Friday, September 23, 2005

Are All Sins Equal in God's Eyes?

Most Christians, particularly Evangelicals, instinctively believe that all sins are equally bad in God's eyes. This, no doubt, stems from our understanding of sin as something that separates one from God. Any sin, no matter how small, separates us from God. In terms of sin and salvation, that is sound Christian doctrine, but still, the belief that all sins are equal in God’s eyes makes little sense. If they were, that would make us humans more just and more intelligent than God. After all, our legal system differentiates between petty theft, speeding, and murder. We even have gradations of murder – 1st and 2nd degree murders. We don’t believe that all crime is equal in the eyes of the law. So, do Catholics who believe it is a sin to use birth control believe that God considers birth control as wrong as murder? Do Jews who believe it is a sin to eat non-kosher food equate doing so with committing rape? Do Evangelicals who believe it is a sin to gamble believe that God views a night at the blackjack table as sinful as abusing a child? For me it is sad when religious people depict God in a way that renders him less intelligent than his creations. Sure, we humans think that murdering a family is worse than taking a stapler home from the office, but God doesn't! The Bible seems to be clear when it comes to the hierarchy of sin. God abhors the deliberate infliction of unjust suffering on fellow human beings. There are some legal differences between the Old and New Testaments (e.g. divorce), but they agree that God hates evil and loves goodness. “Love your neighbor” is the great rule in Judaism and along with love of God (also from the Old Testament) is the central rule of Christianity. God did not destroy Noah's generation because they ate forbidden foods or took home cheap objects from the workplace. He did so because it was violently evil. So to discern what the greatest sin is, we begin with it having to do with evil actions. But that is not the end of it. Even among identical acts of evil, there is one category that I believe is worse than any other: evil committed in God's name. In John 19:11 Jesus told Pilate that those who had delivered him up (the Jewish religious leaders) were “guilty of the greater sin.” It is laughable that Evangelical Christians would continue to believe all sins are equal after Jesus used the phrase, “the GREATER sin.” It betrays a lack of clear thinking.

Friday, September 16, 2005

"I Pledge Allegiance . . ."

If you are a conservative, evangelical Christian and fellow Republican you are probably about to get angry. So, read the quote by Jefferson at the top of this blog. Okay, now read it again. We now have another federal judge who has said that it is a violation of our constitution for a school operated by government to require the students attending that school to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I happen to agree! Why? Because our constitution makes it clear that the government should not engage in a coercive exercise where people, in this case children, who are essentially under the control of government employees must acknowledge God. From 1892 to 1954 the words “under God” were not part of the Pledge. Back then we were not atheist and we were not “kicking God out” of anything as those currently going into irrational convulsions assert.

Here's some history: The pledge was written in 1892 by the socialist Francis Bellamy. He devised it on the occasion of the nation's first celebration of Columbus Day. Its wording omitted reference not only to God but also, interestingly, to the “United States.” It said, "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The key words for Bellamy were "indivisible," which recalled the Civil War and the triumph of the Union over states' rights, and "liberty and justice for all," which was supposed to strike a balance between equality and individual freedom. By the 1920s, reciting the pledge had become a ritual in many public schools. The campaign to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance was part of the flood of religiosity of the early 1950’s. It's unclear precisely where the idea originated, but one driving force was the Catholic fraternal society the Knights of Columbus. In April 1953, Rep. Louis Rabaut, D-Mich., formally proposed the alteration of the pledge in a bill he introduced to Congress. The "under God" movement didn't take off, however, until the next year, when it was endorsed by George M. Docherty, the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Washington that Eisenhower attended. In February 1954, Docherty gave a sermon - with the president in the pew before him - arguing that apart from "the United States of America," the pledge "could be the pledge of any country." He added, "I could hear little Moscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity." Perhaps forgetting that "liberty and justice for all" was not the norm in Moscow, Docherty urged the inclusion of "under God" in the pledge to denote what he felt was special about the United States. The ensuing congressional speeches offered more proof that the point of the bill was to promote religion. The legislative intent of the 1954 act stated that the hope was to "acknowledge the dependence of our people and our government upon the Creator,” and to “deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism." In signing the bill on June 14, 1954, Flag Day, Eisenhower delighted in the fact that from then on, "millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

This had not always been the case, however. In 1943 Chief Justice Robert Jackson wrote the following when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to force school children to recite the Pledge: “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Look, the First Amendment isn’t rocket science. The balance between the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause depends on government neutrality. Government, and public schools ARE government, cannot be hostile to religion, and they cannot endorse religion. Agree or disagree, as least you have some facts and historical perspective.

And, one more thing. Should Christians pledge allegiance to any earthly flag or government or nation anyway? Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Caesar (government) may have your money, but only God is entitled to your allegiance and full devotion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The "Religion of Peace" - at it Again.

