president, no matter how inconsistent or foul, is still a better option than the alternatives, primarily Hillary Clinton.  Ultimately, Donald Trump represents a placeholder: flawed, perhaps, but the best pragmatic option available to you for the advancement of conservative principles in this election.

The most pressing reason why this choice might be right for you is if you are primarily concerned with appointees to the Supreme Court.  You hope to ensure with this election that the court will remain ideologically balanced following the sudden death of Antonin Scalia.  You even hope that the court could turn in favor of conservative judicial interpretation following the potential death of more justices in the next four years (a morbid thought for the otherwise pro-life, I know).

You hope for this because it could have major ramifications on future cases related to critical issues like abortion, religious freedom, gun rights, healthcare, executive power, and immigration.  For some social conservatives and gun rights advocates this could be an important enough issue for you to justify a vote for Trump on its own merit.  You may even find yourself desiring to print out his list of hypothetical nominees and bring it with you on voting day as a reminder for why you are doing this.

It is still a risk to support him primarily on this basis.  For even though Donald Trump has released a very conservative list of potential nominees, he has already left room to negotiate his way out of those names if he deems it necessary.  He also has not really assured with clarity or consistency that any future justice appointees beyond Scalia’s replacement would share this ideological bent.  And even if he did promise that tomorrow, would you believe him?  Perhaps not.  But you argue that with Trump as president there is at least a chance for justices of a conservative nature to be nominated, whereas with Hillary Clinton there is a zero-percent likelihood that she would nominate an originalist with a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-marriage record. You take that argument for what it is: a hope and a prayer.

This brings us to a second reason to vote for “The Nominee.”  To you, general elections for president are primarily about the two major parties and you only want to vote for someone who can possibly win.  I personally disagree with this assessment.  However, if this is how you see the world then you really only believe that you have two choices, not five.  In that case, you must judge which wretched candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, best represents you and/or is best for the country.

Perhaps you will conclude that you trust a Trump administration if not Trump the man.  Perhaps you are so appalled by the worldview or record of Hillary Clinton that you believe she is still worse than what Trump has to offer.  Or maybe you just hear something you agree with in the policies Donald Trump has suggested, and you agree with it enough to compromise any other beliefs or concerns that a vote for him may entail.

If you are wary of Free Trade, NATO, Muslims, illegal immigrants or desire to not just secure the border but also dramatically increase deportations – among other single issue policies like energy, military growth, tax cuts, healthcare, and preserving social security – then you may find yourself desiring to vote quite openly by name for Donald J. Trump, warts and all.  Included in this group are also those so tired of politicians that you believe it would be best for someone lacking political experience to try their hand at the presidency.  In this case you may not need to read on, for Donald Trump is your best candidate for 2016.

Whatever your reasons, some (perhaps many) of you will likely end up voting for this man come November.  If you do, I’d like to add a request from those who, like myself, find that this decision is hard to reconcile with our beliefs.  No matter your reasoning, I ask that you do not let partisan patterns of coloring the world in favor of your chosen candidate lead you to blindness of this man’s weaknesses or keep you from speaking out against the things he says or does which are abhorrent.

It’s one thing to decide to vote for him; it’s another to advocate for him or remain silent in the defense of your “lesser” evil.  If he does win and attempts to make any of his more criminal policy suggestions into reality, such as order attacks on the family members of terrorists or use the powers of the federal government to crack-down on journalists who don’t portray him in the best possible light, I hope you will be among the first to speak out against him no matter who he nominates to the Supreme Court.

Why No

If you have concluded that it is an unacceptable option to elect someone as leader of the free world who is crass, emotionally unstable, unprepared to address the basic demands of the office, and willing to suggest heinous, unconstitutional, and even criminal policies just to claim a news cycle, then Donald Trump is not your candidate.  From the ugly rise of the young alt-right to the embrace of the blatant racism found in his recent attacks against the judge overseeing his Trump University fraud case in California, you are appalled at the type of support this man is receiving.  You can’t fathom such ideas being rewarded with the powers of our chief executive. Bad behavior should be met with consequences, even if they are painful for all involved, not reinforced with rewards.

For some of you, his less than ardent commitment to conservative principles (to put it nicely) might be enough to rule him out.  Yet while you may have deep policy differences with the Trump campaign, chances are your deepest reservations are tied to concerns about his character, rhetoric, lack of experience, and motives.  While all of his policies have been declared by the candidate himself as inherently “negotiable” and as mere “suggestions”, I’m afraid his character is not.  As Thomas Sowell aptly noted, “A man in his 60s has life-long habits that are not likely to change. Age brings habits, even if it does not bring maturity.”

If you were persuaded early on by arguments from Christian leaders like those offered by Max Lucado on decency, or later by Russell Moore on the potential damage that support for this man could have for the fellowship and witness of Christians within minority communities, then Donald Trump is probably not the best option available to you.  You are unswayed by arguments like the one regarding the future of the Supreme Court for you question Trump’s intentions to follow through on his promises.  Or, you see great deal of potential evil in other areas that also concern you like immigration (border walls and racial insults bring to mind the worst of modernity?), or dangers for foreign policy (talked to anyone from the intelligence community lately?) or the economy (tariffs and trade wars not your thing?) that outweigh, or at least render even, any possible gains from a hypothetical conservative court.

It’s probably disquieting to relinquish the possibility of replacing Antonin Scalia with another like-minded justice, but you still cannot find yourself able to support or advance the leadership offered by Donald Trump.  You are willing to take this hit and surrender the future of the Court for the next few decades in exchange for “principled dissent.” It is all in God’s hands anyway, therefore you decide to release this future back to Him.

It’s possible that you are willing to look beyond the social conservative purity tests of pro-life/pro-marriage (for example, you voted for pro-choice Republican candidates in the past).  Therefore you aren’t compelled by a need to vote solely on that basis. Or you find it difficult to use the Trump campaign’s official support of these types of “Christian” policies as justification to overlook the other ways he daily undermines your closely held understandings of public virtue, human dignity, compassion, truth, and leadership.

Maybe you are someone versed in psychology or patterns of abuse and you just can’t bring yourself to vote for a person who so openly engages in dysfunctional and potentially clinical behavior.  Or perhaps, like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, John Kasich and other figures who have publicly announced their difficulty or inability to vote for Trump, you don’t know how you could explain or justify this decision to your children or grandchildren.  You you don’t want them to ever look up to this man or believe his public behavior is in some way acceptable, defensible, or worthy of support.

You are so concerned by the ramifications that a Trump presidency presents for the safety, prosperity, and common decency of this country, or for a compromised ability to witness Christ to a needy world, that you are willing to consider options beyond the Republican nominee. If any of these describe you, I encourage you to keep reading.

2. Vote for “Her” (a.k.a. Hillary Clinton)

I know what you are thinking: “Is this a joke?”  Sadly, I’m quite serious.  Not only is Hillary Rodham Clinton – another candidate not needing an introduction – an option by way of her likely nomination by the DNC, but she is most definitely a very real choice for traditionally Republican voters thanks to the deep problems presented by the nomination of Donald Trump.  Yes, please take minute to let that fact sink in.

