Integrated Justice and Equality - A Review

Social justice is a contentious topic among Christians these days. A large reason for that is that the term has many and varied definitions. While the term was originally used to discuss ensuring actual justice within society, it has come to be interpreted as a means to privilege some ideological groups over others, to justify inherently unjust economic systems, and to excuse violence for certain, approved causes.

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 The corruption of the term has led it to be a polarizing phrase between theological stripes of Christians. Progressives who claim faith in Christ recoil when conservatives attempt to use the term to describe their efforts. Sometimes the affirmation of “social justice” leads Progressives to advocate for causes that undermine true justice. Those on the right often repudiate the term, even when the term is meant appropriately. Often the negative reaction to the term “social justice” leads conservatives to reject important works that are biblically warranted.

 In his book, Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Addison Teevan sets out “to encourage the good works of compassion that Christians want to do to make the gospel while differentiating between good works and social justice.” He notes that in order to do that, he must begin by disambiguating his terms. Throughout the text, Teevan is arguing for what he calls integrated justice, which is justice built on a traditional, biblical understanding of justice.

 In Chapter One, Teevan argues toward a biblical notion of justice, which is often significantly different than many perceive. Through historical argument, Teeven establishes his position that social justice is a term that originated outside of the church by those who found the work of the social gospel attractive, but liked even the traces of gospel that were left in the movement. He surveys the recent historical discussion, interacting critically with contemporary, conservative Christians. Chapter Two provides a survey in greater detail of understandings of justice, especially in those traditions that have impacted Western culture. In the third chapter, Teevan outlines the historical evolution of social justice, which he argues is largely rooted in Rawl’s understanding of politics. He also develops his critiques of social justice with the notion of a biblical, integrated justice. These two chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the volume.

 The remaining three chapters offer critiques of social justice, arguing it tends to undermine true justice, and bring the book to a close. In Chapter Four, Teevan critiques the notion that economic inequality is inherently unjust through practical examples of perfectly just inequality and the problems associated with attempts to create equal outcomes. The fifth chapter argues against redistributive economic systems designed for “fairness,” which often do not accomplish their stated goals. At the same time, Teevan is critical of capitalism, because he recognizes the limits of the economic system. All economic systems rely upon the virtue of the people. The final chapter brings together the concepts of the earlier chapters to outline specific warnings, conclusions, and practical applications for the reader. What he produces is a call to activism, but an activism grounded and controlled by the norms of Scripture and a traditional understanding of justice.

 This is a volume much more likely to convince the uncertain that to lead to converts. Those longing for a better society but who are repulsed by the gross depravity of much of the social justice movement will find an outlet to pursue true justice in this volume.

 At the same time, Teevan appears to concede the term social justice too quickly. Notably absent from his volume is a discussion of the development of the early Roman Catholic use of the term social justice, which was much more biblical than present parlance. It may be possible yet to redeem the term and turn it to good use.

 Overall, this is a much needed, accessible volume that is both biblically informed and economically accurate. Teevan provides a helpful critique of the social justice and gives a sound justification for his newly coined term. His critiques are honest and forthright. He does not demean, mock, or dismiss, which make this book a useful resource for the church. Additionally, Teevan moves beyond his critique into encouraging practical application, which is necessary to move conservative Christians from theory to action.

We Have Forgotten

We have forgotten that it is possible to be wrong without animus. This is why society is so terribly unforgiving.

We have forgotten that it is possible to disagree without despising. This is why our friendships are so fragile, sparse, and transient.

We have forgotten that it is possible to forgive without retribution. This is why the quest for social justice often turns to mobs and unrelenting abuse.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be correct without being in control. This is why politics has become the supreme interest in society.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be right about some things and wrong about others. This is why the list of acceptable voices from history continues to diminish.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be different without being degraded. This is why attempts to find equality lead to eradication of excellence.

We have forgotten that it is possible for cost and value to be different. This is why conspicuous consumption is still rampant.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be new without being better. This is why our hunger for more goes unabated and ancient books go unread.

