Friday, August 18, 2017

Moral Relativism

     If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.
-Galatians 6:3-5 (NIV)

The horrible events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been made all the more horrible in the eyes of many around the world by the response of our President. Even many of his party, and many who have been supporters of him, wondered why he had little to say at first, then cringed when he seemed to equate the counter-protesters with the white supremacists they were standing against. He backed off that a little eventually, but then seemed to double down on it a day later. Americans wondered why our leader, who is usually quite quick to assign blame, wasn’t willing to simply denounce Klan members and neo-Nazis, without feeling the need to compare them to those who stood against them. Especially when one of them drove a car into a group of counter-protesters. It’s puzzling because it should be easy to say that Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are bad….period. It’s a slam dunk. We fought a couple of wars over that. The only people who will take offense are…well, Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
     You can speculate about why President Trump refused to be more direct in his condemnation of white supremacists. But what he engaged in is a form of what’s called moral relativism. It’s a kind of ethical gymnastics that lets us say that there is nothing really objectively good or bad, and so morality is on kind of a sliding scale. Crucially in this case, it allows us to compare our own morality with others’. Because if there isn’t an objective good or bad then all I need to be “good” is to be no worse than anyone else.  
     On a personal scale, you’ve engaged in moral relativism if you’ve ever said (or thought) something like this: Well, that wasn’t good. But at least I didn’t (where X is some kind of behavior that to you is much worse than whatever it is you did). 
     You’ve engaged in moral relativism if you’ve ever tried to excuse your own actions by comparing them to someone else’s, like if your wife accuses you of speaking harshly and you remind her that she yelled at you last week. Why is that relevant? Why does it matter? Because you’re not operating on the idea that there’s an objective “good” in the matter of how you speak to your wife. You’re operating on the assumption that you only need to be as “good” as she is. 
     Sometimes moral relativism takes the form of Who are you to judge me? That is, a person isn’t qualified to call me out on my behavior if there’s anything in his life someone could call him out on. Jesus said something that sort of sounds like that, but he also assumed that there were times when you would need to show someone their fault. But if there isn’t a moral standard, then really who is anyone to say anything is wrong?
     President Trump took his moral relativism last weekend quite a bit farther than most people are comfortable with. Again, hardly anyone thinks that it’s good to be a white supremacist. But let’s not imagine it isn’t a predictable turn of events if we assume that we can only evaluate morality on a curve. Because there’s always someone who can skew the curve downward.
     That’s why Paul discouraged the Galatian church from comparing themselves to one another. On the one hand, if you compare yourself morally and ethically to the “right” people, it can make you feel unreasonably proud of yourself. Think of Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector: the Pharisee feels good because, compared to the tax collector, most everyone would think he’s the better person. He prays about his own resume and belittles the tax collector, who admits his sinfulness and asks for forgiveness. “Which of these guys went home justified before God?” Jesus asks in the punch line. Answer: not the “good” one.
     On the other hand, if you compare yourself to the “wrong” person you make that person the standard. Your aspirations become not to be like Jesus, but to be like that person. If you succeed, you feel pride. If you don’t, you feel despair. 
     Paul tells that church that each of them should “test their own actions.” There’s the implication there, isn’t there, of a standard? Something to test yourself against? He assumed that it should be a fairly simple matter for someone to keep a steady eye on the things he or she does, to constantly evaluate their actions as “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.” 
     The opposite to moral relativism is moral absolutism, the idea that there is a perfect standard of right and wrong, and that human beings are responsible for it. Paul doesn’t imagine that everyone is his or her own arbiter of good and evil. He has a standard in mind, and you see it all around this text in Galatians. He talks about “keeping in step with the Spirit.” He says we “belong to Christ Jesus.” He says, “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” The standard for him is so obvious that he doesn’t even feel the need to be explicit about it: that we are to live in lockstep with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we are to let our Lord, the one to whom we belong, Jesus, tell us what is good, that we answer to God for our actions, and that he won’t be conned by our moral gymnastics. If you want him to be explicit about it, though, Romans 14:12 is pretty good: “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”
     If some in our world don’t care for the idea of giving an account to God, some Christians don’t like that word “ourselves.” After all, if there’s an objective standard of right and wrong, then shouldn’t it apply to everyone equally? And isn’t it up to me to see that everyone complies? That’s been the majority opinion among some Christians in different places and times. It can still tempt us in our own place and time. But no human being is ever the right standard for morality. Not even you or me. We all get it wrong sometimes. We can’t know each others’ hearts. And the Lord hasn’t given us enough information to always know right and wrong flawlessly every time. Or even most of the time. That’s why we should test our own actions, carry our own loads, and assume that other believers love the Lord too and want to obey him as much as we do.  
     There are times, though, when right and wrong is a slam dunk, when there is no doubt who’s on the right side. May we be very humble about that. May we never give in to hating those on the wrong side. But may we not be reluctant to speak for good and against evil — preferably in that order — when the need arises. No, we aren’t perfect. But neither are we the standard. God is our standard, and when people are mistreated, when injustice rules the day, when the strong run roughshod over the weak, his people must speak against it. We must do it with love, but we must do it.
     May we be faithful in that, even when those who should be are not.    


