Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sliding Into Irrelevancy

The church has been sliding into cultural irrelevance for a few years now. You see this not only in the rise of the 'nones' and the declining number of regular church attenders, but also in how seriously the culture  takes the perspective of the church on moral issues.

I've seen a huge shift in the 15 years I've been a pastor. When I started in church ministry, "I'm a pastor," granted me a degree of deference from almost everyone. Not any more. If anything, it's usually cause for dismissing me. [1]

I think I know one reason this is changing. [2] There has been a seismic shift in how our culture views the church, and it's not merely because we have clashing worldview. It's because Jesus' figurative warning has come true: our 'salt' has lost its saltiness, and it's being trampled (Matthew 5).

The recent revelations of John Crist’s moral failure, addiction, and abuse of power while building a public platform under the banner of “Christian entertainer” is going to function as a placeholder for a lot of other stories of scandal in church leadership that have taken the news cycle by storm in the past few years.

My goal is not to malign Mr. Crist (who has himself confessed to egregious moral failure) or aggrandize anyone else. My goal is to take an honest look at the state of the church in the United States right now, at least in how it is responding to public sin or failure.

This is going to take some time, so settle in.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

When And How Should Christians Publicly Fight For Their Faith?

How should the church’s voice and presence in 21st century culture mirror how God’s messages to the world were revealed by the prophetic voices in the Bible?

I have been wrestling with this for a while. The Bible clearly calls Christians to be “salt” that adds spiritual savor, to be “light,” that casts the light of truth and hope into a sin-darkened world (Matthew 5:13-16).  How do we do this well? What does the proverbial “word fitly spoken” look like? What is within our power to do to make sure we do not lose the savoriness of our salty message? How do we use our freedoms in a democratic system to best represent Christ and spread the life of the Kingdom of God?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Means Define Who You Are In The End: Why "He Fights" Does Not Deserve The Applause Of Christians

I noticed an article circulating on social media recently. It was falsely attributed to a liberal mayor; turns out it was from an article called "He Fights" written by Evan Sayet for Townhall (read the full text here). Here are the portions that are of the most interest to me.
“My Leftist friends (as well as many ardent #NeverTrumpers) constantly ask me if I’m not bothered by Donald Trump’s lack of decorum. They ask if I don’t think his tweets are “beneath the dignity of the office.” 
Here’s my answer: We Right-thinking people have tried dignity. There could not have been a man of more quiet dignity than George W. Bush as he suffered the outrageous lies and politically motivated hatreds that undermined his presidency. 
We tried statesmanship. Could there be another human being on this earth who so desperately prized “collegiality” as John McCain? 
We tried propriety – has there been a nicer human being ever than Mitt Romney? 
And the results were always the same. This is because, while we were playing by the rules of dignity, collegiality and propriety, the Left has been, for the past 60 years, engaged in a knife fight where the only rules are those of Saul Alinsky and the Chicago mob….While the Left has been taking a knife to anyone who stands in their way, the Right has continued to act with dignity, collegiality and propriety. 
With Donald Trump, this all has come to an end. Donald Trump is America ’s first wartime president in the Culture War… And what’s particularly delicious is that, like Patton standing over the battlefield as his tanks obliterated Rommel’s, he’s shouting, “You magnificent bastards, I read your book!” 
That is just the icing on the cake, but it’s wonderful to see that not only is Trump fighting, he’s defeating the Left using their own tactics. That book is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals… It is a book of such pure evil, that, just as the rest of us would dedicate our book to those we most love or those to whom we are most indebted, Alinsky dedicated his book to Lucifer… 
So, to my friends on the Left – and the #NeverTrumpers as well -- do I wish we lived in a time when our president could be “collegial” and “dignified” and “proper”?  Of course I do. These aren’t those times… so, say anything you want about this president – I get it, he can be vulgar, he can be crude, he can be undignified at times.  I don’t care.  I can’t spare this man.  He fights.
The article gives numerous examples of dirty political pool from the Left to back up the author's broader claims. Not every detail is correct, but the overall picture is clear. Politics has always been an ugly game. The writer conveniently overlooks the political Right’s tawdry history – I mean, it's easy to find- and conservative media is hardly devoid of its own fake news, but point taken on how the game is played. It bothers me too.