The Fake Web is Ruining the Internet

Something is amiss in the futuristic, digital wonderland that is the internet.

Among the most obvious problems are the incessant arguments including those caused by trolls and those perpetuated by sea lions. Add that to the sheer magnitude of bots online, and we have a real problem that can lead to misery, confusion, and misdirection away from facts.

The possible paradise of the internet is turning out to be a myth. The democratization of information has made it nearly possible to discern what is true.

Marketplace Distortion

Consider the validity of marketplace ratings. While there are examples of faux reviews that are exceedingly humorous, like the ones for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer on Amazon, fake reviews make buying decisions harder. And that’s not the way it is supposed to work.

The ideal of online reviews is for people who have used the product to honestly review them. However, anyone who has tried to sort through the reviews on products in a major online marketplace will know that amid the real, honest reviews are dozens that appear to be made up. These often are very high or very low ratings (depending on whether the company or their competitor funded the reviewers) and include gratuitous typos, insufficient information, and information designed to mislead. So, a product may have hundreds of reviews, but the real ones with important criticism may have been diluted by fake reviews.

The prevalence of fake reviews in the online marketplace makes using reviews nearly worthless sometimes. Add that to the ability for sellers to revise listings of old products to newer ones, while bringing along their reviews, and you have a recipe for unhelpful confusion.

Another trend that is unhelpful with the democratization of information is the volume of websites that seem to indicate they are dedicated to product reviews, but which are really dedicated to trying to acquire revenue through affiliate traffic. For example, do an internet search on “best gifts for a 10-year-old boy, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Someone trying to get suggestions for Christmas or birthday may want a blogger’s suggestions that their kids liked, but may only be able to find suggestions in click-through format designed to rake in money from another online marketplace.

Sometimes these offerings are helpful, but they accomplish the opposite of the intended purpose. When someone does a search online for creative suggestions, they are usually looking for something off the beaten path. However, these dozens of “product review” or “product suggestion” websites tend to all “recommend” the same dozen or so products, none of which they have any real knowledge of. (Full disclosure: I use affiliate links at the bottom of my book reviews and sometimes get a little money from them, but that is secondary to the actual review.)

The reality of the internet is turning out to be something less than the promise.

The Web Is Mostly Fake

According to a recent article from New York Magazine, we’ve passed the point where, by some measures, more than half of internet traffic is fake. Given that the next video you watch or next widget you buy may be recommended based on the programmed habits of a bot, this matters significantly. For those, like me, who spend time creating real content online—especially those who depend of traffic from YouTube or other traffic sites—that distortion can be disheartening and financially debilitating.

Because traffic generates traffic as we all chase the next cool thing, this fake traffic is distorting our culture. Is someone’s video really viral, or did they create or finance a bot army to give them clicks, help them trend, and push a somewhat novel but largely inane product into everyone’s feeds? The world may never know.

Given that a fair amount of news reporting—both traditional media and various internet outlets—is now mind-numbing reporting about trends on social media, the power of faking on the internet may have significant social implications. Is anyone really mad about the latest controversy? Or, was some minor infraction by a local official magnified by thousands of bots financed by someone who is either making money off of the clicks or gaining power by fracturing society? This is a powerful question that I don’t have an easy answer to.

One Proposed Solution

I do think, however, that we have the potential to curb some of the worst excesses in our own control by using self-control and changing our habits.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to use the internet in an old-fashioned way, with sustained patronage, long time relationships, and word of mouth recommendations. Major branded websites for news and information will likely remain significant, but to some extent we need to rely more on pseudo-social connections rather than search algorithms.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

For example, as a blogger well after the heyday of blogging, I think we need to bring back the blogroll. If someone likes my website, there is a decent chance that they will like the blogs I like, so I can let them know what and who I follow. That also means that I am vouching that I’ve watched/read enough of the content to know that it is real and not bot-generated.

In a world of depersonalized identities, we need to reorient toward personal connections, even if it is only virtually. The possibilities for deception are still higher, but bots are generally identifiable through their patterns of activity, real people are both more predictable and more erratic.