As one astute pundit noted, thanks to Trump’s frequent outrageous statements and behavior Clinton is now able to at least appear reasonable, rational, and presidential, if not actually embody those qualities in the eyes of a majority of the nation.  Her June 2, 2016 foreign policy speech highlighted this contrast well, likely the first of many such speeches to come.  But is she really a safer or more responsible choice than Trump?

Why Yes

My guess is that most conservatives who vote for Hilary Clinton will ultimately choose to do so on the basis on foreign policy and not a shared morality.  It is her strongest general election argument and it is no surprise that this is how she has chosen to frame her opposition to Trump.  This might be an option for you if you worry about the temperament of the person who has access to our nuclear codes and our highest levels of intelligence briefings.  If you are a neoconservative in foreign policy and this lens of national security is one of your primary policy concerns, then it should be an easy choice – one that some prominent conservative ideologues have already publicly announced.

But even if you are a critic of Clinton’s often abysmal record, including her tendencies toward ill-fated military engagement, her handling of Benghazi, and her questionable judgment behind the ongoing classified email investigation, she still might prove to be the safer or less frightening choice.  Personally, I lean toward non-interventionist policies and don’t support much in her record.  Yet I am schooled enough in foreign policy and international relations to understand that maintaining a less than desirable status quo is preferable to emotionally charged unpredictability, incompetence, and incoherence on the world stage.  You don’t get to stop the camera and take 2 (or 22) in diplomacy and war.

In fact, stability could be why, in the words of my life-long Republican mother, you may find yourself thinking in awe that “Hillary Clinton might be the best hope we have to save the republic.” I don’t think most Christian conservative voters are looking to permanently switch parties (although Reince Priebus and his ilk are doing an excellent job at making a case for why we should reconsider political allegiances).  Neither are you looking to support most of Clinton’s agenda.

But in an election filled with deeply pragmatic choices of compromise, voting for a candidate whom you believe to be, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, “wrong about absolutely everything, but…wrong within normal parameters,” could be the lesser evil.  Ironically her famous “3 A.M. phone call” argument is even more relevant in this election than ever. Who cares about the Supreme Court if we elect someone who could potentially trigger a nuclear WWIII?

You assess that choosing Hillary Clinton, even if you have a long history of antipathy towards her, probably means lower risks of economic collapse or international political instability.  For those radical conservatives (count me as one!) who support sanity in our immigration policy, it means a movement toward some kind of realistic solution for the millions of undocumented workers who could otherwise be paying taxes, given newfound dignity, and integrated into our society.

Toss in a dash of Alexander Hamilton’s now popular adage, “If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.” Add a pinch of the notion that most of you who vote for, or at least acquiesce to, Clinton in 2016 will almost immediately look for challenger to support in 2020, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty persuasive argument.

I’m not saying there will be some kind of come to Jesus moment where a bunch of us decide the Democrats have been right all along.  Rather I am suggesting that for many of you there is newfound reason to reevaluate your distaste for certain politicians and view them with fresh eyes.  Perhaps you think it’s time to ask anew just why Hillary Clinton is so wrong for the presidency in light of the realities of who the republican nominee is and what he has chosen to represent.

I found the knee-jerk response of prominent politicians like Marco Rubio to reveal our own madness on this matter: just why is Hillary so bad that we must have Donald Trump, a man Rubio publicly deemed “an erratic individual,” a “lunatic,” and “con-artist,” at all costs?  The answer to this query is not as obvious to me as so many die-hard Republican partisans now assert.  If you are considering a vote for Clinton – or at least a non-vote for Trump – I expect you agree.

Honestly, I think most conservatives who will not be voting for Donald Trump, whatever that looks like, have at least unconsciously accepted some, if not all, of these arguments.  Barring a major shift in our national political behavior, either Trump or Clinton will be president.  If you are choosing a #NeverTrump position I’m not sure you can also faithfully be 100% #NeverHillary, even if you decide that you cannot personally cast a vote for her.

Some of you, it’s important to note, share a few key interests with the Democratic Party platform, such as addressing environmental conservation, racial injustice, or gender inequality. It’s ok to be a voter who changes up party support from time to time.  If this description fits you then you maybe this choice isn’t going to be all that difficult in the end.  You may find the Clinton campaign to be a more natural fit given the options.

For those who believe that you must vote for the candidate of one of our two major parties, I think Clinton offers a very realistic alternative worthy of consideration as your version of a “lesser evil.” It is not the most desirable option and it carries significant trade-offs, as discussed below.  For many of you the reality of another Clinton family presidency is downright depressing. But again, when faced with bad options sometimes you have to make less than appealing choices.

Why No

Well, the reasons here to not vote for Clinton are aplenty.  Most of them fall along party lines and you already know them well.  You have likely voiced them vociferously at TV screens and family dinners for years.  However, I think the most important reason to not vote for Hillary Clinton is if pro-life policies are of the upmost importance to you, as well as a whole host of other social issues.  A Clinton presidency will be at least as radical as the Obama administration on issues of human sexuality, marriage, and abortion, if not even more so.  This could have very serious ramifications for Christian businesses, schools, and possibly even churches.

If you care about the Supreme Court appointments first and foremost, then she is definitely not a good choice for you.  If you are concerned with restricting our military presence overseas, believe she ought to be in jail, or find the thought of Bill Clinton back in the White House chilling, then this is also not a great option for you.  If you believe that we can’t possibly survive another 4 years of a liberal political agenda in this nation and Dinesh D’Souza’s political films rank among your favorites, then you should probably rule her out.

None of the positive arguments listed above negate her colorful past full of lots of “gates”, unanswered questions, and evasive pretension.  They don’t fix any real perception of how trustworthy she is, or address concerns about her judgement.  They also can’t effectively be used to defend against her liberal voting record and philosophy on just about every major policy area of concern.  So basically if you aren’t swayed by arguments that you need to restrict your voting choices to two corrupt liars with different letters listed behind their names, or if you aren’t all that worried about potential crises like trade wars, nuclear wars, and unconstitutional acts as manifested in a potential Trump presidency, then she is probably not your candidate.

3. Vote for “The Other Guy” (a.k.a. Gary Johnson)

Gary Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, is the newly chosen nominee for the Libertarian Party.  As of today he is the only other presidential candidate who will appear on the ballot in all 50 states.  Depending on your social network, there is a decent chance that you have never heard of him or see him merely as “The Other Guy.”  Unlike Trump and Clinton, he already has a running mate, another former two-term Republican governor, Bill Weld of Massachusetts.  They are billing themselves as the “governor ticket” and are currently engaged in a media frenzy to try to raise money and get their names out there.

Their first major hurdle comes in regards to the debates, for the committee overseeing the general election presidential debates currently mandates that candidates must be polling nationally at 15% or higher in five major polls in order to be included.  This is a very difficult feat for anyone other than the nominees of our two major parties. For some perspective on the difficulty of this task, Johnson also ran for the Libertarian Party in 2012, winning just shy of 1% of the popular vote with 1.2 million votes.