But what bothers me more is not that the political Right wants to take the gloves off (to whatever degree they were ever on). I just kind of assume that when one lives in an empire, the empire sets the rules. What bothers me more is how many Christians I have seen repost this. Let me see if I have this right:
“It’s wonderful to see that not only is Trump fighting, he’s defeating the Left using their own tactics. That book is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals… It is a book of such pure evil, that… Alinsky dedicated his book to Lucifer…
So, Christians are cheering "using the tactics" of a book of "such pure evil" that it is dedicated to Lucifer. [1] And this is okay because - what, desperate times call for desperate measures? This is baffling to me.

This is not the ethic of Jesus.

This is not the ethic of the Bible.

This is not an ethic taught in seminary, Sunday School, or sermons.

Why? Because it’s not an ethic of the Kingdom. It’s an ethic of the Empire. 

  • Do the ends justify the means? No. “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…” (1 Peter 1:15-16)
  • Is all fair in war? Not for the Christian; Just War Theory demands just means among other concerns. One does not get to use unjust means just because they work.
  • Can one drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of Lucifer? No. (1 Corinthians 10:21)
  • Does one cast out demons with demons? No. (Matthew 12:26-27)
  • Can sheep take on the clothing of wolves? No. Because they become wolves.

Shane Wood, in his book Between Two Trees, recounts  an incident from the life of David (as written by Gene Edwards in Tale Of Three Kings) when David had the opportunity to kill Saul.

Why did David not end his - and their - years of misery? "Better he kill me than I learn his ways. Better he kill me than I become who he is. I shall not practice the ways that cause kings to go mad."

The ends don't justify the means; the means define who you are in the end.

If you play the wolf, you will become the wolf. If you want to use the tactics of Lucifer, don't be surprised if people begin to see Lucifer when they look at you. As the Psalmist said of idols, "Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them." (Psalm 115:8)

There is no path for the Christian other than the path of Christ. We leave the trail of his footsteps at our peril.


[1] Here is what Alinsky wrote: "Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."

Monday, September 9, 2019

From Hurricane Forecast Molehills To Sharpie Mountains

Recently I was talking with a friend who was wrestling with the reality of working with people who lied all the time. “It’s not just big things. They lie about things they don’t need to lie about. It makes no sense.” The fact that they so easily lied about mundane things seemed to unsettle him more than knowing they lied about big things. 

I understood my friend’s frustration. I used to work with a guy who lied all the time to people around him.  He, too, fudged the truth on everything almost instinctively. He would lie to others in front of me all the time - and he knew that I knew he was lying. It didn’t take long before I not only didn’t believe anything he told me, but I generally didn’t trust him. 

Most ethicists would agree with the following premise: as a general rule, lying isn’t the right thing to do. I suspect most of us would agree with the following corollary: there may be exceptions (we would lie to save a life, for example). We might even begrudgingly acknowledge yet another aspect: it’s to some degree understandable (even if it's not defensible) to lie in certain situations when the stakes are personally high. 

Of course you lied about cheating on your taxes when the IRS called; of course you denied the affair; of course you said the bloody glove wasn’t yours. Both the lie and the act that triggered the lie are wrong, but it’s a lie that makes emotional sense even as we disapprove of it on a rationally moral level.

The ideal is that we set our moral bar at the highest level on this issue. The rule is “Don’t lie.” This includes an understanding that genuine moral dilemmas exist in which lying might serve a profoundly greater good (think Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews).  

So, how much lower is that moral bar set when lying becomes acceptable for situations that are not at over genuine moral dilemmas but are instead over issues of serious personal impact? 

How much lower is that already lowered bar set when any situation is fair game to get you out of a merely uncomfortable situation?  

How much lower is that already lowered bar set when someone constantly evades the truth on even the most mundane and inconsequential things? 

And just how much should that concern us? 

What does it reveal about the character of the person in question?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Did ICE Solve Local Unemployment Problems By Arresting Illegal Immigrants In Mississippi?

I have seen a number of articles and conversations about how the ICE raid in Mississippi of the chicken processing plants opened up jobs for locals by getting illegal immigrants out of the employment mix.

I offer the following information to bring some clarity to a number of issues swirling around this topic. I'm not trying to make an argument per se in this post. My goal is to present the context surrounding the situation.

I'm sure we will all draw our own conclusions, but I hope we can at least agree on the facts. 

* * * * *

1. Mississippi’s unemployment numbers have been dropping for years starting in 2012. The state average in June was 6%, though it's been as low as 4.7% one month this year. It was at 10.9% at one point in 2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of population that is made up of illegal immigrants  (0.7% of the overall population) has stayed the same since 2007. 

2. While opportunity varies from state to state,  last year in the United States, there were more open jobs than people who wanted them. 