Conclusion

Much of the internet has become, for all intents and purposes, worthless. People are fake. Reviews are fake. Facts are fake. As we try to live life in a virtual age, taking advantage of the real benefits of the internet, we need to begin to reestablish habits that will make our experiences online more benefit than curse.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

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The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Ethics and the Young Believer

Evangelical churches, in general, are failing to adequately equip young Christians to live the Christian life because we do not offer them a robust ethical framework to understand the moral situations they encounter in this world. Instead, we allow culture to teach them ethics or assume that they will pick up the right moral lessons from Scripture without explicit instruction. We, as the church, need to reconsider how we disciple young believers to live ethically in the world.

For some people, thinking about ethics seems to mean pondering the difficult questions on the margins of life. For example, the trolley problem is a popular exercise in moral reasoning. It is supposed to have deep significance in understanding the meaning of human life and our duty to one another. Another common moral dilemma is whether one should lie if Nazis come to the door asking if one has Jews hiding under the kitchen table. This is supposed to be a test to show how one values truth against human life.

There is meaningful discussion to be had behind these sorts of problems. However, they are far from useful in generating truly helpful thought about ethics when the are presented before real ethical structure is offered.

Lack of an Ethical Framework

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Most people lack a coherent ethical framework, and that is a problem. Some might argue that my perspective on this is driven by my training as an ethicist. This is, in part, true. It is my training as an ethicist that helps me to recognize the need for a coherent framework and the problems with a lack of a coherent framework for ethical thinking.

Consider, for example, the question of lying to the Nazis from above. When this is presented to most people, it is pitched as a choice between (1) valuing truth telling over human life or (2) seeing the immeasurable value of humans. The right answer for most people is to lie to the Nazis.

What happens, though, when one reasons from dilemmas to an ethical structure is that the odd, unlikely cases begin to define the norms in an unhealthy way. Once the idea that human life is more valuable than truth is established for the case of the Nazis, then it does not take much to argue that human flourishing (often undefined) should champion over supposed truths. The structure has been set by the dilemma, so that a slight shift in meaning can make worlds of justification possible.

We need better ethical thinking before we run into life’s dilemmas.

The Problem with Dilemmas

The problem is not the outcome of the case, but the situation of the case itself. These dilemmas are typically set up to produce a particular response or push people into a specific train of thinking. In the case of the trolley problem, it is nearly always some smart, innovative person tied to one set of tracks with a large group of commoners tied to the other. The dilemma ignores the facts that (1) our choices are rarely so clear, (2) there is no right choice, (3) there are alternative options. The trolley problem is set up to enforce consequentialist ethics, by evaluating whether the genius saving many lives is more worthy than the commoners living their own lives. What shall we do in the face of such conundrums?

Most of the time, the best answer is to ignore these unhelpful problems or, better yet, to look for an option nor offered in the setup. The trolley problem has been refined to ensure there is no other option, because for every possible alternate solution a defeater has been established. For example, no heroism is possible in dashing out to untie the genius because you are locked in the control house. The setup of the problem is a setup. Additionally, the scenarios are usually presented in unrealistically: we are told that the genius will invent some drug that will save the lives of millions. No one knows these things, so the case is fraudulent.

When it comes to the case of lying to the Nazis, the problem is also in the setup. First, the setup relies on the assumption that any untruth is a lie. For those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is often pitched as a violation of the Ten Commandments. However, the Ten Commandments actually mandate not bearing false witness against our neighbors. There is more than untruth happening here: it is untruth combined with an authority that deserves truth (the court) and a bad motive (to damage the neighbor). Without discarding the norm of communicating truth, the complexity of the ethical action (saying an untruth) helps to simplify the problem.

One solution to the question of lying to the Nazis relies on my understanding of the complexity of moral actions. In this case, I believe it to be just to tell an untruth to the Nazis because, as an unjust government they do not warrant a truthful response, and my motivation (I hope) is to glorify God by preserving the life of the innocents hiding under my table. This resolves the question, but, it really creates more problems than it solves if presented in the wrong circumstances.

