Monday, April 30, 2012

Heaven Prohibits Dual Citizenship

It's more pervasive than I thought.

The idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.

It's not just a diplomatic fallacy some of our political leaders like to posit when attempting to diffuse Islamic extremism.  Worshipping the same god has become one of the rationalizations some translators use for advocating a major change in how our orthodox understanding of a trinitarian God should be described.

Last week, the Associated Press broke to the world a story that has been brewing within Wycliffe Bible Translators.  It's a controversy based on words used to describe the Trinity - itself a word which doesn't appear in the Bible.  Some linguists question whether Muslims who read translations of God's Word in their native languages will understand how our holy God could debase Himself by being both a Father and a Son.

After all, aren't supreme beings supposed to be superior to humans?

Lost in Translation?

Some translators at Wycliffe have proposed substituting "God the Father" and "God the Son" with "God the Lord" and "God the Messiah."  Which, technically, isn't inaccurate, is it?  God is all four of those things.  He's Father, Son, Lord, and Messiah.  The problem with Wycliffe's changes is that some translators want to omit the Father and Son distinctions, to avoid getting into details about the Trinity that none of us can fully explain.

On Friday, my essay was intended to show how Wycliffe shouldn't be trying to incorporate any doctrinal obfuscations into their translations of God's holy Word.  Instead, any translator's task is to translate God's inspired teachings in native languages so that the Holy Spirit can speak truth through those words to whomever reads them, whether they initially understand these Biblical concepts or not.  After all, no translation saves anybody; Christ does, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

I understand that mine is a simplistic view of Bible translation.  I also understand that coming up with appropriate words to describe nuances in theology for languages that have never been written down before can be a daunting process.  I even realize that Wycliffe has a history of eschewing strict - and sometimes complex - theological wording for more culturally-relevant, more easily-conveyed wording.  I wrote on Friday about some friends of my parents who changed "Christ wants to live in your heart" to "Christ wants to live in your throat," since the people group to whom they were ministering thought life came from the voicebox.

But changing "heart" to "voicebox" is hardly as crucial to learning about the personhood of God and Christ as changing, well, the personhood of God and Christ.

And I assumed that those folks who think Muslims and Christians worship the same god comprise a fringe group of rabble-rousers.

I was wrong.

God is More Than a Word

I'm learning that some folks who think Muslims and Christians share a god are well-educated, well-connected, and widely-respected.  They're global citizens who function with remarkable efficiency in both First World and Majority World countries.  And one of them even attends my church, and is a regular reader of this blog!

Yesterday, between services, he loaned me a book by Miroslav Volf entitled Allah.  He had read Friday's essay and wanted me to consider another perspective.  After lunch, I began to browse Allah, but froze stock still upon reading the dedication page:  "To my father, a Pentecostal minister, who admired Muslims and taught me as a boy that they worship the same God we do."

After needing a few minutes to collect myself, I pondered what I should do.  Was there any point in reading any further?  There was no way Volf was going to convince me that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.  I had assumed the book would have something to do with how evangelicals could more effectively minister to Muslims.  Again, I had been wrong.

Like anybody, I hate being wrong.  Especially when I know I'm in the right!  And I'm in the right on this one, right?

So I e-mailed my friend and apologized, but no, I can't read that book you loaned me.  The confusion and even betrayal another Wycliffe friend had expressed to my small group last year about this controversy became more real to me.  I could sense the fear that she felt - how could we partner together for so long for the sake of the Kingdom and hold such irreconcilable views on the Trinity?  On the very nature of God Himself?

My friend who had loaned his book e-mailed back with a link to a series of essays between Lausanne Global Conversation members on this topic.  I think my friend was trying to be helpful, but I only got more discouraged!  Apparently, this debate has been raging in the scholarly linguistics world since before 2009.  Among people with a far greater theological pedigree than mine.

