The choice between
life and death strikes close to home. Mother was beyond the age when women
generally give birth when she conceived. Moreover, she was not in the best of
health. There was risk involved in bringing the fetus to full term. Had she
opted for abortion, my life would have been terminated.
I gather that she never
genuinely regretted her decision. Even though the birth was difficult,
she chose life. Even though there were lingering adverse effects, she
Of course, I was not consulted.
Scripture encourages us to make provision for those who are importune.
The fetus would seem to eminently qualify.
In Jewish tradition,
three are implicated in birthing a child. Along with mother and father,
there is God. The implication is that all three have invested interests,
which should be addressed.
I cannot remember a
time when I was not loved. Mother expressed her love in a variety of ways.
For instance, by her loving care. For another, when she would show her
approval. Dad was of necessity less involved. His love translated into being
a good provider, a respected virtue in our village culture. Then, too, in
playing with me from time to time, or reading to me when I was ill. Not to be
overlooked, there were my siblings, extended family, and childhood friends.
A road separated our home from
my father's store. It was some time before mother would allow me to
negotiate the road, and then only after considerable coaching. "Look
both ways," she would shout after me. "Yes, mother," I would indulge
I came of age while
World War II was raging. It was a time when life was increasingly uncertain.
Mother seemed to sense that I would not return from overseas deployment. Her
intuition proved misleading.
My parents have passed
away, as have my siblings and ever so many more. I supposed that the hurt
would diminish with the passing of time. Perhaps for the time being, only to
be renewed on occasion. Given the opportunity, I would opt for life–for
myself and for others.
If for no other reason,
the Christian faith appeals to me. "I am come that they may have life,"
Jesus affirmed, "and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
Things are not always as
they appear. In a manner of speaking, the Christian martyr chose life
rather than death; inasmuch as he or she would not exchange a few fleeting
years for the prospect of eternity.
The above comments will
suffice for the present. Walk with me as I subsequently explore the
topic in greater detail. It will hopefully prove to be time well
First Things First
"The greatest power we
possess is the power to choose. Our most important choice, whether on the
plains of Moab or in today's fast paced world is between life and death.
The appeal to choose between life and death is common in the Old Testament."1
It is no less prevalent in the New Testament.
* * *
Illustrations abound. "See," Moses solemnly addressed the people, I set before
you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today
to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees
and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you
in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you
are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship,
them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed (Deut. 30:15-16).
In context, the phrase I set before you implies that a categorical choice
must be made between life and death. There is no third option.
Moreover, the decision
is urgent. We cannot resurrect the past, and we cannot presume regarding the
future. As I was assured as a child, "Life comes around only once."
Much is at stake. Life and prosperity is set over against death and
destruction. Life and all that it affords; death and the loss
of all that might have been. The contrast is intentionally stark.
Moses next sets out to
explain his use of terms. Life is generated from loving the Lord
your God, and eventuates in walking in his ways. This, in turn, involves
keeping their covenant obligations.
results from disobedience. In any regard, but expressly concerning
idolatry. Idolatry can take many forms. Some actually worship figures made
from wood, metal, or clay. Either that or what they suppose the figures
represent. Others are more subtle. They simply esteem things of this world
more than their benevolent benefactor.
Idolatry reveals a complex
dynamic. It appears to satisfy the concern to have a visible object for
adoration; it may result from ignorance (cf. Acts 17:30); it often allows the
person to be self-serving; it can be a means for exercising control over
others. All things considered, there is some truth to the assertion:
"One is as good as the gods he or she placates."
The prophets were quick
to point out that idols lack vitality. They have ears, but do not hear.
They have mouths, but do not speak. In this regard, they qualify as
harbingers of death.
Finally, Moses associates
the choice with the promised land. If the people choose life, "the Lord
your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess." If
they opt for death, "you will not live long in the land you are crossing the
Jordan to enter and possess." The focus is not on some ethereal hope in
the distant future, but concerning impending events.
Consider another example.
"Enter through the narrow gate," Jesus admonished. "For wide is the gate and
broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few
find it" (Matt. 7:13-14).
Initially, note the
context. The Golden Rule, do others as you would have them do to you,
might be said to constitute the high point of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
The four paragraphs that follow contrast the two ways, two kinds of fruit, two
kinds of followers, and two kinds of builders. In each instance, a sharp
distinction is drawn between true discipleship and religious pretense.
Jesus calls for
decisive action. There was no time to attend to extraneous matters; nor to
consider what might lie in store for them. There was no room for ifs
or buts in the disciple's response. In nautical terms, they were to
set sail and weather the storms as they arose.
For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction. It
is readily accessible to all. It has the approval of most. Nonetheless, it
will inevitably lead to destruction.
is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
The few is not specified. C. S. Lewis once observed that upon gaining
access to heaven, persons will likely discover that some of those who they
took to be pious simply enjoyed good digestion. "Examine yourself to see
whether you are in the faith," Paul admonishes his readers (2 Cor. 13:5).
Leave nothing to chance.
The discussion now takes
a more philosophic turn. Some decisions are manifestly complex. "I
have good news for you," a faculty colleague used to greet his freshman
students. "Now that you have matriculated, your options are dramatically
reduced. You do not have to decide whether or not to study; you will
study! You do not have to weigh whether to get enough rest, eat
properly, or have regular exercise–since these are conducive to study."
So it is with those
who opt for life. It will impact on the priorities we set, how we expend our
energies, and how we measure success. It will impact on the priorities we
set. Jesus cogently observed, "for I seek not to please myself but him
who sent me" (John 5:30). He assumed this as the prime directive.
It is in the above
regard that the worthwhile may keep us from excelling. The worthwhile
qualifies as anything that appears to us and/or others as a positive course of
action. Conversely, we excel only in conjunction with God's gracious
will for our lives. It is in this manner that we refine our potential by
means of his enabling grace.
An illustration will
perhaps clarify my thinking. Ed was a devout young college student, who
struggled to find his calling in life. After graduation, he took a
year's study in seminary. It was never his intent to become a pastor,
but he presumed that the theological training would stand him in good stead.
He eventually became a missionary educator. I have seldom seen a person
so assured of his calling, or more enthusiastic in rendering a ministry.
Moreover, Ed made a
practice of considering others in deference to himself. In order of
priority, it was God first and others second. His concern appeared to
focus on those near at hand: his instructors and fellow students. It
extended, as the opportunity afforded itself, to persons further removed.
Such as those he and his friends would visit on a Sunday afternoon, as a means
of sharing their faith.
Then, when his education
was completed, he ventured into strange surroundings, among people of a
different ethnic and cultural orientation. His life was cut short by
some tropical decease, and he was buried in a distant land–close to those he
was privileged to serve.
Ed seemed of the opinion
that he had everything to gain, and nothing to lose in venturing forth in
faith. "But seek the kingdom of God first," Jesus admonished, "and all
these things (concerning our daily provision) will be given to you as well"
(Matt. 6:33). In this regard, Jesus reminded them of God's providential
care for the lilies of the field.
On a later occasion,
the Lord observed: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his
life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:39). "That self-seeking is
self-defeating is the central paradox of Christian living. In the context of
cross-bearing it would appear that 'gaining one's life' may refer to escaping
martyrdom by denying the faith. ...The saying of Jesus is also true in a more
general sense; to pursue selfish interests is to lose out on what life if all
If we opt
for life, it will also influence how we expend our energies. "Worship
the Lord in the splendor of his holiness," the psalmist enjoins (96:9). It is
emphatically time well spent. Without worship, life loses its seasoning.
Two related observations
would appear in order. First, worship is an expression of gratitude; as
relates to God's person and provision. Our God is a great God!
There is no one to rival his majesty.
In addition, he provides
for us as would a parent for his or her children. Indeed, we are blessed
from one generation to the next.
Second, our gratitude is
confirmed in the manner in which we live. In a passage I have
appreciatively quoted on various occasions, "Away with the noise of your
songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let
justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Justice must be
cultivated in diverse contexts. There is legal justice. "How long
will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?" the Almighty
indignantly inquires. "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain
the rights of the poor and oppressed"
There is also
distributive justice. This balances the privileges and obligations one
assumes as a member of society. It is incumbent that persons not be expected
to bear a disproportionate share of responsibility, but neither should they be
excused from contributing as warranted.
Likewise, there is
commutative justice. Such as is related to the exchange of commodities
and services. "Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales?" God rhetorically
inquires (Micah 6:11). Certainly not!
Then, finally, there
is retributive justice. The Lex Talionis serves as a prime case
in point. In biblical terms, "an eye for an eye" (Exod. 21:24). Its
expressed purpose was to prohibit excessive punishment. Whatever the specific
application, let justice flow on like a river, and righteousness like a
The alternative may
be said to focus our attention on the grave. That is all that remains to
bear witness that someone once walked this way. If he or she had
accumulated this world's goods, others are left to enjoy them.
If we opt for life, it
will likewise inform us how to measure success. "Now this is eternal
life," Jesus observed: "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus
Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). "In this world we are familiar with
the truth that it is a blessing and an inspiration to know certain people.
Much more is it the case when we know God. To know him transforms us and
introduces us to a different quality of living."3
Initially, note the
analogy. We are privileged to become personally acquainted with certain
people, who leave a lasting impression on us. We are now and forever in
people are renowned. More often than not, they receive little notice.
In any case, they qualify as exemplars.
what is lacking. There is no reference to the accumulation of material
things. We would be led to believe that these have little to do with
establishing the quality of life.
So it was that Jesus
told a parable concerning a certain rich man, whose ground produced a pumper
crop. He pondered to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to
store my crops" (Luke 12:17). Then he concluded, "This is what I'll do.
I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my
grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good
things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be
But God said to him, "You
fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then
who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"
After that, Jesus
concluded: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for
himself but is not rich toward God." He apparently felt no additional
commentary would seem necessary.
Thirdly, note the
preeminence of God If certain persons can be said to enrich our
lives, how much more must this be true concerning the Almighty!
There are various
means through which we experience God. Through his creation. "The
heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display
knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard" (Psa.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom
and discipline" (Prov. 1:7). As an example, "Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise. It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet
it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest" (6:6).
From salvation history. As with Moses, who chose to be mistreated along
with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short
time. ...By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered
because he saw him who is invisible. ...By faith the people passed through the
Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they
were drowned (Heb. 11:24-25, 27, 29).
In the person of
Jesus. "Lord," Philip said to Jesus, "show us the Father and that will be
enough for us" (John 14:8).
Jesus replied, "Don't
you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?
Anyone who has seen me has see the Father." It is in the form of a gentle
All things considered,
by being open to the opportunities life affords. It is as we
enthusiastically embrace life that God delights in revealing his will to us.
According to conventional wisdom, "Live and learn."
The doctrine of the
two ways, so admirably set forth in Psalm 1, permeates biblical narrative. I
have chosen representative passages, so as to elaborate on the choice between
life and death. As noted in the book's title, this constitutes the
choice, since other choices take their point of departure from this initial
juncture in our earthly sojourn.
It would appear
that the most captivating biblical passage for Jewish piety is the akeda
(binding) of Isaac. It appears as if a haunting memory, touching on the
pathos of life, and soliciting uncompromising devotion to the Almighty. It is
no less a profound commentary on what is sometimes a subtle choice between
life and death.
* * *
From a literary
perspective, "The action is not merely broken up into steps. Each step is
told slowly, in considerable detail, and several sentences are long, carefully
built up by balanced clauses. It is the slow-telling technique discussed
above, handled with virtuosity."4
"Abraham!" God summoned the
"Here I am," Abraham replied.
It was not his intent to state the obvious, but to express his availability
Then God directed him,
"Take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.
Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell
you about." Sacrifice was a regular part of the worship of Abraham and the
Israelite patriarchs. After God had appeared to him at Shechem, he built an
altar to the Lord and offered a sacrifice (Gen. 12:7). Later altars were
subsequently erected at Bethel (12:8; 13:18).
The sacrifice is best
thought of as a token expression of one's religious devotion. It decidedly
did not excuse a lack of piety. In the terminology coined by Dietriech
Bonhoeffer, it was not meant to accommodate cheap grace.
Human sacrifice, however, was
quite a different matter. The practice appears to have been common among
the Canaanites, but discouraged by the Mosaic tradition. As an apt
illustration, "You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in
worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.
They even burn their sons and daughters in the fires as sacrifices to their
gods" (Deut. 12:31).
Of course, the patriarch may
not have had a settled conviction in this matter. As sometimes
expressed, he was a project in progress. Pagan ways cast an exceedingly
Early the next morning, Abraham got
up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son,
Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for a burnt offering, he set out to
locate the place God had described.
On the third day, he looked up and
saw the location in the distance. He instructed his servants, "Stay here
with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and
then we will come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the brunt
offering, and placed it on his son's shoulders. He himself carried the
fire and knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac broke the
silence. "Father?" he asked in an questioning voice.
"Yes, my son?" the
patriarch invited him to continue.
"The fire and the wood are here,"
Isaac observed, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Abraham answered, "God himself
will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." Then the two of
them went on together. As for commentary, repetition appears to be
especially characteristic of more ancient forms of narrative.
This might be due to the circumstances that oral composition and transmission
are greatly helped by regularly repeated elements; furthermore, ...such
elements make a story which is listened to sound better. ...All this
might seem to lead to the conclusion that the narrative manner of the Bible is
relatively close to ancient and primitive conventions, though–since its
repetitions are not quite regular–one step higher on the evolutionary scale.5
When they had reached
the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood
on it. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar–on top of the wood.
Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his cherished son.
However, the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham!
Now the angel of
the Lord characteristically serves as his messenger. This invites the
impression that he, at least on occasion, constitutes a manifestation of God.
In this capacity, the angel resembles the burning bush that was not consumed,
and which solicited Moses' attention
(cf. Exod. 3).
"Here I am," the patriarch again
"Do not lay a hand on
the boy," the angel protested. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that
you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
The fear of God conveys something more profound than simply dread or
terror; it suggests awe-inspiring reverence.
Abraham looked up and
saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. He went over and took the ram,
and sacrificed it–in place of his son. So the patriarch called that location
The Lord Will Provide. "And to this day," the narrator observes,
"it is said: 'On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.'"
Then the angel of the
Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time, "I swear by myself," the
Lord declares, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son,
your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous
as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants
will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring
all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.
"By faith Abraham,
when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice," the author of Hebrews
observes. "He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one
and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your
offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead,
and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (11:17-19).
"Now faith is being
sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (v. 1). This is
more along the line of a description than a definition. Faith might be
defined as a radical commitment of one's life to the Almighty. As such, it
involves knowledge, trust, and obedience. Knowledge in the sense of
comprehension, trust with regard to reliance, and obedience as
its corollary. In the memorable words of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, "only he who
believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes."6
It was God's intent to
test Abraham, but in what regard? Clearly, in keeping with God's
promise to fulfill his promise through Isaac. So it would seem that the
comment concerning Abraham's belief in God's ability to raise his son from
death is not off the mark, because Isaac's survival was necessary to the
realization of the promise–assuming his life would be taken. As it turns out,
this was not the case, except in a figurative sense.
"Was not our ancestor
Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on
the altar?" James rhetorically inquires. "You see that his faith and his
actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did"
(2:21-22). "The idea is not that faith was perfected in the sense of it
having been less than faith before, but that faith is brought to maturity
through action (cf. 1:4; 15). There is a mutuality: Faith informs and
motivates action; action matures faith."7 James means to repudiate
a false dichotomy, in preference for a faith that rings true.
The comments of the
early church fathers are likewise pertinent. Clement encourages his readers
to reflect on how one might obtain God's blessing. In this connection, "Let
us think over the things which have taken place from the beginning. For what
reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought
righteousness and truth through faith? Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if
knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice."8
blessing acknowledges God's favorable disposition. In particular,
Abraham merited God's approval because he wrought righteousness and truth
through faith. Then, too, Clement supposes that Isaac was not hesitant to
comply with his father's wishes. The wood he bore on his shoulders is
represented as analogous to the cross.
Irenaeus reasons along
a complementary line: "For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the
command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice
to God, his only begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be
pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and begotten Son, as a
sacrifice for our redemption."9 In order that bonds the two
events together, in terms of promise and fulfillment.
Moreover, the Word
of God provides an unifying theme. When the patriarch heard God's word,
he obeyed. When the apostles were summoned by the Incarnate Word, they also
obeyed. When anyone reflects on the revealed word of God, it is their
obligation to be obedient.
instance will suffice, although I have little more than scratched the surface.
Cyprian observes that we ought not to complain, but endure hardship in God's
service. He recalls in this connection the Job narrative, before turning
his attention to the binding of Isaac. The latter expressly serves to
demonstrate that God means to prove the instrument of his use.
Then, in summary: "As
gold in the furnace He proved them, and as burnt-offering He received them.
And in their time there shall be respect of them; they shall judge the
nations, and shall rule over the people; and their Lord shall reign for ever."10
But not before they have been refined in life's furnace.
It remains to focus
more precisely on the mix of life and death imagery associated with the
binding of Isaac. It begins with God. Abraham, conversely, resembles
more a member of the supporting cast. He comes on stage for the time being,
only to leave out of deference to others.
God is there all
along. In the beginning, at the end, and for the interim. He is
the one constant in the midst of change. Life revolves around him.
Now life originates
with God. First, he created a habitable environment. There was
heat to warm the firmament. There was water, which withdrew to allow
land to appear. There was flora and fauna of rich diversity. Then,
finally, there was humanity–as if a capstone to God's creative activity.
Humans are not the
most robust of God's creatures. They need to bond together in order to
survive. God graciously made provision for community.
The biblical writers
assume that since God created the world, he is necessary to sustain it. "He
covers the sky with clouds," the psalmist enthuses; "he supplies the earth
with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle,
and for the young ravens when they call" (Psa. 147:8-9). In more general
terms, "The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has
made" (Psa. 145:17).
concluded, "He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Matt. 22:32).
This he said by way of rebuking the Sadducees who reasoned that there was no
resurrection. John Calvin observed that it is customary for a father to
have children. So it is that to affirm God's existence is to confirm
The notion of life
asserts itself again concerning God's promise to Abraham. It was couched
in the context of the mandate to leave familiar surroundings and a supportive
extended family structure, so as to claim his inheritance. "I will make you
into a great nation and I will bless you," he was told; "I will make your name
great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you will I curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed
through you" (Gen. 12:2-3).
He would be
blessed. In antiquity, this was as a rule associated with long life and
a large family. If, that is, life is relatively free from misfortune,
and the children are not contentious. These desirable considerations in
and of themselves would not substitute for a walk with God.
He would be a means of blessing. Consequently, he would more resemble a channel than a
reservoir. It was never God's intent that we should squander his blessings on ourselves.
As noted above, it
was this promise that kept the patriarch on course. Since God had
promised, it was as good as done. If it took raising Isaac from the
dead, God could be counted on to manage it. If by some other way, God is
faithful. In a manner of speaking, this was not so much Abraham's
problem as God's.
The lad's life was not
spared until the last moment. The knife was already poised in his father's
hand when the angel of the Lord stayed the execution. It is perhaps not
surprising that Jewish tradition finds in this a cause for martyrdom. "It may
be pointed out that the prohibition against suicide in Judaism is not
absolute. A Jew is actually obligated to accept death rather than commit
murder, idolatry, or incest."11 Such are said to die
sanctifying the Holy Name.
Conversely, his life was
spared. This serves as a reminder that God does not take pleasure in
human sacrifice. Life is sacred from the moment of inception to its
demise, and should be treated with the greatest of respect.
As noted at the
outset, the akida has made an unique contribution to Jewish piety. As
subsequently observed, it has not gone unnoticed by the New Testament writers
or the early church fathers. Now it deserves to be given serious attention in
the midst of the current clash between the cultures of life and death.
You Shall Not Murder
The significance of
the Decalogue can hardly be overstated. The rabbis "speculated that it was
prepared on the eve of creation in anticipation of subsequent use; they
asserted that as each commandment was sounded from the lofty heights of Sinai
it filled the world with a pleasing aroma; they concluded that all nature
hushed to hear every word as it was spoken."12
* * *
Initially, I will
briefly sketch the events that led up to the gathering of Israel at Sinai to
embrace its covenant obligations. Severe famine ravaged the land, prompting
the extended family's flight to Egypt. One generation died, and another
replaced it. The "Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became
exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them" (Exod. 1:2).
A new ruler, with no recollection of
Joseph, came to power. "Look," he said to the people, "the Israelites
have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with
them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join
our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." This, in turn,
would diminish the work force available.
So they put oppressive
slave masters over the Israelites, and forced them to build store cities
for Pharaoh. These served as centers for gathering and distributing
grain, not to exclude other enterprises that would contribute to their
importance. "They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar
and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the
Egyptians used them ruthlessly."
Then the king summoned the mid-wives
who birthed the Hebrew women, and commanded them to put to death any male
children they would deliver. But the mid-wives feared God, and made
excuse for failing to keep their instructions. After that, Pharaoh
issued a decree: "Every (Hebrew) boy that is born you must throw into the
Nile, but let every girl live."
So it was that when Moses was born,
his mother hid him for three months. "But when she could hide him no
longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch.
Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of
the Nile" (2:3). His sister stood at a distance to see what would
transpire. The child was discovered by Pharaoh's daughter, who embraced him as
One day, after Moses
had matured, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew–one of his own people.
Seeing no one to observe his actions, he killed the oppressor and hid his body
in the sand. When what he had done became known, he fled to Midian. There he
took a wife, who presented him with a child.
Meanwhile, the Israelites
continued to suffer in slavery. Thus it was that God confronted Moses
from a burning bush that was not consumed. "I have indeed seen the
misery of my people in Egypt," the Lord assured him. "So I have come
down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of
the land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey"
Moses reticently accepted God's
mandate that he serve as his representative. The contest that
followed was calculated to demonstrate the impotency of the Egyptian pantheon
when confronted with the living God. When Pharaoh could drag his feet no
longer, he granted Moses' request that the Israelites be permitted to assemble
before the Lord in the wilderness.
Having a change of heart,
the king ordered his troops to apprehend the Israelites, and bring them back.
God miraculously intervened, so that the Israelites escaped and their pursuers
perished. Then Moses and the people sang unto the Lord, He "is my
strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I
will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him" (15:2).
It was the third month to
the very day after the Israelites had left Egypt that they made camp before
Mount Sinai. Then Moses went up before the Lord. God said to him,
"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you
will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you
will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (19:5-6).
The covenant is
structured in the form of a vassal treaty. Its preamble is meant to
solicit reverence concerning the Universal Sovereign. The historical
prologue recalls his benevolent dealing with the people up to that point.
The stipulations constitute the body of the text. They consist of
general principles, and case instances; that is, apodictic and casuistic law.
Heaven and earth is subsequently called up to bear witness to the
pact. Curses and blessings are elaborated, contingent on keeping the
covenant obligations. Then, finally, there is provision for treaty renewal.
This would affirm the binding character of the covenant in the light of
It is in the above
context that we are introduced to the so-called ten words
(commandments). These are apodictic (see above) in character. They
are customarily divided among duties to God and to others. As for the former,
You shall have no other gods
before me (in the sense of tolerating them). You shall not make for yourself
an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth
beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship
them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children
for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who
hate me (idiom expressing continuity), but showing love to a thousand generations
of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not misuse the
name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses
his name. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy (Exod. 20:3-8).
When taken together, "Love the
Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
mind" (Matt. 22:37).
As for the latter,
Honor your father
and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God
is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not
steal. You shall not give false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet
your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or
his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs
to your neighbor (Exod. 20:12-17).
As succinctly expressed, "Love
your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39). "All the Law and the Prophets hang
on these two commandments," Jesus then concluded.
We now come to consider the
prohibition against murder in its biblical setting. In particular, the
renewed promise of God concerning blessing in the promised land, the
deliverance of his people from what had become for them a culture of death,
the covenant stipulations, and especially those general principles set forth
in the Decalogue.
You shall not
murder. The prohibition is derived from the conviction that since God
gives life, he alone has the prerogative to take it away. The intentional
killing of another, except in carefully prescribed instances, was strictly
forbidden. The life of a child was considered as sacred as that of an adult.
The exceptions are
worthy of note. The first concerned capital punishment. As an example,
"Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.
However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to
flee to a place I will designate" (Exod. 21:12-13). In the initial instance,
the death penalty means to preclude the wanton taking of life. The
implication is that the failure to do so devalues life.
In the second instance,
death was not premeditated. Should such occur, the person implicated was
to flee to a city of refuge. There he would be safe from those who would
avenge the death of their kin, as was the custom.
Great care was to be taken in
making a determination. There must be a least two credible witnesses to
confirm what had transpired. Extenuating circumstances could be taken in
consideration. No undue suffering was to be inflicted on the guilty.
In these and other ways, it was evident that the death penalty was not to be
Legitimate warfare was a
second exception. It would come to pass that the Lord instructed Moses,
"Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families,
listing every man by name...all the men of Israel twenty years old or more who
are able to serve in the army" (Num. 1:2-3). The presupposition is that
they would be called upon to wage war when necessary.
There were obvious
qualifications to be considered. For instance, "War must always be the final
resort, the last extreme measure in the political order. Only after every
other bloodless effort that is humanly possible and sufferable has been tried
to resolve a conflict and has failed, may a nation resort to war."13
That is, if we take the Hebrew precedent at face value.
Then, too, one should not
resort to war if its prospect entailed greater suffering. This is a
difficult call at best, especially since short term strategies often frustrate
long term solutions.
Hebrew ethics expands
the scope of murder to include both doing anything that would endanger the
life of others or failing to do something that would protect them from peril,
distress, or despair. Consequently, persons were prohibited from deliberately
putting someone in harm's way. According to rabbinic commentary, such as
stranding a person in a situation where he is likely to starve.
Sins of omission are no
less acceptable. According to conventional thought, "All that is
necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."
The concern for civility
is likewise relevant. In this connection, persons were to honor their
parents. Initially, by providing for their physical needs. So also in
expressing appreciation and loving concern. Moreover, by observing their
sage counsel. Then, when they have passed away, by fondly remembering
Civility extends to all
areas of life. Such as listening courteously to someone who is speaking,
waiting your turn in line, allowing for a difference in opinion, and returning
good for evil.
The sometimes illusive
goal of civility appears served in two ways. First, we ought not to attribute
to others the worst of motives. I was encouraged as a child, "Give anyone the
benefit of a doubt." Second, we should not assume that we are
activated by the best of motives. This can be very misleading. In any case,
motives are characteristically mixed.
All things considered,
the dark night of oppression was past. A new day had dawned, with
greater potential than could be imagined. Welcome people of God to a
brave new world!
I will conclude with
some representative commentary. "If a person sees someone pursuing another
for the obvious or suspected intent of committing murder or with the intent of
causing the pursued to commit a sin, and the observer is able to stop the
pursuer by wounding him, but kills him instead, he transgresses this
commandment (you shall not murder)."14
The issue has to do with
excessive means. If the person could be restrained in some other
fashion, the taking of life was prohibited.
"A person is commanded
to allow himself to be killed rather than kill," the rabbinic text adds.
"This means that if people try to compel a person on pain of death to kill
someone, he must not commit murder regardless of consequences."15
concerns personal responsibility. If the person is killed in pursuit of what
is right, then he is not at fault. If, however, he violates the prohibition
under duress, he stands condemned. The rationale carried over into the
general prohibition against taking one's own life.
"You have heard it
said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder,' and anyone who murders will be
subject to judgment," Jesus recalled. "But I tell you that anyone who is
angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to
his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says,
'You fool! will be in danger of the fire of hell" (Matt. 5:21-22).
Jesus deftly applies the
text to two contributing factors. First, the indulgence of anger.
Such resembles a boiling cauldron. It needs only the occasion to take
the life of another, if not actual then by disregard and lack of concern.
Second, the expression of
anger in abusive language. Such as is meant to inflict injury on the
other person. Then, too, to depreciate him in the sight of others.
"While angry outbursts
are denounced in verse 22 as punishable by hellfire, in verses 23-24 the
forgiving grace of God comes to the fore. While anger is damnable, genuine
repentance permits reconciliation with God as well as with the injured sister
or brother."16 "Therefore," the extended passage reads, "if you
are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has
something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go
and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
So it is that the echoes
of Sinai reverberate down through the corridors of time (to embrace a frequent
metaphor). They can be heard in the daily conflicts that come about in
the pursuit of routine duties, the crisis situations that arise from time to
time, the efforts to amend our ways, and such times as solicit celebration.
"Life is good," we are
reminded. "Wherefore a man should treasure it, not despise it; affirm and not
deny it; have faith in it and never despair of its possibilities. For behind
it is God. Life is good and man can find it such, provided–and this is the
great condition to everything else–that it is properly lived."17
The Holiness Code
holiness code is not employed in its more restricted sense–as concerns
chapters 17-26 of Leviticus, but in more general terms. In the latter
connection, Mary Douglas aptly observes: "We can conclude that holiness is
exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform
to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different
classes of things shall not be confused."18
* * *
The term holy
implies being separate from all that is unclean and reprehensible. "Be holy,"
the people were admonished, "because I, the Lord your God am holy" (Lev.
19:2). We are thus to understand that God's holiness provides the paradigm
for individual and corporate behavior. "This principle can well be regarded
as the watchword of the covenant people. The personal characteristics of
holiness as reflected in God's nature include the perfected state of such
ethical attributes as righteousness, love, goodness and purity."19
I will return to the
earlier quote, before continuing with the latter. Holiness is exemplified
by completeness. In ethical terms, it is being all that one can be. It
goes without saying that this cannot be accomplished without God's
enablement. Grace is a pervasive ingredient of life.