Even in this case with a more complex ethical structure, if the situation and solution is presented to immature hearers (for example, children), then marginal case is often interpreted as having a much broader application. Often children’s literature tends to make such marginal cases the norm. For example, one of the major premises of Harry Potter is that the adults are idiots and that only the kids can save the world. The plot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets depends on him willfully withholding key truths from Dumbledore. While at the end of the book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron save the day, what we really have is a case where their immaturity put everyone’s life at risk unnecessarily. It makes for fun reading, but bad ethics.

The problem is that we rarely offer a better alternative from within the church.

Some Thoughts on Ethical Education

Rarely to we invest the time with young Christians helping them work through the ethical framework they need for life.

Instead, we often attempt to do moral reasoning as a drive by to exegesis and we wonder why people in the church come up with the wrong ethical conclusions.

To be clear, exegesis is important and we cannot do without it. In some cases, Scripture is so abundantly clear in particular passages that trying to avoid the truths presented requires all sorts of mental gymnastics—much like the approach commonly demonstrated by those lobbying for a revisionist sexual ethics. However, we cannot always jump from a passage of Scripture to a moral principle without passing it through the whole of counsel of God, because our circumstances are analogous not identical to those in Scripture.

Part of the discipleship process ought to be discussions about ethics. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for edification, but Scripture is not an instruction book. Rather, it is a complex tapestry of genres of material that requires a lifetime of dedicated study and appreciation to begin to understand.

When we send young Christians out into the world with a fideistic ethics (God said it, I believe it, that settles it) then it is not surprise when alternative interpretations of Scripture or the silliness of the application of some supposed ethical norms (e.g., not wearing mixed fabrics) leads to abandonment of any vestige of Christian ethics and, often, Christianity.

Even the most biblicist of fundamentalist preachers has a more robust ethical schema than the literal application of the whole Mosaic law. The problem is that we too rarely talk about those things in our Sunday School classes, from our pulpits, and as we disciple one another. So, the result is that we send young Christians out into the world with a handful of inconsistent principles and a methodology that is incoherent, and we wonder why they don’t flourish in the Christian life.

As Christians, we need to reconsider how we teach ethics during the discipleship process.

Suggestions on Where to Start

A good place to start in gaining an understanding of a robustly orthodox Christian ethics is David Jones’ book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. He provides a framework for Christian ethics that begins and ends with Scripture. It is robust and clear. The paradigm is sufficiently complex to handle ethical questions both simple and complex.

I am also partial to John Frame’s work. For a brief introduction, his volume Perspectives on the Word of God offers a primer to his triperspectival theology and ethics. Additionally, his much longer volume Doctrine of the Christian Life offers a more thorough explanation of his ethical methodology with application to a large number of moral issues.

For pastors and educated lay people, the gold standard for Evangelical ethics is Oliver O’Donovan’s seminal book, Resurrection and the Moral Order. This is a very important book, too rarely read, but it is also very difficult reading.

A Community Environmental Project

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing with my son, thigh deep in the River Raisin. I had given up keeping my feet dry when the water had gushed over the top of my rubber boot during my struggle to get the used tire out of the muck of the river bed. I held my phone and wallet above my head to ensure a sudden dip beneath my feet did not entail a premature replacement of my iPhone 5. It was a fun day, a productive day, and a day that is symbolically more significant than the moderate sized pile of trash the group piled onto the bank.

The River Raisin runs through the small city of Monroe, MI, where I live. In the mania of damming during the Works Progress Administration’s existence, a number of small dams were put up across it. Throughout the years of growth of population and industry along the river’s banks, the waterway has been polluted by PCBs and other harmful chemicals. In human memory, the pristine, healthy condition of this river is a vague memory.

As prosperity increases, though, people begin to pay more attention to the flourishing of the world around them. Residents whose property borders the river become more vocal about the woeful condition of the natural resource we all share. This has led to the River Raisin Legacy Project and an annual cleanup day.