Which just may go to show how valuable theological pedigrees are these days.  (Present company excepted, of course!  I know my friend who loaned me Allah will be reading this.)

What do I mean by that?  First, did you know that there's a C1-C6 contextualization debate going on right now?  Or a C4-C5 debate?  Do you know who Nabil and Ibrahim are?  These are all catch-phrases for some heady intellectual consternation between some so-called Muslim Christians, Messianic Jews, and Christians.  It's all very culture-sensitive and historically linked, which immediately makes me suspicious regarding its Biblical integrity.  Isn't excusing a person's viewpoint of the Bible because of how they grew up a slippery slope to heresy?  Whether they grew up in Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States?

Cultural Baggage

Consider this defense of Muslim-Christian god-sharing by a Syrian named Mr. Mallouhi:

A Muslim follower of Jesus is someone, like me, who comes from a Muslim family and chooses to maintain his or her culture after being irretrievably transformed by the saving power of our Lord. Being born in a Muslim family automatically makes one a Muslim and part of the Muslim community. I was born a Muslim, not a Hindu nor a Christian nor a Jew. I am a part of the Muslim community even if I do not practice or believe all of it. But the day I reject it outright, I disavow myself of my family, my community and my people.

Doesn't Christ teach that His followers may need to abandon houses, land, families, and everything else for His sake?  Doesn't this include any cultural traditions and belief systems that obscure our view of our triune God's deity and holiness?  Didn't Job lose everything and still refuse to renounce His faith in God?  Don't Christians in China get detained - or worse - because of their faith?  What's intrinsically valuable about cultural traditions that they're sacrosanct when it comes to how we incorporate them into our faith walks?

Isn't the Bible trans-cultural?  Doesn't God intend it for people from "every tribe and nation?"  When Philip evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch, did the eunuch ask Philip how he could contextualize the scriptures?  Or did he immediately do something counter-cultural - get baptized right there by the roadside?  And what about we American believers?  Don't we need to also renounce our culture, with its social perversions, wealth-driven economics, and misguided political rhetoric, so we can follow Christ?

If Mallouhi is talking about simply retaining the innocuous customs of his native country that are unrelated to blasphemous Islamic teachings, such as traditional foods, clothing, and language, then I'd agree with him.  I think it's good for people to maintain their ancestral heritage when it doesn't conflict with Biblical teaching.  But how can a follower of Christ affirm his insistence that he can retain the distinction of being both Muslim and Christian?  Sure, some Islamic scholars say the Koranic texts denying the deity of Jesus can be interpreted multiple ways, but the salvific crux of the Gospel of Christ is not open to interpretation.  Isn't that one reason we can rely on its veracity?

Isn't being both a practicing Muslim and a practicing Christian about as possible as an American insisting that he can enjoy everything in our culture and still be a devoted follower of Christ?  Let's face it, when Christ teaches "nobody can serve two masters," He's talking about the gods in our lives, and there is only one true God.  It's not money, sex, Republican politics, children, education, cultural traditions, language, worldview, or Allah.  It's the triune God:  God the Father, God, the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

How can the Kingdom of God possibly permit "dual citizenship?"

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wycliffe Trips Over Trinity Words

OK.  I can talk about it now.

Last year, a friend who works as a linguist for Wycliffe, the international Bible translation organization, told our Bible study group a secret.  A full-blown controversy had erupted within the tight-knit community of highly-educated language experts, and it had begun to cause deep divisions within the ranks.  This friend of ours asked us to not talk about it amongst our other church friends, since nothing had yet been resolved.  She had become so frustrated and burdened by it herself, she felt if she didn't tell us, she'd explode.

Yesterday, the Associate Press posted the story online.  Last month, Wycliffe agreed to have this controversy reviewed by an independent Christian organization, the World Evangelical Alliance.  Nobody knows if this audit will resolve anything, but it means the controversy has moved outside of the Wycliffe camp into the broader evangelical community.

