Friday, December 27, 2013

A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment | umc holiness

A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment | umc holiness:

The main characteristic of the liberal wing of the UMC is an over-reliance on emotionalism and emotional appeals rather than fact-based, rational assessments. They confuse their personal feelings with Christian love.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Jesus, Mary, the virgin birth and you and me

I wrote this in 2004 and published it on my first blog, which is no longer online

The Gospel of Matthew chapter 1, verses 8-25:
   This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.    But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”    All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” —which means, “God with us.”    When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
The birth of Jesus to a virgin mother was big news last week, being the cover stories of both Time and Newsweek. However, both stories were really unserious, superficial treatments, heavily biased against the Gospels accounts of Jesus's conception to the virgin Mary. Time's story was less offensive since it did give a small voice to defenders of Christian orthodoxy, but Newsweek's story was wholly prejudiced against this ancient claim of Christian faith and made no attempt to disguise that fact. Its writer cavalierly dismissed the whole idea and even indicated that the Crusades - which began a thousand years after Christ - made the notion of the virgin birth is untenable. He didn't explain what the connection was, though. Time's and Newsweek's stories quote at length a handful of scholars who say the virgin birth of Jesus was simply an invention of the early church, intended to impress the pagan cultures with how similar Jesus was to their heroes. But if that's true, it's a stunningly inept invention. It's ridiculously brief and bereft of details, especially of the lewd and lascivious kind that the Roman world loved so much. In fact, the entire Christmas story of the two Gospels is so sparingly told that it can be well summarized in one good paragraph. As a work of fiction the two Gospels' accounts are unimpressive, but if the Gospels' writers are relating truthful history then no details seem lacking. The Reverend Mark D. Roberts, who earned his BA and Ph.D. from Harvard, respondedto the articles,
You can count on the fact that when major Christian holidays approach, secular 'news' sources will publish stories that seem to undermine the whole point of the holidays.
My own principal objection to the two magazines' stories is less what they say (all of which I studied in seminary) than their disdain for the case for orthodoxy. Time did not fairly present the affirmative case for the virgin birth and Newsweek did not present it at all. In fact, Newsweek actually calls the biblical narrative "dubious on almost every score" and insists that claims of faith and facts of history are contradictory. By the end of either story a reader can only conclude that this ancient doctrine is fit for nothing but the middle of a baloney sandwich. As Dr. Roberts explains, these stories therefore serve to,
... stoke the fires of unbelief. When read by a non-Christian person, they may confirm the suspicion that Christian orthodoxy has no grounding in actual historical events. Thus the story of Jesus is not the story of God’s entry into human experience, but simply one story among many religious and philosophical options. After all, if the baby Jesus was really God in the flesh, then all people ought to take him seriously whether they’d like to or not. But if the account of his miraculous birth was fabricated by early Christians ... then non-Christian folks can feel free to continue to ignore Jesus.
Let me briefly review the nativity story to place the discussion in its broader context. Mary was a young woman, probably 17 to 20 years old, when she became engaged to Joseph. After the engagement but before the marriage, the angel Gabriel appeared to her. The first chapter of Luke records,
[T]he angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." 
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" 
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:30-35).
It is true that stories of unusual conceptions were not uncommon in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Newsweek article points out, accurately, that Augustus Caesar was said by Roman cultists to have been miraculously conceived.
Atia, Augustus' mother, was said to have fallen asleep when Apollo, taking the form of a serpent, impregnated her. That there was physical contact is suggested by [Roman biographer] Suetonius' assertion that afterward Atia "purified herself, as usual after the embraces of her husband." The baby, Suetonius writes, "was thought to be the son of Apollo"; on the day of his birth a senator in Rome "declared that the world had got a master" ...
In all such Gentile stories, though, the encounter between the human parent and the god (or goddess) is presented like that between Atia and Apollo: a physical union similar to or often identical with what ordinarily happens between mortal husbands and wives. But the Gospels do not describe such an encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit simply "overshadows" Mary. There is no hint of a union between God and Mary. Jesus comes to exist as an unborn child simply because God wills it, not from anything God does to Mary. Compare what Gabriel tells Mary - "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" - with how Genesis tells of the creation of the world:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Gen 1:1-2 NIV).
The Romans thought that to impregnate Augustus's mother that Apollo became a serpent - the Freudian image is surely so obvious I need not elaborate - but the Jews and the early church simply affirmed that God's power hovered or overshadowed creation and creature to enact God's will. The Newsweek writer admits that "scholars of antiquity have yet to find another example that precisely mirrors" how Mary became with child. In fact, there is no other ancient example that even roughly approximates the Gospels' story. Bewildered, overawed but faithfully obedient, Mary replied, "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said." Whatever the Holy Spirit did to make her conceive, we are not given a syllable of further explanation.

When Joseph learned that his fiancee was pregnant, he decided to send her away without disgracing her publicly. After Joseph had made up his mind, he dreamed of an angel. The angel filled Joseph in on how Mary’s pregnancy came about. One clue that Matthew is relating facts and not fiction is his citation of Isaiah to buttress his claim of the virgin birth of Jesus. In that passage, the Judean King Ahaz was having some severe national-security problems which Isaiah, prophesying for the Lord, told him will soon be favorably resolved. Ahaz was skeptical and even declined God's offer of proof.
Then Isaiah said: ... Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Matthew quoted this passage but used the Greek translation of Isaiah, hence Matthew says a "virgin shall conceive" rather than the more probable meaning of Isaiah's Hebrew words, "a young woman." The kicker is that no first-century Jew understood Isaiah's prophecy as predicting anyone, Messiah or not, would be born to a virgin, and Jews today don't read it that way. In fact, the face reading of the passage is self-evidently against such an understanding, for Isaiah described a woman who was already pregnant at the time Isaiah spoke to Ahaz. (Some scholars think Isaiah was referring either to his own wife or Ahaz's wife, but we do not know.)

Hence, it makes no sense to claim that Matthew made up the virgin birth of Jesus, and then associated Isaiah's prophecy with the fiction, because the Jews of his day didn't think Isaiah's prophecy referred to the Messiah at all. In fact, making the connection is stupid if it is false because, as New Testament scholar N. T. Wright points out, "The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones," which would have repelled the Jews whom Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, wanted to reach. Claiming Jesus was born of a virgin was foolish to claim falsely, but mandatory to point out if true, even if the fact worked against Jesus's acceptance by most Jews. Wright asks. "Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed them to be literally true?"