Environmentalism and Localism

At its worst, environmentalism leads to the centralization of government authority. To solve localized problems, sweeping national regulations are enforced that can unnecessarily harm property owners and even lead to environmentally negative outcomes. Some level of regulation is necessary so that polluting corporations cannot raise to the poorest locality, desperate to have any industry, to spew poison into the water and air. The destruction of acid rain and its eventual abatement in the past century is a test case for the benefits and necessity of regulation. In some cases, that success and the simplicity of imposing regulations at the highest level, have led to attempts to nationalize more environmental rule making.

At its best, environmentalism is a local endeavor. Cities with polluted waterways work to eliminate the hazards. Zoning ordinances require that corporations replace wetlands they pave over. Communities gather on a Saturday morning to fish tires, cups, and chunks of metal out of the river.

The River Raisin Cleanup Project is just that sort of local effort. Though it boasted a relatively small contingent––just 60 people from a population of over 20,000––it is the sort of project that is necessary if we are to see real change in our communities and the environment.

Community Catechesis

Several hours into picking up other people’s trash, one begins to wonder what sort of person throws a Styrofoam cup out their car window. This is the first step in teaching our children that the world is not simply a giant landfill ready to receive their waste.

The reporter from the local newspaper chats with people, joking about the various items recovered from the shallow river bed. She congratulates me on winning my battle with the truck tire, which left me wet and muddy, but triumphant.

People from around the community gather together to hear the instructions about what to pick up and where to put it. We divide into groups with complete strangers, transient teams thrown together with a common purpose. A local man––a stranger––asks about my shirt, which bears the word “Shawnee.” A city of my former residence was named after a tribe of Native Americans. They were residents of this region of the world until they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. These conversations chisel away at the barriers we build between ourselves and the community.

After a few hours of wading in the water, a delightful way to spend a warm, cloudy morning, we gather again to share pizza under a picnic shelter. Eating together is a humanizing activity.

With a common focus, there are no arguments about red or blue politics. Unlike the awkward avoidance of a large family gathering there were no sidelong glances or barbered side comments. Instead, since everyone had the common goal of doing discernible good in our community, we were able to do a great deal in a short time and make a visible, positive impact.

Localism Against Tribalism

National political debates have consequences, but they are not everything. By allowing the vitriol of the life and death struggle for power in Washington, DC to take over our lives, we have abandoned the real power of American society.

Over pizza from a local restaurant, we are unlikely to solve the opioid crisis in West Virginia, but a handful of teens that wandered in from the rundown neighborhood next to the park, looking for something to do on a Saturday morning, may make a connection that provides a future opportunity. In a smallish city, it is likely the people gathered on the river bank will see one another at the YMCA, in the store, or at a local festival. Even small connections increase the humanization of the world.

Getting wet and dirty for the local river is much more powerful in teaching the importance of recycling and reducing consumption than a thousand public service commercials. It also costs a whole lot less.

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Although some problems require national solutions, much of what ails our nation will not be solved by a federal election. The ability to live and let live, or, better yet, to live and help flourish, can only be nourished through close personal contact. This is the very sort of contact that my introversion, contemporary media, and our community planning are designed to eliminate.

The River Raisin cleanup project happened. It will likely happen again next year. It alone won’t solve the larger problems of climate destabilization or world hunger, but it points us in the right direction and helps to strengthen the fabric of community needed for authentic human flourishing.

The Witness of the Cognitively Impaired - A Review of "Living Gently in a Violent World"

All societies struggle with establishing a place for those who live with some form of physical or mental disability. Although we have not arrived, the modern developed world has made great strides in ensuring reasonable accommodations for those with physical disabilities. Despite some accounts of abuses of the ADA, in general, the move toward finding ways to more fully enable the participation of physically disabled persons in society is a good thing. We have struggled to a greater degree with finding a place for those with cognitive disabilities.