However, in a recent poll (the only one where his name was even included) Johnson was polling at 11%, so there is still reason to believe the Johnson/Weld ticket could possibly see unprecedented third party success come November.  As an aside, I think if you are even toying with voting for Johnson and happen to be queried for a poll, it is to everyone’s benefit for you to say that you would vote Libertarian just to get a third voice on the stage come this fall.

Why Yes

The motto of the Libertarian Party, as defined by Gary Johnson, is that they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  This is a great choice for you if your primary concern is to see a return to (or a beginning of?) conservative economic principles in this country.  If you fundamentally want to see the size of the government decrease and a more strict enforcement of the constitution, the Libertarian platform is your answer.  Particularly so in this election with both candidates of the two major parties openly campaigning as authoritarians who see the federal government as a vehicle for solving most problems at home and abroad.

Johnson is also a good choice for those who advocate for free trade, more open borders, legal status for immigrants, entitlement reform, and limited intervention overseas.  You may also be drawn to this ticket if executive political experience is one of your most treasured qualities to look for in a president and vice president.  It is also possible that you may choose to support them if you are looking to mix-up the two party dominance of the past and want to make it more commonplace for emerging third parties to gain traction and exposure.

You recognize they are unlikely to win this year, but you also believe that it is precisely this kind of thinking which has kept our electoral options very narrow and unappealing in the past.  You reason that if everyone who said they would vote third party candidate “if only they could win,” actually did vote third party, then someone like Johnson might have a fighting chance for success.  So while you can’t change the entrenched habits of others, perhaps starting this year with changing your own is a step in the right direction.

All these reasons probably sound great to disenfranchised conservatives (especially my fellow millennial voters), and in some ways they really are.  But the Johnson/Weld ticket does come with some serious detractions, especially for voters who previously or currently consider(ed) themselves to be social conservatives or values voters.  You need to ask yourself if you can accept pro-choice candidates who seek to uphold federal precedent on abortion (but who are against late-term abortions), if you can see any benefits in the legalization of marijuana, if you are willing to stop looking to the federal government to define marriage, and if you believe that when a person is engaged in commerce they must serve all customers regardless of any personal or religious objections to the request.

These are not easy questions, and my guess is that there may be some compromises you are ok with and others you will have a really hard time supporting.  Of course, most of these compromises are also found in a vote for Hillary Clinton without the ideological benefit of a commitment to fiscal conservatism, constitutionalism, and limited government. It is also important to note that on most issues (the proverbial wedding cake example is a troubling exception for Johnson) libertarians advocate that it is not the role of the federal government to tell you how to live so long as you aren’t using your freedoms to hurt others.  So while they may support, say, LGBT causes, they aren’t for using something like the public education system to enforce or promote this worldview.

For those of you who, like myself, have lived in blue states for most of your life where it is common for fellow conservatives to not share all of your social convictions, these compromises may seem more commonplace and necessary than they will to our red state brethren.  Also, you may find that the libertarian approach to some of our more contentious social divides presents an attractive way forward in a live and let live kind of way. Johnson/Weld remains a great choice for those of you who are fundamentally concerned about the direction of our economy and the size and scope of our federal government.

Why No

If the core issues of social conservatism are at the heart of your voting choices then Johnson/Weld is probably not for you.  They are both, as mentioned above, pro-choice, supportive of LGBT causes, and are in favor of the legalization of most drugs.  In fact, Johnson himself was formerly CEO of a company that makes cannabis products and openly admits to recreational use of marijuana in the recent past.

While much of their advocacy is through the lens of a limited federal government, on the whole they come as advertised: socially liberal.  If this is not a compromise you are comfortable making, even considering the unpalatable nature of this year’s choices, then you are unlikely to want to vote for Johnson.  The Libertarian Party certainly has some prominent pro-life members (like Ron Paul or primary challenger Austin Peterson who gained short term support this month from the likes of Glenn Beck), but the core of the Party has not been terribly friendly to social conservatives on the whole.

The ideological narrowness of the Libertarian Party has not only restricted their ability to build coalitions in the past, but it also raises questions about their potential effectiveness as a third party moving into the future.  If you are looking to vote for a likely winner, or if you at least want to support a movement you can get behind in years to come that will also welcome your differences of opinion, this might not be your best choice.  Finally, if a robust and global military in the neoconservative tradition is important to you, or if you are deeply concerned about border security, you probably won’t be satisfied with their policy proposals.

4. “Choose Your Own Candidate” (Vote for Another 3rd Party Candidate or Write-In)

While most of the pros and cons of voting for an obscure third party or writing-in a candidate of your choice align with the points I make below for choice #5, it’s worth noting this as a separate option unto itself.  In terms of other third party candidates we may still be in flux with who will run, although it is increasing unlikely – but not impossible – for a new independent challenger to get their name on the ballot in all 50 states.  Another third party candidate of note is Darrell Castle and his running-mate Scott Bradley of the Constitution party, who are currently approved for the ballot in 18 states.

Why Yes

This might just be the best choice for the truly desperate or dispossessed.  If none of the other three candidates listed above are acceptable choices to you, but you still want to vote for someone and not just stay home or leave the ballot blank, then this is the only recourse left.  Of course, the much hyped white knight scenario would certainly ease the conscience for many conservatives, and should such an independent candidate emerge in the next few weeks they would be worth your scrutiny and potentially your support.

Darrell Castle presents another alternative who is, at the very least, actually running for president. If you happen to live in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, or Wyoming, you are in luck!  While he will have limited ballot access, the Constitution Party’s core policies of limited government and social conservatism could be a sweet spot for those in search of a Trump alternate.

If you are comfortable with the way the Constitution Party mixes the roles of church and state and you want to vote for someone who is definitely pro-life, Castle may be your candidate and I’d encourage you to read up on him and his party in greater depth.  For those who like his policies but who will not have his name on the ballot in your state, you can always choose to write him in.  There are also a few other third party candidates who may appear on your ballot, the most prevalent being Jill Stein of the Green Party, whom you can certainly research further.  But if both Hilary Clinton and Gary Johnson are a no-go for you, I think it is highly unlikely you will find much common ground with her liberal/progressive agenda.

Of course there is always the possibility for a write-in of your choice, and I have seen many of you suggesting that you will utilize this option to vote for your favored primary candidate, another politician, or perhaps your favorite dog.  This option is for you if you believe that it is 100% crucial to make a positive vote for someone but absolutely cannot see yourself voting for any of the actual names on your ballot.

Short of a massive write-in campaign, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn of some former Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush supporters attempting to organize such a movement in the coming months, it is unlikely that your choice will get much coverage and it is almost certain, although technically not impossible, that your candidate will not win.  If these facts do not bother you, and if you interpret voting as an endorsement of someone who’s core policies you can support without reservation, then this ultimate “Choose Your Own Candidate” option is definitely for you.