Matthew likely attempted to connect Mary's virgin status with Isaiah's prophecy to salvage Jesus's birth story from being scorned by devout Jews, who would have been repulsed by it. Again, no sensible case for inventing the story can reasonably be made; its inclusion makes sense only if it is true. There are actually many intellectual and historical reasons to affirm the literal truth of the Gospels' affirmation that Mary was a virgin when God became incarnate inside her womb as the baby who would be born the Son of the Most High, but here is another point made by the Rev. Tod Bolsinger :
[T]he most important reason for asserting the Virgin Birth is not historical ... but theological. The Virgin Birth is God’s way of personally entering his creation. The Creator that brought the universe into being, personally entered creation to bring restoration. God did not choose a human being, imbue that person with his Spirit and stick him on the cross ... . God himself did the job. God did not just send his Spirit, God himself saved us, was with us.
We also need to be aware that confessing Christ born of the virgin Mary is not an entry into saving faith. Believing this doctrine may result from, but never causes, justification before God. Note that both Matthew and Luke affirm the birth, then move on and never bring it up again. The central affirmation of all the New Testament is that Jesus is Son of God, not specifically son of a virgin. Peter’s confession of who Jesus is - "You are the Christ, the son of the living God!" - makes no reference of Jesus's virgin mother. The center of Christian faith is that Jesus was raised from the dead, not born of a virgin. Even so, Jesus's conception by the power of the Holy Spirit brings forth a perfect union of his being of God and being of humanity. Jesus is nowhere presented as a hybrid product of divinity and humanity. Jesus is not a half-and-half person. Jesus is affirmed as fully human and fully God. Unlike the semi-divine figures of pagan myths, Jesus was not a demigod with a human side corrupting his divine being. Neither was Jesus simply a human being with an exceptionally rich spiritual life. Jesus was Immanuel, fully God, fully with us, fully human.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

The massive improbability of life

I only took bonehead biology. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that as severely improbable as the uncaused appearance of life is in the primeval earth, how much more unlikely would it be that a single cell organism would both: 

(a) randomly become organized from non-living compounds into a living organism, and

(b) also be capable of mitosis, or reproduction. That is an incredibly complex process and the first cell had to get it right the first time. 

That self-replicating life just spontaneously popped into being is to square improbabilities to the point of incredulity. No wonder that MIT mathematician Murray Eden is quoted in the article that the chance emergence of life from non-life is impossible. 

More here:

See also, "A Chemist Tells the Truth." 
How do you get DNA without a cell membrane? And how do you get a cell membrane without a DNA? And how does all this come together from this piece of jelly? We have no idea, we have no idea. 
  • BONDING: You need 99 peptide bonds between the 100 amino acids. The odds of getting a peptide bond is 50%. The probability of building a chain of one hundred amino acids in which all linkages involve peptide bonds is roughly (1/2)^99 or 1 chance in 10^30.
  • CHIRALITY: You need 100 left-handed amino acids. The odds of getting a left-handed amino acid is 50%. The probability of attaining at random only L–amino acids in a hypothetical peptide chain one hundred amino acids long is (1/2)^100 or again roughly 1 chance in 10^30.
  • SEQUENCE: You need to choose the correct amino acid for each of the 100 links. The odds of getting the right one are 1 in 20. Even if you allow for some variation, the odds of getting a functional sequence is (1/20)^100 or 1 in 10^65.
The final probability of getting a functional protein composed of 100 amino acids is 1 in 10^125. Even if you fill the universe with pre-biotic soup, and react amino acids at Planck time (very fast!) for 14 billion years, you are probably not going to get even 1 such protein. And you need at least 100 of them for minimal life functions, plus DNA and RNA. 
Let's take a look at that 10^125:1 odds of getting a single protein working by chance. Just to eyeball the number, here it is: 


This is a 10 followed by 125 zeroes. Excel spreadsheet writes it as 1E+126.

Now bear with me: The area of the earth in square inches is 790,453,002,240,000,000 (790 quadrillion-plus). In Excel, that is rendered 7.90E+18 (to two decimal places). 

How many earths would it take to equal 10^125 square inches? 

It would take 1.27E+108 earths.  That looks like this:

000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planet earths.

Now imagine that all of these earths are covered completely with Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies, which are close enough to a square inch in size to work for illustrations purposes. One single cookie is missing its chocolate outer coating. One. Single. Cookie.

Your task is to find that odd cookie. You can pick up, examine and return one cookie per second, and we will assume there is no time between cookies and that you will never need to take a break for any reason.

How long will elapse before you have examined half the cookies? The answer is 1.59E+118 years. 

The universe is said by scientists to 14.5 billion years old. So to have only a 50 percent chance of finding the defective cookie, at random, turning over one per second, you would need to spend 1.09E+108 times as long as the universe has been in existence. 

These calculations knock flat the idea that “given enough time” anything can happen by random chance. There just has not been enough time, by quadrillions of quadrillions of years, for even a half-chance to get one functional protein by chance, and you need at least 100 proteins for even the simplest unicellular organism. Plus DNA and RNA, which have their own probability issues. 

So since "random chance" simply does not work, what's the answer to how life began?

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why life could not have emerged without God

Why life could not have emerged without God

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”
–Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary biology, as quoted in his autobiography.
And more - read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Here is a Christmas-related quiz I put together a few years ago. First four pages are the questions, the last six are the answers and explanation. Covers the Bible, religious traditions and secular history. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Truthbomb Apologetics: Video: Is Jesus Really the Only Way to Heaven? by Chad A. Gross

Truthbomb Apologetics: Video: Is Jesus Really the Only Way to Heaven?

If same-sex marriage is okay, why not polygamy?

Ronald G. Lee -- The Truth About the Homosexual Rights Movement

A homosexual man takes the lid off what is really going on inside the gay-rights movement. As for gay-friendly churches, he writes:
Although to this day McNeill, like all gay Christian propagandists, avoids the subject of sexual ethics as if it were some sort of plague, his life makes his real beliefs clear. He believes in unrestricted sexual freedom. He believes that men and women should have the right to couple, with whomever they want, whenever they want, however they want, and as often as they want. ... 
The reason that the homosexual rights movement has managed to pick up such a large contingent of heterosexual fellow-travelers is simple: Because once that taboo is abrogated, no taboos are left. I once heard a heterosexual Episcopalian put it this way: If I don't want the church poking its nose into my bedroom, how can I condone it when it limits the sexual freedom of homosexuals? That might sound outrageous, but if you still believe that the debate is over the religious status of monogamous same-sex relationships, please be prepared to point out one church somewhere in the U.S. that has opened its doors to active homosexuals without also opening them to every other form of sexual coupling imaginable. ...
And there is no danger of ever hearing a word from the pulpit suggesting that bar-hopping is inconsistent with believing in the Bible. 
Here is my question to Methodist ministers officiating same-sex "marriages" or supporting those who do: Is there any marriage taboo left? Suppose a man and two women came to you wanting you to "marry" the three of them. That such "marriages" are not permitted under state law is not relevant, since you or your ideological allies have performed same-sex ceremonies in states where they are not recognized.