(Before moving on, I should note that I am using the word “disability” in a non-pejorative sense. Rather than attempting to establish some euphemism for a physical or cognitive difference from the majority of the population, I am simply indicating that there are individuals who, due to nature or accident, have different capabilities in one particular area that impact their ability to maneuver our society as easily as others. That there are such differences and that they make life more difficult for those who have them is not disputable. Often creative naming conventions appear to hinder rather than help the conversation.)

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It is the cognitively disabled who are often least to be integrated into society, and those with both cognitive and physical disabilities who struggle the most. As a result of these disabilities many of these people are often sidelined, discarded, and viewed as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

In this, our modern, civilized, and inclusive culture is very little different than any other, despite our prideful belief in advancement. This was reinforced to me recently at a community event out of doors. People were lining the sidewalk to watch a parade of WWII era vehicles and reenactors. Much of the best space was covered several tiers deep, with people sitting on the curb, and a second or third row seated behind.

My family arrived after the initial rush and found one section of the curb unoccupied. The reason quickly became obvious because seated in their wheelchairs and camping chairs along the back of the sidewalk were the residents of a group home, likely the local ARC (which once stood for the Association of Retarded Citizens until “retarded” became an epithet rather than a euphemism). These adults made gross noises, talked at the wrong times, and were otherwise disruptive of polite norms. This meant that the curb in front of them was empty, until we sat down. For many, to be sure, the space was left out of consideration to not interfere with any care the group might need. For others, I wonder if the unwillingness to sit in front was not due to a certain level of disgust with these people and a sub-conscious discomfort at these “misfits.” This second hypothesis is reflective of the generally lower value society often places on those with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments.

In a recently revised book, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier use the L’Arche communities, founded by Vanier, as an example of honoring the humanity of all persons, including those with cognitive disabilities. The book is worthy of reading, as it is a brief, but potent example of a better way to conceive of care for some of the least valued persons in our society.

Summary

The book is very short. It has only four chapters, book ended by an introduction and conclusion authored by John Swinton. The expanded edition also includes a study guide, with chapter by chapter questions for review.

Two of the chapters were authored by Vanier and two by Hauerwas. Vanier’s chapters deal with practical and personal accounts of life within L’Arche. These accounts, though theologically muddled, demonstrate Vanier’s real and significant concern for the citizens of our world least likely to be valued. The vision he provides of people with cognitive disabilities being treated as humans, with personalities and flaws like the rest of us, is compelling. Instead of hiding the mentally disabled from view and treating them like patients, L’Arche communities involve co-living with “normal” people who interact with them as neighbors rather than as clients. This process both recognizes the unique needs of these individuals and their distinct value as humans.

Hauerwas’s chapters are more theoretical in nature. As is usual for Hauerwas, they are eminently readable, often very pointed, and sometimes powerfully prophetic. The theological vision presented in this book is an application of his broader pacific ethic, an exposition, if you will, on the structure he outlines in books like The Peaceable Kingdom. The degree to which one finds the whole structure of Hauerwas’s ethics convincing will reflect the degree to which one accepts his theological reflections in this volume. He deals with some of the same obvious inconsistencies in this book as in all his works: e.g., writing about ecclesiology while remaining distant from the authority of a church, and, in this book, writing about gentleness with a somewhat aggressive polemic. This is vintage Hauerwas, both prophetic and conflicted in nature, but distinctly worthy of parsing.

The most significant point of this volume, which is a powerful one, is that among its many ethical concerns, the Christian church must remember the cognitively disabled. Caring for them is a reflection of the church’s gospel witness in the world. Because the cognitively disabled can often contribute very little to society in terms of economic productivity, they are often sidelined and hidden from sight. To some degree, this is necessary to shield them from becoming spectacles and ensuring they receive appropriate care. However, the treatment is often as bad as the condition, resulting in ostracization and isolation that denies the imago Dei in the mentally disabled––as if the primary, and perhaps sole, way that we image God is through rational capability (i.e., functional) rather than in our unmeasurable personhood (i.e., ontological). Hauerwas and Vanier draw attention to the insufficiency of this perspective and the need for deeper theological reflection and practical action for the good of Christian communities and the gospel witness of the universal church.