Why No

Alternate third party nominees lacking full ballot access are not a good choice if you believe that your candidate should at least have the logistical and practical potential to win.  If you can’t find an alternate who you are more comfortable supporting than the three major candidates listed above (Trump, Clinton, Johnson), then it is probably best to forgo this choice in favor of the other four options. If you are like me and you are wary of supporting someone who isn’t actually running for president and who hasn’t asked for your vote, then the write-in idea also isn’t for you.

The “Choose Your Own Candidate” route isn’t great for those of you who see the necessity for political compromise and wish to practically walk that out as best as possible given the options before you.  If this is the case you may want to reconsider Choices #1-3 and pick the best (or least bad, depending on your perspective) among them.  If there are certain single issue policies that matter more to you than all else (such as the Supreme Court) then you will also want to pass on this option.

If you question your ability to find anyone who’s acceptable to your own standards outside yourself, then you might want to rule out this choice for the sake of good judgment.  I’ve never taken that option seriously, but yes, apparently there are people in this country who see the write-in option as a chance to write-in their own name or that of their favorite cartoon character.  If this type of behavior bothers you or seems to dishonor and belittle our electoral privileges then you might not want to partake in the practice.

5. Vote for No-One (Stay Home or Leave Blank)

This final choice is one of negation.  You will either stay home or, as Jeb Bush has asserted, show up but leave the presidential section blank and still vote down ballot. It is a choice that is made by millions of Americans every election season for a wide variety of reasons.  While the typical assumption for low voter turnout is disengagement in the political process, if you are reading this guide and yet still consider it an option this stereotype does not apply to you.  It is not unheard of for alienated groups to use the negating power of a non-vote for political purposes.  You may also choose this route as a deliberate act of no-confidence when faced with unacceptable choices or an ambivalence over which candidate you’d rather see in office.

In my own decade of political activity I have personally chosen this option for a number of different reasons. I did not vote in the 2008 presidential election, in part because of a cross-country move that August and in part because of a personal distrust and dislike for either candidate. Over the years I also have not voted in a large number of primaries and mid-term elections because, quite frankly, I had more pressing personal matters and major life changes (moves, marriage, babies) to attend to than figuring out my absentee ballot options or making the necessary arrangements to get to the polls on election day. I don’t regret these choices, they were not usually a decision made of out political ignorance or apathy, and I don’t think less of myself as a citizen or a person for not voting in those elections.  Yes, I sleep great at night!

My guess is that I am not alone in such supposedly delinquent behavior, for many of you have probably done the same over the years for one reason or another.  For others of you this particular option is a new choice under consideration as you have participated in every election from the school board on up for decades.  You may have previously thought it irresponsible or disrespectful to not vote.  Yet you are considering this choice anyway due to the unprecedented lack of acceptable choices set before you this year.

Why Yes

Personally, I see a lot of shaming out there related to this choice, or sometimes any choice other than voting for one of the two candidates representing the major parties.  The option to not vote might be for you if you don’t find these shaming arguments compelling or if you are willing to look beyond the pressure of your peers to make a choice for yourself.  I think one of the best pieces written about this option for Christian voters is by Russell Moore for Christianity Today.  If you haven’t read it yet I highly encourage you to seriously weigh his points made here.

In essence, if you find it morally compromising to vote for a pro-choice candidate but also cannot support Donald Trump for any number of deeply held matters of conscience and morality, choices #4 and #5 may be the best or only options for you.  In your assessment, the lesser of two evils argument does not apply when you can’t clearly weigh one set of evil over another.  Perhaps you have taken to the oft quoted teaching of Charles Spurgeon, “Of two evils, choose neither.”  In this sense you may feel more than ever as strangers in this world and you really don’t see much benefit, political or otherwise, in supporting either Trump or Clinton.  But you certainly see the great harm in choosing both.

While you probably take your civic responsibility seriously, you take your obligation to faithfully represent Christ more so.  Through your personal discernment – or alongside your particular branch of the church – you find it irreconcilable with your beliefs to support any of the candidates on the ballot this year.  Maybe you have compromised your values in the name of pragmatism in years past to only to fail to see any fruit come of these choices.  Or maybe you are just wary of joining a movement whose leader routinely disrespects others, uses the basest of methods to stir up conflict or strong-arm support, and vilely expresses appreciation for authoritarian and violent behavior.

Perhaps you come from Christian traditions that were mostly apolitical prior to the rise of the religious right and you question if that was really such a bad thing.  Maybe you think the loudest way to speak up for the downtrodden and the dispossessed, to represent conservative Christian values and socially conservative causes in this country, is to stay silent this year.  Much like the powerful image used by the pro-life movement in it’s advocacy, you wish to use your freedom to not vote in order to publicly stand against the status quo.  You will use this decision as your version of a piece of tape over your mouth, announcing through silence that neither candidate of the major parties is the right direction for our country.

This might be a good option for those of you who aren’t keen on third parties or write-ins, and who would otherwise vote Republican or Democrat but can’t justify voting for either candidate this time around. It is also a good choice for those of you who abhor the limited nature of our two party system and who rarely feel represented by either major party or the handful of third-party alternatives. Regardless of your reasoning, you recognize that not voting (or voting third party/write-in) will only impact the general election by omission.

You are essentially conceding that other people will decide who our next president will be.  What you are not conceding is that your choice to not vote somehow hinders your ability to advocate for your causes within the political process through other means, or silences your ability to voice opinions both before and after the election. Winning isn’t everything, and just because you aren’t backing a potential “winner” doesn’t mean you have lost your right to engage in our public discourse.

Contrary to arguments that not voting for Donald Trump, be it through any of the options discussed in choices #3-5, is a vote for Hillary Clinton, you believe that your vote isn’t owned by a specific party and that every time you go to the ballot box you have the freedom to choose whomever you deem best.  The logic of “any non-Trump vote is a Clinton vote” is only true if you were otherwise obligated or assigned as a Trump voter courtesy of his party affiliation.

As a registered independent, I find this type of reasoning offensive and reject the manipulative motives of those who use it to solicit votes.  But perhaps, being a conservative who would otherwise vote for the republican nominee were he not quite so odious and unfit this year, you recognize that in not voting for Donald Trump you are in some ways helping the cause of Hillary Clinton.

Teasing through all of these accusations, you still likely assert in the end that your vote is for whomever your actually voted for and no other.  Or in this case of non-voting, you see that it is an active choice to not participate and therefore not a magical vote cast for whichever candidate others don’t want to win.  Rather you are pursuing a stand alone civil action of dissent from the whole process.

Still, my guess is that you, like me, have considered many of the pros/cons of a Clinton presidency listed in choice #2 and have made (or will make by November) some kind of peace with that potential outcome should it arise, regardless of which option you will actually choose. I think it is an imperative for any #NeverTrump AND #NeverHillary advocate to contemplate this outcome.  If you skipped over reading choice #2 then perhaps you should reconsider and at least more carefully weigh this one in light of your objections to Donald Trump.