The human body serves as an
example. Some are given more to work with than others. All can
benefit from regular exercise, and proper diet. All should refrain from
harmful practices, such as smoking.
The human body also
provides corporate imagery. "Now the body is not made up of one part but of
many," Paul observes. "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense
of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell
be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them,
just as he wanted them to be" (1 Cor. 12:14, 17-18). Each serves a
distinctive function, and in doing so, the welfare of all.
requires that individuals conform to the class to which they belong. In
this regard, humans are set off from all of God's other creatures. They alone
are said to be created in his image (cf. Gen. 1:27). This implies at least
three complimentary characteristics. First, the privilege of communing with
his or her maker. "Evening, morning and noon I cry out in my distress," the
psalmist asserts, "and he hears my voice" (55:17).
benevolent rule–meant to emulate God's disposition. "When I consider your
heavens and the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have
set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you
care for him?" (Psa. 8:3-4). He appears as little more than a bit of
protoplasm on an inconsequential planet, in one of the less impressive
Upon further reflection,
"You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with
glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you
put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the
field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths
of the seas" (vv. 5-8). As God would have it, and as ultimately
accountable to him.
astonishing endowments–in keeping with its demanding calling. For
instance, a highly developed use of language. Such as allows humans to
reflect on things that have transpired in the past, anticipate the future, and
make decisions that will impact on life. In addition, all that permits
them to bond together in some corporate endeavor that will far exceed
Then, in conclusion,
Mary Douglas confirms that holiness requires that different classes of
things shall not be confused. Initially, such as distinguishes one
creature (or set) from another. As an example, "Of all the creatures living
in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and
scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and
scales–whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living
creatures in the water–you are to detest" (Lev. 11:9-10).
The clean species are
those with fins and scales. These as a rule "swim at various depths in the
water, whereas the unclean species tend to have their habitat in shallow
water. Unclean fish would include the edible crustaceae such as lobster,
crab, shrimp and similar species that feed from decaying flesh, where it
happens to be available, and can transmit infection readily."20
Since this is not necessarily a health problem, it may suggest a precautionary
Secondarily, such as recognizes
a proper distinctive among those who constitute a given kind. In some
detail, "No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations.
...Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor's wife, and defile yourself
with her. ...Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is
detestable" (Lev. 18:6, 20, 22). Holiness can thus be seen as
maintaining not only the integrity of the kind, but the person.
As promised earlier,
we return to the second quote. The holiness principle can well be regarded
as the watchword of the covenant people. It qualifies as their modus
operandi. As such, it is the source of their effectiveness. Apart from
it, they lose credibility.
The Jewish sages have long
speculated concerning why God chose Israel from among the nations. Given
their waywardness, it did not seem due to some intrinsic merit. Perhaps
because of the patriarchs, they reasoned. This seemed more plausible,
although not altogether convincing. Perhaps because only Israel would
embrace the challenge, since it would entail hardship and suffering.
Whether for these reasons or for some other, only God knows for certain.
While the discussion takes different directions, it seems to end with the same
conclusion. In biblical perspective, holiness is what I long for and
holiness is what I need.
R. K. Harrison
identifies four ethical attributes associated with holiness. I will briefly
touch on each in order. Righteousness implies conformity to God's
will. Conversely, sin is characterized as any lack of conformity. This might
take the form of commission or omission.
Righteousness brings to mind
the rugged terrain of the Judean hill country. The rock strewn paths are
not easy to make out, and can prove treacherous. Given the
circumstances, one is well-advised to have a capable guide. It should be
someone who knows the way from beginning to end. Moreover, one who
accompanies you along the way. This seems an especially suitable
metaphor for reflecting on the admirable character of righteousness.
Aheb is the
prime Hebrew term for love. It is used in a variety of contexts: as
concerns parental love (Gen. 37:4), affection for friends (1 Sam. 20:17), and
sensual desire (2 Sam. 13:1-15). The term hesed is also employed, as
when contrasting God's steadfast love to human undependableness (cf. Job
multi-faceted character of love can be further illustrated by the four
associated Greek terms: storge, eros, philos, and
agape. Storge is the least familiar. While not expressly used in
the biblical text, the notion is indirectly acknowledged. As an example,
Jesus inquired: "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a
stone? ...If you, then though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to
your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to
those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:9, 11). Storge focuses our attention on
filial devotion. As illustrated in conventional wisdom, "Blood is thicker
reserved for the attraction one feels for someone of the opposite gender.
"The ideal hinges on the complementary character of the couple. Each could
contribute to the relationship something lacking in the other. As a result,
both would be fulfilled. Conversely, neither should be reduced to simply an
object for sexual gratification."21
approximates friendship. "Wounds of a friend can be trusted," the sage
cogently concludes, "but an enemy multiplies kisses" (Prov. 27:6). This is
because the friend wishes us well, while the enemy means to deceive us. In
antiquity, philos was sometimes used concerning persons bonded in a
common intellectual pursuit. Currently, it might be more appropriate for
persons sharing an athletic activity or interest.
singled out to express God's love for fallen humanity. As such, it is not
solicited by human merit but volunteered as an expression of God's grace. It,
nonetheless, constitutes what we have come to call hard love. That is,
it insists on personal integrity and moral rectitude.
The latter two terms
are featured in one of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. "Simon son of
John," Jesus inquired of Peter, "do you truly love (agape) more than
these" (John 21:15). These is not identified, but might refer to others
or the accruement of his fishing vocation.
"Yes, Lord," he replied, "you know that I love (philos) you." Jesus said, "Feed my
lambs." "Simon son of John," Jesus asked him a second time, "do you truly love
(agape) me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (philos)
you." "Take care of my sheep," Jesus enjoined him. Jesus questioned him a
third time, "Simon son of John, do you love (agape) replaced by
Peter was hurt because
Jesus had pressed the issue. "Lord," he said, "you know all things; you know
that I love (philos) you."
"Feed my sheep," Jesus
insisted. "I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself
and went where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your
hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to
go." John adds by way of explanation, "Jesus said this to indicate the kind
of death by which Peter would glorify God."
Now the interchange of
terms may or may not be significant. Some suppose it simply a literary
device. On the other hand, Jesus means to prepare the apostle for the
critical times that lay ahead. Moreover, he employs in the first two
instances the term that roughly corresponds to unconditional love (agape).
After that, he shifts to philos, perhaps to accommodate to Peter's
cautious reply. In any case, he highlights the importance of love to the
goodness to the growing list of ethical attributes. In this connection,
we read: "God saw all that he had made and it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Two
implications readily surface. First, that creation was aesthetically
pleasing. We would gather as much from observing a splendid sunset, a colt
frolicking in a pasture, or young lovers walking hand in hand.
appeal is not simply superficial. The sage observes, "Like a gold ring in a
pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion" (Prov. 11:22).
Consequently, she is not a good candidate for marriage. As it is sometimes
alleged, "Genuine beauty is not skin deep."
Second, the creation was
eminently functional. While we tend to take this for granted, the
prospect of life developing in so fortuitous a fashion is virtually
non-existent. It might be said to constitute a cosmic miracle.
Along this line, "every good
tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit. ...Thus by their fruit
you shall know them" (Matt. 7:17, 20). "The acts of the sinful nature
are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and
witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition,
dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (Gal.
5:19-21). Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and
self-control." Goodness can be known by the company it keeps.
out the list of ethical virtues. There appears to be a consensus that it is
linked to ritual observance. For instance, "The precepts and ceremonies alike
are focused on the idea of the holiness of God which men must create in their
own lives. So this is a universe in which men prosper by conforming to
holiness and perish when they deviate from it."22
fact a picture is worth a thousand words, then ritual plays a critical role in
religious practice. If for no other reason, it serves as a dramatic reminder
of the foundational facets of one's faith and commitment.
Ritual, however, is not
meant to substitute for moral rectitude, but to require and enhance it.
As cited earlier, "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand
your assemblies. ...But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness
like a never-failing stream" (Amos 5:21, 24).
It can be readily seen
from the prior discussion that these virtues are derived from a vibrant
relationship with the Almighty. This, in turn, is cultivated in a
Then, too, biblical
holiness is not realized in isolation from the world, but in engagement.
It is not passive, but militant. In this and other regards, holiness
commends life in its fullness. It is not willing to settle for less.
Contest on Carmel
Baal (master) was
the Canaanite fertility god of great renown. In particular, he was associated
with the winter rains and periodic storms. Baal worship was especially
degrading, and involved sacred prostitution. This was perhaps intended to
incite the deity to inseminate the land. Baalism likely appealed to
the Israelites both for its intrinsic character, and what it was reputed to
offer concerning agricultural productivity.
* * *
Omri assumed the
throne in the Northern Kingdom following fifty years of instability. He set
out to rectify the problem through an alliance with Tyre. The latter was at
the height of its colonial expansion, and offered Israel an outlet for
agricultural produce and enhanced commercial opportunities. However, the
situation continued to degenerate.
Then, too, Baalism
flourished with royal patronage. The king of Tyre had sealed the alliance by
giving his daughter Jezebel to Omri's son Ahab. She, along with her retainers
and associates, were allowed to retain the worship of Tyrian deities.
Wholesale apostasy soon threatened.
It was said of Ahab that he
"did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him" (1 Kings
16:30). The narrator singles out his marriage to Jezebel and devotion to
Baal as evidence of his defection from the faith of his fathers.
"Towering over all of
Jezebel's foes...was the prophet Elijah (Yah is God)–a figure so eerie
and so awe-inspiring that his deeds became legendary in Israel. ...He is
depicted as a dour, lonely figure clad with the hair mantle of his austere
calling, possibly a Nazirite in perpetual fitness for war."23 In
any case, he assumed the role of an uncompromising prophet of the Lord.
What sort of a person
was the prophet? "To us a single act of injustice–cheating in business,
exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us
injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a
deathblow to the to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a
threat to the world."24 In brief, they exhibited a keen
sensitivity to the seriousness of sin for the individual and society as a
Elijah, the Tishbite
(from the Transjordan region), made a dramatic entrance. "As the Lord, the
God Israel lives," he announced, "there will be neither dew nor rain in the
next few years except at my word" (17:1). This would be taken as a pointed
challenge to Baal's prerogative.
"Leave here," the Lord
urged, "turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine; east of the Jordan. You
will drink from the brook and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there."
The Lord was apparently concerned for his prophet's safety.
This appears as the first
time God miraculously provided for the prophet's need. It, no doubt, was
intended to prepare him for the confrontation that lay ahead.
Some time later the
brook dried up. "Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there," the Lord
directed Elijah. "I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with
Once again, he was
obedient. Upon his arrival, he inquired of the woman: "Would you bring
me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?" After that, he called
after her, requesting a piece of bread.
"As surely as the
Lord your God lives," she replied, "I don't have any bread–only a handful of
flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to
take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die."
"Don't be afraid,"
Elijah encouraged here. "Go home and do as you have said. But
first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to
me... . For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of
flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day
the Lord gives rain on the land.'" It was a severe test of her faith,
which she passed with flying colors. God provided as he had done on the
Some time later, the
woman's son became ill, and got progressively worse. Finally, he stopped
breathing. The woman inquired of Elijah, "Did you come to remind me of my sin
and kill my son?" Sin and death are associated in her thinking,
but the connection seems imprecise.
When the prophet had
carried the limp body of her son to the upper room where he was staying, he
interceded: "O Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him!" The Lord
honored his petition.
"Now I know that you are
a man of God," the woman responded, "and that the word of the Lord from your
mouth is true." Thus are we primed for what follows.
During the third
year of the drought, the Lord again spoke to his prophet: "Go and present
yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain to the land" (18:1). Meanwhile
the famine was severe throughout the land.
Obadiah, who was in charge of his palace. Obadiah was a devout person,
who had once hidden away a hundred prophets in two caves, and supplied them
with food and water–so that they might escape Jezebel's purge. The king
instructed him to search for grass for the horses and mules, so they would not
have to be slaughtered.
As Obadiah was walking
along, Elijah met him. "Is it really you?" Obadiah asked in seeming
"Yes," the prophet
replied. "Go tell your master, 'Elijah is here.'"
"I don't know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you.
If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn't bind you, he will kill me."
him, "As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself
to Ahab today."
When the king saw
Elijah, He inquired: "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?"
"I have not made
trouble for Israel," the prophet countered. "But you and your father's family
have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals.
Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And
bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred
prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table." While Baal was in essence a
singular deity, he was identified with various locations. So Ahab sent word
throughout all Israel.
Elijah went before
the people, and inquired: "How long will you waver between two opinions?
If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." His
challenge was met with silence. "I am the only one of the Lord's
prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets," Elijah observed.
Get two bulls for us. Let
them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on
the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the
wood and not set fire to it. Then you will call on the name of your God, and I
will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire–he
In this manner, Elijah
set the conditions of the contest to favor the prophets of Baal. " (1) They
could be first to choose the sacrifice. (2) They could pray first and for as
long as they wished. (3) The proof-sign was to be fire. Since Baal was
supposed to be the god of the sun, the god of the storm, they could not
object."25 In particular, fire would bring to mind
The people were
convinced. "What you say is good," they acknowledged.
So the prophets of Baal
prepared their altar, and called upon the name of Baal from morning to noon.
"O Baal, answer us!" they shouted–as they danced around the altar they had
At noon Elijah began to
taunt them. "Shout louder!" he admonished. "Surely he is a god!
Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is
sleeping and must be awakened."
So they shouted louder, and
slashed themselves–as was their custom. Midday passed, and they
continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.
Then Elijah summoned the
people. He repaired the altar of the Lord, and prepared the sacrifice.
"Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood,"
he instructed them. "Do it again," he added. "Do it a third time,"
he ordered. The water ran down around the altar, and filled the trench.
"O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and
Israel," the prophet petitioned, "let it be known today that you are God in
Israel and that I am you servant and have done all these things at your
command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that
you, O Lord are God, and that you are turning their hears back again."
Then the fire of the Lord fell, consumed the sacrifice, altar, and even licked
up the water in the trench.
When all the people saw this,
they prostrated themselves. "The Lord–he is God!" they cried out.
"The Lord–he is God!" The prophets of Baal were summarily executed.
Elijah advised the king,
"Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." Then when
Ahab had left, the prophet climbed to the peak of Carmel, bent down to the
ground, and put his face between his knees. "Go and look toward the
sea," he instructed his servant.
"There is nothing there,"
the servant reported back. Seven times the prophet repeated his
instruction. On the seventh occasion, his servant observed: "A cloud as
small as a man's hand is rising from the sea."
So Elijah told him to
inform Ahab, "Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you."
Meanwhile, the sky grew ominous, the wind rose, and a heavy rain pelted down
on the fleeing ruler. The power of the Lord came upon the prophet, and he ran
ahead–all the way to Jezreel. It serves as a fitting climax to one of the
most dramatic episodes in the biblical narratives.
In retrospect, For although Obadiah
builds Ahab up as one to be feared (18:9-14), from the moment Elijah meets
the king he dominates him. Ahab speaks but once in the entire story
(18:17), and having been silenced by Elijah's aggressive and fearless response, he
spends the rest of the time either doing what the prophet tells him
(18:19-20, 41-42, 44-45) or watching from the sidelines so quietly as to be
invisible (18:21-40). He is as impotent as the god he worships.26
When Jezebel heard
what had happened, she sent word to the prophet: "May the gods deal with me,
be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like
that of one of them (the slain prophets)" (19:2). She likely meant to
intimidate him. If so, she succeeded. Elijah wasted no time in fleeing to
Beersheba. He left his servant there, and continued on alone into the
He soon despaired of life.
"I have had enough, Lord," he concluded. "Take my life; I am no better
than my ancestors." Then he fell asleep.
An angel appeared to
him. "Get up and eat," the celestial visitor encouraged him. He ate and
drank, and lay down again. The angel returned a second time. "Get up and
eat," the visitor insisted, "for the journey is too much for you." After
taking additional nourishment, Elijah traveled for forty days and nights until
he reached Horeb (Sinai)–associated with God's covenanting with his people.
There the Lord inquired of him,
"What are you doing here, Elijah?" It was perhaps in the form of a mild
rebuke. In any case, it invited the prophet to express his concerns.
He replied, "I have been very
zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your
covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the
sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
The Lord responded,
"Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is
about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart
and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the
earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in
the fire. After the fire, came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it,
he pulled his cloak over his face, and went out and stood at the mouth of the
cave. Thus are we to gather that God does not always manifest himself in
spectacular fashion, but through his word faithfully ministered.
The Lord again
inquired of him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" The prophet responds as
before. This time the Lord directed him to return by the way he had come. He
was to anoint Hazael king over Aram, Jehu over Israel, and Elisha as his
successor. "Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel," God said by way of
encouragement, "whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths
have not kissed him."
The last three verses
of Malachi provide a cogent transition between the testaments. In retrospect,
"Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb
for all Israel" (4:4). In prospect, "See, I will send you the prophet
Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the
hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to
their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." As in
other contexts, their choice was between life and death.
During the years my
wife and I lived in Jerusalem, I had a favorite place for meditation. It
consisted of a flat rock, situated on the side of a hillock, overlooking the
shepherds' field. It brought to mind the angel's announcement: "I bring you
good news of great joy that will be to all people. Today in the town of David
a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11). The
message seemed as relevant then as when first spoken.
* * *
There are alternatives
that appeal to some more than others. I recall one evening observing a group
of persons, several bearing torches, working their way along the far side of
the Hinnom Valley. They seemed bent on carrying out some sort of esoteric
It brought to mind a
text concerning Josiah, "He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben
Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to
Molech" (2 Kings 23:10). It occurred to me that I could be watching an
expression of neo-paganism. Then, if so, perhaps rituals associated with
architecture that adorns the city curiously has the effect of distancing me
from the events they seek to commemorate. It is not that I am
unappreciative of the piety they express. It is simply that the Jesus of
history seems obscured by the Christ of faith.
I also note that which
solicits no religious response. Such as the meager remains of the Antonia
Fortress, indicative of the Roman presence in the time of Jesus. So also that
which recalls Herod's monumental building projects, except as they draw
significance from some other source. They serve to remind us, "Pride goes
before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18).
The little hillock
overlooking the shepherds' field invites our further reflection. Manger
Square is in the distance, as is the road running from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
There are no urban sounds to interrupt one's contemplation. A bird
flutters in the tree overhead. On rare occasions, a dog prowls the area.
For all practical purposes, one is left alone with his or her thoughts.
So this is where it happened!
In general terms, since we cannot be more precise. The shepherds were
tending their flocks by night. Such might own a small parcel of land,
but were likely employed by others. Consequently, they exercised little
power or privilege.
vocation hindered them from meticulously carrying out the detailed religious
observances. They were am-ha-arez (people of the land), or as
described in the gospels–sinners (since they were classified as
non-observant). As a result, they were at the bottom of the religious
Nonetheless, they were singled
out as recipients of good news. Since they represent the poor in spirit;
those who mourn, hunger and thirst for righteousness; are merciful, pure in
heart, peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness. Indeed,
those who are destined to embrace the kingdom.
Incidentally, these shepherds
probably tended the flocks from which sacrificial offerings were selected.
This, in turn, recalls John the Baptist's identification of Jesus as "the Lamb
of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Luke would
have enjoyed hindsight.
In addition to the shepherds,
there were angels. One at first, and then "a multitude of the heavenly
Given the respect assigned
earlier to the Jerusalem temple and particularly to its sanctuary as the axis mundi–the
meeting place between the heavenly and earthly, the divine and the
human–this appearance of the divine glory is remarkable.
...Luke thus puts us on notice that the new world coming is of a radically different shape
than the former one, that questions of holiness and purity must
be asked and addressed in different ways, and that status and issues
of values must be reexamined afresh.27
This was perhaps
anticipated to some degree by the rise of synagogue worship. It seems to have
arisen during the exile, and came to supplant the temple in many regards as
the focal point of Jewish piety. This is not meant to preclude the centrality
of the Jewish home in religious nurture.
With the passing of time, the temple
would be demolished–leaving the devout to cope without recourse to its sacred
precincts. It brings to mind the interchange between Jesus and the
Samaritan woman. "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain," she observed,
"but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem"
Jesus replied, "Yet a
time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the
Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father
seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in
truth." In spirit as opposed to mere formality; in truth as in
keeping with God's initiatives.
I have not knowingly
entertained angels. However, I can identify with worshiping God in
spirit and truth. One gets the impression that he or she has entered a
holy sanctuary. In a metaphorical sense, shepherds and angels rub
announcement eminently qualified as good news. "For God did not send
his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through
him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe
stand condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one
and only Son" (John 3:17-18).
In more precise terms,
the angel identifies the infant as Savior, then Christ, and
finally Lord. The term savior was in common usage, both in
Jewish and Gentile circles. "Augustus himself was known as Savior, as were
others–gods, rulers, physicians, and so on. ...Jesus' birth calls into
question both the emperor' status as Savior and the 'peace of Augustus' that
gave rise to that acclaimed status."28 Since the peace of Jesus
was not of this world, it would not suffer the demise characteristic of
the kingdoms of this world.
The term Christ
(in Hebrew, Messiah) here appears as a royal deliverer from the lineage
of David. Not to be overlooked are the pronounced ambiguities associated with
the identification. "On the one hand, it appeared as if God Himself would
intervene; on the other, as through a chosen agent. On the one hand, the
Messiah appeared as a military figure; on the other, as a heavenly agent. On
the one hand, he was represented as the royal
heir to David's throne; on the other, as a suffering servant."29
Lord might be
employed concerning God, simply as an amenity, or with various connotations
that lie between. As noted above, Jesus' royal lineage is expressly in the
forefront. Other implications are largely derivative.
response to good news is great joy. So it was that when the
shepherds returned from the manger, they glorified and praised God for all the
things they had seen and heard. So also Simeon praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of
all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your
people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).
Great joy also
contrasts to the pronounced fear the shepherds had initially experienced.
Such would seem to characterize those who diligently pursue God's ways.
For all the people
accents the universal scope of the good news. Consequently, it
anticipates Jesus commission: "All authority in heaven and earth has been
given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt.
28:18-19). In particular, it embraced the Gentiles along with the Jews;
regardless of gender, social status, or previous reputation.
The good news involved
the birthing of a child. Its unique character only enhanced the glad
tidings. "This will be a sign to you," the angel told the shepherds: "You
will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." It was not a
sign in the miraculous sense, but served as corroborating evidence.
Suddenly a great
company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and
declaring: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his
favor rests." The theocentric focus of the passage is thereby highlighted.
The angelic host appear as God's entourage.
In essence, to God be the
glory, a great thing he has done. One might conclude that this was one
provision among many. Thus God is forever helping man
through the resources and dependability of the physical world. He helps man further through
man's own body, skilled, adaptable, resilient; through his mind, eager and
ingenious; through his heart, life-loving, courageous, and aspiring. He helps man through the medium
of other men; their capacity for cooperation; the social wealth
and technical information they have amassed together; the love and
understanding they afford one another... .30
In these and countless other
ways, God is life's benefactor.
Even so, this constituted the
climactic event in salvation history. There were earlier elements,
initially with the deliverance of Israel from bondage. Then during the
turbulent time of the Judges, with the rise and fall of the monarchy, and the
return from exile. So also with the temple ritual. However, now
On whom his favor
rests probably means to implicate all, rather than a select company.
Stated in different terms, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as
some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to
perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9)
After Jesus was born
in Bethlehem, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem. "Where is the one born
king of the Jews? they inquired. "We saw his star in the east and have come
to worship him?" (Matt. 2:2). The Magi were astrologers, who studied
the location and movement of the heavenly bodies concerning their presumed
influence of human affairs. They probably came from Babylonia, where they
would have come in contact with the Jewish exiles, and developed a lively
interest in the coming of the Messiah.
The star has been
variously explained. For instance, "Jupiter was regarded as the star of the
ruler of the universe, and the constellation of the Fishes as the sign of the
last days. In the East, Saturn was considered to be the planet of Palestine.
If Jupiter encountered Saturn in the sign of the Fishes, it could only meant
that the ruler of the last days would appear in Palestine."31
Herod was disturbed by this
announcement, since he zealously guarded his political office and associated
privileges. Calling together the chief priests and scribes, he asked
them where the Christ was to be born.
"In Bethlehem of Judea," they replied.,
"for this is what the prophet has written: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of
Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will
come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (cf. Micah 5:2).
"Go and make a careful search for the
child," Herod ordered the Magi. "As soon as you find him, report to me,
so that I too may go and worship him."
After that, they went on their
way. The star they had seen in the East went ahead of them, and hovered
over the place where the child lay. When they saw the child, along with
his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. Moreover, they presented
him with gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream
concerning Herod's treachery, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had left, an
angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child
and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for
Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So the family fled
When Herod realized that
the Magi had outwitted him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all
the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under,
according to the time the star was said to have appeared.
Toward the end of
Herod's reign, he became increasingly cruel. "Suspicious that his own family
was plotting his overthrow, he murdered his favorite wife (Mariamne), her
mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. Augustus...who for years had
retained confidence in Herod, finally acknowledged that it was safer to be
Herod's pig (hys) than his son (hypos)."32
tragic supplement to the nativity account invokes the image of death. It was
said to fulfill that which was prophesied (in the sense of set forth, and thus
typified), "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are
no more" (cf. Jer. 31:15). In the original context, Rachel's ghost is
depicted mourning for her descendants carried away into captivity.
It is curious that no mention
is made of the Jewish religious leaders, who were consulted by Herod, making
any effort to locate the child. They may have been more concerned to
protect their privileged positions than risk reprisals.
In any case, the
thought of death was not paramount as I sat on my prized rock, sipping water
from time to time from the canteen perched beside me. It was rather on
life: the birth of the Christ child, abundant life as now experienced, and
the life that awaits us beyond death. It was time eminently well spent.
"Although death and
life coexist on earth, they do not have the same worth. Only life is
worthwhile, death is not. These are the stakes in Israel's faith in the
Living God; Jesus is the authentic interpreter of that faith."33
These well chosen words invite our detailed consideration.
* * *
Death and life
coexist. "Like the majority of us, Jesus did not first of all face his
own death. He experienced it while seeing others disappear. By every
likelihood he saw his father Joseph die, and he knew the bloody repression in
which, in Year 6 of our era, Varus crucified 2,000 Galilean revolutionaries."34
It may well have occurred at Sepphoris, less than three miles from Nazareth.
Joseph probably died while
Jesus was still a youth. The evidence is circumstantial, but
consistent with that thesis. One would imagine that Joseph became
increasingly feeble during the period leading up to his demise. Gloom
settled in on the family circle, since death was not thought of as a welcome
One would assume that
Jesus did what he could to provide for the needs of the family. They
were many and diverse. This would involve sustained prayer, since in
Jewish tradition, God alone can console and sustain us at such times.
There was a lingering
hope that Joseph might recover. Again from Jewish tradition, God heals
us from all our illness but the last.
When Joseph eventually
succumbed, there was a time for mourning. This served a dual purpose: to
bring closure and comfort for those remaining, and to memorialize the
deceased. Then, in a broader sense, to reaffirm one's faith. As
expressed by the patriarch Job, 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised" (1:21).
In all probability,
Jesus knew some of those who perished in the slaughter of the Galileans.
Certainly that would be the case if it took place at Sepphoris, which would
have attracted persons from the surrounding area.
Violent death impacts
on one differently. I say that with confidence, although I am not quite
certain why it is so. For one thing, it appears as an untimely death,
before life is allowed to run its course. In this connection, "The length of
our days is seventy years–or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span
is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psa.
For another, it is as
a rule invasive. That is, inflicted by someone or as the result of
adverse circumstances. Whether in this connection or some other, death is
often personified. For instance, "The teaching of the wise is a fountain of
life, turning a man from the snares of death" (Prov. 13:14).
Jesus did not discuss death in
theoretical terms. Instead, he alluded to it in the context of his
teaching. As an example, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple
and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a
beggar names Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the
rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores" (Luke
16:19-21). The one had more than enough; the other was pathetically
The time came when the beggar
died and angels bore him to Abraham's side. "The rich man also died and
was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw
Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father
Abraham, have pity on me and send water and cool my tongue, because I am in
agony in this fire.'" His request appears more than a little presumptive,
given his previous disregard for Lazarus' plight.
"Son," Abraham replied, "remember that in
your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad
things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides
all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who
want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to
us." The patriarch's refusal is based on two considerations.
First, the reversal of circumstances–conditioned by their prior posturing
toward life. Second, the irreversibility of the subsequent state of
affairs. Then, in turn, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, "Only God knows when
additional time will serve some constructive purpose."
The man continued, "Then I beg you, father,
send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him
warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment." He
shows interest in others for the first time, but for those of his own family
rather than the poor lacking mercy. Moreover, he continues to presume–in
condescending fashion–that Lazarus might be dispatched on his errand.
Abraham countered, "They have
Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them."
"No, father Abraham," the man
protested, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent."
The patriarch assured
him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be
convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Those who read Luke's
narrative could scarcely help thinking of Jesus, whose resurrection was
greeted with rejection by the religious establishment.
Only life is
worthwhile. After breathing his or her last, the person is laid to rest
in the ground. There the body will decay. It is alluded to as a region of
darkness. Nothing more can be seen or heard.
As a result, death would seem
to triumph. Life perhaps put up a valiant struggle, but could at best
only postpone the inevitable. In some instances, it would hardly appear
to be worth the hapless effort.