Conclusion

This book is a short, helpful reminder of a potential blind spot in the application of the gospel. Because we have removed the mentally disabled from view, we often forget about them. Organizations like L’Arche and Shepherds ministry are doing good work in seeking to emphasize the humanity of people with cognitive impairments. Not all of us are called to live in those communities, but all of us would do well to ponder how we have unconsciously adopted an instrumental, functional view of the value of humanity, which is reflected by our revulsion at, discomfort with, or simple desire to avoid the presence of those whose minds lack the agility with which we have been unreasonably blessed.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Is the Sabbath Normative?

This post is the second part of a discussion on whether Jesus actually broke the Old Testament Law by healing on the Sabbath. This question was raised in an online argument, which is largely irrelevant to history, but which gives opportunity for worthwhile consideration of the nature of Law, the person of Christ, and, in particular, the place of Sabbath in the life of the contemporary believer.

To recap, the previous post argues that Jesus did not sin, that he did heal on the Sabbath, that this was disliked by religious leaders of his day, and that the OT Law has three divisions: civil, ceremonial, and moral.

Is the Sabbath in Play?

If the Decalogue is still morally normative, then the practice of Sabbath is still in play. The question, then, is how to practice the Sabbath in our contemporary context.

One school of thought believes that Sabbath is still necessary, but that the principle was fulfilled in Christ, so that Sabbath for Christians is a spiritual rest in Christ. This is a biblical concept, seen clearly in Hebrews 4. In particular, verses 9 and 10 declare, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Some who hold this view believe that the day of rest in the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, and therefore spiritualize present application. Although he does not argue for only a spiritualization of the Sabbath, J. D. Greear provides a helpful explanation of the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ in this blog.

There are some people, like Seventh Day Adventists, who take a literalist approach to Sabbath and have their worship services on Saturday. This is a consistent application, but it isn’t clear that such a literal approach is necessary. In fact, if we accept the tripartite division of the law described above, then it would seem that some of the particulars of the practice of Sabbath fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial, instead of moral law.

A third category, including much of the Reformed tradition, believe that the Sabbath is still in play and that we fulfill it largely through rest on Sunday, as a Christianized analogy of the Old Testament practices. This is witnessed in the history of the United States through the various Blue Laws. A famous example of this method of practicing Sabbath is found in Eric Liddell’s refusal to run a race on Sunday.

Synthesis

All of these three methods of applying the Sabbath have something to contribute to a robust practice of Sabbath for contemporary Christians. The literalist approach affirms the truthfulness of God’s word. Though we may argue about the actual practice, which deviates from traditional Christian practice and misses the significance of the Sunday resurrection, we can respect the importance of following God’s law.

The spiritual fulfillment is a valuable perspective for Christians because it is true. The practice of Sabbath was intended, in part, to point forward to the future rest that we will enter into by Christ’s blood, when the whole cosmos is redeemed and the toil from the curse (Gen 3:17-19) has been removed. At that time, though we will still work, we will have been glorified, creation will have been renewed, (Romans 8:18-25) and we will enter into the ultimate Sabbath rest. It remains to see whether that spiritual fulfillment eliminates any present practice of the principle of Sabbath.

The third approach, which entails the rigorous of customs adapted to contemporary contexts is good because it highlights the importance of rest, encourages corporate worship, and is an earnest attempt to honor God. At the same time, such an approach runs afoul of Christ’s own interpretation and risks becoming a burden to the people it is intended to help.