Regardless of who wins you will probably work on some level to challenge the agenda of either administration and you will look to support a new candidate in 2020.  You likely believe that not having voted for either Trump or Clinton makes it easier for you to act with integrity as a transparent voice for your beliefs, your concerns, or your favored policies within your own sphere of influence.

Finally, you decide that claims it is somehow selfish or disrespectful to veterans, suffragettes, or civil rights activists to not vote in a presidential election present a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom in our country.  To you, the key to exceptionalism in American society is first and foremost our constitution, the bill of rights, and the freedoms they protect.  This includes the freedom for civil disobedience, dissent, or inaction.

When a soldier risks their life for this country, you believe they are sacrificing for our security and for our continued freedom, not for the obligation of all citizens to vote, or to vote in a specific way, or to vote for a predetermined number of political parties.  It’s the freedom to have all five of these choices in an election that contributes to our greatness. I am grateful to live in a society where we are not in any way obligated or forced to vote in a particular way.

Therefore, we aren’t actually compelled by some invisible gun to make a choice for one candidate or another, and this is a fact that you count as a blessing.  Moreover, your concerns about both candidates run so deep on a moral level that were you forced to choose one or die, you might just choose death.  Sorry to be melodramatic, but isn’t that how some comments on the subject make you feel these days?  Thank goodness that particular hypothetical scenario lies only in the minds of people who believe they must bind themselves to a narrow selection of options in order to make this choice.  If you are considering the alternative options of #3-5 then this type of thinking doesn’t apply.  You are free to choose any of the options before us that best fit your heart, soul, and mind.

In the end, you believe that while federal politics is important, you care a whole lot more about your integrity, your family, your church, and your local communities.  You see potential for how you can be a good citizen, a good neighbor, and perhaps most crucially, a good Christian, without voting for either Trump or Clinton in 2016.

This is your version of rendering unto Caesar this election  While you openly acknowledge that our next president, whomever he or she may be, could come with great cost for you or the work of the church, it is a decision that brings you peace.  You have peace because is a decision that you can explain to your children or grandchildren without reservation.  You have peace because it is a decision that you have confidence in before the thrown of God.  Having decided all this, you are ready to move on to whatever is next as you strive to be salt and light in this world.

Why No

It should go without saying that if you are one of those people who sincerely believes that you must vote for either the Republican or Democrat nominee in our general elections, if you genuinely believe not voting is somehow disrespectful to those who sacrificed in order to grant voting rights to others, or if you think that there is some kind of moral obligation for all citizens to at least vote for someone, then this option is not for you.  If you are still compelled by a lesser of two (or three) evils argument then I think you are best served by choosing between the candidates listed on your ballots.

If you are concerned about local races, especially if you will have any congressmen, senators, or governors on your ballot in November, then you will probably want to rule out not turning up to the polls as an option, even if you decide to leave the presidential section blank.  Just because you can’t find a candidate for the general election doesn’t mean you need to reject all forms of voting for the year.

Like most of the options listed above, if the core of your voting decision has to do with the future of the Supreme Court over and above all other concerns and costs, then you will likely want to forgo this form of political dissent. Also, if you discern that one of the major candidates presents a clear and present danger to the future of this country (and I suppose that assessment could fall on either side) it might be in your best interest to vote for the main challenger to that percieved threat.  This may especially be the case if you happen to live in a state where the race appears to be close between Trump and Clinton in Oct/Nov.  You may therefore feel the need – possibly at the last minute – to help tip the election in one direction or another.

Concluding Thoughts

Voting is often an intensely personal decision with very public implications, especially when the stakes are so high and the debate so open.  I think this year is destined to get even more emotional as the discussion about the leading candidates and their causes will continue to center on personal attributes, qualities, and history, instead of on specific policies. The greatest challenge we have before us is ultimately not in deciding which course of action best suits us and our calling, but in respecting those fellow Christians who choose differently.

In a world of less than ideal options, many of which can be legitimately critiqued on the basis of faith and morality, we will likely not all come to identical conclusions.  Yet we can remain unified as a church.  We can seek to place the kingdom of heaven before the kingdom of this world, learn to reconcile our differences, and strive to put Christ first in our lives. Chances are that no matter who wins in the presidential election 2016 we will need each other more than ever before in the coming years.  So let’s not loose sight of unifying the fellowship of believers, even as this fellowship walks out our civic duty in variant ways.

The Persecuting Church: Conservative Evangelicals and the Support of Donald Trump

bible-and-flag-iiThe years proceeding the 2016 primary season have been fraught with contentious, and often troublesome, developments regarding the moral and religious direction of our country.  In all honesty, I was prepared for a persecuted church. What I was not prepared for was the advent of the persecuting church.

The rise of Donald Trump as the frontrunner for the GOP is not, in retrospect, a very surprising event.  As a people Americans love to be entertained, especially when we mix entertainment and politics.  As a people we worship the material things of life, and are all-too-eager to point to accumulated wealth as a marker of good character. Add to this the political inefficiency and decay of the last seven years, the leadership vacuum it has created, and high levels of dissatisfaction found across our nation and the stage was set.

When people are hurting, when people are fearful, when people feel impotent and unheard, they are primed for the rise of a demagogue. And a demagogue who is a former reality TV star, who also happens to be “very, very, rich” by his own boasting, seems tailor-made for such a time as this.

What is both shocking and saddening in recent months is the widespread acceptance and promotion of Donald Trump’s candidacy among evangelical voters. We all witnessed the embarrassing endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr. – son of the founder of the Moral Majority – who praised the Christ-like qualities of this vain and unrepentant owner of strip clubs and casinos.   I sat disappointed, yet not surprised, when Pat Robertson – the former leader of the Christian Coalition – all but kissed Donald Trump’s golden feet while hosting him at Regent University.  We now watch day after day as sundry Evangelical pastors and leaders throughout the country declare their support for Donald Trump’s supposed leadership strength.

I say “supposed” strength lest anyone forget that we serve a God whose ultimate act of strength was to become man and die a painful and disgraceful death on a cross.  That is the type of strength we ought to admire, one of humility and sacrifice, not the image of Nietzsche’s strong man who disparages, tramples and mocks anyone who stands in his way.

Donald Trump’s Christian supporters like to claim that we don’t vote for a pastor-in-chief, rather we vote for a commander-in-chief.  Leave aside the fact that many of these people are the same ones who four years ago were suspicious of Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon.  Or that in 2008 and every day since a large number of these church-goers have berated Barak Obama regarding his lack of Christian orthodoxy, his ties to Jeremiah Wright, or even suspicions that he is actually a Muslim.  Leave aside the immense hypocrisy of a people who claim to care about moral issues in politics such as abortion or the sanctity of marriage but who willingly disassociate themselves from any vision of political leadership that asks our president to lead us with wisdom in justice and truth.

What person of integrity, what person of faith, can honestly say that the qualities they look for in a commander-in-chief are any of the myriad of despicable character traits that Donald Trump exhibits every day in this campaign?