Conversely, it was a victory
without promise. All death could offer was nothing in place of
something. On an satirical note, it is the kind of triumph that might
appeal to terrorists and parasites.
Then, too, death does
not get to write the final chapter. "I know that my redeemer lives," Job
declares, "and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my
skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God" (19:25-26). Note the
patriarch's rationale. Initially, his faith was in the living God. There was
no time when God was not. Even before there was time as we know it, God was.
There will never be a time when he is not. All things considered, "Before the
mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from
everlasting to everlasting you are God" (Psa. 90:2).
Secondarily, his faith
was in the God of the living. "But about the resurrection of the dead," Jesus
inquired, "have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of
the living" (Matt. 22:31-32). As for commentary, "Any trustworthy belief in
the resurrection must be based not on wishful thinking or on a theory about
the immortality of the soul but only on the doctrine of God. ...The
resurrection of the dead is to be seen as an inference drawn from the doctrine
inference is drawn by way of the covenant relationship between God and his
subjects. Such are the stakes in Israel's faith in the Living God,
Jesus being the authentic interpreter of the faith.
One additional example will
suffice. Jesus exclaimed,
Woe to you, teachers of the law
and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs to the prophets and
decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, "If we had lived in
the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in
shedding the blood of the prophets." So you testify against yourselves that
you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets (Matt. 23:29-31).
In proverbial terms, "Like
father, like son." In this and other ways, Jesus establishes his interpretive
Now a man named
Lazarus, not to be confused with the beggar mentioned previously, was
sick. He was from Bethany, as were his sisters Mary and Martha. This Mary
was the same one who poured perfume on Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her
hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."
Since this served as a sufficient identification, one would assume that the
ties between Jesus and the family were very close.
When Jesus heard this, he said:
"This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that
God's Son may be glorified though it" (John 11:4). Along this line, Paul
admonishes his readers to assume the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but
made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant... . And
being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to
death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest
place and gave him a name above every name...to the glory of God the
Father (Phil. 2:6-9, 11).
Although Jesus greatly loved
the sisters, he stayed where he was two more days. He may have been
engaged in some urgent ministry that required his continuing attention.
It was manifestly not for lack of concern or compassion.
Then Jesus urged his disciples,
"Let us go back to Judea."
"But Rabbi," they protested, "a
short while ago the (adversarial) Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are
going back there?" According to conventional wisdom, "Discretion is the
better part of valor."
"Are there not twelve
hours of daylight?" Jesus rhetorically inquired. "A man who walks by day
will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks
by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." In other words, one
must seize the opportunities that life affords.
Jesus then continued,
"Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up."
"Lord," his disciples
replied, "if he sleeps, he will get better."
After that, Jesus told
them plainly: "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there,
so that you may believe. But let us go to him." While his
reasoning may have been obscure, his intent was quite clear.
After that, Thomas
admonished the remaining disciples: "Let us also go, that we may die with
him." It is curious that he steps forward in this unaccustomed fashion.
It was an obvious display of courage, but may suggest that he had been
reflecting on the suffering servant motif–associated with the messianic
On his arrival, Jesus
found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. When Martha heard
that he was coming, she went out to greet him. "Lord," she said to him, "if
you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now
God will give you whatever you ask." Her initial remark probably expresses
regret rather than rebuke, although the latter may be implied. Whatever
you ask should likely be taken as a general expression of confidence.
Jesus assured her, "Your
brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he
will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
"I am the resurrection
and the life," Jesus replied. "He who believes in me will live, even though
he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe
this?" "So much are resurrection and life associated with him that he says
that he is the resurrection and the life. ...It means
"Yes, Lord," she
asserted, "I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into
the world." In this connection, she appears to have understood at least
the general thrust of Jesus' words. She then alerted her sister Mary
that Jesus had arrived. When Mary quickly rose and left, those who were
comforting her followed, supposing she intended to mourn at the tomb.
"Lord," she said to Jesus, "if
you had been here, my brother would not have died." We are thus alerted
to the fact that the sisters shared a compatible perspective.
When Jesus saw her weeping,
along with those who came with her, he was deeply moved. "Where have
they laid him?" he inquired.
"Come and see, Lord," they
Jesus wept. The
people observed, "See how much he loved him!" However, some of them
speculated, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this
man from dying?" Consequently, they seem to lack the settled conviction
of Lazarus' sisters.
Arriving at the tomb, Jesus was
again deeply moved. "Take away the stone," he said to them. Martha
protested, since she supposed the corpse would be giving off a bad odor.
Nevertheless at Jesus' insistence, they rolled the stone back.
expressed gratitude, "I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you
always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here,
that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he called out
in a loud voice: "Lazarus, come out!" At this, the dead man came out,
his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus instructed them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." Let
him go from all that pertains to death. Let him live a full and
fulfilling life, with confidence in the resurrection.
believed in Jesus. However, others plotted to take Jesus' life when the
opportunity afforded itself. Each exercised their freedom of choice, the
former for life, and the latter for death.
The First Day
"To talk about
another's death is relatively easy, at least as long as one allows oneself, as
Jesus was, to be permeated through one's ancestral culture with the presence
of a God who is stronger than death. To frontally meet a personal threat of
death is another thing... . Death threatened Jesus."37
* * *
Matthew employs the
phrase from that time on at two critical junctures in the life and
ministry of Jesus. First, "From that time on Jesus began to preach, 'Repent
for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (4:17). In this regard, the death of
the prophet Jesus is presented as the culmination of a long series of killings
inflicted on the prophets, most recently concerning John the Baptist.
As for John the
- He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism for the remission of sins.
- When asked if he was the Messiah, he deferred to one yet to come.
- But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch for the evil things he had done, Herod had him thrown in prison.
- He subsequently had John executed.
Now when Jesus heard
that John was beheaded, he withdrew by boat to a solitary place (cf. Matt.
14:13). This would provide safe sanctuary for the time being. It would also
allow for extended prayer. Such, however, was cut short by the arrival of
people from the neighboring villages. Jesus had compassion on them, and
ministered to their needs.
Second, "From that
time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem
and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers
of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life"
(16:21). "In terms of the narrative, this first passion prediction is
the watershed that divides the Galilean ministry from the passion. From this
point to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem the emphasis is placed on Jesus'
preparation of the disciples for his death."38 Not concerning his
death alone, but associated with his resurrection.
Peter took him aside,
and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he protested. "This shall never
happen to you!"
Jesus turned and said
to him, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not
have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Indeed, the disciple
should follow Jesus rather than impede his efforts.
Then Jesus said to his
disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up
his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but
whoever loses his life for me will find it." Genuine life is to be found in
realizing its purpose.
Now the cross begins
to loom on the horizon. Jesus strides out ahead, with the disciples strung
out behind him. Where have I seen a similar sight? When a shepherd leads the
way, with the flock follows in his footsteps. Goodness and love
bring up the rear, as if two faithful guard dogs (cf. Psa. 23:6).
"Yes, Jesus sets his
face toward the death that approaches. His attitude seems to be in
characteristic fashion during the course of two episodes of the Passion: in
the Upper Room and in Gethsemane."39 I will touch on these in
turn, as recorded in the Fourth Gospel.
The Upper Room.
"Having loved his own who were in the world, he (Jesus) now showed them the
full extent of his love" (John 13:1). In this manner, we are reminded of
Jesus' characteristic compassion for his disciples. This could be illustrated
in various ways, some more subtle than others. Such as in his intercession on
their behalf, loving instruction, attention to detail, and exemplary behavior.
After that, we are
told that he now set out to exhibit the full extension of his love. This
would be expressed in his sacrificial death on the cross. It would be
portrayed in the context of service.
John next turns our
attention from Jesus' purpose to his perception. "Jesus knew that the Father
had put all things under his power," the apostle observes, "and that he had
come from God and was returning to God." He was confident that the anguishing
events to follow were within the Father's benevolent design. Moreover, his
descent anticipated his ascent.
So it was that Jesus
took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he
poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them
with the towel. It was a task as a rule assigned to a servant. When he came
to Peter, the apostle incredulously inquired: "Lord, are you going to wash my
Jesus replied, "You do
not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." In context,
the reference to later probably implies after his death and
"No," Peter protests,
"you shall never wash my feet." While expressing the concern that this was
improper behavior for a rabbi to wash his disciples' feet, he usurped the role
of rabbi in doing so.
"Unless I wash you, you have no part in me."
"Then, Lord," Peter
replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well." He perhaps
hopes to improve on the metaphor.
Jesus answered, "A
person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet... ." This concluded
the interchange, allowing Jesus a final word: "I have set you an example that
you should do as I have done for you." This would presumably entail a full
range of ministry to one another, and not simply a ritual observance.
After this, Jesus was
troubled in spirit and solemnly observed: "I tell you the truth, one of you is
going to betray me." The disciples inquired of whom he spoke. He answered,
"It is the one to whom I will give the piece of bread." He dipped the piece
of bread, and gave it to Judas. "What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus
As soon as Judas had
taken the bread, he went out. John informs us that it was night. We
would have assumed as much, but the apostle no doubt means to capture its
metaphorical significance. As expressed earlier in his narrative, "Light has
come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their
deeds were evil" (John 3:19).
When he had gone,
Jesus declared: "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.
...My children, I will be with you only a little longer. ...A new commandment
I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one
another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one
another." Now suggests a condition about to be realized, and is
confirmed by the observation that he will soon depart.
In addition, the
disciples are enjoined to love one another. The commandment to love one
another does not as such qualify as a new commandment (cf. Lev.
19:18). The new ingredient is the disciples' privileged relationship as a
faith community, activated and motivated by the paradigm of Jesus' love. This
was to be their distinctive characteristic.
inquired, "where are you going?" He seems oblivious to the wider implications
of what Jesus was saying.
Jesus replied, "Where
I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later."
"Lord," Peter pressed
the issue, "why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you."
Jesus countered, "Will
you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the
rooster crows, you will disown me three times!" After that, Jesus comforted
his disciples concerning his departure, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, he prays for himself, his disciples, and in anticipation of all who
will believe in him.
When he had finished praying, Jesus and his disciples crossed the Kidron
Valley to an olive grove at the ascent to the Mount of Olives. Judas knew of
the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas
came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and officials from the
chief priests and Pharisees. If in its technical sense, a detachment
would normally consist of about 600 men. It was calculated to make short work
of any resistance. "Who is it you want?" Jesus inquired of them (18:4).
"Jesus of Nazareth,"
"I am he," Jesus
said. At this, the intruders drew back and fell to the ground. "On the face
of it, the simple words I am he (lit., 'I am') merely identify him as
Jesus of Nazareth, the object of the group's search. But they also
correspond exactly to the formula by which Jesus revealed himself as God
according to 8:24 and 28."40 The ambiguity notwithstanding,
they were intimidated.
He inquired again,
"Who is it you want?" In this connection, he reveals his intent to surrender
They replied in like
manner, "Jesus of Nazareth."
"I told you that I am
he," Jesus answered. "If you are looking for me, then let these men go." All
things considered, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (cf.
Then Peter drew his
sword, and cut off the right ear of the high priest's servant named Malchus.
It was an act of desperation, given the circumstances.
Jesus commanded him,
"Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given to me?"
Qualifications aside, this would serve to characterize Jesus' disposition as
the passion narrative unfolds.
These are the
subsequent events which John elaborates:
- Jesus is taken before the high priest and interrogated.
- Meanwhile, Peter denies Jesus as anticipated.
- Jesus is brought before Pilate, and sentenced to be executed.
- He is crucified.
- Death ensues.
- Jesus is buried.
- His tomb is found empty.
- He appears to His disciples.
We will pick up the
order of events with Jesus' crucifixion. They crucified Jesus at a place
called Golgotha (meaning skull), perhaps because of some
physical feature and/or the gory practice that transpired there. Pilate had a
notice prepared that read, Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.
The chief priests protested, suggesting instead "that this man claimed to be
king of the Jews" (19:21).
Pilate insisted, "What
I have written, I have written." He had lost the substantive issue, but
retained a token victory.
The soldiers cast lots
for Jesus' garments. As for an abbreviated commentary, "the significance of
the first scene is that Jesus is shown having let go of his possessions. The
second scene shows him letting go of his family, especially his mother,
whereas the third scene he let go of life itself."41
his mother standing nearby, along with the disciple he loved.
He said to her: "Dear woman, here is your son," and to this disciple: "Here is
your mother." From that time one, the disciple took her to his home.
Later, recalling a
text from the Psalter (Psa. 69:21), Jesus expressed his thirst. When he had
received the wine vinegar, he announced: "It is finished." With that, he
bowed his head and gave up his spirit. All things considered, it served as a
note of triumph. He had completed the task assigned to him, and there was a
light at the end of the tunnel.
Still later, Joseph of
Arimathea and Nicodemus, with Pilate's permission, took the corpse, and
wrapped it with spices in strips of linen. This was to conform with Jewish
burial customs. Then they laid him in a new tomb, near to where Jesus was
crucified. There was need for haste, for it was getting near to sundown when
the Sabbath would commence.
Early on the first day
of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, and saw that the stone had been
rolled back. So she came running to Peter and the disciple Jesus loved
with the word, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know
where they have put him!" (20:2). When the two of them reached the tomb, they
found the linen strips lying there, separate from the burial cloth that had
been around Jesus' head. When the other disciple saw this, he believed
Jesus to be raised from the dead, although had not as yet understand this
When the disciples had
returned to their homes, Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she
bent down to look into the tomb, and saw two angels seated where Jesus' body
had been. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"
She responded, They
have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him." At this,
she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, although she did not recognize
"Woman," he asked her,
"why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Supposing he was the gardener,
she again recited her dilemma. Jesus fondly addressed
her, "Mary." She turned toward him, with the exclamation: "Rabboni" (Teacher).
Jesus cautioned her,
"Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead
to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to
my God and your God.'" We should probably understand Jesus' words to mean
stop clinging to me.
On the evening of the
first day of the week, the disciples were gathered, and the doors secured for
fear of their adversaries. Jesus came, stood, and greeted them: "Peace be
with you!" (20:19). After that, he showed them his hands and side–which had
been pierced by a spear to determine that he was dead. The disciples were
overjoyed when they saw him.
The implication is
that Jesus made his entrance by some other means than normal access. Either
he simply appeared or made his entrance in some other manner. In any case,
the means were of secondary importance.
Again Jesus said to
them, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. And
with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you
forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they
are not forgiven.'" The repetition provides emphasis. "I have told you these
things," Jesus confided earlier, "so that in me you may have peace. In this
world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world"
Jesus' words amount to
a commission. The disciples were to go at his bidding, to accomplish his
purposes, without undue consideration for their personal concerns, and with
the prospect of giving a strict accounting of their faithfulness. In this
regard, the more one is given, the greater the expectation (cf. Luke 12:48).
them, Jesus provides the means. They are to experience the Spirit as an
indwelling presence and power. As for the former, Jesus promised: "And I will
ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you
forever–the Spirit of truth (John 14:16).
As for the latter,
Jesus would confide in them: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit
comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and
Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). This power would
appear to incorporate courage to declare the gospel in the face of opposition,
apathy, and indulgence. It would also have implications for the effectiveness
of the endeavor. Along this line, Paul recalls: "My message and my preaching
were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the
Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on
God's power" (1 Cor. 2:4).
In more specific
terms, their ministry would consist of declaring whose sins are forgiven or
not. This assumes that they are aware of God's disposition, resulting from a
corporate sensitivity to the indwelling Spirit.
Since Thomas was not
present on the above occasion, the other disciples informed him, "We have seen
the Lord!" (John 20:25).
He resolutely replied,
"Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails
were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
A week later, the
disciples were again gathered, and Thomas was with them. Again Jesus stood
miraculously in their midst. He greeted them in like manner, "Peace be with
you!" Then he invited Thomas to touch his hands and side. "Stop doubting,"
Jesus admonished him, "and believe."
Thomas responded, "My
Lord and my God!"
Jesus then concluded,
"Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not
seen and yet have believed." As for them, it is the way of life; for others,
The Damascus Road
I recall the situation
vividly. Two of my faculty colleagues and I were attending a lecture by the
erudite New Testament professor Joachim Jeremias. He remarked at the outset,
"Either Paul was essentially in agreement with Jesus or he was not. I will
demonstrate that he was." His thesis held up exceedingly well under the
onslaught of those critical of his conclusions.
* * *
It was not always so.
We first encounter Saul (Paul) consenting to the death of Stephen (cf. Acts
8:1). After that, he went from house to house, dragging off men and women to
prison. Still not content, he obtained authorization from the high priest to
bring back any disciples he might discover in Damascus for imprisonment.
With the passing of
time, Paul would recall his religious heritage: "circumcised on the eighth
day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;
in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church, as for
legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Phil. 3:5-6). As for circumcision, it
does not make a person Jewish, but recognizes the fact that he is a
Jew–birthed by a Jewish mother.
In particular, he was
from the tribe of Benjamin. The territory of Benjamin originally lay north of
the larger region of Judah.
Jerusalem, although formally allocated to
Benjamin, actually formed an enclave between the two. When the united
monarchy was disrupted after Solomon's death, Benjamin was drawn by the
gravitational pull of Judah and Jerusalem into the southern kingdom. The
people of Benjamin naturally tended to lose their tribal identity, but some
at least did not allow it to be obliterated.42
The parental choice of
Saul as their son's name was associated with their tribal connection.
Saul was anointed the first king of Israel, and was recalled as the most
prominent Benjaminite in Hebrew history–his grievous faults notwithstanding.
A Hebrew of Hebrews
reveals the tradition within which he was raised, and to which he was
committed. It stands in contrast to the Hellenistic Jews of the time. "The
distinction was probably linguistic and cultural: the Hebrews, in that case,
attended synagogues where the service was conducted in Hebrew and used Aramaic
as their normal mode of speech, while the Hellenists spoke Greek and attended
synagogues where the scriptures were read and the prayers recited in that
This served as the
proverbial tip of the iceberg. The distinction carried over into a broad
range of cultural preferences. The Hebraic Jews were more disposed to retain
the tradition of their people, and resist the appeal of Hellenism.
Conversely, the Hellenists were more accommodating.
A Jew born in a
Greek-speaking city like Tarsus might be expected to be a Hellenist. While
Paul was obviously familiar with the Greek language, he insists that he
maintained the religious tradition of his faith without compromise. His
parents made certain of this by arranging for him to spend his formative years
studying in Jerusalem. As he recalls the situation when assailed for his
faith, "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city
(Jerusalem). Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our
fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today" (Acts 22:3).
In regard to the
law, a Pharisee. This would be consistent with his being trained by
Gamaliel. The latter was said to have been the grandson of Hillel, whose
rabbinic school was more influential than its rival–that of Shammai. It was
especially characterized by the importance given to tradition. Moreover,
Gamaliel was a member of the Sanhedrin–the high council of Jews in Jerusalem.
Pharisees first appears about the middle of the second century B.C. These
separated ones apparently derived their identity from a steadfast
resistence to the incursion of Hellenism. Then, in turn, over against less
meticulous Jews and even among themselves. Josephus aptly observes that they
"are supposed to excel others in the accurate knowledge of the laws of their
country."44 Whether in this capacity and/or some other, they
enjoyed considerable acclaim among the populace.
According to Pharisaic
thinking, the Torah was experientially relevant for all times and
circumstances. This encouraged a growing body of religious literature,
calculated to anticipate virtually any conceivable situation. It came to
rival the biblical text, and even supercede it. It is in this context that we
are to understand Paul's additional comment: as for legalistic
Finally, as for
zeal, persecuting the church. There were two relevant conflicting points
of view in Jewish tradition. The first is represented by the advice given by
Paul's rabbinic mentor Gamaliel: "Leave them (the disciples) alone! ...For if
their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from
God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves
fighting against God" (Acts. 5:38-39). This was certainly good Pharisaic
teaching. While men may disobey God, his will ultimately triumphs.
assumes that persons should initiate a course of action, which demonstrates
their good faith. So it was said that if all Jews were to attend the
synagogue on a given occasion, it would entice the Messiah to come. In
addition, it was thought that persons engaged in some worthwhile activity were
more available to God's leading than if tolerating adverse circumstances.
It remained for Paul
to reconcile these conflicting points of view in terms of what he construed to
be a serious threat to the religious tradition he cherished. As a matter of
record, he seized on what appeared to him to be the most likely course of
action. While as a rule overlooked, this assumes that God might reveal his
way more perfectly in connection with subsequent developments.
As Paul drew near to
Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. As he fell to the
ground, he heard a voice calling out: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you
are persecuting," the voice replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and
you will be told what you must do." I am Jesus served to identify the
Christ of faith with the Jesus of history. This was likely a linkage missing
in Paul's reconstruction.
In a less direct
fashion, it indicated that Jesus had left behind a tangible presence in this
world–in the form of community. This can be seen in the fact that by
persecuting the fellowship, Paul was afflicting Jesus.
Those traveling with
Paul were speechless. They heard the sound (perhaps as if thunder),
but apparently not the words (cf. Acts 22:8). When Paul stood to his feet, he
could see nothing. So they led him by the hand to Damascus.
After that, he fasted
for three days. This may be indicative of his contrition. It might also be
in preparation for receiving further instruction.
There was in the city
a disciple named Ananias. The Lord said to him, "Go to the house of
Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is
praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands
on him to restore his sight."
protested, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has
done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from
the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." He was obviously
reluctant, and for good reason.
The Lord was adamant,
"Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles
and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he
must suffer for my name." The metaphor recalls a vessel fashioned by its
potter. In this connection, it is necessary that the clay be pliable and
responsive to the artisan's touch.
This would seem to
portray Paul's experience more in terms of his calling than conversion as
such. In particular, one designed primarily to embrace the Gentiles, but not
to the exclusion of the Jews. As for suffering, Paul would subsequently
recall: "Are they servants of Christ? I am more. I have worked much harder,
been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed
to death again and again" (2 Cor. 11:23).
zeal was now expressed in a different manner. He courageously declared that
Jesus was the Christ. Then, when threatened with death, he managed to make
his escape. Returning to Jerusalem, he was rebuffed in his initial effort to
join with the disciples. Barnabas interceded, and so Paul continued to speak
out boldly. Again threatened with death, the disciples brought him to
Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus.
Thus are we alerted to
the fact that Paul was introduced into an already existing fellowship. This,
in turn, presupposes a primitive tradition associated with Jesus' life and
teaching. Such as was faithfully preserved in the apostolic community.
Then, too, concerning
Paul's experience. Initially, in connection with his encounter with the risen
Lord on his fateful journey to Damascus. From that time onward, drawing upon
his experience in community and with mission.
It remains to
illustrate from Paul's extensive correspondence. "Now, brothers," the apostle
writes, "I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our
sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on
the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve" (1 Cor. 15:1, 3-5). After that, to an increasingly larger
number of persons.
In another context,
Paul testifies: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of
God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). I am not
ashamed is borne out in his bold witness to the truth of the gospel. He
accounts for this because it is the power of God for salvation of everyone
who believes. Salvation is often construed in a negative manner,
to suggest deliverance from sin and/or related matters. However, it is not
without a positive counterpart. In particular, it nuances God's enablement
and provision for the believer.
Considering the two
texts in conjunction, the object for faith is implicit. It involves faith in
the crucified and risen Christ. It is decidedly not faith in faith, which
qualifies as little more than positive thinking.
As I have noted on
other occasions, Paul views the death/resurrection of Jesus as threefold.
Initially, it is objective. It took place sometime, somewhere, and in the
presence of others. Then, too, as a climax to his life and teaching.
In this context, we
are reminded of the prologue to Luke's gospel (since he was a frequent
companion of Paul):
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of
the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed
down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the
word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything
from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly
account for you...so that you may know the certainty
of the things you have been taught (1:1-4).
Moreover, it is
vicarious. As observed above, Christ died for our sins. "He was
delivered over to death for our sins," the apostle elaborates, "and was raised
to life for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). This is perhaps an excerpt from a
primitive confession of faith. In any case, we are reminded that he was
delivered over to death for our sins, and raised to life for our
This, in turn, recalls
a passage from the Isaiah text: "Surely he took up our infirmities and
carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by
him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was
crushed for our iniquities" (53:4-5). The repetition is for emphasis.
Finally, it is
efficacious. The Isaiah text continues, "the punishment that brought us peace
was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." "So I find this law at work,"
When I want to do good, evil is right there with
me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law, but I see another law at
work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and
making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
...Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus
Christ our Lord (Rom. 7:21-25).
It bears repeating for
emphasis, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In another context,
Paul declares: "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength"
(Phil. 4:13). In this manner, the apostle brings closure to this brief digression (vv.
11-13), in which he explains that his joy in receiving their gift was not
predicated on their meeting his need. ...(He thereby) transforms the very
Stoic-sounding sentences that have preceded from appearing to promote any sense of
sufficiency within himself to a sufficiency quite beyond himself, to Christ.45
concludes, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone,
the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17). The apostle employs the preposition in
with the object Christ (or synonym) 165 times in his letters, as
indicative of the importance he puts in the expression.
Paul paints a dismal
portrait of the person apart from Christ. The good he would do, he finds
difficulty doing; the bad he would refrain from doing, he falls prey to.
Deliverance is lacking.
portrays life in Christ as eminently fulfilling. "I have been crucified with
Christ and I no longer live," he confides, "but Christ lives in me. The life
I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20). It
consists of life lived by way of a dynamic relationship, drawing upon heaven's
treasury, and well exceeding anything one could have previously imagined.
The Finish Line
Origin aptly observes,
"Those whose piety is grounded on the teaching of Jesus also run until they
come to the end of their course, when they can say in all truth and
confidence: 'I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown
of righteousness'" (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8).46 Paul serves as his
* * *
apostle's encounter with the risen Lord, he was a man with a mission. His
labors were extensive, and the results impressive. Those of like precious
faith owe him a great debt of gratitude.
"I am going to
Jerusalem," Paul announced, "not knowing what will happen to me there. I only
know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are
facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may
finish the race and compete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of
testifying to the gospel of God's grace" (Acts 20:22-24).
His resolve recalls
that of Jesus, who set his face toward Jerusalem. Neither would settle for a
safe sanctuary, among devoted associates. Unlike Jesus, Paul has only a
general impression of what would transpire. It would involve imprisonment and
difficulties; this much was certain.
In perspective, it did
not matter to him so long as he was permitted to finish the race and complete
the task Jesus had given him–that of heralding the gospel. The metaphor is
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a
great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin
that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked
out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our
faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its
shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2).
We are left to
speculate on who comprise so great a cloud of witnesses. There are
those who observe us in the daily routine of life. Along this line, Paul
writes: "You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read
by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our
ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on
tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
Perhaps we are meant
to include the heavenly hosts. In ministering on God's behalf, they encourage
those engaged in running the course. In context, our attention is drawn to
those exemplars of faith alluded to in the previous chapter. They are
certainly an incentive, whether or not they were meant to be included among
the many witnesses.
Let us throw off
everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. There are
many things which may be perfectly all
right in their own way, but which hinder a competitor in the race of
faith; they are 'weights' which must be set aside. It may well be that what is
a hindrance to one entrant in this spiritual context is not a hindrance to
another... . But there are other things which are not
perfectly all right...but are essentially wrong.47
Since these alike hinder the
runner's progress, they must be set aside.
The above is by way of
preparation. It remains to run with perseverance the race marked out for
us. Some years ago I decided to participate in a 5K run. Since I jog
regularly, no special preparation seemed necessary. However, without glasses
my sight is considerably restricted. Then, too, my hearing is impaired. Some
distance into the race, I heard a voice calling out to me: "Sir, if you want
to go with the others, they turned off a way back." After expressing my
appreciation, I took off after them. To state the obvious, it does not
accomplish anything to pick up the pace if one is going in the wrong
Then, too, one must
persevere. There are distractions along the way. One feels tempted to
slacken the pace. Some drop out of the race altogether. Whatever the
circumstances, one must press on.
Let us fix our eyes
on Jesus. As would one focus on the person who sets the pace. This, in
turn, dictates how to manage the race. Jesus qualifies on two grounds. As
author (pioneer), he leads the way. As perfecter, he brings to
completion that which he initiated.
For the joy set
before him, he endured the cross. Its suffering and its shame.
Crucifixion was thought so degrading that Roman citizens were exempted. After
that, Jesus was exalted to the right hand of the Father. However, not a
moment before he had finished the course.
"When we arrived in
Jerusalem," Luke records, "the brothers received us warmly" (Acts 21:17). It
was in sharp contrast to the initial encounter after Paul's conversion. The
next day they were taken before the elders of the Jerusalem assembly, and the
apostle reported in detail what was transpiring among the Gentiles. When they
heard of this, they praised God.
Then the elders
enjoined Paul to join in the purification rites of four young men, so as to
reassure the Jewish believers of his fidelity to ceremonial obligations. But
when he attempted to do so, certain Jews of the diaspora seized him. "Men of
Israel, help us!" they shouted. "This is the man who teaches all men
everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has
brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place." Luke
explains that they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the
city with Paul, and incorrectly assumed that he had brought him into the
Were it not for the
intervention of the Roman guard, the apostle would have been killed. As the
soldiers were about to take him into the barracks, he requested permission to
address the agitated crowd. The populace was unsympathetic to his extended
explanation, and demanded that he be executed.
Instead, the commander
ordered him flogged–hoping to obtain some better understanding of the cause
for the uproar. "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even
been found guilty?" Paul protested. "In earlier days the exemption was total,
and although under the empire it was sometimes inflicted on citizens as a
penalty after conviction, they were all exempt from it as a third degree
method of inquiry before trial."48 Then those who intended to
question him immediately withdrew, but the apostle was held over.