3. When ICE raided Koch foods, there were signs posted that they were hiring. There were 730 jobs available. Peco foods, which was also raided, is hiring. There were 1,964 in-state job openings on the Mississippi Works job search engine for “meat, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers.” Pearl River Foods posted 200 job openings on Aug. 1 for “cutter/sizer.” That’s 78 percent of local job openings within 10 miles of Carthage, the county seat of Leake County. In July, there were over 40,000 jobs open in Mississippi, a state where 78,000 are unemployed.

4. The plants that were raided were in Sebastopol (Leake and Scott counties), Canton (Madison county) and Bay Springs (Jasper county). There are 82 counties in Mississippi. As of June 2019, Madison ranks 3rd best in employment, Scott is 4th, Leake is tied for 17th, and Jasper is 60th. Here is where 2019’s employment average ranks in the past 30 years for each county:
  • Leake County: tied for 1st for the best employment rate ever in the county
  • Madison County: tied for 3rd highest employment rate ever in the county (they had several good years at the end of the 1990s)
  • Jasper County: tied for 3rd  highest employment rate in the county ( a couple good years, once again, in the late 90s early 00s).
  • Scott County: tied for 2nd highest employment rate ever in the county
5. Beginning in the 1990s, Latinos were actively recruited by these industries in Mississippi with something called the Hispanic Project. The owners of the chicken processing plants wanted to avoid labor unions and the impact on their financial bottom line, so they went for a demographic that would work for dirt cheap. There have been numerous lawsuits over the years in this industry and in Mississippi in particular, but as of today, the work remains hazardous, painful, and at times degrading, accompanied by bottom of the barrel wages. 

6. It is not new news that illegal immigrants work at chicken processing plants in Mississippi. I read an article from 2013 that talked about this, including the insight that Mississippi locals aren’t clamoring to work at these factories (see #5 for why). Baseline salary for a floor worker at Koch foods is a $22,000 -$28,00 a year. Peco foods is probably comparable. Pearl River Foods hires at the federal minimum wage - $7.25 an hour. 

7. The companies can be found guilty of civil and criminal violations for hiring and recruiting undocumented workers.  If a company employs more than ten undocumented workers, they may be found guilty of 'harboring' illegal employees, which is a felony that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. From a legal perspective, the companies hiring this many undocumented workers are guilty of a greater law-breaking (a felony) than the illegal immigrant ('improper entry' is a misdemeanor; unlawful presence is a civil infraction, not a criminal one)

8. President Trump is continuing to do the kind of  'audits' Bush and Obama did, in which businesses that hire undocumented workers are penalized in order to take away the "pull factor" for undocumented workers. ICE audited 1,360 organizations in 2017, resulting in 71 indictments and 55 convictions of business owners and managers. The fines exceeded $100 million dollars. They upped their audits to over 5,000 in 2018.  According to ice.gov, "From Oct. 1, 2017, through July 20, 2018, HSI opened 6,093 worksite investigations and made 675 criminal and 984 administrative worksite-related arrests, respectively. In fiscal year 2017 – October 2016 to September 2017 – HSI opened 1,716 worksite investigations; initiated 1,360 I-9 audits; and made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests related to worksite enforcement."  ICE is looking to do over 15,000 audits in the average year. 

9. A  very small percentage of employers are actually penalized; they have to 'knowingly' hire undocumented workers, and that's hard to prove. When they are penalized, it is almost never jail time.

10. Though President Trump has promoted E-verify, Republicans are very reluctant to make it a federally mandated law. There seems to be a reluctance because of how disruptive it would be to the economy, specifically in industries that heavily employ immigrants (both legal and illegal).

(I will offer my one bit of commentary here: follow the money. Many business don't want a crackdown because it harms their bottom line, and they have clout with their representatives. Fines have forced more than one business into bankruptcy, and that's not good for job numbers in a representative's district. I suspect there will be an ongoing tension here. Even the President has employed undocumented workers through the Trump Organization. I dare say that for every new law passed, there will be  loopholes such that business as usual can continue for the businesses that matter most to the politicians. Commentary over). 

11. Listen to or read the transcript from the podcast This American Life about the monumental shift taking place in the past 40 years in the chicken factory industry. It's insightful. If I were asked to identify "villains,"  the ones that rise to the top are the industry owners. What they have done is pretty shady, highly manipulative, and sometimes illegal. They have created and perpetuated a culture that attracts workers who are 'in the shadows.'