So: a polygamous "marriage" (or if you prefer, ceremony of union or blessing): Would you do it? If not, why not?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jesus was selfish?

But the trick is discerning what it is that actually helps the poor. Too often we wind up treating them like pets rather than people who are, and should be related to, as responsible moral agents on their own.

And unfortunately, churches are frequently targets of what I call the "professional poor," people who make most of their actual living in scamming charitable givers. In fact, the actual majority (by far) of the supplicants who come to my church are that category.

It's no wonder that many people are tapped out and suffer from compassion fatigue.

In the biblical model of helping the poor, the primary responsibility always rested with blood kin, then with the clan, then with the synagogue (later, church), but was never seen as the responsibility of the government. We have utterly reversed that today so that most people see primary responsibility for assistance resting with faceless government agencies.

But whenever someone wants to lower government spending to leave more money in the hands of private citizens, with which they could then increase personal assistance to the needy, well then then we are told we hate the poor and have no compassion.

So Colbert's cute quote wears a little thin. Paying taxes does not equal Christian compassion.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Four stages of inviting

Most people go through four stages of inviting people to church, I think. Here are 4,000 words worth of visuals.

Stage 1: Church members who figure that everyone in town knows where the church is and can come if they want to. It's sort of like Yogi Berra said about declining attendance at ball games, "If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?"

Stage 2: Members become willing to invite, but don't want the existing nature of the congregation to change. So they invite only people with whom they are already comfortable - people they already know and who are are similar to them in education, income, lifestyle and age.

Stage 3: Members who realize that similarity with people they invite is much less important than whether the other persons are connected with a church already. These are members who want to be "fishers of people" but are not very interested in fishing in aquariums, or fishing for members of other churches. They know that unchurched people are whom Jesus said to take the Gospel.

Stage 4: At this stage, church members enthusiastically offer Christ with anyone whom the opportunity presents. If the others turn out to already be connected, that's great, and if not, they are invited.

Church rebirth, part one

Very thought-provoking, these.

The watch characteristics of the thriving church:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Christian Faith and Making War Notes

Westview symposium on CBS affiliate

Here is the segment the local CBS affiliate broadcast last night of Westview UMC's symposium on "Christian Faith and Making War," regarding the potential war with Syria. We held it Sunday at 5 p.m.

I hope to have content of the session posted here in the next day or two.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Prayer for this time of looming war

I wrote this prayer for Westview's Sunday-evening prayer service on the eve of Congress' return to session to debate and vote the resolution of war against Syria.

Any other church that wishes to use it, feel free. I do not ask for author credit, but I do ask that if you modify it please do not indicate authorship.

Prayer for our country

Leader: Almighty God, you rule all the peoples of the earth.
All: Inspire the minds of all women and men to whom you have committed    the responsibility of government and leadership in the nations of the world. Give to them the vision of truth and justice, that by their counsel all nations and peoples may work together. Give to the people of our country zeal for justice and strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will. Forgive our shortcomings as a nation; purify our hearts to see and love the truth.

We pray especially for these persons in positions of authority:

President Barack Obama, for wisdom, resoluteness, clarity of purpose, and insightfulness of vision.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for our president.
Secretary of State John Kerry, that our relations with other nations may be honorable and just.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for the secretary of state.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, that should war come it may be fought justly and the lives of the innocent be protected.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for the secretary of defense.
General Martin Dempsey and all leaders of our military, that our service men and women may be sent into battle prepared and soundly led.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for the leaders of our armed forces.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, that the House of Representatives be led wisely and that debate be unhindered by partisan purposes.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for Speaker Boehner.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that deliberations of senators be bold,  for the common good of all in justice.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for Senator Reid.
All members of the Congress, for sober decision of great responsibility, especially the representative of this district, [name of your district's House member] and Senators [names of your state's senators].
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for Representative [name] and Senators [names].
We plead with you, O Lord, to rest your Spirit upon the nation of Syria, that the innocent suffer not, that right be established in justice and peace. Be very present with all affected there by the sword of war and with the refugees dispossessed by violence. We raise up to you especially our brothers and sisters in Christ in that war-torn land.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for the people of Syria. Be the fortress for your children there.
Holy Lord, you commanded us to pray for our enemies. So we raise to you Bashar al-Assad, who does not know your liberating grace and love. We pray God that he and others leaders of his regime will come to acknowledge you alone as saving Lord, placing their whole trust and confidence in your redemption through Christ Jesus, and set aside implements of destruction, that your justice may be better established upon the earth.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, for Bashar al-Assad.
Hear our prayer, O Lord, and let our cry come unto thee.
In humility we bow before you, O Lord, for you alone are our Savior and Redeemer, our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria and Just War Symposium, Sept 8 - Agenda

Here is my proposed agenda - a lot to fit into an hour and a half, I admit, but this is only an introduction to the topic.

1. Explanation of the question: Christian faith in relation to making war
        a. Why this question is uniquely a problem of Christian faith
        b. Scriptural evidence
        c. The tension between keeping peace and maintaining justice
2. War and its context
        a. War as a political act
        b. “Intentional lethality”
3. Templates for considering the question of going to war:
        a. Realpolitik
        b. Holy war
        c. Just War Theory
4. Four points of the compass in addressing war v. peace:
        a. Moral-philosophical
        b. Ideological
        c. Prudential
        d. Consequential
5. Just War Theory
        a. Just cause for and beginning of war
                i. “Only resort”
                        1. Self-defense against violent aggression
                        2. Protect innocent third parties, but
                                a. The Peace of Westphalia, 1648
                                b. The UN Charter
               ii. Establish a more just peace
              iii. Prevent a greater evil than the war itself entails
              iv. Reasonable prospect of success
               v. Recognized authority
        b. Just conduct of war
                i. Proportionality of means to achieve the just end
               ii. Discrimination of violence
              iii. Forbidden acts (Hague, Geneva conventions and other protocols)
              iv. Responsibility of moral action
        c. Just ending of war
               i. Enduring peace
              ii. Restraint of the victor
             iii. Reconciliation among warring parties
6. The context before us: civil war in Syria
        a. Demographics of Syria and what they mean
        b. The Assad regime
        c. The insurgents
7. Stated purposes of the proposed war with Syria:
        a. The president’s written request to Congress -- Syria’s use of chemical weapons:
                i. “Threatens the national security interests of the United States”
               ii. “Constitutes a threat to international peace and security.”
              iii. Use of force necessary to
                       1. prevent/deter proliferation of WMDs within Syria or across its borders
                       2. Protect the US and other nations from WMD threat
       b. Prior declarations by the administration about use of force
               i. Not to bring about regime change
              ii. Punish Assad regime for chemical weapons use
             iii. Deter other nations from using WMDs in the future