The next day, the
commander ordered the Sanhedrin to convene, and brought Paul before its
members. "My brothers," the apostle addressed them, "I am a Pharisee, the son
of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the
dead." This precipitated a dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees, since
the latter held that there is no resurrection. Again, Paul was bound over.
The following night,
the Lord admonished his servant: "Take courage! As you have testified about
me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." At least until that time,
the race must be continued.
The next morning,
Paul's adversaries formed a conspiracy, and bound themselves with an oath not
to eat or drink until they had killed him. There were more than forty men
implicated. When Paul's nephew heard of this, he brought him word. When the
commander was informed, he had the apostle sent under heavy guard to
Caesarea. He sent a covering letter as follows:
To His Excellency, Governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and they were
about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had
learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were
accusing him, so I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their
law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or
imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the
man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you
their case against him.
As can be readily seen, he was
not reticent to stretch the truth in order to put the matter in the best
Five days later, the
high priest and associates presented their case against the apostle. Paul was
permitted to defend himself against the accusations. Then Felix, who was
well acquainted with the Way, dismissed the proceedings with the
observation: "When Lysias the commander comes, I will decide your case." Then
he ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard, but to give him some
freedom and permit his friends to minister to his needs.
Several days later,
Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. As Paul discoursed
on righteousness, self-control, and the impending judgment; the governor was
afraid. "That's enough for now!" he exclaimed. "You may leave. When I find
it convenient, I will send for you." Meanwhile, he was hoping that Paul would
offer him a bribe.
When two years had
passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. Since the latter wanted to
please the Jewish protagonists, he left the apostle in prison. He eventually
heard the accusations and Paul's defense. Wishing to do Paul's adversaries a
favor, he inquired: "Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial
before me there on these charges?"
Paul answered, "I am
now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not
done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. ...But if the
charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to
hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!"
The right of appeal (prouocatio) to the
emperor arose out of the earlier right of appeal to the sovereign people (the
populus Romanus), one of the most ancient rights of a Roman citizen,
traditionally going back to the foundation of the republic in 509 B.C. It was
usually exercised by appealing against a magistrate's verdict, but
might be exercised at an earlier stage of proceedings... .49
After Felix had
conferred with the council, he declared: "You have appealed to Caesar. To
Caesar you will go."
A few days later, King
Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea. Hearing Festus' account of the case
concerning Paul, Agrippa confided: "I would like to hear this man myself."
The next day, Agrippa
and Bernice made a grand entrance into the audience chamber, along with the
high ranking officers and leading men of the city. Then, at Festus' command,
Paul was brought before them. "Therefore I have brought him before all of
you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this
investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable
to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him."
"You are out of your
mind, Paul!" Festus subsequently shouted. "Your great learning is driving you
"I am not insane, most
excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable."
After that, he turned his attention to Agrippa–who he assumed would be better
able to grasp his words.
"Do you think that in
such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" Agrippa
incredulously responded. He may have been embarrassed by the apostle's ardent
Paul replied, "Short
time or long–I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me
today may become what I am, except for these chains." Given his privileged
perspective, he was more free with chains than they were without them. The
audience was concluded.
arrived in Rome. He spent two years under house arrest, and was allowed to
welcome visitors. "Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of
God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:31). Thus Luke concludes his
second volume, with the apostle waiting trial before Caesar.
It appears that the
apostle was released, only to be apprehended a second time. As he composes a
second letter to Timothy, he is now in confined imprisonment in Rome
(1:16-17; 2:9). He has already undergone a preliminary hearing
(4:16-18) and is awaiting his final trial, from which he has little hope of anything
except death (4:6-8). His confinement is an obvious hardship for him.
Some have ministered to his needs (1:16-18); others have gone out on
ministries (4:10, 12); and at least one has abandoned him (4:10).50
comments: "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the
time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished
the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of
righteousness...and not only for me, but also for all who have longed for his
(the Lord's) appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
All else appears to
coalesce in I have finished the race. The fight to which he
refers is not military in nature, but athletic. I have kept the faith
would likely mean that he had remained faithful to that entrusted to him.
Paul would agree with
the adage that "life (as we now know it) is prelude (to what has yet to be)."
So then there is in store for me the crown of righteousness. One is
reminded not only of wreaths of honor bestowed on those who excelled in the
athletic contests, but also the awards made to loyal subjects by their
grateful sovereigns. Incidentally, it seems best to interpret the crown of
righteousness as being that of a righteous person.
deliberately points out that this reward is not his alone, but one to be
shared with all who have longed for his appearing. Consequently, his
emphasis is on finishing the course laid out for the participants. So much
the more now that the finish line is clearly in view.
discussion serves a dual purpose. Initially, it delves into the biblical text
as a normative commentary on the choice between life and death. After that,
it primes the reader for selective social applications.
The choice. We
are confronted with various options throughout our lifetime. In a given day,
the number would multiply dramatically. In most instances, the issues
involved are trivial. The choice among cereals for breakfast provides an
Sometimes more is
involved than we realize. A decision to take an evening's walk could put us
in harm's way. "We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a
circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually
nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road,
after a few miles, forks into two, and each of them into two again, and at
each fork you must make a decision."51
This does not suggest
that everyone who takes the wrong turn is destined to continue in that way.
It does suggest that a person may have to reconsider, and opt for a more
If by any other
designation, the basic choice we all must make is between life and
death. Either life and all the opportunities it affords, or death and the
loss of what might have been. The wise person opts for life.
The God factor.
Scripture informs us that life originates with God. Therefore, it should come
as no surprise that he sustains life as well. So it is that the psalmist
concludes, "For with you is the fountain of life" (36:9). Such brings to mind
a constant source, appealing to the weary pilgrim.
The alternative is
indeed bleak. "My people have committed two sins," the Lord declares: "They
have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jer. 2:13). The broken cisterns
are associated with their practice of idolatry.
Life is thus construed
in terms of stewardship. Along this line, Jesus told a story concerning a man
who was going on a journey. He summoned his servants, and entrusted his
property to them–each according to his ability. After a long time, the man
returned. "Master," the first said, "you entrusted me with five talents.
See, I have gained five more" (Matt. 25:20).
His master replied,
"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few
things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's
happiness." So also with the man having been entrusted with two talents.
Then came the man who
was entrusted with one talent. "Master," he said, "I knew that you are a hard
man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not
scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the
ground. See, here is what belongs to you."
His master responded,
"You wicked, lazy servant! So you know that I harvest where I have not sown
and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my
money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have
received it back with interest." Then he had the one talent given to the one
who had been given ten, along with the observation: "For everyone who has will
be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even
what he has will be taken from him." In conventional terms, "Use it or lose
I have relied heavily on the narrative account to pursue the general topic.
This is out of deference both to its appealing and authoritative character.
As for the former, Much is obviously due to the art, technique and
manner of the telling, for even the best story falls flat when badly told.
That is why this study is mainly concerned with the craft of Biblical
storytelling. To find out how it is done one must read slowly and carefully,
looking, so to speak, over the writer's shoulder as he practices his art.52
As for the latter,
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking correcting
and training in righteousness, to that the man of God may be thoroughly
equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16). "Above all, you must understand
that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.
For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God
as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:20-21).
As an aside, the worth
of narrative is sometimes lost on those of us raised in the classical
tradition. We are prone to favor abstract concepts, void of concrete
reality. Conversely, it might be said of biblical revelation that the medium
is the message.
The accent on
Biblical narrative was not meant to rule out other sources as they appeared
relevant. In particular, I drew on both Christian and Jewish commentaries.
Then, too, from the early church fathers, conventional wisdom, personal
antidotes, and miscellaneous sources. Such might be said to illustrate
Augustine's provocative conclusion, "All truth is God's truth."
Life is characterized
by ambiguity. A given text can often be interpreted in a variety of ways. It
seemed best to acknowledge this reality without unduly laboring the issue.
Some situations invited more elaboration than others.
Jewish tradition, the time line is drawn between the present age and the age
to come. In Christian thought, the age to come was initiated with the advent
of Jesus as the Messiah. The consummation remains future. This results in
what some have construed as an overlay of the two ages. In particular, we are
said to live in the now but not yet interim.
Moreover, Scripture is
said to be normative in matters of faith and practice. This creates what has
been described as a fusion of horizons. The far horizon, the biblical
text, remains constant; whereas the near horizon changes with the times. As a
result, one must preserve biblical fidelity–preferably in a relevant fashion.
Few would claim this to be an easy task, but it is no less a necessary one.
Then, too, we are
being drawn toward the future. God's promises serve us well in this regard.
They resemble a distant landfall, toward which we steer our course into a safe
The choice between
life and death continues to evidence itself concerning current issues that
face us today. As the sage observed, "The more things change, the more (some)
things remain constant." After that, to appreciate the fact that we are
called upon to appropriate biblical truths in the course of our daily
A Life Boat
"The most merciful
thing a large family can do for one of its infant members is to kill it."53
So writes a prominent advocate of population control. In this instance, she
has gone beyond the effort to eradicate supposed inferior humans to include
prime subjects born into marginal economic situations. It is not my
intention to fault what is a legitimate concern for the quality of life, but
to approach it in context of a respect for life itself.
I have opted to
discuss this topic initially because of its pervasive character. It is
sometimes explicit, but more often implicit in life and death issues. In this
connection, it reminds me of a trump card that can be used when all other
considerations seem to fall short.
Two analogies will
serve to expose the rationale. The first concerns a village commons, and the
second a life boat. In nineteenth-century England most villages were adjoined
by a commons, land which could be used by the citizens of a community
for grazing. "If the commons was used judiciously in a small village,
individuals could gradually increase their wealth. But as the communities
grew the temptation to overgraze grew stronger."54 When one
yielded to the temptation, it encouraged others to follow.
Sooner or later, but
sooner than we would like to think, the commons can no longer sustain its
increased usage. In fact, further use of the commons for grazing purposes
will actually reduce its productivity. If no corrective action is taken, the
situation will continue to deteriorate.
represents our environment. We have limited resources, and an ever-increasing
population. Time is said to be running out.
Consequently, it would
appear that we should settle on rules agreed upon to keep population growth in
check. If this appears unlikely or impossible, it will be necessary for the
elite (however constituted) to make the determination, and see that it
The life boat analogy
is perhaps of more recent vintage, being currently associated with the Values
Clarification Curriculum. In this instance, the students are asked to imagine
an overly crowded life boat cast adrift in the open sea. There are scant
resources, compounding the dilemma.
It soon becomes
evident that not all can survive. It remains to decide whose life shall be
terminated. Since one candidate is elderly and has already lived a full life,
he seems a likely candidate. However, it turns out that he is a research
scientist, who might make some discovery that would greatly benefit mankind.
The latter argues that he be removed from consideration.
Cultural bias can be
detected in the selection process. Clergy do not rate among the most highly
valued, which might suggest that their activity is perceived as relatively
marginal from a cultural perspective. Educators do better; lawyers and car
situation worsens. The craft is taking in water. Some are incapacitated by
trauma. Others feel compelled to throw off their natural constraints to
preserve life, and deliberately cast some overboard.
observations would seem in order. First, the situation is contrived.
For instance, Let's assume that we can put everyone in the
world into families of four. We'll give each family a three bedroom house on
a 50-foot lot, with a nice front yard and room for a garden in the back
yard. ...How much land will we need? ...Well, the fact is that we could all
fit in the state of Texas, with some space left over for the cowboys and oil wells.55
Well, of course, there
are additional factors to take into consideration. Such as the means to
provide food, transportation, and the like. However, the situation is not
nearly as desperate as the prophets of doom would have us imagine. Especially
would this be so if we were to take our environmental responsibilities more
Second, the persons
implicated are anonymous. This brings to mind the tragic case of Kitty
Genovese. Persons were stunned at the time by her death at the hands of a
stalker, while neighbors looked on from their bedroom windows for some
thirty-five minutes while the assailant beat, stabbed, and left her for dead.
No one protested, let alone came to her aid. Finally, a seventy year old
woman belatedly called the police.
When persons were
asked why they did nothing, their responses ranged from "I don't know," and "I
was tired," to "We were afraid." The bottom line was that they failed to come
to the aid of an endangered stranger.
Then, too, I recall
the revealing comment made by a physician, who had employed prisoners for
experimental purposes in Nazi Germany. "I felt no animosity," he confessed.
"I simply did not think of them as anything other than guinea pigs."
Third, there is the
temptation to play God. This can be illustrated by contrasting two
views of life. In the first instance, "Human life from conception to natural
death is sacred and worthy of protection." As a result, the preservation of
life should take precedent over concerns for liberty and the pursuit of
In the second, "Human
life, which begins and ends when certain individuals or groups decide it does,
is valuable as long as it is wanted."56 Consequently, it has no
otherwise expressed, human caprice is cultivated as an alternative to divine
providence. After that, the
law of diminishing returns sets in. As the sage observes, "When life is
cheapened in some regard, it is cheapened in all."
Finally, those making
the determination appear characteristically to exclude themselves from its
consequences. If a class, then its instructor and students. Their purposes
are thought served by the elimination of some less fortunate persons. This
would seem to turn the Golden Rule on its head. That is, "Don't do to
others what you would want them to do to you."
It is time to move
Imagine that we invented a mighty Convenience
Machine that would make our lives wonderfully more enjoyable and enable
us to reach more of our goals. Unfortunately, using the machine would
cost us about 50,000 lives each year. Would you use the machine? Should
we allow it to be sold on the market? When I have asked audiences this
question, there is virtually universal agreement that we should not, for no
amount of comfort equals the value of a single life.57
If, however, we defer
simply to the quality of life, some will conclude that the taking of
50,000 lives or five million lives is thereby warranted. The obvious question
concerns the quality of life for whom? Most notably those calculated to
survive. Then, perhaps in addition, those whose demise might be considered an
act of mercy.
The rationale recalls
a young couple, who were eagerly expecting their first child. Much to their
dismay, the child was severely handicapped, and would require continued
assistance throughout its life. The husband concluded that if there were a
God, he would not have allowed such a thing to happen. His wife was more
temperate in his response, but the burden obviously weighed heavily on her.
With the passing of
time, a remarkable change took place. The husband reported that he had
experienced love in a way he had never thought possible. It was generated
from their relationship with the child, and one another. Moreover, God seemed
as if born again in his experience. His wife gratefully smiled her assent.
This should not have
come as a great surprise. Along this line, Jesus declared: "It is more
blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Then we may conclude that the
quality of life derives from seizing the opportunity for service.
As observed in an
earlier context, life is good when lived according to God's design.
When not, the situation is calculated to turn from bad to worse. Then, in the
end, it is beyond recovery.
There is further
evidence that survival should not in every instance be the prime concern.
"Risks of life are often worth the goals of enhancing the quality of life for
others. The martyr, the missionary to hostile territory, the settler, the
witness of the truth all value something higher than their own life."58
It bears repeating, than their own life–since it concerns our
All things considered,
the quality of life ought to be fostered in the context of life itself. This
implies an openness to God as life's mediator, and availability to one
another. Conversely, it ought not to provide an excuse for our unwillingness
to tolerate inconvenience.
population control generate a varied agenda–as the following will serve to
- Restructure family
a) Postpone or avoid marriage
b) Alter the image of ideal family size
- Compulsory education of children
- Encourage increased homosexuality
- Educate for family limitation
- Fertility control agents in water supply
- Encourage women to work
- Substantial marriage tax
- Child tax
- Tax married more than single
- Remove parents tax exception
- Additional taxes on parents with more than 1 or 2 children in school
- Compulsory abortion of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
- Compulsory sterilization of all who have two children except for a few who would be allowed three
- Confine childbearing to only a limited number of adults59
In less detail, the
Planned Parenthood Federation of America concludes that universal reproductive
freedom is perhaps the most critical step in solving the problems of hunger,
deprivation and hopelessness associated with poverty, and the depletion of our
natural resources. Universal reproductive freedom consists of making
contraception, abortion, and sterilization readily available to all. This, in
turn, implies social approval–as students are quick to point out.
One social theorist commends restricting humans to enclaves connected by
transportation arteries. He would leave the remainder for flora and fauna to
forge for itself. His approach hinges on rigorous population control, and
theorist proposes that we make better use of the land available to us, so as
to develop primary employment towns–where the quality of life will be vastly
improved. He has in mind the vast stretches of land visible from the window
of an overflying airplane. His approach invites quality control, with a prime
concern for the inherent sacredness of human life. Meanwhile, the controversy
continues unabated. Often it generates more heat than light.
In summary, it would
seem that a creative solution, whether in the above connection or some other,
must initially set sound priorities. I take it that this involves an
appreciation of the sacredness of human life, as derived from God for his
benevolent purposes. Other legitimate concerns properly derive from this
It would, therefore,
appear evident that the quality of life should not be treated in an
autonomous fashion. We ought to promote quality in our devotional exercises,
family and social life, political expressions, and international affairs. We
ought not in the process overlook the simple things of life, since they not
uncommonly prove to be the more rewarding. Such as a breath of fresh air at
the close of an oppressively hot day, a leisurely meal with family
and/friends, or a welcomed repose after the demanding duties associated with
It is also necessary
to evolve social means that approximate our corporate ideals. This will
require something akin to compromise, which is said to be the genius of
social programming and political activity. I mean this in the characteristic
English sense of the term, as constructive accommodation.
The above requires
cultivating a genuine sense of humility. Not self-effacement, which would
seem to resemble a negative expression of pride. To qualify as humble, a
person must not be unduly concerned for self–whether to magnify or disparage.
The endeavor will
likewise require civility–a recurring theme in my extended discussion. That
is, to refrain from character assassination and focus on issues. Jesus'
counsel is pertinent in this connection, "I tell you: Love your enemies and
pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in
heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on
the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:44-45).
Finally, one must
persist in doing good. According to conventional wisdom, "Nothing worthwhile
comes easily." Such could be said not only concerning what we hope to
accomplish, but in terms of enhancing spiritual maturity.
Much of the above will
be applicable for that which follows. Qualifications aside, social issues are
cut from the same bolt of cloth. Let the reader take note.
The Agonizing Issue
more than any other practice, deserves to be labeled 'the agonizing issue.'
God must certainly hold us guilty for the wanton taking of life. Much of the
debate over abortion seems little more than an exercise in casuistry."60
This serves as a prime example where the exceptions, if such can be
demonstrated, ought not to establish the rule.
Abortion, even though
widely practiced, was considered immoral and illegal in most
modern western societies until this generation. ...The 1960s brought
increasing activism in favor of legalizing abortion. Initially, the motives
were to help women who were victims of rape or incest, and those who carried
deformed babies, as well as to eliminate the dangers of illegal
abortion. Later, the goal of the advocates became abortion-on-demand for any reason at all.61
In retrospect, the
advocates for abortion-on-demand gained sympathy for their cause by greatly
exaggerating the problem and over-simplifying its proposed resolution. As for
the former, it is estimated that less than two percent of abortions are
performed for the purposes initially introduced to justify abortion practice.
As for the latter, abortion techniques have become increasingly safer, so that
the risk factor has been substantially reduced. It is estimated that
"ninety-eight percent of currently performed abortions are done because the
pregnancy is inconvenient."62
response to this pro-choice activism was mixed. The official stance of the
Roman Catholic Church was categorically opposed to abortion. Protestant
churches were divided. The more liberal denominations were in favor of
lessening the restrictions on abortion. Some have more recently come to decry
casual abortion, while others carry on the pro-choice agenda as if it were a
moral crusade. The more conservative denominations were sometimes slow to
pick up on the issue, but aligned themselves more with the official Roman
Catholic position than that of their liberal counterparts.
The U.S. Supreme
Court's Roe v. Wade decision struck down all state laws restricting
abortion. It said that the states could not forbid or regulate abortions in
the first trimester of pregnancy, but could regulate the procedure during the
first and second trimesters. In the final trimester, the states were
permitted to prohibit abortion–except when the life or health of the woman was
at stake. Health came to be understood as synonymous with the women's
emotional well-being. Since any unwanted pregnancy could result in emotional
turmoil, abortion-on-demand became the practical outcome of the Supreme
Court's ruling. Conversely, the emotional turmoil often generated by
abortion was largely ignored.
It is said that more
than twenty million abortions have been performed since the 1973 decision. It
would seem obvious that this creates not only a problem for those within the
Judeo-Christian tradition, but runs counter to the disposition of the people
as a whole. In this connection, former President Clinton observed that most
Americans want abortion to be safe, legal, and seldom. The current practice,
in attempting to guarantee the first two of these goals, makes a mockery of
As a result, the
positions have increasingly polarized. Pro-life advocates not uncommonly
portray their opponents as evil people, whose driving motivation is to make
money by providing abortion services. Conversely, pro-choice advocates are
disposed to depict their adversaries as insensitive to those subject to an
unwanted pregnancy. The fact is that persons are disposed to prioritize
different ethical principles, with conflicting results. Moreover, motivations
are characteristically mixed–tempting us to portray others in the worst
possible light, while exonerating ourselves from blame.
In any case, the
traditional appreciation for the sanctity of life began to erode. For many, it
was linked to the belief that humans are created in the image of God.
However, the sanctify of life principle was embraced by others as well–so as
to provide a impressive cultural consensus.
Aware of support for
the sanctity of life, pro-choice advocates initially argued that life did not
begin at conception. Confronted with the evidence that biological life does
in fact begin at conception, they contended that personhood is
distinctive from biological life. Moreover, that its definition is so
imprecise as to prohibit the setting up of restrictions on abortion. Then,
more recently, to assert that the right to self-determination takes precedent
over the value of a potential person.
As a matter of
information, several alternatives have been proposed concerning when the fetus
becomes a person with an inherent right to life. Quickening.
Some have held that the soul entered the body at the moment of quickening,
when the mother first felt the fetus move. In this regard, it seemed
reasonable to countenance abortion during the first weeks of pregnancy.
However, this view no longer solicits much interest, and so it remains a live
option for only a few.
U.S. Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision, came close
to espousing viability as the cutoff point between not having a right to life and
having one. The court held that the state has a legitimate interest in
protecting potential life and that this interest becomes compelling at viability
"because the fetus then presumably had the capability of
meaningful life, outside the mother's womb."63
implication lacked detailed exploration. For instance, why should the fetus
be thought to have a more meaningful existence outside its mother's womb than
inside? Moreover, the time of viability changes with our advance in
technology–making this guideline imprecise.
is claimed that a right to life must embrace the ability to perceive, suffer,
and remember. It is further alleged that the fetus is unable to do any of
these, and so does not need to be guaranteed life.
This view is subject
to two primary objections. First, the argument, if strictly interpreted,
would appear to exclude infants as well–since they do not perceive in
the strong sense of the word, nor do they remember in a mature
fashion. Second, there is ample evidence that the fetus experiences both
pleasure and pain.
hold that birth is the decisive point at which one becomes a person. This
seems arbitrary, since there is no compelling reason to suppose that the
fetus' status should be fundamentally altered in the birthing process. As a
matter of fact, a prematurely born infant may be considerably less developed
than a fetus that has come full term.
inevitable conclusion is that none or all of the above options provide a
convincing rationale for why we should make a distinction between potential
and actual human life. Perhaps viability comes closest to a plausible
criterion, but is difficult to define in any acceptable manner. At least for
the present, the U.S. Supreme Court seems reluctant to make the effort. Short
of more definitive guidelines, the carnage continues.
Louis Pojman sets
forth in comprehensive fashion the liberal alternative, an appraisal of the
conservative/liberal dialogue, and a mediating position. I will sketch his
analysis, citing an occasional quotation.64 The liberal
position "asserts that it is always or almost always morally permissible
for a woman to have an abortion. It allows abortion on demand. Four
arguments for this position have been offered."
relativism. Abortion is said to be strictly a individual matter. No one
should be coerced into having unwanted children. Morality, from this
perspective, is a private concern.
If, however, we were
to be consistent, this would rule out the protection guaranteed to all.
Unless, of course, there is some compelling reason for excluding the fetus
from consideration. If this is not the case, and the burden of proof lies
with the pro-choice advocates, then the wanton taking of life amounts to mass
After that, the
right to privacy. For instance, The National Organization of Women
insists that women have an absolute right to their bodies. Since the fetus is
dependent, she can dispose of it as she wishes. If this involves abortion, it
is within her prerogative. Incidentally, those who serve in crisis pregnancy
centers report that the most common observation shared by those seeking help
is their lack of information which would allow them to make an intelligent
decision. It is as if society had conspired to coerce them into aborting
Conversely, it is not
certain that we have any absolute rights, in the sense that one right
precludes all others. In conventional terms, "Your freedom stops where my
nose begins." In addition, one would have to make a case for why the right to
use one's body as he or she wishes would constitute an absolute right.
As touched on earlier,
the quality of life. This, as a rule, begins with the prospect of the
deformed or retarded child, thought to have little potential and being a
burden to others. "The argument can be extended to cover cases where the
woman is incapable of providing an adequate upbringing for the child to be
born, the case of a teenage pregnancy, the family with children that cannot
afford another child." As noted previously, the specter of over-population
provides an added consideration.
In brief, while
quality of life is a legitimate concern, it ought not to be used as an excuse
to sanction irresponsible and immoral behavior. Since I have previously
considered the issue, I will not labor the point on this occasion.
Finally, as concerns a
person. As noted previously, personhood is distinguished from that
which has the potential of becoming a person. In particular, the mother is
given a status that not only exceeds that of the fetus, but strips it of any
As earlier concluded,
the distinction seems arbitrary. One moment the fetus has no rights, and the
next it has gained equal protection under the law. It bears repeating, the
burden of proof would seem to lie with the pro-choice advocate.
As for dialogue, If the personhood argument were followed, we
would be permitted to kill unconscious and severely retarded and senile
humans–even normal people when they sleep... . The argument would also
sanction infanticide... . Finally, the argument ignores the fact that the
fetus is a potential person, and potentiality for self-consciousness should
be seen as granting a being similar rights as an actual person.
In response, the
liberal maintains concerning the severely retarded and senile that most have
retained an adequate amount of rationality. Consequently, it would be
dangerous to put into practice a policy of doing away with all but the most
extreme cases in point.
As for those who sleep
or are unconscious, they have the capacity for rational self-consciousness.
In this connection, the liberal distinguishes between capacity and
As for infanticide,
The liberal can distinguish between a natural and a social right. A natural
right is one which is enjoyed simply by virtue of its intrinsic qualities. As
social right, on the other hand, is something bestowed by society. "The core
of the liberal position is the notion that we are not born persons but become
such through adequate socialization."
The mediating position
attempts to steer between the polar positions. It takes issue with the
conservative inasmuch as he or she refuses to take into consideration
extenuating circumstances concerning unwanted pregnancies. Precisely which
qualifies remain unclear, except as reflected in individual preferences.
mediating position objects to abortion on demand. The fetus is "in the
process of developing into the kind of beings who will be socialized as
self-conscious persons. The closer they come to birth, the more the
presumption of life is in their favor." Carried to its logical conclusion,
the mediating position would go a long way toward realizing the social
objective of significantly reducing the frequency of abortion.
I would like to
conclude with a moving story concerning the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman.
As a child, he was stricken with polio, leaving him severely incapacitated.
He wore braces on both legs, and could walk only with the assistance of two
One evening, he was to
give a concert. He deliberately made his way across the stage to a chair in
which he seated himself to play. As soon as he appeared on stage, the
audience enthusiastically applauded and then waited expectantly.
No sooner had he began
to play than one of his violin strings snapped with a sound resembling a
gunshot. He could have halted the performance, and replaced the string before
continuing. Instead, he hesitated and then signaled the conductor to
continue. He proceeded to improvise with the remaining strings on his
When he had finished,
those in the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence. Then they rose to
their feet, and cheered wildly. They realized that they had witnessed an
extraordinary display of skill and ingenuity.
Perlman raised his bow
to signal for silence. "You know," he said, "sometimes it is the artist's
task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you
have left." While he likely had in mind his impaired instrument, his comment
could have implied as well to his crippled body. The world is a better place
for Perlman's artistry. Then, too, for his constructive approach to life.
It is dreadful to
think of how many gifted persons, let alone those less so, who were never
allowed to achieve their potential. Perhaps because some deficiency was
diagnosed in the fetus. Otherwise, because of economic considerations. Worse
yet, simply because giving birth would have created an inconvenience.
A Good Death
"The English word
euthanasia is derived from a combination of Greek words: the adverb eu
(well) and a form of the noun thanatos (death, usually meaning 'a good
death' (or an easy death). Euthanasia, in the classic usage, refers to mercy
killing–the act of purposefully ending a human life with a motive of
compassion."65 It remains an issue of critical importance in
itself, and its implications for a wide range of associated issues.
It is not my intent to
focus attention on so-called passive euthanasia, which might better
qualify as humane treatment. This concern is best served through a living
will, whereby the person may opt not to prolong life through artificial
Twenty-one year old
"Karen Ann Quinlan lapsed into a coma from which she never emerged. Thus
began the most famous case in the history of American medical ethics. (She
had suffered) extensive brain damage and a state of persistent vegetation that
was to last 10 years, while the family, the hospital, and the courts angrily
fought over her body."66
After months of
watching their adopted daughter's body curled up in a fetal position, and
maintained by a life support system, Joseph and Julia Quinlan despaired of
hope. With the approval of their priest, they requested that the attending
physician disconnect the ventilator. He agreed to do so, providing they sign
a form absolving him of liability.
subsequently changed his mind. He informed Mr. Quinlan that it would be
necessary to obtain a court order appointing him her legal guardian before he
would be willing to take her off life support. He had concluded this was
necessary, because Karen was not technically brain dead–although neurologists
agreed that her comatose condition was irreversible.