Monday, August 12, 2019

Amazon Prime's The Boys: Super Unheroes Among Us

Amazon Prime put a lot of hype into The Boys. I really, really like the superhero genre, so I geared up for this show with some anticipation.

The main plot line is driven by superheroes
very unlike those to which you have become accustomed. I thought this meant it would be a little more edgy. It was that, to be sure. I just didn’t realize it meant throwing moral caution to the wind to the degree this show does (and from what I understand, it’s tamer than the comics).

I’m not opposed to tales of sin. If I were, I would have to jettison a lot of stories in the first half of a book I love. [1]  I do, however, appreciate a storyteller that manages to tell tales of moral muck without wallowing in it. The Boys likes wallowing at times. You could argue it made it easier to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” characters, [2] and that would probably be a valid observation. You could argue that one needs to see what was sown in order to best understand what ought to be reaped. That, too, would be a valid observation. I would argue that I could have heard and seen much less and the point would still have been made just fine.

Though I don’t usually comment much on the ratings of shows I review, consider that a caution.  This is a well deserved TV-MA.

Now, to the worldview part.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Clarifying Some Mass Shooting Statistics

I am not providing commentary on recent events or gun control. These are just facts I have found in the past couple days that I thought were interesting, and were just a little more nuanced than all the memes sliding through my Facebook feed. 

2. Depending what chart you look at, you will see large differences in “mass shootings” over the years. That’s because some include in-home violence and drug and gang related shootings. Obviously, those chart will show more mass shootings. Don’t assume people are trying to be dishonest when you read different stats. It’s just different metrics. Know the one you are reading.

3. Massshootingtracker.org offers an easy-to-understand compilation of death and injuries in mass shootings by year (they include all incidents, not just the FBI’s 'public attack'). 

4. There is no clear correlation in the US with mass shootings and a particular religion. The vast majority of shooters appear to be irreligious, or at least their religious affiliation is not reported.  

5. It's true - the United States has a proportionately lower rate of mass shootings than a number of countries that might surprise you – Norway, Switzerland, France, Finland, and Belgium, for example (there are a few more). That’s interesting, but it needs a context. Norway, for example, had one mass shooting in six years, but because it’s population is only five million, that one shooting pushed the proportion past us. Other than France, that kind of statistic holds true for the list I just gave.  So we are not as sweepingly bad as some say, but... that may largely be to the magic of statistics. 

6. The strong majority of mass shooters in schools (around 80%) come from homes of “parental absence, separation, divorce, infidelity, parental alcoholism or drug addiction, criminal behavior, domestic violence, and child abuse.” That’s probably the clearest sociological common denominator other than “male.” 

7. Very few shooters were diagnosed as mentally ill, but many had mental health issues. I'm not sure that necessarily sets them apart from the average population. 

8. If you factor in ALL mass shootings (3 or more in any scenario), there is racial proportionality of perpetrators. No one demographic stands out as more likely to be violent.  If you stick to the FBI’s stats, white dudes stand out as mass shooters. That's why you will here different arguments about the race of shooters - it all depends on the metric you use.

10. “Red flag” laws like President Trump has suggested are an attempt to let concerned parties petition law enforcement to take away guns from people about whom they have credible concerns. Even the NRA is open to some form of this.  

12. There is no good reason to believe that  immersion in violent media and games turns non-shooters into shooters. Based on feedback I have received from students who play VR first-person shooter games, I am guessing this debate is far from over. 

13. I did not find anyone that suggested there is a cookie-cutter model to predict a shooter. I did not find anyone who said there is one sociological tweak that will solve the problem. 

14. If I had to summarize an impression after all my reading, it would be this: As far as I can tell, no one who was clean and sober, had a strong sense of their self-worth, and was embedded in a family and/or community in which they felt loved and valuable shows up on a list of shooters. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Why Christians Think Sex And Marriage Are A Big Deal

One of the encouragements of the Bible is that, as much as is possible, Christians are to live at peace with all people. [1] It doesn’t always work – “as much as is possible” - but as someone who is called to be a peacemaker, [2] I feel the need to try to do just that in reference to a subject that is causing a lot of friction within the church and between the church and the surrounding culture.

I am going to offer a succinct presentation of why the church has historically drawn fairly specific boundaries around issues of sex, marriage and sexuality. I don’t expect everyone to agree. I simply ask that you attempt to understand the foundation which has shaped traditional Christian thought for centuries.

I don’t know if a better understanding will or even can bring about more peace in a diverse and tense world.

I just know I want to try.