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Christian Faith and Making War - a Symposium and Prayer Service


As you know, President Obama has asked the Congress to authorize him to order military strikes against Syria. Congress will take up the issue when it returns to session this coming Monday. Because of this fact, Westview UMC announces:

Christian faith and Making War - Symposium at Westview UMC, Sunday, Sept. 8 at 5 p.m. Prayer service for our government, our nation and the people of Middle East to follow at 6:30. 

7107 Westview Drive, Fairview, Tenn.

Christian traditions have a long history of theology about war and peace going back to the formative years of the church. At 5 p.m. Sept. 8, the day before Congress returns to session to debate going to war with Syria, Westview UMC will hold a symposium on what Just War Theory is and what it means.

The purpose is to help people learn and use faith-based tools and the insights of church thinkers over the centuries to decide their own positions on this looming war. This and the prayer service afterward will be non-partisan. We will be devoted toward "faith seeking understanding," and imploring the grace and wisdom of God to guide our Congress, our president, our national policy and to rest also upon all the people of Syria, especially those already suffering from the war there.

I will send out more information as the date approaches. I hope that you will come be part of this time to be united in our baptism and seek the presence of God in the extremely serious decisions our government will take next week.

Just for the record, I am a retired U.S. Army artillery officer with extensive military operations experience, including service at the Pentagon as a plans officer. I hold a degree in philosophy from Wake Forest University, a divinity degree from Vanderbilt and I am a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College.

All persons, regardless of religious affiliation, are invited to the symposium and the prayer service. Westview UMC is located at 7107 Westview Drive, Fairview, Tenn. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Just War Theory and Syria Strikes, Part One

Can we frighten this man into killing
people only conventionally?
I am framing this inquiry in the context of Just War Theory (JWT henceforth), a theological inquiry in Christianity going back at least to Saint Augustine, 354-430. It's most robust treatment was by St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274, whose exposition was so thorough that it still forms the basis of modern theory.

Today my main points are that going to war requires at least three questions to be answered in the affirmative, below. In this post I'll only address the first for brevity's sake and leave the other two for later.

1. Is there just cause for the war?

2. Is the war authorized by proper authority?

3. Is it wise to wage the war?

Is there just cause for war?

Just Cause of war is the fundamental question, of course. I remember reading a (probably apocryphal) story of a South Seas island native chieftain who after a large battle between the US Marines and the Japanese in WW2 asked the American commander who was going to eat the vast quantities of flesh of the slain soldiers.

The Marine general explained that neither the Japanese nor Americans killed people for food.

"What barbarians you are!" the chief replied, "To kill for no good reason!"

Historically, Western thought on war, heavily influenced by Christian theology, has held that war cannot be separated from larger concerns of nations, and in fact is one part of national relationships. "Politics is the womb in which war develops," said German officer and theorist Carl von Clausewitz. More famous is his observation that, "War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means."

JWT has generally held that the political just cause for war is pretty narrowly expressed: either to defend one's own nation from actual or imminent attack, or to protect innocent third parties from deadly aggression or oppression. Some years after the American Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman put it simply: "The only just aim of war is a more just peace," which is a political goal. Absent its political orientation, warfare becomes just what the South Seas chieftain said, an exercise in pointless killing.

Not all JWT theorists agree that a nation may strike pre-emptively even in the case of clearly imminent attack, but since no one in the Obama administration claims that Syria poses any kind of military threat to the US, I'll not address the self-defense tenet here.

The question then becomes one of protection of the innocent, and whether chemical weapons are sui generis so that American warmaking on their users is justifiable for that reason alone. That is, in a civil war in which everyone agrees that at least 100,000 people on all sides have died, untold numbers of whom were murdered outside the laws of war but by conventional means, is the use of chemical weapons by itself a just cause for the US to wage war on Syria, a nation not at peace with itself but with which the US is now at peace?

If the answer is no, then war making against Syria cannot morally be done. If the answer is yes, as the administration clearly claims it is, we move to the next crucial inquiry of JWT - the war we wage must be justly conducted.

I'll shape this discussion around the JWT tenet of proportionality. The doctrine of proportionality is simply stated that the means of conducting the war must be proportionate to the goal for which the war is waged. Another way of looking at it is that while the just ends desired do not justify any means to attain them, they absolutely justify some means. The tenet of proportionality, then, is to assess what the justified means are, then employ those means and not the unjustified ones.

Which leads directly to the question: what exactly is the goal here? The president, secretary of state and others, in multiple remarks and interviews, have specifically announced three key objectives:

A. There is no intention of effecting regime change in Syria.

B. The strikes are to punish Assad's regime for using chemical weapons.

C. The strikes are intended to deter Assad (and others) from using such weapons in the future.

Are these just objectives of war? If so, it is apparently just to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons, but not just to remove him from rule. Why?

In fact, is punishment itself a just aim of war? This tends to slide the war into a legal enforcement mode, which indeed the president has more or less confirmed in his insistence that Assad has violated "international norms." We thus circle back to the previous paragraph: why is it just to punish Assad but leave him in power - when it was his criminal exercise of power that is at the heart of the violation?

The question of means

"Without killing," wrote Clausewitz, "there is no war." Conducting war is a matter of intentional lethality. In the proposed war against Syria, then, this is the question of means: What constitutes a level of violence inflicted upon the Assad regime that is effective deterrence against using WMDs by the regime again or, in future years, deters other bad actors in the region?

The centering question of the doctrine of proportionality is using the violence necessary to achieve the war's objectives while not using excessive violence to do so. To employ too little violence is as disproportionate as to employ too much. It is unjust to wage war ineffectively even for a just cause.

Hence, campaign planning for the upcoming strikes will necessarily involve a massive amount of guess work on what level of lethality and destruction needs to be inflicted upon Syria to ensure the Assad regime never uses chemical weapons again. But that is a heavily psychological calculation for which an answer is practically impossible!