Paul Armstrong, Mr.
Quinlan's lawyer, initially argued that since Karen was brain dead, she should
be allowed to die. When it was pointed out that she did not meet the
criteria, he amended his brief to incorporate concerns related to religious
freedom, cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to privacy. Religious
freedom constituted an appeal to Karen's religious beliefs. Cruel and
unusual punishment drew its analogy from prison guards. The right to
privacy appealed to the Roe v. Wade U. S. Supreme Court decision,
illustrating how interwoven are the issues concerning life and death.
representing the attending physician, argued that to allow Karen to die would
start a slippery slope leading to the killing of people thought to live
a poor quality of life. In this context, he made reference to the Nazi
atrocities. The judge embraced Porzio's rationale, and ruled that the
family's anguish concerning their comatose daughter was clouding their
Gino Concetti, a
Vatican theologian, meanwhile condemned taking Karen off life support. He
categorically ruled that a right to die does not exist. Even a life in
ruins serves to protect life with every possible care.
The case was appealed
to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which overruled the prior decision. It set
aside all criminal liability for removing Karen from a respirator. The
hospital administration stalled, even adding a second machine to control her
body temperature. After several weeks of waiting, Karen was taken off life
However, she continued
to survive. The hospital asked that she be removed to another institution.
The transfer was refused by twenty institutions, before she was taken to a
nursing home. This was five and a half months after the court's decision to
allow her to die.
For nine years Karen
lay in a comatose state, artificially sustained by a feeding tube. Each day
Mr. Quinlan would rise at 4:30 for a forty mile drive to the nursing home,
where he would talk to Karen, massage her back, and sing to her–even though
she showed no awareness. The long vigil finally came to an end. There is
said to be over ten thousand people in the United States in similar condition.
The modern euthanasia
movement has in the West focused on the voluntary consent of the patient. It
is estimated that Danish physicians terminate five to eight thousand patients
a year. This would extrapolate from eighty to one hundred and thirty thousand
persons with comparable practice in the United States.
The above physicians
inject patients with a fatal dose of phenobarbital and curare. The guidelines
set down by the Royal Dutch Medical Association are as follows:
- The performance of euthanasia should rest upon voluntariness.
- The patient should be experiencing unacceptable and prospectless suffering which can no longer be made bearable.
- The patient's longing for death should be durable and well-considered.
- The case should be discussed with colleagues.
- Euthanasia should be performed in a medically pharmacologically justified way.
- Death certificates should not be falsified (e.g., "pneumonia") but should state that euthanasia was performed.67
suggest that the above guidelines are often disregarded. This has been
especially documented concerning the failure to secure consent. In such
instances, it appears that doctors not uncommonly take it upon themselves to
assure a good death.
In the light of the
discussion to this point, the slippery slope argument deserves more
careful attention. In brief, to allow a single instance whereby life is
terminated would eventually lead to endangering all life. So it might
can be misleading. We customarily distinguish between legitimate and
comprehensive concessions. Such as allowing for some reduction in room
temperature during the winter months, without simply throwing open our doors
and windows to allow nature to take its course.
is some merit to the slippery slop rationale. Primarily in that it encourages
us to take every reasonable precaution to keep things from getting out of
control. In terms of euthanasia, if one is prone to err, then let it be with
regard to the protecting of life rather than accommodating death.
obligation as humans calls on us to make difficult decisions, and to accept
our accountability. After that, to learn from both our successes and
failures. Subsequently, to pass on our collective wisdom to succeeding
generations. According to the sage, "let the wise listen and add to their
learning, and let the discerning get guidance... . The fear of the Lord is
the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline" (Prov.
Finally, one should
bear in mind that being conscientious in matters of relatively minor
consequence conditions us to be responsible concerning those of more critical
nature. It is often said, "As the twig is bent, so will it grow." This would
appear to qualify as the positive side of the slippery slope argument.
In any case,
The dilemma with which the doctor has to grapple
is not an abstract problem in the field of ethical theory but the
practical question of what is the proper treatment for an individual patient
in particular circumstances. And here a number of different factors are
involved. He has a clear duty, for example, to preserve his patient's life in
any acceptable way, but this does not imply a duty to prolong the process of
dying by what may aptly be termed "meddlesome medicine".68
Again, he has an obligation to
relieve his patient's suffering by any legitimate means, but it does not
follow that administering a lethal dose passes muster.
The reasons are
varied. For instance, the patient may consent not out of necessity but
because he or she is discouraged. As has rightly been observed, the
consent in this instance may be more of a petition for help than a
termination of life. What the person needs is compassionate support, rather
than an easy way out.
Likewise, one may have
been persuaded to relinquish life rather than become an unnecessary burden
others. In a worse case scenario, family members hope to benefit from an
early demise, before savings have been radically depleted.
The ambiguous consent
might also be more along the line of assisted suicide. Suicide may be
defined as an act whereby a person intentionally causes his own death, without
coercion from another. Assisted suicide solicits the help of another
in bringing about the termination of life.
deemed to rule out such high risk factors as overdrinking and smoking,
electing to walk through a high crime area, and the like. While these might
well result in an early demise, it is not characteristically for this reason
that persons choose them.
It is customary to
distinguish between self-regarding and altruistic suicide–if by
this or some other designation. "Traditionally, Jews and Christian have
condemned self-regarding suicide as an affront to God, because only God can
give and take innocent life. Our lives are gifts of God. They are not owned
by us but are God's property. We are stewards of his property."69
from a comparable religious orientation, the rationale appears irrelevant. As
a colleague once remarked, "If God is dead, then man is also dead."
The second prime
argument against self-regarding suicide derives from nature. Apart from
extenuating circumstances, persons are generally disposed to enjoy the
benefits that life affords. Such would serve as an encouragement to those
going through times of testing.
Exceptions should be
noted. Some persons cultivate a dismal attitude toward life. On occasion, it
appears related to a chemical imbalance. In any case, adverse circumstances
can make life seemingly unbearable.
is of a different sort. It involves freely giving one's life for some
noble cause. Early Christians often embraced martyrdom willingly and
enthusiastically. The martyrdom of Polycarp serves as a classic example.
When he heard that the officials were looking for him, he retired to a country
house. When those who sought him were nearby, he departed to another
dwelling. They eventually apprehended him, but not before he had made every
reasonable effort to preserve the gift of life.
Now as Polycarp was
entering the stadium, there came a voice from heaven encouraging him: "Be
strong, and show yourself a man!"70
The proconsul urged
him, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, 'Away with the
Atheists' (Christians, since they deny the gods)."
Polycarp waved his
hand toward the pagan multitude, and upon looking up to heaven said: "Away
with the Atheists."
The proconsul again
pressed him, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar."
"Since you...pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with
boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of
Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them."
The proconsul then
said to him, "I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, except you
"Call them then,"
Polycarp responded, "for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in
order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from
what is evil to what is righteous."
Again the proconsul
threatened him, "I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise
the wild beast, if you will not repent."
resolute, "You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a
little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment
and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry?
Bring forth what you will."
"While he spoke these
and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his
countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if
troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was
astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium three
times, 'Polycarp has confessed to being a Christian.'" Upon hearing this, the
multitude demanded that he be executed because of his supposed crime against
After that, they bound
him on top of a funeral pier. "I give you thanks that you have counted me
worthy of this day and this hour," he prayed, "that I should have a part in
the number of your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of
eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption (imparted) by
the Holy Ghost." Polycarp died, as if a sacrificial lamb.
"This, then, is the
account of the blessed Polycarp," who being the twelfth of those martyred in
Smyrna, "yet occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, insomuch
that he is everywhere spoken of by the heathen themselves. He was not merely
an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all
desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of
Then, in turn, to put
the character of a good death is a new light: not simply nor
necessarily indicative of an easy passing, but in terms of a vibrant witness.
Whether in life or death, to glorify the Lord.
As a student
activist, "I once opposed increased police protection for my neighborhood...,
arguing that we must get to the causes of crime and not deal only with the
symptoms. I later realized that this was like refusing fire fighters the use
of water hoses to put out fires because they only dealt with the symptoms
rather than causes of the fire."71 Thus Louis Pojman introduces
his rationale for capital punishment. This, understandably, is a highly
emotive topic that demands that we bring to it a historical perspective and
Although few of us are
arrested on criminal charges, let alone resided on death row, most have strong
feelings concerning appropriate punishment. Note your reactions to the
following accounts, based on newspaper articles:
- A drug addict stabs to death a vibrant,
gifted 22-year-old graduate student who had dedicated her life to
- A sex-pervert lures little children into his
home, sexually abuses them, and then kills them. Over 20 bodies are
discovered on his property.
- A man sends his wife and daughter on an
airplane trip, puts a time bomb into their luggage, and takes out a million
dollar insurance policy on them. The money will be used to pay off his
gambling debts and for prostitutes.72
The former student
activist, mentioned above, might have argued that all should be set free–since
they are presumably the helpless product of a degenerate society. This, in
turn, reminds me of a fictitious story told concerning two sociologists on the
Jericho Road. It seems that they came across a person severely beaten and
left for dead. One sociologist said to the other, "We must find the people
who did this; they obviously need our help. It serves to get a running start.
Punishment may be defined as a penalty inflicted on a person by those
in authority for some perceived offense. The penalty may involve
incarceration, physical abuse, probation, and/or social castigation. It may
be for a long or short term. It may have considerable or little lingering
Those in authority
provides a certain legitimacy to the infliction of a penalty. It
precludes others, except when authority is construed in a broader
sense–as with the provision for citizen's arrest. It assumes that those in
authority will function within the scope of their duties. For instance, they
are not to use excessive force.
consists of violating some established social regulation. Ignorance does not
qualify as an excuse, although it may be considered as an extenuating
circumstance. A voluntary offense may be construed as a more serious offense
than an involuntary one, as with first degree murder in contrast to
Two prime theories
have been introduced to justify punishment: retribution and rehabilitation.
In addition, restitution plays an important role in Old Testament
legislation. Retribution. In this context, punishment is inflicted in
proportion to the offense. For instance, the Lex Talionis (an eye for
an eye) provision was meant to prohibit excessive retribution, rather than
require an exact recompense.
retribution argue that justice is served by treating persons in a way
comparable to the seriousness of their offense against others. According to
the pundit, "Fair is fair." One does not have to go into any great detail to
appreciate the logic of the position. However, there may be other legitimate
concerns to be factored into the punishment formula.
Crime is said to be analogous to a disease. The criminal is sick, and needs
to be treated rather than punished. As pointedly expressed, "Therapy, not
The rationale is as
good as the propriety of the analogy. In particular, it assumes that persons
would not normally embrace anti-social behavior. After that, the hope is that
they will readily respond to remedial treatment. Neither of these conclusions
would adequately factor in the voluntary aspect of human character.
In this instance, punishment involves paying back a debt to society. This may
be in terms of society in general, such as a certain number of hours of
community service. Conversely, it may be more specifically in terms of the
person against whom the crime was committed. This might include payment for
damages inflicted on one's person or property.
In general terms,
there is much to commend this alternative. It certainly appears to be a more
constructive approach than simply letting a person languish in prison at the
expense of society. It, however, has limitations. As an example, it may be
impossible for the person to provide adequate recompense.
This brings us to a
consideration of capital punishment, which involves taking the life of
the offender. The death penalty has been used throughout history for
virtually every crime imaginable. "In the seventh century B.C. Draco's
Athenian code prescribed the death penalty for stealing fruit. Later
Athenians were executed for making misleading public speeches. The criminal
code of the Holy Roman Empire and later Europe punished sorcery, arson,
blasphemy, sodomy, and counterfeiting by burning at the stake."73
retrospect, most of us are appalled by such extensive use of the death
penalty. On the other hand, most people in England (and other Western
nations) consider it is perfectly right and proper for
the State to inflict the death penalty in suitable circumstances, and some
Christians even affirm that this is actually mandatory in the case of murder; but
there are many others who are passionately opposed to the death penalty
ever being exacted, and some who regard it as fundamentally contrary to Christian principles.74
If in suitable
circumstances, then such as society dictates. One can expect some
latitude in application from one society to the next. One would also hope for
As far as biblical
tradition is concerned, we read: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall
his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (Gen. 9:6). Some
take this to mean that capital punishment is obligated in appropriate
instances. Others assume that it is permitted. It does not appear that there
is anything in the inunction to suggest that it is categorically prohibited.
So it is that those
who claim that the death penalty is fundamentally contrary to Christian
principles must look elsewhere. Expressly, to Jesus' teaching–thought to
negate or refine the earlier instruction. This requires two questionable
assumptions. First, that there is sufficient discontinuity between the
testaments to allow for this change of venue. Second, that we can be certain
of the application of Christian ethics in regard to capital punishment.
As a matter of fact,
the reverse seems true. "If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving
of death, I do not refuse to die," Paul affirms. "But if the charges brought
against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to
them. I appeal to Caesar!" (Acts 25:11). He thus allows for the death
penalty in appropriate instances, and there is no reason to suppose that he
meant to depart from Jesus' teaching in this or some other regard.
It has been
traditionally thought that the death penalty provided an effective deterrent
to homicide. Studies do not seem to bear this out. I recall mentioning this
fact to a policeman, who responded: "Well, it certainly acts as a deterrent
for the person executed." Apart from the alternative of a life sentence, his
observation has merit. One is especially reminded in this connection of the
exceedingly high rate of repeat offenders.
Of course, deterrence
is not the only concern. For instance, I think that we have come to overlook
the importance of symbolic actions in structuring societal life. Instead, we
think in more pragmatic terms. This, in turn, associated with short rather
than long term results.
There are other
objections to capital punishment. It is claimed that the death penalty is a
morally unacceptable thirst for revenge. It provides a means to indulge the
society in violent behavior. It also invites retaliation, since violence
breeds violence. In the end, all are said to suffer.
revenge is best construed as a personal attempt to address a wrong.
Capital punishment, conversely, is viewed as an impartial and impersonal
response to a crime of sufficient consequence to warrant the taking of a life
in return. To paraphrase Marin Luther's comment in this connection, "If I
were to be executed, I would prefer that it be done by a Christian, since he
would not enjoy his duties."
A more common
complaint has to do with the execution of innocent parties. This appears to
have taken place more often that we had previously surmised, given the current
availability of DNA testing. There is always the possibility we shall
discover our mistake, but death is irrevocable.
Again, in response,
the alternative may be even more objectionable. In particular, if it means
that a vast number of murderers go free, so as to compensate for the
unfortunate execution of relatively few. It is not a perfect world in which
we live, so that we must do our best with the options that are available.
Such would include making every reasonable effort to see to it that no
innocent person be subject to the death penalty.
It is also argued that
capital punishment constitutes a denial of the person's dignity as a human
being. No matter how perverse, one should be regarded as endowed with certain
unalienable rights, chief among these being life itself. In metaphorical
terms, one does not cast away anything of genuine worth.
Still again, in
response, the death penalty may work in quite the reverse manner. First, in
that it respects the worth of the victim. Columnist Mike Royko responds as
Whenever I argue this with friends who have
opposite views, they say I don't have enough regard for the most marvelous
of miracles–human life. Just the opposite: Its because I have so much
regard for human life that I favor capital punishment. Murder is the most
terrible crime there is.
Anything less than the death penalty is an
insult to the victim and society. It says, in effect, that we don't value the
victim's life enough to punish the
Second, it is
precisely because we view murderers as free voluntary agents that we hold them
responsible. To not hold them responsible for their crimes would be to
diminish their worth. Moreover, the course of justice allows ample time for
the offender to confess his or her sins, and make his peace with God.
In actual life,
execution occurs within a particular set of circumstances. Dietrich
Bonhoeffer was born to privilege. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a
professor of psychiatry and neurology. His mother, Paula, supervised a large
family with loving compassion and marked piety.
Dietrich choose early
on to take up theological studies. Unlike those who were raised in the
church, and later had to find their way in the world; he set out to discover
He excelled in his
studies. Karl Barth described his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum
Communio (Communion of Saints), as a theological miracle. It was a
rare complement from a distinguished theologian.
Dietrich had strong
pacifistic tendencies. He explored this possibility at some length.
Meanwhile, he became increasingly aware of the evils associated with the Nazi
regime. The time came when he concluded, "When you see a madman driving down
the road, you do not simply shout for people to get out of the way, but you
try to stop them." He appears to have been at least consenting to the aborted
effort to assassinate Hitler.
eventually imprisoned. He wrote in this regard, "The tone is set by those
warders who behave in the most evil and brutal way towards the prisoners. The
whole building resounds with vile and insulting abuse, so that the quieter and
more fair-minded warders, too, are nauseated by it, but they can hardly
exercise any influence."76
I am especially fond
of his poem Who Am I? It reads in part:
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
...Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat...?
...Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.77
The order came down
that Dietrich was to be terminated. It was assumed that he had information
that the authorities did not want to fall into the hands of the allied
forces. His life was expendable.
physician recalls the events leading up to and including his death:
Through the half-open door in the room of the
huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on
the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way
this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his
prayer. At the place of his execution, he again said a short prayer and then
climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued
after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a
doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely
submissive to the will of God.78
So it was that Dietrich faced
his execution, not with a protest, but a prayer.
If he were given the
option of release, no doubt he would have taken it. Unless, of course, it
meant incriminating persons involved in the plot against Hitler or otherwise
compromising his convictions. If given the alternative of life in prison, he
might have had a more difficult decision. For his own sake, he might well
have chosen death to being contained like a bird in a cage. Nevertheless, I
suspect he would have taken the option, not so much for himself but the
opportunity it would afford to minister to others.
War and Peace
"The global threat of
nuclear war is...a moral concern for the global church, for the church is
transnational. Many of us wish the nuclear bomb had never been invented. But
the fact is, we have it. And now what are we going to do with it?"79
There is little high ground
when it comes to this issue, since any alternative is plagued by ambiguity and
Even so, the term
transnational begs the question. In particular, Augsburger pits national
interests over against global concerns. This seems to me a false dichotomy.
Both would appear to be legitimate considerations in the quest for shalom
(peace in the comprehensives sense of the term); or as I like to put it, "When
the train runs on time."
In greater detail,
Biblical shalom appears in seven complementary contexts:
- Shalom denotes a harmonious relationship between people (Gen. 37:4; Eph. 2:15).
- (It) includes personal well-being (Gen. 32:14; James 2:15-16).
- (It) at times focuses specifically on health (Gen. 43:27-28; Mark 5:34).
- (It) is often a promise of safety and security (Gen. 43:23, 44:17; Luke 11:21).
- (It) occasionally means an absence of war (Exod. 3:8; Rev. 6:4)
- (It) is used to express peace in death (Gen. 15:15; Luke 2:29).
- (It) means the blessing of God (Num. 6:22-27; Rom. 15:33).80
Given this breadth of
perspective, it would appear that conflict might on occasion be in the best
interest of achieving a harmonious relationship between people. It is,
in any case, a critical point at issue.
It has been customary
to discuss the issue of war and peace concerning pacifism and the just war
theory. These alternatives can be further refined to include: nonresistance,
Christian pacifism, the just war, and the preventive war. I will single out
the holy war for special consideration.
Hermon Hoyt decries the use of the term to describe this option, since it
comes across in negative terms. He derives his posturing from Jesus'
injunction, "That ye resist not evil" (Matt. 5:39; employing the KJV).
Consequently, he elaborates the position in seven connections.81
(1) "Nonresistance is
one aspect of the biblical teaching of separation from the world." This is
said to cover all practices that characterized the present, evil age.
Moreover, it is to bear testimony to its righteous alternative. Hoyt
understands this to pertain at times of peace, as well as during times of war.
(2) "It becomes clear
from the basic injunction on separation that there is a definite separation of
church and state according to the divine Word." He reminds us, in this
connection, of Jesus' declaration: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John
18:36). It follows that the Christian should be guided by kingdom ethics,
whether in this regard or some other.
(3) "Since the church
and state belong to separate kingdoms or spheres of operation, the methods for
defense and offense should also be different." Hoyt thinks this is
self-evident from Jesus' observation, "If my kingdom were of this world, then
would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now
is my kingdom not from hence" (John 18:36).
(4) "On the basis of
the foregoing points, it follows that physical violence is forbidden to
believers as a method of accomplishing a purpose." He suggests that this is
confirmed by the injunction "to walk, even as he walked" (1 John 2:6). As
elaborated, "follow his steps: Who did not sin, neither was guile found in his
mouth: When he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened
not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously" (1 Pet. 2:21-23).
(5) "Where physical
violence is forbidden for any purpose, it is made only too clear that
believers have no right to use physical violence in the propagation of the
Christian faith." Conversely, this does not mean that they are left without
adequate means to accomplish God's purposes. Quite the reverse!
(6) "What has been
true in using force to extend the church has also been true when the church
joined the nations of the world in the exercise of force." Such legitimately
solicits the criticism of believers and unbelievers alike.
(7) "Lest we draw an
incorrect conclusion, let me say that even though believers are forbidden the
use of physical force to accomplish a temporal end, they are still obligated
to exercise spiritual means to do good and to bring blessing to others."
While it is not easy to resist evil by spiritual means, "Christians are left
with no other alternative." After this pointed conclusion, Hoyt moves on to
It would appear on the basis of the associated article on Christian pacifism
that the first two options have much in common. Expressly, they appeal to
nonresistance as normative for Christians, one that ought to distinguish them
from the world, and yet reflects their stance in the world.
The most striking
difference seems to be the contrast between a more functional approach, which
informs other areas of life, and (with Christian pacificist) a more conceptual
(world view) approach. This can have practical implications. For instance,
Hoyt allows that Christians may participate in conflict as noncombatants,
while Augsburger argues that they should have nothing whatsoever to do with
comment will suffice, Christians should be excellent citizens in any
state, respecting the government and praying for those in authority.
But their citizenship in a given nation is second to their primary
citizenship in the kingdom of Christ. ...Christians seek to enrich the lives of all
with whom they associate, to extend the mission of Christian service into
area of need, and to exemplify by their own sacrifices and priorities of
spiritual personhood over the sensual and material dimensions.82
The Just War.
Augustine is commonly credited with formulating the just war theory. Worthy
of note in this regard, Augustine was concerned with the disposition of
Christians to surrender themselves to martyrdom as the ultimate evidence of
their piety. It seemed to him preferable for them to become engaged in
rectifying the multiple problems that confronted them.
This brings to mind C.
S. Lewis' observation that as a rule we err by opting for one of two opposite
alternatives. As applied to this situation, either we reject the legitimate
use of conflict or settle for conflict when some preferable option would serve
in its place. The former might qualify as a sin of omission, as the latter a
sin of commission.
Today the just war
legacy can be said to consist of seven guidelines:
- War must always be a last resort.
- There must always be a just cause.
- War must be declared by a legitimate authority.
- The goal of war must always be attainable.
- The means used to conduct the war must always be proportionate to the end sought.
- Noncombatants must always be protected in the conduct of war.
- The ultimate objective of war must always be the restoration of peace.83
Note the repetition of the term
always, explicit in six of the seven guidelines and implicit in the
seventh. No exceptions are anticipated.
The issue perhaps
hinges on whether war can serve justice. If not, then a just war
is a misnomer. If it can, it is legitimate to employ this designation. In
any case, the hidden premise would seem to be that justice serves to establish
and maintain shalom.
The preventive war.
The preventive war assumes that it is also a just war. However, "By
preventive war we mean a war that is begun not in response to an act of
aggression, but in anticipation of it. A preventive war intends to forestall
an evil that has not yet occurred."84
Holocaust provides a case in point. Had the allies taken action early on
millions of Jews and other oppressed people might have been rescued.
Meanwhile, the Nazi regime built a formidable military force, resulting in
heavy casualties on both sides of the conflict. Given a different scenario,
suppose that Hitler had been successful in subjecting more people to his cruel
tyranny. The prospect of such a thing occurring might occasion preventive
The holy war.
Three plausible examples readily come to mind: the Jewish conquest, Crusades,
and Jihad. Now the Lord said to Joshua, "you and all these people, get ready
to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them" (Josh.
1:2). Several observations appear pertinent. First, the conquest presupposes
that the inhabitants of the land have reached a place of no return. As a
result, God means to cleanse the land of its pollution.
Second, more leniency
is shown to those who reside outside the highly contaminated area (cf. Deut.
20:10-15). The implication is that the conquest should not be used as a
blanket precedent; if in fact, a precedent at all.
Israelites were subject to the same uncompromising standards as the former
inhabitants. In this regard, "And if you defile the land, it will vomit you
out as it vomited out the nations before you" (Lev. 18:18:28). All things
considered, "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any
people" (Prov. 14:34).
In a manner of
speaking, the Crusades are a horse of a different color. To the degree that
the early church was influenced by the Jewish heritage, it allowed for
military conflict. Note in this regard John the Baptist's instruction to
soldiers soliciting his counsel (cf. Luke 3:14).
If this perspective
were modified by subsequent considerations, the followers of Jesus might have
been more disposed to nonresistance. For instance, Christians would have
found it impossible to take the religious vows required of Roman conscripts.
Insofar as they took advantage of the Pax Romana, without rendering
service in return, they were vulnerable to criticism.
With the conversion of
the emptor Constantine to Christianity and the subsequent Constantinian
Settlement of 313, the situation shifted dramatically. As a result,
the number of Christian soldiers increased steadily. ...Christians realized
that by living in the world they could no longer avoid responsibility for the
world. A peaceful domestic and international order benefitted Christians
as well as non-Christians. And an inevitable dimension of that order was
the necessity of restraining unjust violence through the use of violence,
whether domestically by the police force or internationally through soldiers.85
In 1905 Pope Urban II
convened the Council of Clermont, meant to reform the church and enforce the
church brokered peace. Meanwhile, the Seljuk Turks threatened the Byzantine
Empire with extinction. The latter appealed to Rome for military assistance.
"Urban saw an opportunity to unite the West, to heal the East-West schism, to
elevate the papacy, and to wrest the entire holy land from the control of the
Muslims."86 Consequently, it would serve both domestic and
There was already
enthusiastic support for the venture. Pilgrimage to the holy land had come to
play a significant role in Christian piety. Access now became increasingly
difficult due to an unsympathetic Muslim administration. Emotions ran high.
Before an official Crusade could be launched, large groups of pilgrims began
their long trek to the land of their faith's birth. Many pillaged along the
Economic factors were
a prime factor. The Muslim advance had seriously disrupted commercial
activity in the East, adversely impacting the viability of the Roman
In large measure, the
Crusades were an exercise in futility. Its victories were selective and
As a final example of
the holy war, the term Jihad means struggle or militancy.
Initially, it concerns the struggle against evil within. It extends to lands,
peoples, and powers not yet subservient to Muslim control. It is not an
exclusive reference to overt warfare, but embraces all such social and
political means as can contribute to the conquest.
According to Muslim
thought, the world is divided into two spheres of influence: the Dar
al-Islam–he abode of peace, and the Dar al-Harb–the contrasting
abode of war. It is incumbent upon all Muslim to answer any legally valid
summons to war against the infidels. As one might surmise, it is often
difficult to determine when a summons is valid or not.
Moreover, one is
obligated not to allow territory which has been freed to return to its
original state. In keeping with this injunction, conversion to another faith
is punishable by death, as is the effort to convert a Muslim. Conversely,
those who give their lives in the struggle are guaranteed paradise.
People of the Book
(Jews and Christians) may be allowed to continue their religious practices
providing they assume a subservient role. As such, they were regarded as "second-class citizens" and
constrained to behave in such a way as not to offend Moslem susceptibility.
They must not attempt to proselytize among Moslems, nor could their men
marry Moslem women. They were looked down as "dhimmis," as protégées
and had to pay a personal toll, a "djiziah."87
They were subject to various
indignities, such as being required to wear distinctive clothing, and
prohibited from riding in the middle of the road–since this might result in
their looking down on Muslims.
From the pacifistic
tradition, the notion of a holy war makes no sense whatsoever. Qualifications
aside, war runs counter to religious piety. It is categorically sinful and
From a just war
perspective, the idea of a holy war would seem to confuse ends and means.
While the means employed may be legitimate, they are plagued by extenuating
circumstances. For instance, when civilians are killed in saturation
bombing–as during World War II.
From a holy war point
of view, the pacifist appears irresponsible. If a Muslim, he is obligated to
become engaged in the struggle against evil. As noted above, this extends
from the struggle against evil within to the social and political arena.
Others are expected to cooperate.
This recalls an
instance when another Christian and I were discussing religious matters with
four Muslims. These included a religious judge, retired university professor,
an instructor, and a business man. I did not know what direction the
discussion might take.
"Now concerning the
doctrine of the Trinity," the retired professor began. "I do not think this
should concern us. Of course, I cannot accept the Christian dogma, but I do
not find the idea of plurality within the Godhead objectionable. I suggest
that we can on with some more critical concern."
Silence marked our approval.
After that, he
continued: "You Christians say that if someone strikes you on one cheek, you
should turn the other cheek to him. We Muslims say that if someone should
strike you, strike him harder. It will be good for him, and good for you as
well." Thus began a spirited interchange concerning what Jesus meant by
enjoining his disciples to turn the other cheek, and our religious obligations
concerning the struggle against evil.