Friday, August 11, 2017

Canaanite DNA and Biblical Inerrancy

     He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 
     Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
-Luke 24:44-45 

It was one of those stories that wouldn’t have created much buzz among the general public if not for the headlines news editors chose to tease it. The story was about human DNA taken from remains found in an ancient Canaanite settlement in the area of Sidon. As it turns out, the DNA has a lot of overlap with the DNA of modern Lebanese. 
     Interesting, of course, but not a story with anything like mass appeal. Which is probably why so many editors chose headlines like this: 
New DNA study casts doubt on Bible claim” (Mother Nature Network)
     Those headlines probably got those stories a lot more clicks than they would have accumulated otherwise. As much as some folks would like to claim the Bible is irrelevant in our world, there does seem to be a lot of interest when it’s “proven” to be wrong. 
      Of course, all that story does is support the biblical account. 
     If you know your Old Testament, you know that God did indeed tell the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land. The Canaanites lived there first, after all. If it was going to be Israel’s, then they were going to have to remove the Canaanites. 
     That is definitely a politically incorrect story. It gives me trouble too, if you want to know the truth. The idea of wiping out an entire ethnic group by divine mandate is incredibly disturbing to any right-thinking person. But, here’s the relevant thing for this particular news story that supposedly “casts doubt” on Scripture: it didn’t happen. Israel did not, in fact, wipe out the Canaanites. 
     Judges 1 lists all the places where the Canaanites were still living, going on record to repeat several times that Israel “did not drive out” the Canaanites from those areas. Centuries later, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman (from the area of Sidon, in fact!) and heals her daughter.
     I don’t expect the media to go out of their way to support the Bible. But they could do a little research before they claim to disprove it.
     In fairness, a lot of outlets later posted retractions — or at least updates — after I guess enough people contacted them to tell them they got it wrong. By then, of course, the news cycle had turned and the damage was already done. 
     None of this is a big deal, really. What bothers me, though, is what stories like this inevitably turn the Bible into: Ground to be won. Territory to be taken. As surely as Israel invaded Canaan, some media outlet somewhere will try to prop up a “boring” little story on Ancient Near Eastern archaeology by claiming it “disproves” something or the other about Scripture. To which well-meaning believers will respond with all the rage an invaded territory can muster, “defending” the Bible with verses and alternative information and claims of persecution. And the Bible gets turned into something it was never supposed to be.
     Skeptics, you might not listen to me, but I hope you will: you’re not going to sweep away two ancient religions with one story. Those of us who are believers don’t believe because our Scriptures are inerrant and above question. Our faith, in fact, isn’t in that book at all. It’s in the God whose story we glimpse in the experiences of the people who wrote those Scriptures. Yes, we believe that God somehow inspired those authors. His inspiration, though, was not dictation. Sure, the Holy Spirit could have given the authors of the Bible instant and perfect knowledge of historical events - but then the finished product would sort of lose its human element, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t any longer be human reflections on God’s work. 
     Believers, listen to me, please: we don’t need to beat the skeptics. Belief is grace and it comes from God. Anyone who thinks the Bible collapses like a game of Jenga because some DNA experts pull out the Canaanite block either doesn’t know much about the Bible to begin with, or has already pre-selected skepticism as his default position. You won’t usually convince someone to believe because you can persuasively answer some actual or perceived media bias. 
     This thing about proving the Bible to be inerrant is wasted energy. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need human inerrancy to do his work. Good thing, because if he works in and through human beings at all, it’s through human beings who make mistakes. If human mistakes don’t invalidate his work in our lives, and in our time, why should we be worried that they might invalidate his work through other lives in other times?
     The Bible doesn’t create our relationship with God. It helps us understand it, make sense of it, and organize our lives by it. That’s the kind of book it is. We do it a disservice when we treat it like ground to be defended. We miss the point. We fail to communicate what the Bible is about, and who wrote it. 
     Hint: “God” is only the right answer to one of those questions. 
     What? I don’t believe God wrote the Bible? You don’t either, really. You don’t think he put pen to paper. You don’t think he dictated it. You know it’s a human creation that came about because people had encounters with God and found him to be awesome and holy and faithful and compassionate, and they, or others, wrote about those experiences - often decades or centuries after the fact. They wrote about those experiences so that those who came after could know about that God and would seek him and maybe have similar experiences with him. 
     The Holy Spirit was square in the middle of that. He was involved in it. But he didn’t write it, and he didn’t dictate it. So there’s no reason for us to spend much energy defending it. 