I think the true answer lies in one of Donald Trump’s biggest, most repeated claims: that he is a “winner.”  Evangelical Christians have been anything but winners of late, most especially those who associate with the remnants of the political movement created by the religious right of the 80’s and 90’s.  We’ve been losers in popular culture, losers in the legislature, losers in the economy, and losers in the Supreme Court.  So why not join with the one man who is telling you that you will be a winner?

He will win for our economy and solve your financial troubles.  He will win in foreign policy and crush the enemies you fear.  He will win so that all people will declare Merry Christmas come December irrespective of what they are actually celebrating.  He will win on the border and with immigration so big that you won’t have to learn Spanish or worry about people taking jobs that you don’t really want to do in the first place.  He will win for Christianity and make sure all those martyrs beheaded in the Middle East and those martyrs in Chickfila drive thrus across the nation are avenged and put back where they belong – on top.  It’s time for Christians to win again!

Never mind the cost of all this winning.  Never mind that Jesus taught us that his followers would not win in this world.  In fact, we ought to expect to be loathed by this world.  Never mind who gets trampled upon as long as we win so huge we can’t even believe it.  Illegal immigrants and their legal children, all Muslims regardless of character, women who don’t want to be objectified, liberals, homosexuals, journalists, critics: none of these people matter as real people upon whom we ought to show compassion and treat with respect so long as we can win.

In supporting Donald Trump, American Christians say to the world that they mostly just care to win; it does not matter who gets hurt or damaged along the way.  In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will use their privilege and their voice to threaten, intimidate, and bully anyone who is different, anyone who disagrees.  In supporting Donald Trump, Christians say that they will persecute those who persecute them. 

Jesus said we ought to bless those who persecute us.  Donald Trump says we ought to condemn, sue, disparage, and beat down those who persecute us.  Here is a cold, hard truth: in the ethic of Donald Trump, Jesus Christ was a dope and loser who was so stupid and lacking in support that he ended up penniless and dead in a cave instead of being a winner like The Donald.   

The danger of evangelicals who support all the nonsense that comes pouring forth from this man’s mouth transcends typical political discussion.  This is not a question of Republican vs. Democrat on issues of policy or ideology.  This is a question of basic human dignity.

You can’t dissociate yourself from the vile filth that fills Trump’s Twitter feed in a constant stream of insults and ignorance in order to justify support of him.  A vote for Donald Trump IS a vote for his tarnished character, a vote for the inculcation of untruths, and a vote for his methods of appealing to the most despicable parts of our nature.

Some Trump supporters like to point out that no one is perfect, no not one.  But do you honestly think that means we should go out there and find someone who actively promotes all the worst that our base humanity has to offer and vote for that guy?

Are all politicians flawed?  Yes.  Are some politicians very flawed, if not corrupt and criminal? Most definitely.  Yet the logic does not follow that we ought to support for president a fiend who would prey on the fears and disappointments of our hearts to win our vote, just as his casinos prey on the lusts of our bodies to win our money.

In staring down the potential future of the persecuted American church I have moments of fear but am mostly filled with peace.  The testimony of millions of saints who have gone before us and faced the worst horrors the world could devise yet still stood for Christ with grace and dignity warms my heart and gives me hope that we could do the same should our time come.

It is this new future we taste of today, a future of a church so obsessed with success, so desiring to win at any cost, and so willing to trample others in the process, that I now fear.  I am ready to face persecution for the cause of Christ.  But I will not stand idly by as our brothers and sisters choose a path that leads us to persecute our enemies, both real and imagined, in the name of Christ.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that it does not ultimately lie in the hands of con artists, liars, and despots.

This is not the first time, nor sadly is it likely to be the last, that Christians will fall victim to the whims of those in power who wish to exploit our weaknesses for their personal gain.  But this season is deeply convicting for those who, like me, see the dangers without more clearly than the dangers within.

It reveals to us in the most humbling of ways that God uses a multiplicity of means to refine his church.  Most importantly, these political developments act as a clarion call for our ever-present need to do exactly what was spoken over millions of Christians earlier this month on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”

Confronting the Tashlans of Our Time: Wheaton College, Miroslav Volf and the Name of Allah

There are many ways to engage and respect people of different faiths. However, in our efforts to bring forth temporal harmony and find common ground, how do we know if we have gone too far?

This timeless question emerged in recent days amidst the controversy of a Wheaton College professor’s attempt to reach out to the Muslim community by pledging to wear a hijab for the duration of Advent.  As part of her plublic comments regarding this decision she noted that she was inspired by the fact that Muslims and Christians possess a unique bond across these two faiths as “people of the book” who, in the words of Pope Francis, “worship the same God.”   She is now suspended from teaching duties pending a review of these statements and how they align with the college’s statement of faith; a decision considered prudent and necessary to many and offensive to others.

Sadly, as a former graduate student of Wheaton College, I am not surprised to hear these reports of theological confusion on the nature of Allah sprouting at the very institution founded as a bastion of  Christian orthodoxy.  Several years ago I witnessed first hand the planting and tending of these thoughts on campus, notably led one evening by the renowned theologian Miroslav Volf.  In certain ways I feel for this suspended professor, whose statements are only the most recent product of a culture of thought kindled and allowed to smolder unchecked for many years.  The following is an edited version of my thoughts during my time at Wheaton, thoughts which seem all the more prescient given current events.

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In the opening pages of C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, comes to believe that he sinned against Aslan, who is rumored to have returned. However, Lewis has already revealed to his readers that this so-called Aslan is false. The creature paraded to the Narnians as their lord and savior is none other than a mere donkey dressed in the skin of a lion.   Unable to do more than mimic the movement of a lion behind a smokey shroud, this false Aslan is created and controlled by a talking Ape who seeks to manipulate the creatures of Narnia into doing evil for his personal gain. Even though the new commands mouthed by the Ape seem inconsistent with the message the true Aslan proclaimed throughout all of time, King Tirian’s submission to the lion’s sovereignty initially leads him to accept these rumors as true and to bow before the farce.

While the king awaits his fate for defying the will of “Aslan”, the Ape explains to the gathered creates of Narnia that he has inked a new partnership with Calormene soldiers from the south, formerly sworn enemies of Narnia, and suggests that they are now friends and compatriots. A little lamb who could take the Ape’s words no longer then chose to speak up:

“I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash…They kill men on his alter. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed before the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet. The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But you others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormene’s wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for You Know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan; Aslan is Tash.”

The resulting effect of his announcement upon the gathered Narnian beasts is described by Lewis as one of sadness and defeat. Through the pronounced creation of an imagined diety later named Tashlan, the Ape turns the entire meaning of the Narnians’ history and beliefs on its head. To their king, this effect did not go unnoticed nor could he let it stand unchallenged.

…as Tirian looked round on the miserable faces of the Narnians and saw how they would all believe that Aslan and Tash were one and the same, he could bear it no longer.

“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an ape.”

