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.

 

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