     A weaker view of inspiration? You tell me. But it’s a stronger view of the Bible.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

On Getting What We Deserve

Therefore, Rise up, Judge of the earth;
pay back to the proud what they deserve. 
-Psalm 94:2
…[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
-Psalm 103:10 

This week, the Chicago Cubs gave away what is, I guess, the last of their 2016 World Series rings. And I guess that’s appropriate because it was received by probably the last person many Cubs fans would have imagined would get a ring.
     Until last year, the closest the Cubs had gotten to even playing in a World Series since 1945 was in 2003. The Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins for the National League pennant and a spot in the World Series. It was Game 6. The Cubs led the best-of-seven series 3 games to 2, and they had a 3-0 lead in the top of the eighth inning at Wrigley Field. The air was electric. With one out already in the eighth, the Cubs were five outs away from breaking one of the longest droughts in professional sports. 
     When Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo hit a lazy foul down the third base line, it looked like the second out of the inning. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou drifted over. The ball was floating toward the stands, but Alou was there and jumped to make the catch near the first row of seats. 
     Except a guy named Steve Bartman was sitting there. A lifelong Cubs fan, he must have been thrilled to have those seats down the third base line, and even more excited to have the chance to catch a foul ball. Maybe he was a little overeager. Maybe Castillo should have been ruled out due to interference, as replays seemed to show Bartman’s hand extended out past the stands. In any case, he didn’t make the catch, and neither did Alou. The Cubs went on to give up eight runs in the inning. They lost game six 8-3, and they never seemed to be in game seven. 
     Things didn’t go any better for Bartman. Fans sitting around him (some who had tried to make the catch themselves) berated him, threw beer and food at him, and threatened him. He was eventually escorted from the stadium by security. He was placed under police protection for a while. He refused interviews, stayed out of public view, and as far as anyone seems to know has never returned to Wrigley Field.
     Last season, the Cubs apparently reached out to him to make an appearance at Wrigley during the World Series or at the parade after the win. Bartman politely declined. But finally, just last week, half a season after the Cubs broke their 108-year World Series drought, Bartman received his personalized World Series ring. In response he released a statement: 

"Although I do not consider myself worthy of such an honor, I am deeply moved and sincerely grateful to receive an official Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Championship ring. I am fully aware of the historical significance and appreciate the symbolism the ring represents on multiple levels. My family and I will cherish it for generations. Most meaningful is the genuine outreach from the Ricketts family, on behalf of the Cubs organization and fans, signifying to me that I am welcomed back into the Cubs family and have their support going forward. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over."

     My very unscientific poll shows that Chicagoans are mostly in favor of Bartman getting a ring. Predictably, though, there are some who question whether he deserves it or not. Even Bartman himself questions that. Whether he deserves it — that seems like a strange way to think about it. It’s a gift. A peace offering. It’s a gesture that symbolizes there are no hard feelings and hopefully brings about closure and reconciliation. 
     It’s of course true that he doesn’t deserve it in the same way the players, manager, coaches, front office, and owners deserve it. But it isn't about what he deserves. It’s about the giving of a gift.
      So much of human life seems consumed by figuring out how to get what we think we deserve or making sure others don’t get more than they deserve. We struggle with the idea that life is a zero-sum game, that whatever someone else gets is something I don’t. That can be a harsh and uncompromising way to live, if for no other reason than when we’re honest we all have to admit that we don’t always deserve what we get and don’t always do enough to deserve more. 
     That schizophrenia about what we deserve comes out in Scripture, even. The psalmist who wrote what we call Psalm 94 wanted God to be “a God who avenges,” to mete out to those who arrogantly pursue their own interests at the expense of others “what they deserve.” And there are times when we pray for that, aren't there? And times when it seems absolutely right that we should.
     Yet none of us want God to treat us that way — at least, none of us who are honest with ourselves and know God even a little. We want what the composer who wrote what we know as Psalm 104 wanted. We want a God “who will not always accuse,” who will not “harbor his anger forever” and who “does not treat us as our sins deserve.” 
     So do we want God to give us what we deserve, or not? I guess that depends on what we think we deserve.
     In one of his letters, Paul generalizes us all with one phrase: “we were by nature deserving of wrath.” Not a lot of wriggle room there, huh? It’s offensive. He lumps us all together. All that Old Testament, fire-and-brimstone stuff is what our sins deserve from God. We’ve all done enough to merit only his judgment.
     But in spite of that, he goes on to say that God loves us. He explains what God was doing through Jesus by using words like mercy, kindness and, most often, grace. Though our actions had rendered us essentially dead, God in Jesus made us alive. He didn’t do this in response to anything we have done, or even because he believes in our potential. It’s by grace that we’ve been saved, rescued from our hopelessness and death and given life. It’s for everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And it has nothing to do with what we deserve.
     We would do well to remember that. When we’re inclined to brag about our accomplishments or our morality or our prayer lives or our service to the poor, we should remember that all we have is by God’s grace. When we’re inclined to look down on someone who in our view doesn’t compare too well to us, we should remember that nothing we’ve done makes God love us any more than anyone else. We should receive God’s gift of grace with — what else? — grace. We should show grace to others who might still be laboring under the assumption that they must deserve the love of God and the people around them.  
     Here’s a thought: if grace doesn’t come easy for you in your relationships with the people closest to you, maybe it’s because you don’t understand the gift God has given you. Maybe you’re still consumed with being deserving of love, and maybe you’re holding everyone else to that standard. Just know that God will never love you less or more than he does right now. If you look at the world around you through those glasses, it might just change what you see.