In turn, the just war
theory appeared faulted from the perspective of those committed to Jihad
by its notable lack of religious orientation. In greater detail, it
failed to recognize that man's chief aim is to glorify God, or that we are
engaged in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Man's chief aim is to
glorify God. It is not to accumulate possessions, since we are stewards
of life in all its ramifications. It is not for the purposes of
self-aggrandizement, which qualifies as idolatry.
We are engaged in a
cosmic struggle between good and evil. Paul admonishes readers, "Put on
the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's
schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the
rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:11-12).
In retrospect, it
would appear that the just war option is the more mediating position. The
pacifist and holy war alternatives serve as polar opposites. As for the
former, conflict is prohibited on the grounds of religious conviction. As for
the latter, it is required for the same reason. Conversely, the just war
advocate must live within approximate means to accomplish limited goals.
Otherwise, we are again reminded, "All that good people need to do is nothing
for evil to triumph."
I will touch in
closing on a feature which seems to be overlooked in the consideration of war
and peace: the war analogy. We noted this in the above context, where it was
used concerning spiritual conflict. As such, it constitutes what might be
described as a favorable analogy.
In contrast, God
depicts faithless Israel as an adulterous woman (cf. Hosea 1:2). It was for
this reason that he instructed Hosea to restore his wife, as a dramatic
representation of God's reaching out to his wayward people. Thus are we are
alerted to the fact that there are both favorable and unfavorable
analogies–which likely reflect the general perspective on their respective
Nine eleven is
one of those cryptic references that as a rule needs no explanation. It
brings to mind the Trade Towers billowing smoke, the lives lost in the
conflagration, and the heroic efforts of the rescue workers. It also incites
in most Americans a surge of patriotism. It remains the most conspicuous
example of international terrorism. Since it would appear obvious that
terrorism will not simply go away, it remains for us to learn how best to cope
be defined as violence meant to promote social and political change. It has
come to especially come to apply to purposely inflicted civilian casualties.
As an example, the detonation of a bomb in a crowed restaurant or shopping
district. These are sometimes identified as soft targets, in contrast
to the more dangerous assault on a military or otherwise secure installation.
Recall that this is violation of the just war theory.
Terrorism in one sense
or another is decidedly not a new phenomenon. For instance, the Jewish Sicari
sought to intimidate those compromising with the Roman occupation. Their
favorite weapon was the sica, a short dagger, which they used to
execute those deemed apostate. Then, in addition, to warn others not to yield
to the temptation. Such killings usually occurred during daylight and in
public for maximum effectiveness.
The Muslim Assassins
provide another illustration. They, too, were given to stabbing their victims
in broad daylight–before witnesses counted upon to spread the report of what
had transpired. Their executions were often carried out on holy days, a
tactic meant to affirm their religious zeal, and receive greater notoriety.
Like some of the more recent terrorists, they supposed the sacrifice of their
lives would guarantee their entrance into paradise.
also a feature of the killings carried out by the Thugees, an Indian religious
cult that ritually strangled their victims. The latter were usually travelers
chosen at random. Their death was considered an offering to the Hindu goddess
of terror and destruction, Kali. In this instance, however, the purpose was
to terrify the victim rather than influence change in the social order. It is
estimated that over the intervening centuries, the Thugees (who have
bequeathed us the term "thug") were accountable for approximately one million
"The English word
'terrorism' comes from the regime de la terreau that prevailed in
France from 1793-1794. Originally an instrument of the state, the regime was
designed to consolidate the power of the newly-installed revolutionary
government, protecting it from elements considered 'subversive.'"88
As viewed from an official perspective, it was thought a good thing. Such
would not be shared by the estimated forty thousand persons who were executed
by the guillotine.
influences events on the international stage to a degree in excess of any
previous time. This is largely due to the attacks of September 2001. "Since
then, in the United states at least, terrorism has largely been equated to the
threat posed by al Qaeda–a threat inflamed not only by the spectacular and
deadly nature of the Sept. 11 attacks themselves, but by the fear that future
stirkes might be even more deadly and employ weapons of mass destruction."89
planes loaded with passengers collided with the twin trade towers, leading to
their destruction. A third crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth in an open
field in rural Pennsylvania. Its target is thought to have been in
Washington, D.C., possibly the Capital or White House. Todd Beamer was one of
the passengers who perished in its futile effort. He was a graduate of
Wheaton College, on whose faculty I served for twenty-four years. While I did
not know him personally, I have an understanding of and appreciation for the
personal dynamic that motivates such person's thinking and behavior.
Beamer, age 32, was an
Oracle Inc. executive at the time. Lesa Jefferson, a GTE supervisor, talked
with him for about thirteen minutes before the plane went down. He informed
her that he and his associates had decided not to be pawns in the hijacker's
suicidal plot. He made her promise to call his wife and their two boys: three
year old David and one year old Andrew.
Beamer confided that
he and the others had decided to jump on the hijacker thought to be
carrying a bomb. Jefferson could hear shouts and commotion. After that,
Beamer asked her to have prayer with him. They recited the Twenty-Third Psalm
together. It takes on fresh meaning in this context:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
He dropped the phone,
leaving the line open. The last thing Jefferson heard was his characteristic
expression, "Let's roll."
"Just knowing that
when the crisis came up he maintained the same character we all knew," he wife
subsequently reflected, "it's a testament to what real faith means." Indeed!
"Each person who lives
the life of faith is keenly aware of that 'great cloud of witnesses,' in this
world and the next, whose influence shapes our lives" Marilee Melvin–Vice
President for Alumni Relations, Wheaton College–aptly comments. "This
compilation of devotionals written by Wheaton alumni, professors, and friends
gives fresh testimony to God's grace today."90
One of the two entries
I contributed to the volume concerned a poignant passage from Paul's letter to
the Philippians. My commentary reads as follows:
One day a freshman student unexpectedly appeared at my office door. "Can
I disturb you?" he hesitantly inquired. "No, you cannot," I replied, adding after a
moment's pause, "You cannot disturb me, because you are the reason I am here."
A broad grin bathed his face, as he draped himself over an uncomfortable
chair for an extended visit. Such occasions are, as a rule, remembered with
pleasure. Sometimes we were able to work through a pressing problem.
Now and then, a life ministry came into focus. More times than not,
they provided a time for fellowship and mutual encouragement.
Paul wrote to the Philippians: "I thank my God every time I remember you"
(1:3). He recognized God's providential purpose in his association with
others, and returned thanks to God for them. The apostle continued:
"In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of
your partnership in the gospel." My reflections of virtually
a quarter of a century at Wheaton College are of similar nature.
Even so, I have never been more impressed with the Wheaton enterprise
than in viewing alumni serving around the world, often in strategic places
with marked excellence. When it occurs to me that I may have played
some small role in their preparation, I feel singularly rewarded.
I should like to use this opportunity to express sincere thanks to so many
Wheaton alumni who have remained faithful to the Wheaton motto, "For
Christ and His Kingdom." Thank you for keep the flame burning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us that Christian fellowship resembles a
bonus: to be in Christ is quite sufficient; fellowship is something over and
above. So it is with the Wheaton connection, a generous bonus that
becomes richer with the passing of time. It is an occasion for giving thanks
to God and rejoicing in others.91
Todd Beamer would have readily
recognized the subtle themes resonating in the text, while those unfamiliar
with the Wheaton situation should be able to recognize its general thrust.
In particular, For
Christ and His Kingdom implies a comprehensive world and life
view–resulting in social engagement. A world view provides a context
in which to interpret events; and in this regard, to render a plausible
explanation for factors not subject to precise investigation. As for the
latter, such questions as concerns life after death, and the origin of evil.
Recent studies have
suggested that relatively few persons have a well refined world view. This
results in compartmentalization, inconsistency, and ineffectiveness. The
alternative requires thoughtful input, and continued attention.
"When we ask about
the ethics of Jesus, we must first ask about the center of his message, which
makes the proclamation and realization of God's will comprehensible and
imperative. The center...is the message of the imminent coming of the
kingdom..., marking as eschatological epoch."92 It is in this
context that we should understand the above reference to social engagement.
In brief, the Christian is to cultivate Jesus' example in life and deed.
A mandate of such
breadth precludes any simplistic solution to complex issues. This
realization, in turn, encourages us to explore further illustrative
developments in the wake of the 9/11 episode. As an example, the National
Guard has increasingly been adapted to homeland security. This appears more
in keeping with its original mission, and before it was called upon to
compensate for shortfalls in the military's overseas deployment. "A milestone
was reached in 2000 with the deployment of the National Guard's 49th
Armored Division from Texas to command the U.S. contingent of the Bosnian
peacekeeping force–the first time any Guard formation had assumed such a
As a matter of record,
the Guard had prior to 9/11 begun the process of restructuring its units to
play a more active role in homeland security. In the light of 9/11, the
process took on considerably greater urgency. Under the revised plan, a
number of heavily armored and mechanized brigades would be converted to
motorized infantry. In military jargon, they would become Mobile Light
Brigades. These would be focused on the low end of the combat spectrum,
ranging from homeland security to higher intensity conflict.
The second initiative
concerns the expanding of engineer, chemical, and military police forces. It
is anticipated that this can be accomplished by not eliminating units
scheduled to disband, and/or forming new units. For instance, ten new
companies of military police would be added between 2002 and 2007, with a
total complement of 1800 personnel.
the Army National Guard has realigned its force structure somewhat to face
the new demands of the war on terror. The Guard has made an intelligent
move in re-equipping of heavy units with lighter vehicles to fit them for a
motorized infantry role. ...For the future, most indications point toward the
Guard slowly assuming homeland security as one of its primary roles, of
roughly equal emphasis with additional war-fighting forces for conflicts abroad.94
Should its responsibilities for
homeland security substantially increase, "there will be no prospect for
reinforcement for the active Army even if direly needed."
Along a different
line, it is incumbent on us to settle on language that accurately reflects the
current state of affairs. As an example, the American involvement
incorporates a mix of lower combat, lower risk activity; and a higher combat,
higher risk peace enforcement. "This distinction is important because such a
mix will see more U.S. troops killed than would occur from the keeping the
peace alone. As such, the tendency among the media and policy makers to call
virtually all military actions in Iraq 'peacekeeping' must be corrected if
Americans are to form realistic expectations about the casualty rate there."95
Gen. Charles Krulak,
Marine Corps Commandant from 1995-1999, coined as a phrase meant to describe
such multi-purpose engagement: a three-block war. In particular, it
was intended to embrace a spectrum of operations: from humanitarian missions,
through peacekeeping and peace enforcement actions, to full-blown
combat–possibly within the area of three urban blocks. In order to succeed,
the force deployed must be able to effectively make the transition from one
phase to another, while accenting its peace associated responsibilities.
The area of operations
between peacekeeping and peace enforcement is well described as the gray
zone. There is no neat division that allows for precise application.
Therefore, one must anticipate the necessity to be alert to both aspects in an
President Bush was
correct when he announced that the major combat operations in Iraq were
concluded. He was also correct in saying that we must expect a continued loss
of life in pursuit of national goals. Those who supposed that the end of
major combat operations precluded substantial casualties were unfortunately
not correct, given the reality of a three-block conflict.
Nor is the issue today
precisely the same as at the time the decision was made to fight a preemptive
war. We must now take into consideration the likely results should we
withdraw too hastily or continue beyond a preferable time for disengagement.
Nor can we afford to
think in terms of Iraq alone. What transpires in Iraq has a significant
bearing on the entire Middle-East. Then, in turn, on international affairs
around the world.
policy is governed by a combination of humanitarian concern and national
interest. These jostle around for favorable consideration.
We should not assume that what
we perceive as in our national interest is necessarily compatible with what is
good for other nation states. Initially, our perceptions may be misleading.
In addition, what serves one conglomerate may do a disservice to another. All
things considered, there is some justification to thinking in terms of a
In any case, 9/11 has
greatly changed life from how we formerly experienced it. There is no
prospect of things returning to the way they were. In this connection,
Christians are encouraged to live toward the future. Tomorrow is a new day,
with its distinctive challenges and opportunities. In the memorable lyrics of
Charles Wesley, "To serve this present age, my calling to fulfil; O may it all
my powers engage, to do my Master's will."
Freedom from Religion
One is reminded of
Johnny Hart's comic strip B.C., wherein he depicts a caveman inscribing a wood
tablet with the question: "Is it true that, over there, you have freedom of
religion?" He throws the tablet into the ocean, and watches the tide carry it
away. Finally, it comes floating back with the response: "Yes–and if the
hotshots in the black robes have their way, we'll soon be free of it
altogether." William Watkins concurs, "Through their judicial decisions,
black-robed judges have put religion in serious trouble in the land of the
free."96 If there is something worse than the tyranny of the
majority, it is likely the tyranny of the minority.
"At the core of the
religious impulse is a sense of awe, an attitude of bewilderment, a feeling
that reality is more amazing than everyday scientific reasoning can
comprehend. Wonderstruck, we humbly acknowledge our limits and accept that
which we cannot explain."97 David Myers elaborates on the above in
terms of the mystery of the ordinary.
"There are three
things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand," the sage
illustrates: "the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on the rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of man with a maiden" (Prov.
30:18). These alike reflect a remarkable design.
Once caught up in the
awe of the ordinary, we find ourselves at the threshold of religious
experience. It is said to sense God's presence, resulting in awe and
reverence. C. S. Lewis coached his readers to initially imagine a tiger in
the next room. After that, a ghost in the same room. Finally, a Spirit who
mediates life in all its dimensions.
The moral impetus is
often associated with religion. As an example, "If anyone considers himself
religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives
himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts
as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their
distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James
1:26-27). In particular, one can go through the ritual of worship
thoughtlessly and without commitment, but the evidence of one's devotion lies
with the willingness to obey God's ways as revealed.
The assault on
religion is pressed on two fronts: with what has sometimes been called the
deification of man, and the effort to eliminate religion from the public
arena. I will consider these separately, although they are inexorably
The deification of
man. The Enlightenment provides a credible point for departure. The term
Enlightenment came to signify the period of European history from the
close of the Thirty Years War (1648) to the French Revolution (1789 and
following). It was the age which brought together the humanistic spirit of
the Renaissance and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century to
usher in the so-called Modern Age.
More than anything
else the Enlightenment marked a revolt against authority, and the emergence of
individual reason and conscience as the primary arbiter of truth and action.
While every age has produced those who challenged the accepted authorities of
their day, the Enlightenment enthroned autonomy as if its patron saint.
This had the effect of
jettisoning biblical authority. Man was free to accept or reject biblical
teaching, according to whether or not it suited him. Others enjoyed a similar
privilege, thus voiding any concept of absolute truth.
tradition was likewise rejected. The wisdom of the ages appeared to be an
encumbrance to forging a brave, new world. In retrospect, a spirit of naivete
plagued the endeavor. This was especially evident in the realm of morality.
Man seemed enamored
with playing God. He thus gave partial and potentially misleading insights
much more credence than they realistically deserved. He might better have
taken into consideration, "The more we know, the more we realize that we do
In the course of time,
the first of several humanist manifestos was published; the year was 1933. An
excerpt from its preface reads, "The time has come for widespread recognition
of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The
time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes."
Representative of its
Sixth: We are convinced that the time has
passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of "new
Seventh: Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences
which are humanly significant. Nothing is alien to the religious. It includes
labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation... .
The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.
Initially, it would
appear that the advocates of humanist thought are content with what was
identified above as the mystery of the ordinary. Given this
perspective, they opt to pause at the threshold of religion as associated with
the presence of God. In this manner, they acknowledge no Spirit who guides us
into the fullness of life.
Fifteenth and Last: We assert that humanism will:
(a) affirm life rather than deny it;
(b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and
(c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not
for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be
guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts
of humanism will flow.
If, in fact, man is the master of his own destiny.
In this and countless
other ways, the stage was set for the exclusion of religion from public
affairs. It is to this development that next we turn our attention.
Religion and the
public arena. "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Supreme Court has
repeatedly been called upon to interpret the meaning of these sixteen words.
The results have been less than encouraging.
contends that the problem lies with two invalid assumptions: that "the
religion provisions of the First Amendment should be read as two distinct
clauses with two distinct objectives, rather than one provision with one
objective; and that governmental neutrality toward all religions and between
religion and nonreligion is achieved if a wall of separation is maintained
between church and state."98 Whether expressed in this or some
other fashion, his analysis seems fundamentally sound.
As for the first
complaint, it would appear that the no establishment of religion, and
free exercise of religion clauses should be maintained in constructive
tension. If we give deference to the no establishment clause, it results in
the avoidance of religion; if to the free exercise of religion, then to
restrain legitimate public concerns–such as compulsory vaccinations.
As for the second
complaint, we are reminded of the much heralded metaphor concerning a wall of
separation between church and state. In brief, it is a misleading metaphor,
since such was assuredly not the intent of the founding fathers.
Michael Novak offers
as a provocative alternative,
On a January day some years ago the author (Monsma)
stood in a World War II military cemetery for 4,000 slain
Americans just outside Florence, Italy. Although this neat, restful, and
silence-inducing site is maintained by the U.S. government, these graves are not
individually marked by a uniform secular symbol. On the contrary, since
most of the U.S. soldiers who died in World War II belonged either to the
Christian or the Jewish faith, the grave of virtually every soldier is
marked by a cross or a Star of
Whether in life or death, the
purpose ought not to be to obscure our religious commitments, but to
accommodate them. Monsma coins in this connection the designation positive
notwithstanding, we have courted one establishment after another. At first,
it might be described as a Protestant establishment. I recall my
teacher reading a selection from the Psalter, thought acceptable to both Jews
and Christians. So far as I can recall, there were only nominal Christians in
attendance. Moreover, the practice reflected the distinctive Protestant
appeal to sola Scriptura. The alienation felt by dissenting groups
contributed to the parochial school movement, and after school religious
instruction in the Jewish community.
establishment would eventually supplant its predecessor. In this
connection, If the school's teachings are offensive to you
because you are gay or black or disabled the chances are that the school will
at least give you a hearing and, if it does not, that many liberals will
flock to your side and you will find a sympathetic ear in the media. But if you
do not like the way the school talks about religion, or if you believe
that the school is inciting your children to abandon their religion, you will
probably find that the media mock you, the liberal establishment will
announce that you are engaged in censorship, and the
courts will toss you out on your ear.100
Not necessarily in every
instance, but often enough so that you come to realize that secular ideology
has monopolized the public school enterprise.
This, in turn, recalls
a comment made by Paul Tillich some years ago. As paraphrased, he affirmed:
"Whenever human ideals replace religious convictions, they function as a
religion." Thus in attempting to exclude all religions, the effect is
to promote one to the exclusion of all others.
As an example, the
promotion of safe sex takes on the value otherwise assigned to some
religious tenet. That is, it is simply true. Conversely, studies seem to
suggest that safe sex instruction has little effect in reducing
pregnancy–presumably because it encourages increased sexual activity.
Moreover, it increases the frequency of sexually transmitted diseases.
Meanwhile, abstinence programs are often discouraged for fear that they will
erode the dogma of political correctness.
is a term sometimes used to describe the current assault on religion in
the public arena. Not that persons are prohibited from practicing religion in
their homes and places of worship, but as a vital aspect of living out their
faith in society. They venture forth under duress.
In defense of the
secular establishment, a spokesperson of the American Civil Liberties Union
recently objected to references to God in the public school, "since children
are so impressionable." This would not seem a compelling reason for
eliminating God from the classroom, unless one supposes that religion
constitutes a negative influence. Then, too, it fails to apply the criterion
to other plausibly more objectionable topics.
I have heard it said,
"If everything else fails, read the instructions." Qualifications aside, the
Declaration of Independence would seem to qualify as a prime example.
Herein we discover these pertinent words: "We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all man are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted
among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
These truths are
self-evident in the sense that they may be intuited, known with certainty,
and requiring no additional means of authentication. This could not be said
of those who indulge a hierarchical system–wherein some are born to
privilege. Consequently, it is perhaps employed with apologetic intent.
right was a natural right embedded in the created order itself, which came
from the hand of God. This means that no created entity, human or otherwise,
can grant these rights or destroy them. Their existence and authority are
dependent on God, not man."101 These, consequently, constitute a
sacred trust–that requires continued vigilance.
divided over whether the God of the Declaration should be identified with
Christian theism or an Enlightenment form of deism. But for the purposes of
the argument here, it really does not matter. The fact is that the
Declaration unequivocally regards the existence of a deity as a given."102
It would, therefore, seem proper to acknowledge this fact on appropriate
occasions in the course of public affairs.
Nor is it adequate to
recall the words of our founding fathers simply as matter of record, as
legitimate as that may be. It is rather that we do so as a means to reaffirm
our continuity with the founding principles. Our identity and dynamic as a
people is critically at stake.
Moreover, it is
important to recognize that the vast majority of persons who declared their
independence in 1776 were of Christian persuasion. Puritanism alone provided
the moral and religious background of an estimated seventy-five percent of the
people. So regardless of the ambiguity that may have existed concerning the
avowal of God, it was viewed essentially in Judeo-Christian terms.
As noted in an earlier
context, the initial unalienable right safeguarded life. The remaining
rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were an extension. Once
formulated as a triad, the disregard for one right eroded that of all.
The authority to
govern was meant to be derived from the consent of the governed.
Democracy does not guarantee good results, but
it does keep things open. It does provide channels for criticism and for
change. Its people are not saints, but they are challenged by the
opportunities and responsibilities of self-government. Indeed, the most corrupt
periods in the histories of democratic societies seem also to be those times
when people are least interested in
exercising their opportunities and responsibilities.103
So, in conclusion, our
need is not for freedom from but of religion. It will not be
served by theophobia (the fear of God). It is rather promoted by
reflection on a benevolent Benefactor.
Struggle for Survival
"More than one third
of the world goes to bed hungry each night. Ten thousand people starve to
death each day. Another two billion are malnourished. The United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 460 million people are
permanently hungry, almost half of these being children."104
Meanwhile, another third of the world live in relative affluence. We need
to work toward long term solutions, rather than settling for a band-aid
approach to this relentless problem.
Good intentions are
not adequate. We thought we were doing the right thing. We
thought that if we passed laws to raise their wages and lower their rent;
if we gave generously to help support mothers without husbands and children
without fathers, we could aid the poor in their flight from poverty and
alleviate much of their distress while they were still in it. We were wrong.105
First, we thought if
we passed wages for the lowest paid workers, we would increase their income
and help them escape from poverty. We overlooked the fact that the lowest
paid persons are as a rule the least trained, and therefore least wanted. By
artificially raising their wages, we made them even less desirable.
We also ignored the
fact that persons work not only for their employer, but indirectly for the
consumer. Since the latter is not disposed to purchase overpriced products,
this can have the effect of driving entrepreneurs out of business. As a
result, all involved suffer.
In more graphic terms,
one cannot climb the ladder of success without first getting on it. The
challenge consists in first getting persons on the ladder, and then helping
them ascend it. We defeat our purpose by making it more difficult, if not
impossible, to secure a position commensurate with their training. Pious
platitudes will not compensate.
Second, we thought
that by passing laws holding down the costs of urban housing, we would make
many more inexpensive lodgings available to those struggling to escape the
grasp of poverty. We forgot that the purchase price for the renter coincides
with the selling price of the owner. The more attractive it is for the
former, the less attractive for the latter.
When landlords are
forced to reduce their rents in the face of burgeoning costs, they allocate
their investments in other ways.
For example, when rent-control ceilings make it
unprofitable for landlords to rent their apartments, they often sell those
apartments as condominiums, and thus escape real estate taxes and the high
cost of urban upkeep.
Because the supply of condominiums then
increases, their selling price tends to go down, thereby aiding wealthy urban
dwellers, the only one who
can afford to purchase
In order to prevent
this from happening, we sometimes pass legislation prohibiting condominium
conversion. This can prove counterproductive for a number of reasons. For
instance, the landlords seek unreported compensation from their clients, defer
maintenance costs, and/or get out of the housing business altogether.
Third, we thought that
by providing for the needs of mothers with illegitimate children, we would
ease the burden for children without fathers, and mothers without husbands.
We failed to take into consideration the hazard of encouraging the situation
we meant to alleviate. By making illegitimate children a credential for
financial assistance, we intensified the problem.
Tragically, the more
illegitimate children a woman bears, the more she becomes mired in poverty.
In addition, the more likely that she will bequeath her ill-conceived legacy
to subsequent generations. As often noted, "Poverty breeds poverty."
consequence of our efforts to aid single mothers and their children is that
the husband becomes a liability. Welfare forces him from the home or into
hiding. Such is calculated to result in disaster.
Fourth, we thought
that we were simply aiding those in need. We failed to comprehend the complex
character of the problem we attempted to address or the resources readily
available. As for the former, poverty is usually the result of a combination
of contributing factors: such as inadequate training, ill health, and a
floundering work ethic–differing in mix from one person to another.
As for the latter,
persons can as a rule help improve their situation; if in no other way,
through careful management of limited resources. Meanwhile, there are public
and private relief agencies, coupled with individual benefactors.
Finally, as a result
of our indiscriminate giving, we create a culture of dependency.
By failing to distinguish the deserving poor
from the undeserving, we told the economically disadvantaged that the diligent
application of their private means to the alleviation of their personal
distress is either unimportant or ineffective. ...This message, coupled with the
notion that the poor are poor because of the perverse machinations of the
rich leads (them) to conclude that they are not responsible either
for their poverty or their extrication from it.107
In concise terms, the
constructive alternative draws from John F. Kennedy's memorable exhortation
from his inaugural address, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your
country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country." Such is
calculated to foster a spirit of generosity, among both the affluent and poor.
Then, in the process, to firm up the integrity and dignity of all.
All things considered,
I am reminded of Abraham Maslow's discussion of the hierarchy of needs.
Survival (life) constitutes the basic need. A friend would recall from time
to time, "If we do not eat, we will starve." Given his appreciation for food,
starving would not seem likely.
It is not surprising
that the need for survival would take precedence under minimal conditions.
Such as when it becomes necessary to spend much of the day gleaning from the
field. Then, too, to share one's meager resources with those unable to fend
hierarchy of needs, safety and security next bid for our attention. These are
meant to protect us from a sometimes hostile environment, whether construed in
physical or social terms. Mankind is vulnerable to the chaos that threatens
to engulf it.
conventional wisdom, "Some order is better than none." Language is a prime
example of our effort to bring order out of chaos. It allows us to draw on
our legacy from the past, anticipate likely developments, and promote creative
We have considered two
aspects of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and three remain. First, there is the
need to belong and experience affection. The Enlightenment tradition does us
a disservice in this connection, since it put a one-sided emphasis on the
individual–at the expense to our reliance on community. We are not simply one
apart from others, but one among others.
Maslow observes that
we continue to downplay the importance of one's territory, clan, and
associates. In this regard, persons need to love and be loved. This
constitutes a difficult but nonetheless attainable goal. It is something we
can approximate but never perfect.
Second, there are the
needs associated with esteem. This involves the approval of others. More in
particular, the approval of significant others. In the early years,
especially the approval of parents. In due time, that of our school
instructors. Throughout, the approval of our peers.
Moreover, we need
self-respect. It is important for us to realize that we have made a
conscientious effort to do what is right. Even if this opinion is not shared
by others, since they must judge by superficial impressions.
Finally, there is the
need for self-actualization. "A musician must make music," Maslow concludes,
"an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace
with himself. What a man can be, he must be. He must be true
to his own nature."108 In other words, he must actualize his
In religious terms,
this is closely associated with one's calling. Some are called to one thing,
and some to another. All are called upon to reach their potential in the
service of others.
Christians are called
to a holistic ministry. It is one that takes into consideration a full range
of human needs. "We can help the poor," Michael Bowman concludes, "but we must
do so as good, rather than dangerous, Samaritans." He supposes this initially
requires that we:
- Put welfare programs in the hands of contributors, not recipients or bureaucrats.
- Redefine poverty.
- Re-educate the politicians and the poor.
- (Recognize that) no perfect solutions are possible.
- (Moreover, realize that) abundance can be wrenched from scarcity only by doing unto
others as we would have them do unto us.109
programs in the hands of contributors. Recipients and their political
patrons have conspired to divert public funds in increasingly large amounts to
self-serving ends. This can be seen in viewing welfare as an entitlement.
Preferable is the notion of welfare as charity.
Bauman suggests that
increased discretion over charitable gifts will lead to better
accountability. This might better be accomplished by giving tax credits for
documented charity, rather than blanket provision. It would hopefully
encourage government programs to be more effective, efficient, and less
Nearly forty percent of those Americans defined as poor own their own
homes, accommodations with more living space than enjoyed by most middle-class
Europeans. Nearly seventy percent of American poverty stricken families own
at least one automobile.
In the light of such
statistics, Bauman urges that the term poor should retain its earlier
connotation: concerning the lack of food, shelter, and/or clothing. "And
while we are engaged in the task of redefining," he pointedly adds, "we ought
to remind ourselves that the definition of compassion is not increased control
of private income by government."
politicians and the poor. As for the politicians, they are best reminded
that to promote the general welfare is not the same as promoting welfare
generally. They should not to think in terms of dollars alone, but morality
As for the poor, they
should be assured that there is no shame to being poor. The shame derives from
being indolent. Moreover, in welcoming welfare while refusing honest work
Recognizing that no
perfect solutions are possible. "The poor you will always have with you,"
Jesus observed (Matt. 26:11). It was not his intent to disparage meeting the
needs of the impoverished. He does imply that this should not keep us from
addressing other legitimate concerns.