The reason is that we do not know the calculations Assad used to to order the chem-weapons attack in the first place. What was going through his mind when he gave the order? We don't know, although the intercepted messages the Obama administration says it has should offer some clues. Even so such messages, originated mostly by subordinates and oriented toward action rather than rationale, are many levels removed from what Assad was thinking, and since making him fearful of re-use is a stated goal of the president, our own calculations' margin of uncertainty is bound to be very vast.

As for deterring leaders of other nations, assessing what example to make of Syria to deter them is like entering a dark room blindfolded, in the dead of night in a dense fog, to look for a black cat that may not even be there. Does anyone really expect that the Iranian government will abandon its goal of attaining nuclear capability just because the United States mounted a bombing campaign against Syria that the president has already promised would be "brief and limited?"

All of these things mean that the proportionality calculus has no answer. It is like a math question to solve the value of X in which both the variables and constants are also unknown. We do not know how much death and destruction to inflict upon Syria to persuade the regime to refrain from using a single class of weapons in the future, and have no realistic prospect that we even can know. And this is a problem cubed for deterrence of other national regimes.

So the question: Even stipulating that the use of chemical weapons is a just cause for the proposed war, can the war be justly waged when we have no way of assessing, within reasonable margins of error, what waging it will require to achieve its stated goals?

When I was assigned to the Pentagon during the planning for Operation Desert Storm, the first ground war against Iraq in 1991, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono emphasized that in our planning we needed to remember two simple concepts: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." Good advice now, too.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is the fierce urgency of bombing now?

As you surely know, President Obama has all but pledged that he will order American armed forces to attack Syria soon. Media reports say that the strikes will begin as soon as tomorrow (Thursday, Aug. 29) or slightly later. 

According to a Wall Street Journal report, administration officials, speaking both by name and with indirect attribution, say the strikes will be "brief and limited" with no more than 50 targets inside Syria to be struck. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change." That means that Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who presumably ordered last week's chemical attacks against insurgent-held territory, is deliberately excluded from threat. 

So far no one in the administration has defined, therefore, exactly what is the reason for the upcoming strikes except to say in fairly vague language that Assad's regime must be punished for violating "international norms" against using chemical weapons. 

Terry Newell, founder of Leadership for a Responsible Society, has excellent questions about the impending Syria strike that have not been answered by the administration. The first question is to the point:
What justifies intervention in this particular case? The answer would seem obvious, but the United States does not intervene in all nations which commit atrocities against their own people. Why is this case different?
Indeed. The war has already claimed 100,000 lives. Why does the manner of death of the 350 or so killed last week make it imperative for America to go to war? So far, no one has explained just exactly what makes this attack fundamentally different except for the violation of "international norms." But as Mr. Newell points out, that happens, often with more lethality, all around the world (North Korea anyone?) and we do nothing. 

Why Syria, why now, and especially, to modify slightly a phrase of one of the president's own campaign speeches: What exactly is the fierce urgency of bombing now?

The UK's Guardian newspaper says that the justification is humanitarian. (Understand that in Britain, the legal authority for war is different than for the United States.) Nonetheless, I will, for argument's sake, stipulate that  bombing Assad's forces might be justified under humanitarian concerns. However, what the Guardian is conflating is the difference between moral justification of war and legal basis for it. They are not the same. 

Under just war theory, both just cause and rightful authority are required (among other elements). In Syria today there may be just cause for Western intervention, but so far there has been no rightful authority for it. 

Under US law this is drawn more sharply than under most European law. Since the dawn of the American republic, the Congress and the presidents have generally agreed that the president may order US forces into combat against another nation, solely on his own authority, if and only if there is: 

1. Imminent danger of attack from the other power, so imminent that time taken for Congressional deliberations would hinder defense against it, or, 

2. To protect actual threat against US citizens abroad, or to rescue them from actual danger.  

The Obama administration has not asserted that either of these conditions pertain in the case of Syria. 

Therefore, if Obama orders US strikes against Syria, no matter the moral justification of them, the United States will have failed the test of rightful authority, which rests in Congress alone. The war will be unjust because it will be illegal. 

If the cause is humanitarian for violations of "international norms," then the president is obligated to state what are the norms. There is in fact no international "norm" against chemical warfare. The revulsion western nations have had against chemical weapons since World War One has never resulted in treaties binding on non-signatory nations. 

Syria is not a party to either the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 or the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Neither of these treaties have ever been considered binding on non-signatories, unlike, say, conventions against piracy or slavery, which are acknowledged to be universally binding whether a country signed them or not. This is neither to defend Assad nor excuse the chemical attack. It is to point out that "violating norms" is an invention for going to war that has no precedent in US law or custom. 

Syria flatly poses no threat to the United States that justifies making war upon it. Furthermore, there is no threat to the Syrian people that is so imminent that no time dare be spent in Congressional deliberation to authorize the strikes, if strikes there should be. If there is such a threat, the president should explain why, with 100,000 already dead, a few more days of deliberation is unwarranted. After all, under the Constitution, the president can order the Congress back into session. If Obama wanted, he could have the Congress deliberating within 36 hours. 

There is, by the way, no UN Security Council resolution on this issue, nor any justification for the strikes to be found under the UN Charter. In fact, the UN Charter admonishes nations not to interfere or intervene in the domestic affairs of other nations, which is what the Syrian civil war is. If there is any international norm at play here, that is it. And that is the norm that the United States is about to violate.

We'd do well to remember the ancient proverb. "Decide in haste, repent in leisure." This is by any measure a true rush to war. Why all of a sudden the "fierce urgency of now" and not after Congressional authority?  

Well, perhaps here is a clue. According to the Wall Street Journal report, a "senior White House official" told CNN that, "Factors weighing into the timing of any action include a desire to get it done before the president leaves for Russia next week."

Draw your own conclusions about what that means.

Where is the United Methodist Church on this? The church's General Board of Church and Society already has multiple entries about today's commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but only two entries total on Syria, neither since Aug. 5, long before this issue arose.

It used to be that the United Methodist Church stood against illegal, aggressive wars no matter who started them. Now, not so much. Silence from the board, silence from the bishops. And, I suppose, silence from the pulpits.

If US forces are to attack Syria, it cannot rightfully be done absent Congressional authorization. That would not make an attack wise by any means, but it would make it legal, and at the minimum that should be the starting point.

Update, Aug. 29: The ranking Democrat member of the House Judiciary Committee agrees.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What about the working poor?

Written in 2003 and posted elsewhere, links were good at the time

There is a page called the Global Rich List that lets you enter your annual income, click a button, and learn where you sit on the global pile of dough. I learned that I am the "44,982,565 richest person in the world."