It is from the single claim, that Aslan and Tash are one, that Tirian was able to see past the charade and reveal the very heart of the Ape’s lie.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture at Wheaton College by the well-known theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School Miroslav Volf where he introduced the central thesis of his latest book, Allah: a Christian Response.  Namely, he addressed the claim that Muslims and Christians both worship the same God, who is one.

The heart of his comments touched on the notion that, for all practical purposes, the god most Muslims have in mind when they speak of him and pray to him is the same as that of most Christians when they say and do the same. His argument, simplified, focuses on how both faiths are monotheistic and teach that God created the world, that God is good, and that God will judge the world.  Therefore, a Muslim’s understanding of Allah, while not quite equivalent to that of the Christian God, is similar enough in conception and essence to argue that we pray to and worship the same deity, albeit in different ways. His purpose for this conclusion was to provide common ground so that he could forge a new friendship between Muslims and Christians; one where we can focus on our similarities over our differences, one where we can create a peace between our faiths, one where Allah and God are one. Beginning to sound familiar?

Volf chose to “bracket out” the question of eternal salvation and/or damnation. As pure conjecture, I would guess that by deciding to “bracket out” this factor he intended to make his comments more palatable to his audience.  Or rather, in his mind he was choosing to avoid what seemed to be the more dangerous and controversial ground so that the rest of his message might be more deeply considered by those in attendance. Yet the implications for salvation deeply concerned me throughout his entire address and continue to do so today.

It is in the testimony Lewis provides for his controversial character of Emeth, the infamously saved Calormene, that I found a clear answer to Volf’s implication that his work can be considered separately from questions of eternal life. As Emeth describes to the returned Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve regarding his loss of joy and eventual turn to Aslan:

“And most of all when I found we must wait upon a monkey, and when it began to be said that Tash and Aslan were one, then the world began to be dark in my eyes. For always since I was a boy, I have served Tash, and my great desire was to know him and, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name Aslan was hateful to me.”

Emeth does not come to love Aslan through the newly forged concept of Tashlan, nor do any of his fellow Calormenes. He thought of this union as an abominable mockery of Tash and “wondered that the true Tash did not strike down both the Monkey and the Tarkaan [his leader in the Calormene army] with fire from heaven.”

Emeth was a true believer. He was earnestly seeking eternal truth and therefore he could see the notion of Tashlan for the lie that it was because he understood that if you really believed in either Aslan or Tash you could not accept this amalgamation without fundamentally altering the character and essence of both.

Volf’s new claims regarding the nature of Allah arise from a desire, as he explained that night, to make way for respectful dialogue between faiths. He asked us at the time, “should we not want to treat others as we would also want to be treated?” In this query he is very correct, for just as Tirian heard of the notion of Tashlan and felt compelled to cry out against it, so too did Emeth. Our similarities are not found in a common God, not in the way that Volf’s work seems to direct us. Instead, our similarities are found in a mutually zealous search for, and adherence to, the Truth.

The search for the Truth is one which commands we respect the differences between us, for we understand that these differences dispute ideas that hold eternal value and therefore carry with them eternal consequences. Our beliefs are not platitudes to be molded or manipulated by the shifting winds of culture and politics. We uphold them as absolutes, shout of their truth in the wilderness, and respect those who respect the fact that we really mean what we say.

What alarmed me most about that lecture – and, truthfully, what I am deeply ashamed of for my own part – is that there was not a single person present that night, at an institution which is supposedly one of the epicenters for evangelical thought, who was willing to stand up and say, “You lie. You lie damnably.” Instead we all just sat there and simpered and smirked for our celebrity guest. Perhaps some of us silently looked on with distrust or disagreement but, like the Narnian beasts, a great many that night appeared to accept his message as truth. And why shouldn’t they? For it was coming from a renowned authority figure with a Phd who possess excellent stage presence and the ability to tell stories that will make your heart melt and your reason fly away.

I believe those of us who knew better failed that night. And this is a lesson I hope to learn from and never repeat. There is a notion out there among the educated elite that we need strive to meet cleverness with cleverness. That the only way to question or address the teachings of someone as well endowed intellectually as Volf is through his own methods and in his own language.

Being clever in apologetics isn’t always a bad idea. But there are some times when the best thing to do – the most truthful thing to do – is to simply stand up and say “You lie.” Many of us have lost sight of the value of speaking the truth with a bold simplicity. In fact, I fear we are often guilty of tearing apart some of those little lambs whose stuttering comments strike more deeply at that which is true and good than anything our fancy terms and wry comments could ever achieve.

We also forget that in cases such as this lecture any challenge issued is not fundamentally about changing the mind of someone as well prepared and clever as Miroslav Volf. Rather, it is about speaking out for the sake of the people who are listening to him and, when there are no ears to hear, speaking out for the sake of defending truth itself.

The power lies not in the messengers or in the ways they choose to articulate the message. The power lies in the living Word, in the Truth. Tirian was attacked, silenced, and imprisoned by the Ape and his Calormene companions for speaking out, but in time he was rewarded for his attempt to defend the true faith and the true Alsan.

We need speak out because there is much to loose. Tash, in the story, did turn out to be real. He was not just some idea to be manipulated but a distinct and evil creature who did not care for his followers and was destined to be vanquished by the might of Aslan’s roar.  Lewis may have chosen for Aslan to save a single Calormene with the line, “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Yet he also continues on with Aslan directly answering the claim that he and Tash are somehow the same:

“It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kind that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and it by Tash his deed is accepted.”

Volf built upon this notion of deed of good versus evil in his lecture, particularly in drawing parallels between modern day Muslim terrorists and Christian crusaders who so mercilessly slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099 AD.  He claimed that such blood thirsty acts must certainly be examples of worshiping the same god of violence regardless of who they claimed to be perpetrating the acts for. Where Volf and Lewis clearly differ is that Lewis saw no need in the penultimate end of time to somehow enlist or defend other deities in order to forge common ground between good Calormenes and the Narnian creatures so beloved by their Creator.

It is one thing to creatively imagine that our sovereign God, in his great mercy and love, will extend salvation to those who genuinely seek after him while on this earth.  It is quite another to claim for the sake of an entire religion that their god and ours are one and the same. Such efforts, while undertaken to forge peace and understanding, will do nothing but distort the very truth of God and lead us away from eternal and lasting peace.

I do not know whether Lewis is correct in depicting God’s salvation as inclusive of those who do good acts in the search for truth, nor is it something we will ever truly settle among us on earth as it is God’s judgment to exact. But I am confident that we are commanded to have no other God than the one who is revealed to us in holy scripture. And as much as there may be similarities between God and other deities such as Allah, there are even greater differences. When we trample over these differences to such an extent that we can no longer speak of them in meaningful terms, we risk our ability to openly proclaim the unique wonders of our God to a world who so deeply hungers for him.  Moreover, once set down this path, we may come to no longer believe in these foundational differences as needed or even as true elements of our faith.