Even though poverty
cannot be eradicated, it can be ameliorated. It is to this end that persons
ought to strive, both individually and collectively.
abundance can be wrenched from scarcity only by doing unto others as we would
have them do unto us. In this connection, ministering to the full range
of their needs–as outlined above. So also by rejecting some simplistic
solution to what is a complex and continuing problem.
This will require that
we listen attentively to what persons have to say, and to qualify our
preconceptions as necessary. It will necessitate that we continue our
efforts, even when the results seem discouraging. It should encourage us to
draw on the spiritual resources available to the wise. In this regard, "Even
youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who
hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like
eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isa.
"It is not enough to
talk the talk," we are cautioned, "but to walk the walk." With such in mind,
I recall A Statement of Intent drawn up some years ago, and that
remains a challenge for us today. Several representative excerpts, and
succinct commentary will suffice.
We are deeply
disturbed by the human suffering present in the agonizing realities of hunger,
malnutrition, disease, unemployment, illiteracy, deprivation and starvation.
It is said that one is known by the company he keeps. Note, in this regard,
those painful realities associated with hunger and starvation.
We are deeply
disturbed by the inability or unwillingness of the governments of the world to
grapple with this injustice and tragedy. These seem more often concerned
over the struggle for power and preference. Conversely, the Christian is
called upon to promote righteousness and justice.
We recognize that
the Bible teaches that the mission of the church includes the proclamation of
the gospel and the demonstration of its relevance by working for community
development and social change. In this manner, to proclaim the good news
by word and deed.
Finally we resolve
to reconsider the use of the resources which God has given us, in order that
such resources may contribute more effectively to God's kingdom and
righteousness, love and justice.110 Since we are entrusted
with such resources as we enjoy, and will give account of how we have
managed. Thus can we ease the burden of some, and thereby improve the lot of
"In many ways, the
family is the most conspicuous field of conflict in the culture war. Some
would argue that it is the decisive battleground. The public debate over the
status of women, the moral legitimacy of abortion, ...and so on, prominently
fill the headlines of the nation's newspaper, magazines, and intellectual
journals."111 It would appear that the welfare of the family
ought to be at the top of our social agenda, thereby conditioning how we look
at related issues.
Initially, it is
incumbent that we reflect on the historical legacy of the family. In this
regard, Raphael Patai observes that the Middle Eastern family of yesterday and
in large measure today is characterized by six traits. It is extended,
patrilineal, patrilocal, patriarchal, endogamous, and occasionally polygynous.112
It is extended. It is headed by an elderly man, and embraces his wife
(or wives), unmarried daughters, sons, and the wives and children of these
The family may
compromise a dozen or more members. They live together in one house (or tent)
or in adjoining houses. All property is held in common, and administered by
its head. The family functions as an economic unit. The men work together in
joint ventures, such as animal husbandry, agriculture, artisanship, or
business. Expenses are defrayed from the common income.
It is patrilineal.
The family member is associated with his or her father's family, rather than
that of the mother. According to an Arab proverb, "The mother is like a
vessel of oil that is emptied."
Since the social
groupings larger than the family are characteristically made up of extended
families, every person remains a member of the larger social group to which
his or her father belongs. So it is with the clan and tribe. In more recent
times, it may carry over into the political party.
It is patrilocal.
Newly married couples take up residence with or in the vicinity of the
bridegroom's father. As a result, brothers usually live together, as part of
the father's extended family. Married sisters live separately from their
parents, and one another, with the extended families of their husbands.
As late as 1944, a
study concerning a Palestinian Muslim village found that only one-third of the
sons took up residence away from their parents' home. So are we reminded,
"Old ways die hard." Even then they often remain as a nostalgic reminder of a
preferred way of life.
It is patriarchal.
The father is the titular head of the family. In antiquity, he had
jurisdiction over life and death, and well as less consequential matters.
Quite recently, a woman was executed because of her conversion to
Christianity. The authorities opted not to intervene, since it was deemed
a family matter.
were obligated to conform to the wishes of the family elder. In one instance
that inadvertently came to my attention, a young man of perhaps thirty years
of age wanted to emigrate from Palestine to Canada. When his father heard of
his plans, he strictly forbad it. His son was devastated by the prohibition,
but did not challenge it.
It is endogamous.
There is a preference for marriage within a relatively narrow circle of
associates. In theory, the Koran allows for marriage between any Muslim man
and woman. "Marry not women who are idolaters, until they believe...and give
not women who believe in marriage to the idolaters until they believe... ."
In practice, "it can
be stated that each social group in the Middle East tends to behave as an
endogamous unit. Marriage outside one's own group is frowned upon,
discouraged, forbidden, and not infrequently severely punished, occasionally
even with the death penalty." These restrictions are characteristically
enforced more rigorously with women than men. It is assumed that common
values provide for stable families.
It is occasionally
polygynous. According to Koranic law, a man can be simultaneously married
to no more than four wives (4:3). In addition to marriage, there is the
provision for concubinage–which allows the man to expand his sexual
relationships without inhibition. Large harems were the exception in
antiquity, and much less so today.
Intricate laws were
established to regulate the polygynous relationship. The husband was
obligated to be equally available to each of his wives, or provide
compensation if not. The polygynous union was fraught with difficulties, and
became increasingly restricted to the affluent.
The appeal for
monogamy was routed in the biblical precedent, "For this reason a man will
leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become
one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). It may seem curious that the man is said to leave his
father and mother, while in practice it is the wife who takes leave. However,
the reference is more likely to emotional detachment. According to a sage
saying, "A son is a son till he gets him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all
When Christianity was
still a fledgling movement, the pax Romana was in full sway. The
Romans promoted marriage as a valid social contract. Adultery was a common
practice, as was homosexuality and pedophilia. Prostitution was exercised as
a matter of course, and in connection with religious ritual.
infanticide were widely practiced among all classes of Romans, both within and
outside family households. The poor killed their children out of desperation,
and the wealthy so not to fragment their assets. The practice became so
extensive and detrimental, that toward the end of Rome's rule legislation was
passed in an attempt to curb the killing and increase the birthrate.
from its Jewish antecedent, and vigorously promoted an alternative family
ethic. This ethic advocated monogamy and sexual fidelity within the bonds of
marriage. Conversely, it prohibited cohabitation, premarital and
extra-marital sex, and limited the justifiable reasons for divorce. Husbands
and wives were committed to one another in the bond of marriage until
separated by death.
ethic greatly appreciated the value placed on human life. Children were to
honor their parents; parents were to be sensitive to the concerns of their
offsprings. Couples were to complement one another, through mutual submission
and loving constraint. In ideal terms no doubt, but nonetheless as those to
The family agenda had
wider implications. It was seen as a divine means for the recovering
society. "Christians maintained that all human beings were descendants from
one set of parents... . Over time, however, their descendants grew apart,
becoming cold, even hostile toward one another. ...Now (via marriage) they
are one, sharing the same path. Marriage became the blood that binds."113
The emigrants from
Europe brought their family ethic with them. Families were relatively large
in colonial America. The first U.S. Census, taken in 1790, reported the
average size of American households as 5.8 people. It was not uncommon to
find families with five to ten children. Benjamin Franklin came from a family
with seventeen siblings.
nurtured their children. Vocation often took the form of a family enterprise,
in which parents and children shared obligations. When the parents became ill
or too elderly to work, their children took care of them.
As for legal
considerations, husbands were responsible for the support of their wives, and
the debts incurred by them. Wives enjoyed inheritance rights. Husbands were
prohibited from abusing their spouses. Divorce was quite rare.
recognized the family as the basic building block of society.
In the home American children received moral and
religious instruction, learned about the country's heritage and its
laws, and most importantly, perhaps, were taught that their lives did not
belong to them. Their first duty was to God, then second to their country, their
third to their family, and their fourth to themselves.114
It bears repeating, their
lives did not belong to themselves.
The situation has
changed for the worse. "War of the Roses is...a tale told by a
cynic–family friend and the husband's divorce lawyer–played by actor Danny
DeVito, who offers sardonic commentary on the mad proceedings. ('What do you
call five hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good beginning.')"115
The film describes the
lengths to which two property-oppressed people will go to protect their
sacred possessions. In the course of the film, they literally demolish
their beautiful home, and themselves in the process. The popularity of the
film may be due in part to the growing realization that divorce does not
represent personal liberation, but a tragic failure to make something more
worthwhile out of life.
It was once thought
that, given love and support, children would readily rebound from family
dissolution. It now appears that adverse effects often linger into their
twenties and thirties, and in some instances for a lifetime. These include
fear of commitment, lack of direction, and the feeling that one has little
control over his or her life. Not only has divorce been made too readily
available for trivial reasons, but promoted for its supposed benefits.
The family portrait
increasingly reveals only two faces. In 1960, only thirteen percent of
married women (ages 25 through 29) were childless. This had risen to
twenty-nine percent by 1993. Stock excuses include dissatisfaction with
traditional roles, preference for a more rewarding career, and peace of mind.
Children are characterized as inconvenient, messy, and time-consuming.
The avoidance of
child-rearing often runs deeper than the rationalizations meant to account for
Many moderns are too wrapped up in themselves,
too self-infatuated, to have affection to spare for another human
being. It is also a life-affirming act. Parenthood is an affirmation of a belief
in the goodness of existence, of our love for life and the world around us.
Valuing life, we symbolically declare our desire that humanity continue after us.116
Don Feder concludes that it
constitutes a spiritual act.
Symbolism, as noted
earlier, is significant. If for no other reason, the traditional family norm
of parents and children is critical. So also is a heterosexual definition of
marriage, since it models the goal of procreation. The model is not impaired
by the death of one of the partners, since this is anticipated in the marriage
vow "until death do us part." Nor is it substantially depreciated by persons
who choose to remain single, because there are legitimate reasons for doing
J. Gordon Melton lists
fifteen recent cultural developments that have impacted on the way we view
sexuality and the family.117 I will paraphrase select instances,
and add an abbreviated commentary. The acceleration of the onset of
puberty, very early adolescent dating without chaperons, and exposure to
explicit sexual scenes in mass media have introduced young people to their
sexuality and forced them to early decisions concerning sexual matters.
The current American culture is critically lacking of effective rites of
passage. As a result, adolescents must learn to cope in a twilight zone
between maturity and the dependency associated with childhood.
Were this not
difficult enough, they are hounded by a sex oriented culture. It is one that
removes sex from its normative association with procreation, and the appeal
for commitment. Qualifications aside, it reduces sex to entertainment.
Moreover, the family appears not only as unnecessary, but inhibiting. As
expressed by one critic: "The family, historically, was a prison."
The inability of
husbands to provide the financial resources necessary for the family has
forced their spouses into the labor force, creating the child alone syndrome.
The term necessity must be viewed in a qualified sense. While it is
true that the economic situation may press both parents into contributing to
the family income, it is often so that they may enjoy a standard of living to
which they hope to become accustomed.
The child alone
syndrome is not a figment of our imagination, in spite of the sequence of
films that fantasize concerning it. Some innovative programs have been
instituted to serve in lieu of a parent in residence. Examples include child
care centers, and latchkey initiatives for after school hours.
communal living in the 1960s and early 1970s encouraged alternative family
arrangements. The best scenario is that these approximate the extended
family model associated with the traditional family. For instance, it would
provide a means for the more elderly to continue in a productive capacity, and
to maintain their self-esteem.
The worst scenario is
that these arrangements fail to meet the purposes for which they were
intended. As an example, I recall an Israeli effort to supervise children
largely apart from parental input. These experiments in communal living were
soon modified, since they did not live up to expectation.
A growing emphasis
upon individual freedom has challenged family and community ideals in social
ethics. Lost in the shuffle of ethical priorities has been the
realization that there can be no freedom from societal restraints that
does not embrace freedom for the service of others. In other words,
rights must be considered along with responsibilities.
It seems to me that
the idealization of youth has contributed to the problem. Persons have in
large measure lost the ability to age gracefully. In contrast, traditional
society was more disposed to view the aging process as an accomplishment. In
this connection, they emphasized life rather than subterfuge.
cultural development will provide a convenient transition into the current
topic. The rise of the feminist movement paved the way for new
understandings of female and male roles which eschew the double standard
previously practiced in sexual ethics and empower women to make independent
decisions about their sexual behavior.118 In the process,
we ought not to allow past injustices and present inequities to excuse
In approaching this
topic, it is difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. As a result, terms
do not as a rule retain sufficient neutrality to be readily usable. It would
appear that a prime exception is security. In antiquity, women were
characteristically sheltered from the more threatening aspects of society.
this was considered a good thing. More traditional women tell me that there
was more to be lost than gained in agitating for equal rights. The thought of
women in the military comes across to them as demeaning and barbarous.
In any case, the
system was subject to abuse and retribution. For instance, one of my West
African students described a situation in which his elder brother had beaten
his wife and driven her from their home. Even though younger siblings were to
show excessive deference to their elder brother, he was called upon to join
other adult male members of his extended family in chastising the offender.
They took turns beating the wretch, while he passively submitted. "He will
think a second time before he mistreats his wife again," my student observed
If the family had not
intervened, as it was expected that they should, the matter would have been
taken up by the village elders. Should the latter fail to take action, the
tribe might intervene. We find a comparable instance in the biblical account
concerning the Levite and his concubine. The Levite complained, "They have
raped my concubine and she died" (Judges 20:5). The tribes of Israel sent
word to the people of Benjamin, "What about this awful crime that was
committed among you? Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may
put them to death and purge the evil from Israel."
However, the people of
Benjamin would not listen to them. Warfare ensued, and the ranks of the
Benjamin were greatly decimated. Moreover, the Israelites had vowed not to
give their wives in marriage to the men of Benjamin. Lest the tribe cease to
exist, it was decided to look for another source of women that might be
appropriated. Welcome to the alien world of antiquity!
Traditional Athens had
much in common. "A respectable Athenian woman was not permitted to leave her
house unless she was accompanied by a trustworthy male escort, commonly a
slave appointed by her husband. When the husband's male guests were present
in his home, she was not permitted to eat or interact with them. She had to
retire to her woman's quarters."119
infanticide far exceeded that of the male. In this regard, a baby girl was
considered an economic liability. Conversely, the male child was thought to
validate its mother's importance to the welfare and reputation of the extended
Discrimination began early in Athenian society. Unless a slave, boys were
trained to read and write, and touch on a large range of subject matter.
Pointedly, neither slaves nor girls were allowed this privilege.
The woman was not
allowed to speak in public, since this was thought to be unbecoming to her.
In this connection, the famed philosopher Aristotle observed, "Silence gives
grace to woman."120
Women were not
uncommonly portrayed in a negative manner. As an example, a chorus declares:
"Evil of mind are they (women), and guileful of purpose, with impure hearts."121
This would suggest that women managed by way of subtle means, lacking a more
overt way of addressing their social grievances.
Roman society also had
a higher rate of female infanticide, a seeming index of subsequently
deprivation. If from the privileged class, girls received some instruction in
grammar and reading. However, there were many restrictions placed on them.
As with their Athenian counterparts, wives were not permitted to eat with her
husband's male associates.
the married man assumed authority over his children even when grown, including
his grandchildren. He could chastise his wife and children as a matter of
course. He could in the case of adultery take the life of his wife. If for
some other reason, it was customary to have the consent of an extended family
institutions were restricted to men. On one occasion, a group of women
entered the Forum to protest the restrictions placed on them. The statesman
Cato supposed they could as well have inquired of their husbands at home.
The essential equality
of men and women in Hebrew thought is rooted in the biblical text, "male and
female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). If created alike in God's image, then
deserving of equal dignity and respect. Consequently, infanticide was in all
instances strictly forbidden.
The birthing and
raising of children was commended. It was recalled that God had said, "Be
fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28).
It was a mandate pointedly associated with divine blessing.
Marriage involved a
relationship described as expressive of one flesh (cf. Gen. 2:24).
"This does not denote merely the sexual union that follows marriage, or the
children conceived in marriage, or even the spiritual and emotional
relationship that it involves... . Rather it affirms that just as blood
relations are one's flesh and bone, so marriage creates a similar kinship
relationship between man and wife."122 Then, in turn, the
beneficiary of participation in her husband's extended family.
Still, the domain of
the woman was largely restricted to the home. Herein, the wife exercised
considerable authority. So it was that one Jewish man recalls his mother
saying, "When I want your opinion, I will tell you what it is." Moreover, a
rabbi suggested that I confer with his wife concerning religious observance in
the home, since she would be better informed.
However, men for the
most part dominated public life. For instance, women were as a rule
segregated in synagogue worship, where men were the prime participants.
Neither Jesus nor his
apostles organized or promoted anything that approximated a women's rights
movement. Conversely, the Christian fellowship provided a means for women to
greatly enhance their social status. So it was that Paul appreciatively
wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for
you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). It is estimated that women
comprised in the vicinity of sixty percent of the early church's membership.
over something of its Jewish legacy. Especially was this true concerning the
high value placed on human life–regardless of gender, the distinctive
importance of woman in birthing and fostering life, and the need to provide a
supportive social structure. Other legitimate concerns, such as for equal
recompense for work rendered, may be thought of as derived from more basic
expanded on its Jewish legacy. It came on the scene at a time when a
cosmopolitan faith was desperately needed. The patron gods from antiquity no
longer met the needs the populace. Not only did Christianity provide a
sovereign deity, as did Judaism, but in terms of the life and teaching of
Jesus. This, coupled with the report of his resurrection, seemed to offer the
best of this world and that as yet to come.
The task continued,
first in one connection and then another. As an example, the industrial age
created a novel situation demanding a creative response. Charles Sheldon's
In His Steps posed the provocative question "What would Jesus do?" It
meant one thing for a newspaper publisher, struggling to make ends meet; it
meant something different for an accomplished vocalist weighing how best to
invest her life and considerable talents.
In metaphorical terms,
"A lot of water has flowed under the bridge." Take the charge of sexual
harassment. It is said to consist of such things as touching, suggestive
remarks, verbal abuse, staring, demands for sexual favors, and assault. What
kind of a look qualifies, and who is going to make the call?
Some women want to see men walking around in a
perpetual state of terror, afraid to make eye contact, weighing each word
before it's spoken, flattening themselves against a wall, lest
shoulders brush inadvertently. It's the feminist way of punishing men for everything
from diapers to date rape and establishing gender superiority.123
insists that women must liberate themselves from male bondage. As such, it
appears as a variation of liberation theology–inasmuch as it is expressed in
religious terms. As noted in an earlier context, liberation theology seizes
on the exodus as a paradigm. However, it ignores that the exodus was
essentially a religious contest between Yahweh and the Egyptian
pantheon–substituting a struggle of social and political nature.
characteristics emerge. First, the alleged forces of oppression are
demonized. They are vilified for all that has gone wrong. They are not given
opportunity to defend themselves. Their voices are shouted down.
Second, the oppressed
are exonerated. For all practical purposes, they can do no wrong. Even if
they do, it should be overlooked in the light of their longsuffering. They
have a legitimate score to settle.
Third, criteria are
often suspect. For instance, gross annual income is often cited for the
disparity between the wages of male and female workers. While this is a
legitimate concern, it fails to factor in voluntary considerations–such as the
decision to raise a family. Not only does this cause the woman to lose ground
in vocational advancement, but adversely impacts on her retirement reserve.
Finally, most women do
embrace uncritically the feminist agenda. "They don't feel abused, oppressed,
or exploited. They don't hate their nature. They do not nurture a gender
grudge the size of Mt. Rushmore. They generally like men. If one steps out
of time, they know exactly how to handle him."124
Some years ago, about
fifteen percent of the Wellesly College student body signed a petition
protesting the selection of Barbara Bush as the year's commencement speaker.
The were outraged. They maintained that women should be rewarded for
their own exploits, rather than be rewarded for those of her husband.
It did not seem to
occur to them that they were enjoying a prime education due to the beneficence
of their fathers. Nor that they would eventually seek employment not strictly
on merit alone, but with their father's intercession. To top it off, they
might drive home in a gift from the same.
There is more to
concern us. These offended students had come to depreciate the role of wife
and mother in the family circle. In addition, they failed to recognize the
degree to which men are genuinely indebted to their wives for their
achievements in public life.
There are other signs
of the times. Major Rhonda Cornum was captured after her helicopter was shot
down over Iraq. At first, she maintained that she was treated just the
same as male prisoners. Under questioning, she admitted to being
violated manually, vaginally and rectally by her captors. She added in a
politically correct fashion, that this was "an occupational hazard of going to
war." Not precisely, since it resulted from deploying women in a war zone.
The feminist movement
seems increasingly to be taking its agenda from the sacred symbol of the
Mother Goddess. Note the following:
In our own time, in our own culture, the Goddess
once again is becoming a symbol of empowerment for women; a catalyst for
an emerging spirituality that is earth-centered; a metaphor for the earth
as a living organism; an archetype for feminine consciousness; a mentor
for healers; the emblem of a new political movement; an inspiration for
artists; and a model for resacralizing woman's body and the mystery of human sexuality.125
In order to accomplish this
goal, the author concludes that it will be necessary to go beyond three
opinions promoted by both religious and secular institutions. In particular,
these are that a male god created the world, humans have a right to dominate
nature, and man has a right to dominate women. I will briefly comment on each
of these specifics by way of conclusion.
A male god.
This protest brings to mind a paraphrase from C. S. Lewis, "If people can't
appreciate adult books, they shouldn't read them." God is neither male nor
female. Theological vocabulary is analogical, so God is sometimes expressed
in masculine, and sometimes in a feminine terms.
Humans have a right
to dominate nature. Not in a disparaging sense. "The Lord God took the
man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Gen.
2:15). He was to serve in a stewardship role.
Man has a right to
dominate woman. No so. Paul prefaces his commentary concerning the
respective duties of husbands and wives with the injunction, "Submit to one
another, out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). After that, he enjoins the
wife to be submissive to her husband, and the husband to love his wife–as
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. In so doing, it seems to
me that he is advocating a complementary–rather than competing–relationship.
It was customary in
traditional Jewish circles to refer to homosexual practice as the Greek sin.
As such, it served as a concrete expression of pagan depravity. Gay activists
have introduced an aggressive alternative agenda that portrays those of
conflicting views as suffering from homophobia. This is one of those
issues which as a rule seems to generate more heat than light. In any
case, I would invite earnest dialogue, which attempts to sift fact from
The contrast between
Greco-Roman and Hebrew perspectives bears closer scrutiny.
Love...in any noble sense of the word, means to
Athenian gentlemen of this (Platonic) period the love of men for other men,
the protective love of a full-grown man for some gallant, promising youth
or the love of two comrades for one another. ...Women were kept secluded at home and their
relationship to men was on a lower plane altogether.126
In retrospect, it would appear
a heightened expression of chauvinism.
It also took into
consideration more practical concerns, especially that of accommodating
military service. Along this line, "And if there were only some way of
contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their
loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining
from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at
each others side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world."127
homosexuality was largely pederastic is a matter of record. For instance, the
poet Martial writes, "You do it with long-haired boys whom you have procured
for yourself with your wife's dowry."128 It is said that beardless
youths were prohibited from participating in Saturnalia (a festival in honor
of the harvest god) for fear that their virtue would be compromised.
Two biblical passages
will illustrate the contrasting Hebrew perspective. The first relates to the
destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-29). Two angels arrived at Sodom
in the evening, and saw Lot sitting in the gateway of the city. He prevailed
on them to accept his hospitality.
Before they had
retired for the night, "all the men from every part of the city–both young and
old–surrounded the house." We to understand that the culpability was
pervasive. They called out to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you
tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them."
attempted to dissuade them. It was to no avail. Then the visitors struck
those at the door with blindness, so that Lot and his family could escape.
After that, the cities were destroyed.
In defense of gay
rights, some claim that the inhabitants of the city merely wanted to get
acquainted with Lot's guests. Their sin lay in the failure to provide
hospitality. This seems extremely unlikely for the following reasons:
- The adjectives wicked, vile,
and disgraceful do not seem appropriate to describe a breach of hospitality.
- The offer of women instead would suggest a sexual connotation.
- Although the verb yada is employed only ten times concerning sexual
intercourse, six of these are in Genesis, and one appears in the Sodom narrative
as expressing the virginity of Lot's daughters.
- Jude makes explicit the "sexual immorality and perversion" of those
The term referent
is sometimes employed to describe the situation where a particular offense
serves to illustrate the general state of affairs. As mentioned at the
outset, homosexual activity appears to represent the degraded condition to
which humanity had succumbed (cf. Rom. 1:21-24).
The second passage
derives from the Holiness Code. In particular, "Do not lie with a man as one
lies with a woman; that is detestable" (Lev. 18:22). Moreover, "If a man lies
with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is
detestable" (Lev. 20:13).
Some insist that the
prohibitions refer only to religious practices, or that they can be
disregarded for a variety of reasons. Conversely, a traditional Jewish
commentary characterizes this as the abyss of depravity from which the
Torah saved the Israelites.
New Testament texts
appear in thorough agreement. As an example,
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral
nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual
offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor
swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you
were. But you were washed, you are sanctified, you were justified
in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
"The first word,
malakoi, has the meaning of 'soft'; but it also became a pejorative
epithet for men who were 'soft' or 'effeminate,' most likely referring the
younger, 'passive' partner in a pederastic relationship–the most common form
of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world."130 The latter is less
easy to identify, but may refer to those who took the active role in
homosexual activity. Taken together, this seems to constitute a comprehensive
Not to be overlooked,
the biblical prohibition of homosexual sex does not rest on isolated proof
texts alone, but on a pervasive world view. This embraces the potential for
perpetuating life, and provides male and female role models. This, in turn,
would not obscure the distinction between man and woman, but enhance it in a
constructive fashion–rather than by demeaning any.
"Had Christianity not
entered the pagan culture of the Greeks and Romans, where pederasty was
common, widespread, and accepted, it is doubtful that there would now be laws
against child molestation. It can also be argued that if Christian values and
influence continue to deteriorate, the resistance to pederasty will weaken and
decline."131 The latter observation pertains to Western
Civilization, where Christian values are increasingly under attack, and not to
those massive regions where they are gaining momentum.
As an example, the
North American Man/Boy Love Association advocates removing all current legal
restrictions concerning sex between adult males and boys. It is said to
represent one million members. In England, the age for consenting homosexual
sex was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen in 1994, and to sixteen in 1998.
In Denmark, it was lowered to fourteen.
are said to lend support to the legitimacy of homosexual behavior. One
concerns cultural diversity. It is claimed that the biblical text was
addressing problems unlike our own. For instance, "The difference between
'inversion' and 'perversion' would have been incomprehensible to them. The
very notion that two men or two women could fall in live with each other and
develop a deeply loving, stable relationship comparable to marriage simply
never entered their heads."132
This would seem to
suppose that the biblical writers were far more sheltered than was actually
the case. For instance, there was a substantial Gentile presence in Palestine
at the time of Jesus. More specifically, he opted to set up his base of
operation in Capernaum, which lay along a branch of the Via Maris
international trade route. As noted earlier, the notion that same-sex
partners could provide a stable relationship was in fact common in antiquity.
reasoning concludes, "Since God made me gay, it must be good." This would
presume a biological explanation for homosexuality. Initially, it should be
observed that orientation does not necessarily condone practice.
According to the preponderance of evidence, homosexuality results from a
combination of factors: genetic, intrauterine, and postnatal environment. One
scenario begins with birth. The boy (in this instance), who will one day
struggle with homosexuality, is born with certain features that more resemble
homosexuals than the male population as a whole. These might include a
greater sensitivity, a strong creative drive, and a keen aesthetic sense.
None of these individually or collectively destine him for eventual
As time passes, he
perceives himself as being different from the rough and tumble of his
peers. He may be more interested in reading. In any case, he finds it
difficult to relate to other fellows of his age. This may be compounded by
the lack of a positive male figure in the home and/or a dominating mother.
Early counseling can
be successful in preventing the development of homosexuality. Conversely,
introducing him to homosexual polemics can have the opposite effect.
According to one adolescent, "We discovered in school that it was the in
thing to do."
Now the subject of our
scenario finds a support group in the gay community. Persons assure him that
his difference is the result of being homosexual. Moreover, they convince him
that this is alright, and those who think otherwise suffer from homophobia.
This turn-around casts the homosexual critic as pathological.
becomes normative behavior for some. Gay activists publicize ten percent of
the population. Research would seem to suggest something more in the realm of
What is to become of
our hypothetical subject? He is badgered to come out of his closet, and make
his sexual preference a matter of public record. If reluctant, others may
threaten to reveal his carefully guarded secret.
relationships are short lived. One study of same-sex partnerships failed to
provided an instance where the relationship had survived a seven year period.
Meanwhile, the health risk is manifestly unacceptable. AIDS (Acquired Immune
Deficiency Syndrome) is not peculiar to the homosexual community, but it is
relatively frequent. The costs associated with the treatment of AIDS patients
is substantial, and places a heavy burden on society. Meanwhile, other
pressing needs with less visibility go relatively unattended.
Such is the prospect
faced by the confirmed homosexual. He sees his friends waste away before his
eyes. His own future is precarious.
assure him that there is no alternative. There is. Celibacy is an option for
anyone. Moreover, many have been able to make the transition from a
homosexual to a heterosexual lifestyle. It is seldom easy.
Still another common
thesis resolves around the notion of quality relationships. It is said
that homosexual relationships are not intrinsically wrong, but only as they
lack a loving concern for the same-sex partner. This would include such
features as commitment, tenderness, and faithfulness.
The reasoning implies
that love is the sole criterion. Love, however, requires
definition. Otherwise, the term is meaningless.