The explains its methodology via a link at the bottom of the page; its results page is a plea for contributions to CARE International.

In 1999 a local paper profiled a family in Nashville, the family of Tommy Slush. He lived with his wife and two daughters in a mobile home in a trailer park. Tommy has had a steady job for thirty years. His employer praised Tommy's work ethic as one of the strongest he has ever seen. Tommy often worked double shifts as an assistant pressman at Ambrose Printing and Office Supply. He makes four hundred and twenty-five dollars per week. His wife and oldest daughter work also.

The Slush family is part of the "working poor," people who are one step away from poverty. The working poor don't ever sit in fifty dollar seats at Titans games or take weekend trips down to Destin. For Tommy Slush and his family, a dinner at Ponderosa is a major excursion that they can afford maybe three or four times per year.

They are not on welfare. They just don't have a savings account because they have to spend all they make to pay for their home, their food, their clothing and their transportation.

If you input Tommy's $22,100 (1999) annual income on the Global Rich List page you discover that he is in the top 6.8% richest people in the world and his income ranks 408,329,049 in the world.

Here is a profile of American "working poor," defined "by scholars as families earning between 100 and 200% of the federal poverty levels." Understand that in 2001, the percentage of Americans living at or below the poverty level was 11.7 percent, “lower than in most of the last two decades” when "the rate exceeded 12 percent. “A family of four was classified as poor if it had cash income less than $18,104 last year.”

That means that analysts classify a family of four as "working poor" if they make between $18,000 - $36,000 per year. In some parts of the country, $36K would not be a lot, of course, but in most places a family of four can live okay on that amount if they practice good budgeting and wise spending. The linked report names some barriers that keep the working poor from moving to self-sufficiency. Three of them are key:

1. Their income does not increase from year to year, or barely keeps up with inflation

2. Babysitting is a major problem because many of the jobs they work have irregular or odd hours. And child care is expensive.

3. Reliable transportation is a problem.

To which I would add another important one: As a rule, the working poor are lousy personal financial managers with high consumer debt (so are a lot of higher income folks!) because they use credit cards to bridge cash-flow gaps. But that deepens their hole.

I'd like to introduce you to "Rhonda," a woman I spotted yesterday walking along a state road in the country, 50 yards from her flat-tired car. I pulled up, displayed my sheriff's department badge and credentials (I am a department chaplain) and asked whether I could give her a ride. She accepted.

She was en route from Murfreesboro, 30 miles distant, to my town of Franklin to appear in court appearance for a non-traffic misdemeanor charge. She was late, so I took her to the court and went in to verify her reason for lateness to the judge if necessary. It wasn't, but I hung around anyway.

Rhonda was in her mid-thirties, a single, welfare mom with a four-year-old daughter. She had no family in Tennessee, nor any real friends, being a fairly new resident to the area. She had lost her job last week (she had been a restaurant hostess) because no child care was available for her evening shift. She had been taking her daughter to work but management had let her go for that reason.

I had called the sheriff's dispatch and asked them not to tow her car if possible, but when thunderstorm moved in the deputy on patrol decided it had to go. Knowing the road, I can't blame him. But the tow charge would cost Rhonda $75, which she didn't have, and she'd still have to fix her tire.

The judge threw out the legal charge. Her public defender wrangled a deal with the tow operator and the sheriff's department that if the department called that tow company for the next tow, they'd not charge Rhonda. Everyone agreed, so that was a relief. The tow lot hosed enough air into her tire to get up the road a stretch to a a Marathon gas station that had a garage.

Marathon patched the puncture enough to get Rhonda to the Franklin Wal-Mart. She'd bought her tires at another Wal-Mart and said she had the hazard warranty. Wal-Mart replaced her tire free under warranty. While they did I drove Rhonda to Murfreesboro to pick up her daughter at Kindercare, who had told Rhonda on the phone that the girl could not stay late, period, even at extra cost. When we got back to Franklin her car was ready. She took her daughter and drove home. (Yes, I gave her some money.)

Rhonda wants to work. She named a long list of places she had applied to no avail. She has a paralegal degree, office-management skills and computer skills. She presents herself well, has a good vocabulary and was remarkably even tempered throughout the long day.

And there are thousands of women just like her. I don't have a solution, either.

The devil of it is that if she accepts a full-time job she will lose her welfare benefits. (If you think about it, it makes sense.) State-run welfare is paying her tuition at trade school plus a stipend, but only during the two semesters. The idea is that once she gets a trade certification, she can get a decnt job and stay off welfare permanently. I can't argue with the concept. But it's difficult to do.

That's the nutshell problem: babysitting or child care, low wages and generally unreliable transportation. But those are almost uniquely the problem of the American poor.
I know from personal experience overseas what non-US poverty really means - try visiting a Honduran family, as I have, who has a single-room sapling cabin (not a log cabin, a sapling cabin) with a dirt floor, no electricity, no medical care, two sets of homemade clothing, and whose total net worth consists of one cow and three chickens, which they bring into the cabin each night to keep the animals safe.

Spend some time in the Third World, away from the airport and cities, and you'll learn what poverty means to about a billion people.

Yet as a whole, the world's population is not really poor, especially by historical standards. According to economist Richard A. Esterlin in "The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800 (p. 23), published inJournal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 2000,

By most measures here, the rates of change in the less developed countries in the last half century have substantially exceeded those in the historical experience of western Europe. If there are limits to growth in the standard of living—an imminent stationary state—it is not evident in the historical record.
Indeed, Berkeley scholar J. Bradford DeLong writes that 25 years ago you could assert that the world's economic structure was not working. 
The difference in living standards, productivity levels, and life chances between rich and poor parts of the world was greater in 1975 than it had been in 1925, and vastly greater in 1975 than it had been in 1800.

Since 1975, however, we have turned a very important corner. As Yale economist T. Paul Schultz was the first (to my knowledge) to point out, since 1975 global inequality in personal incomes has not been rising but falling. Since 1975 the world has not only become a richer place, but the world's poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world's rich.
And he asks excellent questions:
Why, then, has no one noticed? Why are our newspapers full of reports of growing economic gulfs between rich and poor in our world? And why are they full of reports of the crisis of a model of economic development that does not serve the interests of the world's poor?
The answer, he thinks, is because most of the improvement has taken place among the 2.5 billion people who live in only two countries, India and China, which have both freed their economies substantially from statist suffocation since 1975. Says DeLong, "Centrally-planned states have managed to invest more and grow faster for short periods only, and at immense and unacceptable human cost."