A fourth approach to the Sabbath argues, which I have not introduced before, treats the whole of the Old Testament as edifying, but believes that all forms of the Law were fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17). That argument is worth carrying, but would push this post beyond the current length. I will, however, offer a few simple objectives: first, those who hold this position generally create their own laws (no movies, no pants for women, ties on Sunday) to substitute for the Old Testament Laws, which put them in a worse position; second, this approach has to deal with the odd fact that most of the Decalogue is reaffirmed explicitly in the New Testament; third, this view raises significant questions about the nature of revelation in the Old Testament, specifically with the close connection between Jesus and the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

A fifth approach to Sabbath argues that the Decalogue is the moral law and is in play, but that the fourth commandment no longer applies because Jesus didn’t practice it in the passages discussed above. This is consistent with how most contemporary Evangelicals treat the Decalogue, whether or not they can formulate that perspective fully. Not lying is good, but Sabbath is unnecessary. This approach is exegetically inconsistent and seems to be argued more for convenience than otherwise.

Practicing Sabbath

Each of the first three interpretations is helpful, but I believe they each fall short for one reason or another. The fourth and fifth interpretations are less helpful, and I believe create more exegetical problems than they solve.

If we accept that the Decalogue is the moral law, and it reflects the immutable character of our Holy God, then we should see that it is still in play. The question is how to apply it.

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus shows that practicing Sabbath was not fundamentally about inactivity. Rather, he argues that doing good work is explicitly lawful (v. 12). Note that he does not argue that the law does not apply, but that doing God honoring work on the Sabbath is a moral positive. There is no category for moral neutrality, either an action is sinful or morally praiseworthy.

Instead, the Sabbath is intended to provide a rest from economic activity during the week, which helps to show our trust in God’s goodness and provision. This is consistent with the statement in the Exodus 20:8-11. Jesus’ own interpretation undermines a strictly literalistic understanding of these verses. Also, considering the expositions of the Sabbath, which focus on giving the land a rest in an agrarian context, it seems that the emphasis is more on stopping ceaseless striving than on a particular form of inactivity. For example, in Exodus 23:10-12, Moses specifically records the purpose of Sabbath being for the provision of the poor and the wild beasts, as well as the refreshment of economic actors.

It is no accident that immediately preceding Jesus’ Sabbath healing in Matthew 12, he calls his hearers into his rest:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Note that the rest Jesus proposes entails work—the image of a yoke could mean little else. This is not the absence of activity, but the redirection of activity to restorative purposes. This often includes working at rest, but not a legalistic rest, the fulfillment of which entails greater effort than simply continuing to work for economic gain. In one sense, Jesus is calling people into a spiritual Sabbath, since they can rest in the fulfillment of the ceremonial law through his future propitiation. However, it is not clear that Jesus is alleviating any regular practice of literal rest as an expectation of a holy life.

Mark’s Gospel provides a slightly different telling of the Matthew 12 account in the second chapter. In Jesus’ explanation of David and his men eating the showbread, contrary to the ceremonial law, Jesus illuminates that the purpose of Sabbath, when he says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In one sense this is entirely true in a spiritual sense. The spiritual rest of Hebrews 4 is a great blessing for humans. In another sense, however, a non-legalistic practice of Sabbath is needed now more than ever.

Jesus’ explanation of the blessing of Sabbath for humans ties closely to the ideas in Exodus 23:12, which is a refreshing rest from economic activity. If anything, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was designed to bring a greater blessing to the elect. He fulfilled the ceremonial law so that we can trust in his once and for all sacrifice for sin (Cf. Heb 10:1-18). This is a great blessing. But if the practice of Sabbath rest, particularly in the form of resting from economic activity, is intended as a blessing, then we would expect this to be amplified rather than diminished. Therefore, while the civil and ceremonial trappings of the Sabbath may no longer apply, with their limitations to a single day of rest each week, we should look for our rest to be more varied and greater.

A full consideration of the application of Sabbath would take much more space (and would reveal how terrible I am at this myself), but likely it includes a regular pattern of participation in worship, taking vacations, not being perpetually online, carving out time for physical fitness, prioritizing family activity over work, and other active, but redemptive practices. It is still likely to include simply resting and doing quiet activities, or at least activities that are refreshing to our bodies and our souls, and that differ from our daily economic toil.

Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?

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A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.