In more practical
terms, it would not seem to be a loving act to put one's partner at risk.
Given the high risk involved in homosexual practice, abstinence would seem the
more considerate alternative.
Along a different line
of reasoning, it is argued that the recourse to homosexual sex conforms to the
code of justice. The argument runs something like this: "Just as we may not
discriminate between persons on account of their gender, color, ethnicity, or
class, so we may not discriminate between persons on account of their sexual
preference. ...What civil rights activists were in the 1950s and '60s, gay
rights activists are today."133
As with the feminist
movement, the rationale turns on liberation theology. It is no more
convincing in this instance than the previous one. In particular, the analogy
between homosexuals and persons of color is unwarranted.
A final rationale
revolves around the idea of acceptance. Just as I am takes on
new meaning in context of the gay activist's reasoning.
There is an element of
truth to the appeal. God loves us as we are, lost and without hope. However,
that is not all there is to the gospel message. As
C. S. Lewis observes, "Because
God loves us, he means to make us lovable." In conventional terms, "It is
important to read the fine print."
All things considered,
I am reminded of a story concerning a pastor who preached from copious notes.
One day as the custodian was cleaning the sanctuary, he came upon the sermon
notes which were inadvertently left on the pulpit. As he shuffled the pages
together, he saw where the pastor had scribbled in the margin: "Argument weak,
shout loud." When all else fails, gay activists often attempt to shout down
As a result, those who
disagree are summarily accused of hate crimes. The charge itself may be
As a well- publicized
example, the Boy Scouts have come under sustained attack by the gay
activists. According to one spokesperson, "The scouts are un-American." It
is a curious way of thinking, since it is hard to imagine any group more
representative of American ideals in historical perspective.
The controversy takes
some unexpected and revealing turns.
Barney Frank and his lifestyle are the subject
of considerable debate in Jewish circles. One commentator delineates the
unbridgeable chasm which separates the Jewish ethic from the
homoerotic culture. While the National Association of Reform Rabbis has
determined to ordain homosexuals, an Orthodox rabbinic court
announced it had excommunicated the gay Massachusetts congressman
for "desecrating the name of God and the Jewish people."134
The unbridgeable chasm
shows no sign of dissipating. As in the before mentioned case studies, there
is at issue the choice between life and death.
Cult members appear to
outsiders as living in an alien world. It differs substantially from what
passes as normative (mainline) religions. Moreover, it is often associated
with practices thought detrimental to its participants, and a negative
influence on society as a whole. This phenomenon is far more pervasive
than we might realize, and demands our serious attention.
stands out as a prime example of when things turn from bad to worse. Jim
Jones' following had grown substantially, as he drew from the downtrodden and
those bent on helping them. He advocated racial integration, a relatively
unpopular theme at the time. He founded the People's Temple in 1963, and he
subsequently shifted his focus to the San Francisco area–spawning satellite
publicized his services, promising miraculous cures. He professed to have
visions, revealing confidential information to him concerning those in
attendance. Persons who visited one of his several congregations were warmly
The demands made on a
new member were initially minimal, but gradually increased with the passing of
time. By the time they had become oppressive, these were justified on the
basis of former commitment. Persons were eventually encouraged to turn over
all their personal property, savings, and income to the Temple. This was in
the context of communal living.
Persons who resisted
the gradual erosion of their personal prerogatives were chastised by other
members of the congregation for their unbelief. Parents would publicly
beat their children, and punish one another. Abuse became increasingly
severe. Moreover, persons within the family circle were encouraged to inform
on one another: parents regarding their children, and children concerning
was also provided. Disputes within the families diminished, since Jones took
it upon himself to lay down the guidelines. Life now appeared less
complicated, and harmony ensued. The Temple came to be seen as the only safe
haven from an evil world.
In the process,
adherents were encouraged to isolate themselves from family and friends–either
as a matter of course or by fostering enmity. This was validated with
reference to the cost of discipleship. As a result, even when they were
dissatisfied with what was transpiring, there was no one to confirm their
Jones founded an
agricultural colony in Guyana (1973). The population of Jonestown was in
excess of nine hundred, amidst increasing signs of Jones paranoid behavior.
U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited the colony in November of 1978. He and his
party were murdered, and the Jonestown residents for the most part committed
It would be comforting
to conclude that this was a thoroughly unique situation. Unfortunately, that
is not the case. As similar dynamic can be observed in numerous other cult
groups. Jones reminded his followers from time to time that theirs was a
cause worth dying for. As it turned out, that was the price they paid.
identifies fifteen general characteristics of modern American cults, allowing
that respective groups will verbalize them differently. Initially, I will
list the characteristics, and then comment on select instances–drawing
primarily from my own experience.
- A founder who has had, or at least seems to know the secret of nontemporal ecstatic experience.
- An interpretation of the experience as possession or marvelous travel.
- A band of supernormal helpers.
- A desire to be "modern" and to use scientific language.
- A reaction against orthodoxy.
- Eclecticism and syncretism.
- A monistic and impersonal ontology.
- Optimism, success orientation, and a tendency to evolutionary views.
- Emphasis on healing.
- Use in many instances of magic techniques.
- A simple but definite process of entry and initiation.
- In some cases, the establishment of a sacred center.
- Emphasis on psychic powers.
- Tendency to attract isolated individuals rather than family groups.
- Increasing emphasis on participation by all members in the ecstatic experience
through group chanting, meditation, and so forth.135
As an aside, I have
studied sample sectarian and cult groups in the context of the above
characteristics. Without exception, groups identified as cults had a high
correlation, and sectarian churches revealed a contrastingly low correlation.
This was in spite of the fact that the churches differed substantially in
terms of dogma. As one minister observed, recognizing our theological
differences: "At least we live in the same world." The same could not be said
concerning the cult membership.
It remains to comment
selectively. A founder who has had, or at least seems to know the secret
of nontemporal ecstatic expression. Otherwise expressed, he or she had
discovered some insight into the character of life not readily, if at all,
observable to others. This impression is as a rule created before being
resources are cited to confirm the founder's claim. These, however, do not
characteristically bear up under closer scrutiny. In proverbial terms, "A
text without its context is a pretext." As a result, the founder takes
unacceptable liberties with his or her source material.
The founder is often
disposed to solicit testimonials from persons with name recognition. This is
coupled with the suppression of the opinions of those in disagreement. Their
reluctance to embrace his claims is written off as a lack of piety and/or
A desire to be
"modern" and to use scientific language. On the one hand, there is a
disdain for science and technology for their own sake. On the other, there is
a concern to appear in touch with the times. This bifurcation provides for
some paradoxical comments when viewed in comprehensive fashion.
This also becomes a
means for disassociating from their previous religious tradition. Not
uncommonly in cults drawing from a Judeo-Christian heritage, this takes the
form a faithful remnant motif. This can be portrayed in terms of the end
times, and serves to legitimize otherwise extreme measures.
A reaction against
orthodoxy. Church teaching may be vilified. Church practices are held up
to ridicule. The piety of church members is held in question, if not actually
derided. In one instance, the cult membership decided to join a local church,
with the intention of seizing control. Failing in their attempt, they broke
off their short association.
Their repudiation of
orthodoxy can be observed in other connections. Most obvious, regarding
alienation from the family circle. Communication becomes strained or
non-existent. Cult members no longer take it upon themselves to care for
their parents or show interest in their siblings. It is as if the fruit of
family life withers on the vine.
orientation, and tendency to evolutionary views. These themes play off
one another so as to give the impression that life here and now is greatly
improved. This is often coupled with derision of those thought to give too
much attention to the future life.
The confidence is
often expressed in psychological jargon. Group therapy, if by some other
designation, takes precedence over worship. Counseling becomes a main
component in the cult enterprise. If persons live at a distance, they are
virtually required to submit to counseling by telephone.
proves to be the exception, rather than the rule. Not uncommonly, it is
limited to the needs of the cult constituency. Thus are persons bound closer
together in the cult complex.
A simple but
definite process of entry and initiation. This appears necessary to
establish a corporate identify significantly different to give expression to
what is thought to be the cult's manifest destiny. It is sometimes preceded
by a probation period, calculated to emphasize the seriousness of the
The adherent may also
be subject to probation on subsequent occasions. This is generally as the
result of incurring the displeasure of the leader. For instance, when one
person purchased a new automobile, without first consulting his mentor, and
when a used car would in the opinion of the latter be adequate. It, of
course, would have allowed the additional funds to be available for the cult's
Finally, in some
cases, the establishment of a sacred center. Such as might be designated
by the leader, and/or draw from past associations. In a metaphorical sense,
one ascends to the setting from which the cult members draw their spiritual
vitality and vision.
Cults are not alone in
sponsoring a sacred center. What is more or less distinct is the sense of
dependency that they foster. As sometimes expressed, cults are lacking in
It often helps to look
at a topic from different vantage points. The Stockholm Syndrome
provides just such an opportunity. The designation was coined in the early
1970s to describe a puzzling reaction of four bank employees to their
captors. They were held prisoner for six days, during which two ex-convicts
threatened their lives, but also showed them kindness.
It came as a surprise
when the hostages resisted the efforts to secure their release, and were eager
to defend those holding them captive. Two of the women eventually became
engaged to the perpetrators. After that, the situation was reviewed to
determine if this were a freak incident, or something relatively common. The
latter proved to be the case. A similar thing occurred among concentration
camp prisoners, cult members, pimp sponsored prostitutes, incest victims,
emotionally abused children, and the like.
Persons can fall prey
to the Stockholm Syndrome when the following conditions are met:
- A perceived threat to survival from those in charge.
- An awareness of small concessions of kindness within the context of terror.
- Isolation from the perspectives of others than those in control.
- A perceived
inability to escape.
In brief, the
Stockholm Syndrome serves as a survival mechanism. Those implicated do not
necessarily lack intelligence or virtue. They are for all practical purposes
fighting for their lives.
vantage point. Ronald Enroth has done us the service of composing two
well-documented books: Churches that Abuse and Recovering from
Churches that Abuse. In the former, he offers assistance for those hurt
by legalism, authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline, and
spiritual intimidation. In the latter, he describes the road back from
spiritual abuse, healing for families who hurt, reentry for survivors, and
guidance for pastors and counselors.
I will touch on
representative excerpts in order to fill in the portrait.
God, it was said, was using the connections to
break down the barriers and inhibitions within the congregation... . "We're
gonna fall in love with everyone," was the message. Although this
inevitably led to marital friction, the members were told that intimate
spiritual experiences with members of the opposite sex, other than one's
spouse, could help defeat the demons of jealously and open up the person
to a deepened experience of the love of Christ.136
appears that the congregation assumed the cost of terminating pregnancies
created by the exhortation to experience the freedom achieved through
intimate spiritual experiences. Its pastor remonstrated with those who
equated abortion with murder as suffering from legalism–"a term used to
refer to an incorrect or overly literal interpretation of biblical, civil, or
authoritarian groups that I have studied impose discipline, in one form or
another, on members," Enroth concludes. "A common theme I have
encountered...was that the discipline was often carried out in public–and
involved ridicule and humiliation."137One former cult member
confided in me that he was not permitted to speak out in the meeting or to
discuss the matter of his probation with his wife in the privacy of their
home. This served as the proverbial last straw, which caused him to search
for a way to escape the abusive situation.
The road to recovery
is seldom easy. "Learning to trust others in authority without creating a new
codependent relationship is one of the first issues that victims of spiritual
abuse confront. ...They must experience true acceptance, love, and a sense of
belonging. ...It is important to examine and carefully refute any unorthodox
implies a willingness to consider alternative opinions, to clear away
misunderstandings, and to enter enthusiastically into a corporate search for
truth. Love is best considered in context of its companions. In this
regard, Paul wrote: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal.
5:22). It is fitting that love should be listed first among these
virtues, because it serves as both the measure and goal of freedom–as
elaborated in the apostle's correspondence.
A sense of
belonging is, as noted earlier, one rung on the hierarchy of human needs.
It can be exploited, for the purposes of control; or it can be enhanced, in
pursuit of all that is good and wholesome. Orthodox teaching embodies
that which has been faithfully embodied in Christian tradition.
Along with life, we
aspire to liberty. The latter is a commodity sadly lacking in the alien world
of the cult, and is best discovered within authentic community.
The Magic Word
"What is the magic
word?" my mother would pointedly inquire. This would prompt me to employ the
term please in my supplication. It was an exercise in civility. Upon
being granted my request, I was to say thank you. This, too, was a
mark of civility. These were meant to encourage me to be considerate of
others. When there is a better way of doing things, civility serves
as a case in point.
"The word (civility)
derives from the Latin civitus, which means 'city,' especially in the
sense of civic community. ...Although we can describe the civil as courteous,
polite, and well mannered, etymology reminds us that they are also
supposed to be good citizens and good neighbors."139 One qualifies
as a good citizen by assuming the responsibilities it implies. One qualifies
as a good neighbor by ministering to the needs of others. Note Jesus' account
of the Good Samaritan in the latter connection (cf. Luke 10:25-37).
collapse of civility has received considerable attention. No single
factor seems to account for what appears evident. Notwithstanding,
postmodernism appears to be one of the culprits. While the term postmodern
was employed during the 1950s and 60s, "the concept of postmodernism
cannot be said to have crystalizerd until about the mid-1970s, when claims for
the existence of this diversely social and cultural phenomenon began to harden
within and across a number of different cultural areas and academic
disciplines."140 Stephen Connor subsequently dates the demise of
modernism on July 15, 1972 at 3:29 p.m. in St. Louis with the dynamiting of
the Pruitt-Ignoe housing complex, after having consumed millions of dollars in
renovation as a result of sustained vandalism.
This brings to mind an
earlier instance concerning the Columbia Point Housing Project, located in
Dorchester–an inner suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. The year was
approximately 1952. I was serving a parish in South Boston, a blue-collar
community bordering Dorchester.
Housing was a
problem. Everyone seemed to concur. The federal government offered a
resolution. While not everyone was impressed, those in authority insisted
this was the proven way to go.
Soon the Columbia
Point Housing Project became a reality. Uniform high-rises provided ample
accommodation for distressed families. Public officials took turns patting
themselves on the back. Expectations ran high.
Time passed. Problems
intensified.. In one instance, the enterprising children of two single,
working parents knocked out an entrance between their apartments so that they
could visit back and forth more readily. Eventually, things deteriorated to
the point that police cars would flee from rock throwing gangs of unruly
There remained what
might be described as pockets of civility. Such as a solicitous
grandmother, attempting to raise her grandchildren in the fear of the Lord.
She was not given to complaining. She confided in me, "I don't want to cause
nobody any trouble." All things considered, she was genuinely a blessing.
In retrospect, several
things appear to have gone wrong. First, the authorities disregarded the
meaningful traditions of those who took up residence in the housing complex.
As for commentary, "Rights that are purchased at relatively low cost stand a
fair chance of being abused, simply because there is no history behind them,
and thus little pressure to use them responsibly–in short, because nobody
knows why the right exists."141
as we enjoy were bequeathed by previous generations. They came about at considerable
sacrifice. We are obligated to enhance them as a corporate trust. It is an
impossible task without recourse to civility.
Second, they failed to
appreciate the social dynamics of diverse people compressed within a highly
constricted area. This exacerbated the problem.
"The city, in a
peculiar way, holds within its history the collapse of one form of civility,
based on norms learned from small, known communities, and the development of
another, based on norms learned from larger, anonymous ones. ...The only
trouble is, the standards are often morally inferior to the ones they
replace."142 In addition, there are difficulties associated with
the transition from one cultural configuration to another.
Third, they did not
take human depravity seriously enough. This was common for the naive optimism
in which modernity was steeped. As a result, the strong preyed on the weak.
Security proved to be ineffective.
As a result, some
chose to relocate. Others would have done so if it were not that they
required subsidized housing. The tragic case of a single young mother
especially comes to mind. She was driven to the point of desperation. She
pathetically concluded, "I have no good alternatives."
prohibited the public display of sacred symbols. Most of the inhabitants had
previously thought of themselves as residing in some Roman Catholic parish.
In our case, it was associated with The Gate of Heaven. This had
practical implications. On one occasion, I sought out the advice of the
senior priest as how best to cope with vandalism of our church sign. "Put a
cross on top of it," he advised me, "and then they will not dare to desecrate
it." It worked.
In stark contrast, the
impression was given in the housing project that God was not welcome. For all
practical purposes, this invoked a secular jungle. With the erosion of
modernity, postmodernism was in the making.
It is helpful to think
of postmodernism in terms of a paradigm shift. Three stages are implicated.
The first stage consists of a time when the former perspective seems no longer
to satisfy its promise. There may be new data we feel obligated to factor
into life's equation, or to establish alternative priorities and agendas.
The second stage
invites tentative alternatives. These are usually promoted by persons who do
not perceive themselves to have too much to risk. Conversely, those more
closely associated with the establishment are disposed to play it safe. They
often turn to coercive means in a futile effort to maintain the status quo.
The final stage
coalesces into a new paradigm. It must still be refined. This amounts to a
reestablishment phase. Given the current ambiguity surrounding postmodernism,
one would assume we have not as yet arrived at this juncture. Suffice to say,
the need for civility is most critical when engaged in a paradigm shift, and
perhaps least in evidence.
It remains to consider
how best to cultivate civility. I have settled on ten guidelines, drawn from
a potentially longer list. These might alternatively be described as rules
1. Cultivate the
practice of attentive listening. I have heard it said that Dietrich
Bonhoeffer gave the impression of giving his undivided attention to whomever
he was talking. It is far more common for persons to listen selectively,
either giving more attention to some than others or settling for some segment
of what is said.
P. M. Forni elaborates:
- I am not just talking with a colleague but with this colleague, who told me several weeks ago that he was concerned about his child's health and whom I have seen grow more and more preoccupied in the last few days.
- I am not just reminiscing with a high school friend but with this friend, who married early, never went to college, and seems threatened by the friendships I developed in college.
- I am not just critiquing the work of a student. I am speaking to this individual student, whom I saw struggling during the semester as she tried to match the performances of more seasoned fellow students.143
between the person and what is at issue. As for the former, expect the
best from individuals. They may mean well, but fall short of their target.
Moreover, our motivations are characteristically mixed–so that we ought not
let the bad obscure the good.
As for the latter,
issues should to be taken seriously. Civility and disagreement should be
thought of as complementary rather than competitive. I have heard it said,
"One can disagree without being disagreeable." Then, likewise, "Truth is too
prized to be taken lightly."
3. Be conciliatory.
In graphic terms, build bridges. Bridges of understanding, and bridges of
trust. In this connection, I recall the observation of a Roman Catholic
scholar, who concluded that the one-sided Protestant accent on grace was
unacceptable. I was not at all offended by his comment since we enjoyed a
cordial relationship. Instead, I simply replied: "It is not a matter of grace
or works, but a grace that works." He nodded his approval.
One must cultivate at
least two skills in order to assume a conciliatory posture. First, the
capacity to consider that we might be wrong. Only God is right all the time,
and we do not qualify. Second, the willingness to admit that we do not know
something. As an instructor, I would often couple this admission with the
offer to research the matter and report back.
4. Be sincere.
Sincerity requires that we be forthright. "Wanting to please others is a
noble sentiment at the root of civility and an indispensable ingredient in
happy relationship. However, just as crucial for our happiness (and the
welfare of others) is the ability to establish firm personal boundaries."144
It is not
always necessary to press the issue. For instance, if someone asks us to
participate in an objectionable
practice, we might simply respond: "No, but thank you for asking." If they
inquire whether we have convictions on the matter, then we should candidly
reply. In any case, we ought not to sacrifice our conscience on the altar of
5. Be kind. It
may be kinder simply not to comment. Will what we say contribute to the
discussion? Can we introduce a helpful example from our own experience? Are
we introducing a useful perspective? Questions of this sort will help us
decide whether or not to verbalize.
When encouraged to
speak, do so with others in mind. Speak distinctly and deliberately. Avoid
going off on a tangent. Solicit the input of others as appropriate. Bear in
mind that "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger"
6. Be respectful.
Respect is multi-faceted. For instance, we ought to show respect for
the opinions of others. When appropriate, the following may contribute to the
cause of civility:
- Save the core of someone else's opinion even as you qualify your acceptance.
- Recognize that although you don't agree, what you hear is not unreasonable.
- Allow that if you knew more, your opinion might change.
- Make ample use of the difference in perspectives.145
As another example,
show respect for those in authority. The pattern is best set with our
parents. After that, our instructors. Especially those who have developed an
expertise in some subject matter. Government officials, security, and the
7. Be constructive.
It is usually easier to be critical, since no one is perfect. Constructive
endeavor requires a creative insight that can see the potential in some seed
thought. It might qualify as a critical optimism. In this connection, I
have heard it said: "The difference between an optimist and pessimist is
whether the persons view the glass half full or half empty."
As an example, I would
make a point of commending a student's paper for some favorable feature. I
took this as an indication that he or she could do better on a future
occasion. We can all benefit from encouragement from time to time.
8. Be generous.
Be generous with our possessions. In Jewish tradition, industry is commended
in anticipation of generosity. A prime instance involves hospitality. The
host was said to be honored by his or her guest.
Be generous with our
time. It is a precious commodity, meant to be put to good use. It is not
wasted on others.
As implied above, be
generous with our praise. "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to
one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he
will certainly not lose his reward" (Matt. 19:42). So Jesus extols even
the gift of a cup of cold water, provided a good intention.
responsibility. It is tempting to shift the blame. "Have you eaten from
the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" God inquired of Adam (Gen.
Adam replied, "The
woman you put here with me–she gave me some from the tree, and I ate it."
Thus Eve appears as the culprit, and perhaps God indirectly.
Then God addressed
Eve, "What is this you have done?"
She responded, "The
serpent deceived me, and I ate." So the blame was passed from one to
another, and civility suffered in the process.
10. Be alert to
persons in their religious, social, and environment setting. As a
representative commentary, "In the absence of that language of loving
sacrifice, that connection to the transcendent, civility, like any other moral
principle, has no firm rock on which to stand. Civility that rests on the
shifting sands of secular morality might topple with the next stiff political
In more concrete
terms, "In the wake of the ecological revolution, it's impossible to be civil
without an active concern for the health of our badly wounded planet."147
Thus are we admonished not to litter, nor employ products harmful to
the environment; to recycle; conserve water, electricity, and fuel; and use
alternative forms of energy when possible. All things considered, to
enthusiastically opt for life instead of death.
1. John Maxwell, Deuteronomy, p. 320.
2. Robert Mounce, Matthew, p. 99.
3. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p. 637.
4. Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible, p. 119.
5. Ibid., pp. 62-63.
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship,
7. Peter Davids, James, pp. 68-69.
8. The First Epistle of Clement, xxxi.
9. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V. 4.
10. The Treatises of Cyprian, 15.
11. George Robinson, Essential Judaism, p. 186.
12. Morris Inch, Scripture As Story, p. 35.
13. Bernard Haring, The Law of Christ, vol. 3, p. 126.
14. Chaim Clorefene and Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of the Righteous Gentile, p. 81.
16. Douglas Hare, Matthew, pp. 51-52.
17. Milton Steinberg, Judaism, p. 59.
18. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, p. 54.
19. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus, p. 195.
20. Ibid., p. 126.
21. Morris Inch, Why Take the Bible Seriously?, p. 63.
22. Douglas, op. cit., p. 52.
23. John Bright, A History of Israel, p. 246.
24. Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 4.
25. Russell Dilday, 1, 2 Kings, p. 213.
26. Iain Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, p. 139.
27. Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, p. 131.
28. Ibid., pp. 134-135.
29. Morris Inch, Exhortations of Jesus According to Matthew and Up From the Depths, p. 9.
30. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 47.
31. Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story, p. 33.
32. Mounce, op. cit., p. 13.
33. Xavier Leon-Dufour, Life and Death in the New Testament, p. 11.
34. Ibid., p. 3.
35. Hare, op. cit., pp. 256-257.
36. Morris, op. cit., pp. 488-489.
37. Leon-Dufour, op. cit., p. 49.
38. Hare, op. cit., p. 193.
39. Leon-Dufour, op. cit., p. 79.
40. J. Ramsey Michaels, John, p. 305.
41. Ibid., p. 327.
42. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 41.
43. Ibid., p. 42.
44. The Life of Flavius Josephus, 38.
45. Gordon Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians, p. 434.
46. Origen, Against Celsus, VII. 52.
47. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 335-336.
48. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 421.
49. Ibid., p. 453.
50. Gordon Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 12-13.
51. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, pp. 5-6.
52. Licht, op. cit., p. 9.
53. William Watkins, The New Absolutes, p. 81.
54. Louis Pojman, Life and Death, p. 1.
55. Steven Carr & Franklin Meyer, Celebrate Life, p. 11.
56. Watkins, op. cit., p. 56.
57. Pojman, op. cit., p. 15.
58. Ibid., p. 22.
59. Carr & Meyer, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
60. Morris Inch, "What Does the Church Say?" Abortion (Hoffmeier, ed.), p. 134.
61. Robert Orr, David Schieldermayer, and David Biebel, Life & Death Decisions, pp. 48-49.
62. Ibid., p. 50.
63. Pojman, op. cit., p. 72.
64. Ibid., pp. 74-82.
65. Orr, et. al., op. cit., p. 152.
66. Pojman, op. cit., p. 53.
67. Orr, et. al., op. cit., pp. 156-157.
68. Norman Anderson, Issues of Life and Death, p. 95.
69. Pojman, op. cit., pp. 44-45.
70. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, IX.
71. Pojman, op. cit., p. 86.
72. Ibid., p. 87.
73. Ibid., p. 91.
74. Anderson, op. cit., pp. 198-109.
75. Mike Royko, Chicago Sun-Times, September, 1983.
76. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison, p. 249.
77. Ibid., pp. 347-348.
78. Wolf-Deiter Zimmermann and Roger Smith (eds.), I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 232.
79. Myron Augsburger and Dean Curry, Nuclear Arms: Two Views on World Peace, p. 5.
80. Ibid., pp. 34-35.
81. Herman Hoyt, "Nonresistance," War: For Christian Views (Clouse, ed.), pp. 32-34.
82. Myron Augsburger, "A Christian Pacifist Response," War (Clouse, ed.), p. 63.
83. Augsburger and Curry, op. cit., p. 94.
84. Harold O. J. Brown, "The Crusade or Preventive War," War (Clouse, ed.), p. 155.
85. Augsburger and Curry, op. cit., p. 85.
86. Clyde Manshrek, A History of Christianity in the World, p. 117.
87. Saul Colby, A History of the Christian Presence in the Holy Land, p. 29.
88. Center For Defense Information, A Brief History of Terrorism, pp. 2-3.
89. Ibid., p. 7.
90. Marilee Melvin (ed.), Stones of Remembrance, p. v.
91. Ibid., pp. 82-83.
92. Wolfgang Schrage, The Ethics of the New Testament, p. 18.
93. Center For Defense Information, The Army National Guard's Restructuring for Homeland Security, p. 1.
94. Ibid., p. 3.
95. Center For Defense Information, The Marines' Three-Block War in Iraq, p. 1.
96. Watkins, op. cit., p. 49.
97. David Myers, "The Mystery of the Ordinary," Psychology of Religion (Malony, ed.), p. 407.
98. Stephen Monsma, Positive Neutrality, p. 18.
99. Ibid., p. ix.
100. Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, p. 52.
101. Watkins, op. cit., p. 57.
103. J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 161.
104. Pojman, op. cit., p. 139.
105. Michael Bauman, "The Dangerous Samaritans," God & Caesar (Bauman and Hall, eds.), p. 201.
106. Ibid., p. 204.
107. Ibid., p. 212.
108. Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, p. 46.
109. Bauman, op. cit., pp. 213-215.
110. Ronald Sider (ed.), Evangelicals and Development, pp. 15-16.
111. James Hunter, Culture Wars, p. 176.
112. Raphael Patai, Society, Culture, and Change in the Middle East, p. 84.
113. Watkins, op. cit., p. 108.
114. Ibid., p. 110.
115. Don Veder, A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America, p. 19.
116. Ibid., p. 24.
117. J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak On: Sex & Family Life, pp. xiii-xiv.
118. Ibid., p. xiii.
119. Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence, p. 98.
120. Aristotle, Politics, 1. 1260a.
121. Aeschylus, Suppliant Maidens, 748-749.
122. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 71.
123. Feder, op. cit., p. 205.
124. Ibid., p. 206.
125. Elinor Gadon, The Once & Future Goddess, p. xv.
126. Lousie Ropes Loomis (ed.), Plato: Apoloty, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, pp. 157-158.
127. Ibid., p. 167.
128. Martial, Epigrams, 7. 97.
129. John Stott, Same-Sex Partnerships?, p. 21-23.
130. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 243.
131. Schmidt, op. cit., p. 87.
132. Stott, op. cit., p. 42.
133. Ibid., p. 56.
134. Feder, op. cit., p. 76.
135. Robert Ellwood, Jr., Religious and Social Groups in Modern America, pp. 28-31.
136. Ronald Enroth, Churches That Abuse, p. 43.
137. Ibid., p. 152.
138. Ronald Enroth, Recovering From Churches That Abuse, p. 65.
139. P. M. Forni, Choosing Civility, p. 12.
140. Stephen Connor, Postmodern Culture, p. 6.
141. Stephen Carter, Civility, p. 68.
142. Ibid., p. 63.
143. Forni, op. cit., p. 37.
144. Ibid., p. 110.
145. Ibid., p. 78.
146. Carter, op. cit., p. 31.
147. Forni, op. cit., p. 148.
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