How can the remaining billion people of the world climb to higher standards? Well, this is a start, the work of pioneering Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who says that the world's poor people actually have trillions of dollars of assets, but lack personal property rights that are protected by law and preserved in systems of records.

It seems clear to me that the main causes of poverty in the world today are political, not material.

Endnote: The greatest engine of economic well-being in the West was the drive toward universal literacy, according to Esterlin. And the drive toward literacy was religious:

What one can say with some assurance is that the early 19th century differences cited above [in his paper - DS] are the product of trends that reach as far back as the 16th century, well before the onset of modern economic growth, trends that are connected in part to the  Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the need for each individual to be able to read the Bible himself (Cippola, 1969; Easterlin, 1981; Melton, 1988; UNESCO, 1957).
This drive for every adherent of Christian faith to be able to read the Bible really began with Humanism in the 15th century. Erasmus, who strongly influenced Martin Luther, thought that the Scriptures should be accessible to all, rather than the property of the priesthood. Luther strongly agreed, and translated the Latin Catholic Bible into German for that reason. The printing press, recently invented then, made widespread literacy possible, but theology gave literacy its raison d'etre.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

What do you put in church visitor packets or new welcome folders?

What do you put in your church visitor packet or new welcome folder?:

Justin – When we create Welcome Packets for churches we recommend including information about your beliefs, a list of ministries/opportunities your schedule of services, and pictures of your pastor/staff.

Deborah – Hi Chris, We ask for info such as: Are you just visiting or looking for a new home church, or have a prayer request.  Basic info, address, phone number etc. Would you like to be contacted by the pastor or home visit. Office hours, service and Sunday School times. Phone numbers etc.

Lawrence - The gospel of John, welcome notes with the pastor’s and church leader’s address and phone numbers to contact in case of needs, the church activities and motto.  A gift token and hope to see you again note with Jesus love you.

Matthew - When I was at one church we made a DVD that had people if church talking about the missions vision and values of the church. We also showed pictures and videos of other things we did in the community.

Christopher - Tracts, a contact information sheet, and a church events schedule for the current month.

Nodela  – We give our first time visitors gift bags that contain: visitors card to fill out and return, ministry brochure, church administrator business card, pen, pad, candy, monthly calendar, a thank you and invitation note card, prayer card written by my Bishop, a sermon CD and one of my Bishop’s books.  On the outside of the bag I place a portion of our mission statement. I then follow up with more information about our ministry and then a “hello” note card for those that do not have a church home. Many have been receptive of this method and pleasantly surprised to receive it. Some have come back and purchased additional CDs or DVDs.

Richard - I’m partial to the Pocket Testament League’s Gospels of John which have the plan of salvation on the first few pages. They’re especially good for New believers Packets.

John - We used to put in a magnet with the church’s name and address and church times for the fridge. Some good candies (Wurthers), a $5 gift card to Tim Horton’s ( or Starbucks for some of you), and a church pen (only use good quality), and a simple short relevant tract.

Nick - I wish churches would include the pastor’s theological positions so you can determine at the front end if you’re a good fit.

Tom - Our packet includes the Folded Cover with Welcome on front, Church Name & Location, Inside: Information card for visitor to fill out and a Thank you card is mailed later for visit.  Also, card inviting them to a Daily Telephone Scripture Message, A Bic Clic Stic pen.  Many churches give imprinted pens to their visitors.

Lisa - From the perspective of someone who has visited many churches, I appreciate when the packet includes a current church newsletter (so I’m aware of events), a statement of the policies of the church, a bulletin, a name tag, and a snack (one church I went to, Sts. Martha and Mary Episcopal Church in Eagan, MN, offered a snack of M & M’s, perhaps a play on its initials).

Michael - Besides the usual items describing the church, CD of the message and some fun things like coffee mugs and pens with the church logo and some goodies one church includes a $5.00 visa card so the visitor could buy gas for a return visit. This church also hand delivered the welcome packet to the home the next day after the first visit

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

How Jesus invented individual liberty

A free nation may be understood as one that is not under occupation or domination of another nation. In that sense the old Soviet Union was a free nation. But it was not was a nation of liberty.

Freedom is a political condition. Liberty or its lack is a way of life condition, the ability of a people to live their lives as they wish, with minimum assistance or interference from the state. America's Founders sought to bring forth both a country free of British occupation and a people living in liberty. As Lincoln later put it, America is "a nation conceived in Liberty." Liberty is enjoyed by persons, not by governments. A government may be free, but only persons can be in liberty.

The Declaration of Independence says that one of the unalienable rights of human beings is the right to the pursuit of happiness. No right to achieve it, only the right to pursue it. However philosophically the Founders may have conceived of happiness, they definitely understood that happiness is personal and that the nature of its pursuit was something for each man or woman to decide how best to achieve. That is what liberty means. Our Founders knew that public liberty required private virtue and that liberty did not mean there should be no restraints, but that’s a topic for another day.

My thesis is that the entire idea of individual liberty was invented by Jesus of Nazareth. Literally no one in the world, Jew or Gentile, had conceived of individual, personal liberty before Jesus.

In Jesus’ day the Jews were neither free nor at liberty. Judea, the rump remainder of the ancient, independent Jewish kingdoms, was under direct Roman occupation. The Romans, however, had little interest in how the Judeans lived. As long as the Jews paid Rome’s taxes and accepted Roman dominion peaceably, the Romans were satisfied. The Romans did not even govern Judea directly but through native authorities.

Because of Rome, the Jews were not free. But their lack of liberty was their own doing. Everyone in the ancient Near East, Jews and Gentiles, were tribal. Like today’s Arab Muslims, the Jews identified themselves first by their religion, then their family, clan and tribe, almost always in that order. These groupings defined the norms of behavior and determined almost everything about how its members lived.

Here is a real-world example. In 1982 I was a U.S. Army captain attending the Field Artillery Officer Advanced Course at Ft. Sill, Okla. There were a large number of foreign officers attending. The Arab contingent was pretty large, and most of them were Saudis. But in my section there were two Egyptian lieutenant colonels and one major.

The two light colonels and I became good friends. Their names were Solomon and Osman. They were great guys and real party animals, as Muslim men often are when they reach the decadent, non-Islamic West.

Anyway, one day the entire class of 300 or so was taking a tactics exam in an auditorium-type room. We all sat at long, folding tables and opened the exams when told to start. Needless to say, all the US officers had long ago internalized the credo, "An officer does not lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do." Cheating on this or any other assigned work would end a career!