For a brief moment today the news media got off the New Orleans story to show us pictures out of Gaza. The last Jew left last night, and turned the lights out, apparantly. The Palestinians looted the Jewish "settlements," and destroyed the synagogues. They ripped the Jewish holy places to pieces by hand! I was overcome, again, with an overwhelming sense of sadness, and then anger. We can't enter mosques because we're dirty, inferior "infidels." British police have to remove their shoes before entering a Muslim home - to arrest suspected bombers! Our soldiers have to wear gloves when handling Korans at Gitmo. Mosques are used as holdouts for insurgents in Iraq, and we dare not bomb them. Has the world gone mad? God help us!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Church History - What's the Point?

Hello. My name is Charles North, and I am a historian! Wow! I feel so good with that off my chest. Why study church history? Because we are not disconnected from the past, despite the need that every generation has to reinvent the wheel. People a lot smarter than you and I have already given answers to all the questions we are faced with today. “There is nothing new under the Sun.” For us to be purposefully ignorant of history, particularly the people and forces that have shaped the church over the past 2000 years, is just like self-inflicted amnesia or Alzheimer’s. I have just started teaching a Wednesday night series called "Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity." Here are my thoughts from the opening class.

There is a broad cultural shift that is taking place before our eyes. My parents were born in 1952. By the time my kids are adults, that world will have vanished forever. Culture, and technology, and politics, and communication, and travel, and religion have changed more rapidly than we can comprehend, and it aint slowing down. The world we were born into has already vanished, and it is not coming back! There have only been two other times in human history that this has happened – when Rome fell in the 5th century, and the period of Reformation in the 16th century. The world changed in one generation, and we are now living through the same kind of cataclysmic change – and it’s not just technology, it’s the way people think and believe because of the tension between modernism and postmodernism. Modern thinking recognizes that we no longer live in the Dark Ages. We no longer live in a time when magic and superstition make sense. We are a people of logic and reason. We believe that if there is a problem we can solve it through investigation, reason, and science. This is the foundation of American thought – progress toward a better life through science and technology, understanding and knowledge. Newtonian physics gave us the tools to make sense of the world. And then the 20th century happened – WWI, WWII, communism, terrorism, genocide. In the world of science, the theory of relativity unraveled our sense of certainty, and now quantum theory has shown that there can be effect without cause. Human cloning and stem cell research has given us more problems than solutions. So, has the world gotten better through progress? Think of what we’ve seen in New Orleans the past week – human civilization is a precariously thin veneer. Now that we understand so much about diseases, people don’t die anymore? But they do, don’t they? Now that we understand so much about psychology, we don’t have crime anymore? But we do, don’t we? Now that we have science and technology, and people are better educated, our world is more moral, right? No! And the postmoderns say, “Now you’re gettin it.”

The postmodern mindset says life is not about getting smarter, or being more right in this world of rational thinking that has not delivered what it has promised. But we have even gone beyond a postmodern world – we live in a post-Christian world. Christian thinking, and Christian values, and Christian morality are no longer the default mode of western civilization. Think of secular western Europe. People don’t visit those magnificent cathedrals to worship, they go to look at art and architecture. Closer to home, think of when most of you were children. There was nothing to do on Sunday but go to church. Everything was closed. Decent people observed the Sabbath and removed all temptation from those who did not. You prayed in school as routinely as you pledged allegiance to the flag. You memorized the 10 Commandments alongside your multiplication tables. And today? Look around. A few weeks ago Holly and I were talking with her grandmother, and she asked us what we were doing on Sunday evening, and I said, “I’m taking Holly to see a movie.” She stared at me with a blank look, and asked, “a movie -- on a Sunday?” Did you see that just yesterday the California legislature passed a bill allowing homosexuals to marry? I’ve got some bad news for those of you who are politically active in this regard. I’m with you all the way. I think that gay marriage is one of the stupidest and most ungodly ideas around, but we have lost that fight. Gay marriage all across the U.S. is inevitable. That snowball has gotten too big and gained too much momentum – it cannot be stopped. Why? Because we live in a post-Christian world. Christianity is no longer the solo voice, it is one of many voices making up a chorus of confusion.

This is not all bad news. The sooner we can admit that we are no longer under the warm and cozy protection of culture and government, the sooner we can engage the world as a counter-cultural force and practice real evangelism and discipleship the way God intended for us to, and the way the early church did. Right now, most of us are disoriented. Builders, in Medieval Europe, as they prepared to build a cathedral, made elaborate plans to lay out the foundation with the front facing east – towards Jerusalem, the orient. Before sun up, they would drive a stake into the ground that looked like a giant sewing needle, and the builder would peer through the “eye,” waiting for the sun to rise. As the sun peered over the horizen he would move that stake until it faced east. He oriented the foundation. To be disoriented is to be confused about which direction is east. It is to be off balance, unsure of ourselves, unclear over where we have been and where we are going.

To reorient ourselves, we need to return to Jesus’ parting words in Matthew 28:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" – nothing that happens to us is ever outside the reach of his sovereignty. The good, the bad, the ugly, the ups and the downs – Christ rules!

"Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations" – Our purpose is to convert the world. It is to take the name of Jesus to every corner of the world.

"Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" – However we deviate from God’s plan, however we sin, however many times we mess up, we are sustained not by our wisdom, but by the presence of Christ.

But above all, here’s why we ought to study the history of Christianity: Alongside all the noble examples of heroism and faithfulness and discipleship, we also see a full accounting of human wrongdoing. We could respond with despair, or we could say that for 2000 years weak elders and weak deacons and weak preachers have ministered inadequately to weak and broken churches, because though the church is God’s idea and creation, it is made up of people, and people always mess up. But, the past 2000 years proves one thing – the promise of our Saviour has been fulfilled: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Real Solutions

Just so you don't think I'm one of those irritating whiners with no solutions, here's what the Feds (ie the president) could have done: On Tuesday the President could have ordered an immediate deployment of a minimum of 50,000 military troops, with a full complement of amphibious vehicles, into the city with a commitment during a television address to the entire nation to order as many more troops as proved necessary. The President could have showed up in New Orleans, as he did in New York City after 9/11, to lift the morale of the city by holding the people and wading into the flood waters. The military could have deployed thousands of life rafts in the water logged neighborhoods so that people could have saved themselves from the flood waters. Hundreds of Greyhound buses (not the yellow school buses we've seen) could have been ordered to the city to evacuate the refugees who had been too poor to leave the city in the first place. The Secretary of Defense could have ordered abandoned military bases all across this nation to be opened and readied to receive the refugees from Katrina. Adequate food could have been airlifted into the city (we've done it before when other nations and cities were in trouble). People are living on rooftops with no food or water. People are still dying in the streets! Come on! The quote of the day from yesterday was from a man trapped in his apartment, on a cell phone. He said, "I expect Jesus to come back before the military get down here." Oh, no wait, Mr. Chertoff just said, "We're not going to tolerate lawlessness." Riiiigh! I'm wondering how much longer Americans will tolerate our government?

Bitter Disappointment

I am so angry and heartbroken, plus my mind is racing in a caffeine-induced sprint, so anything is likely to come out of my keyboard. And, as an ordained minister in the "Church of the Painful Truth," I am, for today, not fazed by political correctness, sensitivity, or any other namby-pamby, mealy-mouthed dribble we're all so accustomed to. Fine, with that disclaimer stated, let me vent.

I am going to do what I have always thought distasteful - whine, publically criticize the president in a time of national crisis, bash the military, and be insensitive toward the "refugees" from New Orleans.

Watching Mr. Bush give his "speech" yesterday was painful. He seemed way over his head, as did the other clowns we have running the country. He basically said nothing. Just more meaningless slogans of the "freedom is on the march" variety. Mr. Chertoff suggested that people log onto a web site to find out where to go for shelter. Talk about being out of touch. This man is the secretary of Homeland Security! Please, Mr. Bush, I used to trust you - please say and then DO something meaningful, please!!!

Speaking of doing nothing, why are people wandering around New Orleans a full three days after the storm with no food and water, sleeping in car garages, sitting on the interstate, and avoiding gangs of looters and car-jackers. And why are people allowed to shoot at rescue helicopters, lay seige to hopitals, and car-jack ambulances? And why are bloated corpses still lying on pavements? And why the hell are the New Orleans Police ransacking the shoe isle at the WalMart along with the other thugs? Because our entire military is AWOL. Don't make excuses for them, I'm really not interested. We have the most powerful military in the world with the best equipment. They need to be in there with water and food and with bullhorns telling people what to do. Right now there is nothing - just thousands of people wandering around the flooded streets of what was already a city plagued with violent crime with no clue what to do. If our military can't restore order in New Orleans, how can they do it in Baghdad? Oh, and the looting you're seeing on CNN is petty - think of the real crime going down right now. The "perfect" murders being committed, the bank vaults being taken by crime syndicates - get it? Where is the military???

One more thing. Houston, you have a problem! Right now there are hundreds of busses on the highway transporting refugees from the Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston. How many people are going to be bussed to the Astrodome? Twenty thousand? Thirty? Many, perhaps most of these people have nothing left in New Orleans. They have no homes to return to, no personal belongings, no jobs. There is no reason for them to go back, and there is no law that can keep them confined to the Astrodome. They're not under arrest. They will be free to leave when they wish, and go where they want. These aren't the cream of the crop. Some of the people who will take up residence may have been looting jewelry stores in New Orleans yesterday. Many are from the various New Orleans welfare housing projects. Are you ready, Houston? What should be done with all those people? How about some of our military installations? Many of these are slated for closing. They have empty barracks, unused mess halls and all of the medical and sanitary facilities you might need. Katrina refugees could be moved in. While there they could gain experience working to maintain the facility as they live and learn basic economic survival skills. This is what I mean when I say, "Mr. Bush, do something!"

Oh, and one more thing. Remember that Exxon-Mobil is still swimming in record profits!