Our words, both of love and truth, will not always be met with open arms or respect. But we are not here to be loved by this world. We are here to follow after the heart and, yes, the fate of our Lord and Savior as he was scorned and rejected and killed.

May we be little lambs who know the truth well enough to boldly question its perversions, even while being spat upon. May we be Tirians and Emeths and not falter in our ability to call out these efforts of diluting delirium for what they truly are: lies. May we so love our Creator that we find the strength and wisdom to love all his creation in ways that engage our neighbors with kindness and compassion in truth, just as he seeks after all of us with faithful abandon and selfless love.

tumblr_ljk9y3kbjn1qgjpkaI am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
Isaiah 45:5-6

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An earlier version of this post first appeared here, published in Spring 2011

Misplaced Indignation: Religious Liberty, America, and the Church

For the past several months I have looked on silent and increasingly confused as Christians of all walks have indignantly decried the perceived attacks on religious freedom in this country as outrageous, unexpected, and contrary to the very essence of the American way of life.  After soaking in statements from conferences in Washington DC, cable news punditry, and the ever verdant blogosphere alike, I cannot help but wonder at the biblical naivety expressed by these self-fashioned defenders of my faith.

In case perusing what colloquially passes for “the news” has not been high on your to-do list of late, religion in American is under attack by the Obama administration.  From the stifling of military chaplaincy to the enforced funding of birth control in the HHS mandate, religion – and particularly Christianity – is now commonly said to face unprecedented levels of persecution in this, God’s intended “Shining City on a Hill.”  Founded as a Christian nation, Obama and his immoral leftist and irreligious cronies now threaten the very intellectual foundation of our country.  We perilously stand before the obliteration of this longstanding religious fiber that once defined America – a feat that may be accomplished in as little as four years. Something must be done; and that something is to vote Republican (i.e. for Mitt Romney) in November.  So the story goes.

My above sardonic tone aside, I actually agree that many of the current concerns about restrictions on faith are valid (in substance if not always in rhetoric) and if you have yet to investigate these issues I challenge you to research them further.  What irks me, however, about the emerging breed of religious freedom advocates is the continual insistence that these “persecutions” are shocking or that it is somehow unfathomable for Christians to face challenges like this in – of all places – the United States.

It is true that America has, in the past, had the good fortune of being heavily influenced by Christian teaching and morality and that this influence bred a certain respect and reverence for religion in the public square.  Just pickup the oft cited Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville to survey one case in point.  Additionally, many of our founding principles were undeniably shaped by Christian thought, even as the weeds of competing philosophies took a rather defiant residence in our national character.

My own hesitation to use these observations as definite signs that we are – or ever were – a “Christian nation” aside, even if it was unquestionably true that America has a uniquely divine identity, would that fact be enough to warrant the current level of moral outrage expressed over attempts to curtail the free expression and practice of religion in this country?  Somehow, I doubt it.

Call me old fashioned, but when striving to understand how best to live out my faith I occasionally turn to the eternal wisdom and instruction of the Bible.  You know, that book in which George Washington makes no appearance (unless you are reading from The American Patriots Bible, in which case I think we may have greater problems to tackle than just the subject of this post).

What I find therein leads me to think that we might have the focus of our indignation all wrong.  Instead of foaming at the mouth over the the loss of our nation’s moral identity in the hands of malevolent socialists gone wild (I speak as a conservative to a presumably mostly conservative audience), maybe we should take some time to put our own house in order and confront the weaknesses and debilitating comforts of the American church.  As radical as it may sound, perhaps what we find in the holy scriptures are commands that direct us, when countering those who wish to spit on us or silence us, to approach our enemies in love and with a willingness to suffer for Christ, and not just to pontificate for Christ.  Perhaps what we hear are calls for our own repentance.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Christ repeatedly speaks to us in the Gospels of the inevitable persecution his followers will face and the ways we will be hated by the surrounding world.  And while he challenged us to stand firm in the face of such trials, I don’t recall the passage where we are commanded to spit right back at them and shamelessly mock their unjust and sinful ways.  When we face persecution, like the martyred saints of last two millennia, we do so not for the defense of a nation or a political ideal, but in defense of our faith and in solidarity with the global body of Christ.  We do so as those who can face slaughter with a peace that passes understanding, and as a people who know that their true home is not of this world.

In Matthew 24 Christ says that in the end days, as we await his return, we “will be hated by all nations because of me.”  Mind you, he does not say that we will be hated by most nations, especially those in the 10/40 window, but never in God’s favored land yet to be founded and named after an Italian cartographer (or a British merchant, depending on your preferred historical cup of tea).

The severity of persecutions faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe far outweighs the inconvenience posed by our present legal battles in America.  Yet many of our beleaguered spiritual siblings manage to bear their crosses with a greater grace (and much less surprise) than anything we have collectively mustered in recent months. If facing the consequences of refusing to pay for someone else’s birth control is too much for us to handle without sputtering about the “injustice” of it all, how could we ever hope to stay strong and pious if we were to encounter threats of imprisonment or death?

I find little in the Word to assure me that America will ever be free – in both the civic and private realms – from a widespread hatred of righteousness.  This does not mean I believe those who speak out against restrictions on the practice our faith are wrong or misguided, so long as they carry out their advocacy in a Christ-like manner that honors, not besmirches, him and the testimony of his bride.  We cannot forget that the tone of our rhetoric is never to be set by the opposition, as much as the legacy of the Andrew Breitbart’s of this world may suggest otherwise.  Last time I checked, anger was not a fruit of the spirit.

Acknowledging that persecution is a fact of life for all Christians does not necessitate a passive response.  What it means is that we should never be shocked – or indignant – when we encounter the hatred of the world, especially when we find it in our country, our states, and our neighborhoods.

There is strength yet to be discovered in prayer-filled patience, quiet persistence, and the power of a still small voice.

The popular insistence within evangelical circles that the United States is a Christian country has rendered the ministry of the American church soft.  We have become lazy in our evangelism, dull in our catechism, self-indulgent in our theology, callous in our cultural critique, and fractious in our devotional unity.  But why bother fixing the problems of the Christian church when you can just fix the problems of the “Christian” nation instead?  Political involvement is a facet of life Christians should take seriously, but never as a replacement for the work of the church, and never with a belief that one party or one politician can somehow remedy the problems that Christ himself refused to address or combat.

If our country has morally declined in recent decades to clear the way for seemingly unprecedented attacks on our faith, perhaps the real blame lies, well, with us.  Perhaps our problem (or at least the key source of our latest bout of cultural and political decrepitude, the fallen nature of man aside) is not with those pesky feminists, multiculturalists, socialists, leftists, rightists, abortionists, sexists, atheists, fascists, racists, and every other kind of -ist or -ism that may come to mind after all.  Perhaps the real problem facing America is a tepid church – a Laodecian church – that only gets hot to defend its little kingdom and only gets cold when it has to look the other way for the sake of social or political pragmatism.

If there were ever a cause for righteous indignation, a church with so many resources at its disposal and so little societal fruit just might be it.