The first section of the test was multiple choice. To my right rear sat all the Saudi officers in a row. Very soon, we all heard a slue of Arabic, followed by a clear enunciation of the letter, "B." A moment later, more Arabic, then "D." Repeat, ending with "A." And so on.

Throughout the test, the Saudis made no attempt to disguise their verbal collaboration. I was irritated and I was not the only one. But we knew nothing would be done about their cheating for political reasons, and besides, foreign officers' scores did not affect our class standing.

A couple of days later I asked Lt. Col. Solomon why the Saudis were so blatant in their cheating. He broke into laughter and replied, "They were not cheating. The Saudi lieutenant colonel fills the role of the sheikh while they are here. The major next to him was reading his answers to all the rest so they could make sure they did not score higher than him on the test. If they did, it would bring great shame to him and would be dishonorable for the junior officer. Very bad problem, that." 

So to be a first-century Jew or Gentile was to live like that. To be a member of, say, the tribe of Benjamin was to be told what your occupation would be, when you could work and when you could not, whom you would marry, where you would live, what you may do and when, how to treat your parents and relatives, how to raise your children, what you must teach them, how you must worship and when and where, how you must dress, what you may eat and when you may eat it, and countless other things.

The very concept of individual liberty was non-existent. If you could go back in time and tell an ordinary Judean that the God-given rights of men and women were the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no one would have understood you any more than if you had tried to explain  suborbital mechanics or antibiotics.

This was social system into which Jesus was born. And he set about it with a wrecking ball.

Here is why I say that Jesus of Nazareth invented individual liberty:

1.                Jesus denounced the social system of honor and shame that dominated how people lived and related with each other.
2.                Jesus directly refuted the idea that blood relationships could determine how an individual lived his life.
3.                Jesus insisted that the heart of true religion was not obligations imposed upon a person externally, but was an ethic of love from within.

In an honor-shame system, one’s social standing is determined by how well one conforms to the norms of the group. (Anyone remember their teen-age years?) These are not systems found among today's Jews, whether in Israel or elsewhere. Jesus wasn't denouncing Judaism (duh) but a wider-ranged social order that inhibited righteousness. 

Honor-shame systems work differently for men than for women. For men, the focus is on where you stand in the pecking order. To be in debt to someone else, either financially or in obligation, is shameful. To have others obligated to you is honorable. To accomplish is honorable, but if you take too many steps up the ladder at one time, that is shameful.

How the family and clan are shamed or honored by its members is especially important. Hence the sixth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” To bring shame upon one’s elders was literally to risk death. In Matthew 17, Jesus recounts this accusation against him: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

Jesus knew what Deuteronomy 21 says,
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, ... 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours … is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.

People accusing Jesus of drunkenness and gluttony were not being merely contemptuous. They were issuing a death threat. Jesus knew it, but he was undeterred.

In Luke 9, Jesus told a man, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Here Jesus openly committed mutiny against the entire way that Jewish society was organized and understood in that day. This man says he will follow Jesus after his father dies. If his father had already died, he would have been buried within 24 hours and the man would have already been able to follow Jesus. He is not at liberty to do so now because of externally-imposed constraints.

Jesus responds that the man was trapped in the way of death. Leave the way of death behind now, Jesus says, and proclaim the kingdom of God.
Another [man] also said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus tells this fellow not even say goodbye to his family. In other words, do not linger in the way things are now, not even to bid it farewell. You can’t plow a furrow backward so don’t even look that way.

That both these conversations took place in the context of family relationships highlights the serious sedition Jesus was mounting against the entire social order of his time. In that day and place, family relationships were absolutely everything. That Jesus was willing to take a chainsaw to the very fundamental way his entire society was organized illuminates how serious he was about a new way of living. At the end of Matthew 12,
   While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”   He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus entirely redefined a fundamental fact about not only the basis of the honor-shame system but the whole society itself: the preeminence of blood relationships.

True family would no longer be defined by accident of birth. Who one’s father was of no importance any more – this in network of societies, both Jewish and Gentile, where the words, “Name, son of father’s name” or "name of the house of name" was a common way of referring to oneself.

Henceforth, people were to be members of a family of equals in which there was only one Father, God himself.

Men could gain honor or lose it. Women, however, had nowhere to go but down. A woman’s honor was determined by her sexual status, namely:
  • Was she married? To be a spinster was dishonorable. To be a widow was more unfortunate than dishonorable, though dishonor was attached to it some. 
  • If married or widowed, did she have children? Being childless was dishonorable.
  • Was she chaste before marriage and virtuous after marriage? Sexual purity and fidelity practically defined honor for women, though, as Proverbs 31 explains, to be married with children and to be industrious with a good business sense was the most honorable status of all for a woman.
Jesus kicked this norm down, too. He denounced sexual sin but he denounced also the idea that a woman’s worth was irrevocably damaged by it. So Jesus openly talked with a Samaritan woman of loose morals at a well one day, explaining that he knew all about her highly-checkered past, but that it didn't matter because her future under God’s grace was more important than her past under sin’s grip.

Luke 7 relates when Jesus went to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A sinful woman of the city, name and occupation unknown, came to Jesus with a jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.

Simon objected that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have know what kind of sinful woman she was. Jesus rebuked him and told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven ... go in peace.” This unnamed woman’s status of sinful dishonor was only important to Jesus insofar as it enabled her to come to him for forgiveness and a reset.

Jesus simply rejected the rigid behavioral norms of his day in favor of what the apostle Paul later called “a more excellent way.”

Jesus redefined the most basic relationships of his day so that circumstances of birth and relationship could not set one’s worth. Each individual was liberated to control his or her own destiny by relating primarily to God, and through God to everyone else.

Which is to say: there is no greater honor than to be adopted by God and be the brother or sister of Christ. It was not being born that mattered in living, it was being born anew.  Spiritual rebirth supersedes all other arrangements. Hence, in Christ,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28).
These were not merely new teachings, they were positively revolutionary. No one was bound any longer by conferred status; all were liberated by divine endorsement of their inherent worth as beloved of God. Life in Christ brings personal liberation from every kind of spiritual bondage, including but not limited to politics, self-indulgence, selfishness, self-righteousness, entertainment and even religion itself.

Christ has set us free for freedom’s own sake. It is not through religion that we are freed; it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We obey the moral commandments of Jewish tradition and the teachings of Jesus, both in order to gain freedom and because we have already been freed.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5.1): free to love, free to live in joy and peace. Free to be generous in all we have, free to know our worth is God given, not human determined, free to live in ways that please God.

Free at last!
Free at last!
Thank God Almighty,
We’re free at last!