So now, I can talk about it.  See?  Sometimes I can keep a secret!

Too bad what I kept secret is nothing to celebrate.

This controversy at Wycliffe involves recommendations by experts in Arabic languages for changing long-used terminology describing the Trinity to less-confusing words in Bibles intended for Muslim readers.

Specifically, what you and I know to be "God the Father" and "God the Son" would become "God the Lord" and "God the Messiah," respectively.  The reasoning is that Muslim cultures can't easily relate to God having mortal familial associations, phrased in "divine familial terms," as linguists would call it.

In other words, Muslims don't believe a god worth following would debase its holiness and allow itself to be described in a paternalistic sense.  Nor do they believe anybody can claim to be a supreme being if they were born of another supreme being.  Not only is that hard to fathom, that would be heretical to them.

Fortunately for us, the supreme, holy, utterly righteous God of the universe loves us so much, He did indeed give us His Son!  Who is also supreme, holy, and utterly righteous.  The Gospel is gutted without that amazing fact.

Whether we understand it or not.

Explaining the Trinity

Of course, the first problem right out of the gate in this Wycliffe controversy is anybody trying to simplify the Trinity.  True, as a word, "trinity" doesn't even appear in the Bible, and as a concept, no theologian has ever been able to fully grasp the idea that God is three in one.  We have a working understanding of the concept, but nobody can make a flowchart or graph of how the Trinity functions.

So what makes Wycliffe think it can?  Proponents of the terminology changes say they want to avoid assumptions Muslims may make about Christ's paternity, such as God having intimate relations with Mary.  But are Muslims the only people group who struggle with the inter-related aspects of the Trinity, and how Christ could be born after existing since before the creation of the world?  Isn't the immaculate conception a mystery every Christian puzzles over, and at which we marvel? 

Just because the Trinity isn't easily explained, should it be dumbed-down for a particular people group?  Especially by erasing crucial terms which define the Trinity's inter-related roles?  Might Muslims whom Christ redeems unto Himself feel patronized by Wycliffe once they learn the truth about Who God really is?

We discussed racial profiling the other day.  Isn't what Wycliffe proposes a form of racial profiling to the lowest common denominator?  

The Holy Spirit's Role

Sometimes, groups of professionals get so involved with their work, they forget what they're supposed to be working towards.  Yes, translating the Bible into the heart language of all people groups is a virtuous endeavor, but Who is the only person who can reveal the truth of the Bible?  We can read words, but the Bible is the only life-giving book in the world.  Who is the only person who can give us new life through the appreciation of concepts like the Trinity?  Who is the only person whose saving grace can be translated not through words, but through the miracle of salvation, whether we live in the United States or Saudi Arabia?  It's the Holy Spirit, right?

Why, then, should Wycliffe be so concerned about appeasing a particular culture's presumed confusion over God being both Father and Son, let alone the Holy Spirit?  That's God's job; we're to simply present the Gospel as a testimony of God's grace.  God's Word is a lamp, which would be nonsense unless Somebody could take a stack of papers with words on them and turn them into something that illuminates eternal truth.

Yes, words are important.  And yes, sometimes translators have to adjust the wording of books for new cultures to make the overall concepts relevant to people groups who, say, have never seen a wheel.

Or know anything about anatomy.

Back when I was a kid, my parents had some missionary friends who told us that a particular tribe with which they were working deep in some jungle had no concept of the heart.  They believed life came from the throat, since that's where their voices seemed to emanate.  So after huddling with their Wycliffe experts, the missionaries decided that it wasn't theologically incorrect to teach that Jesus wants to come and live in their throats, instead of their hearts.  These missionaries said they had to check themselves whenever they left the jungle and talked to Western audiences, because they'd become so used to asking Christ into your throat!

It's mostly true anyway, isn't it?  Christ wants all of us, and that includes our throats.  It wasn't anatomically accurate, but it got the point across just as well.  And it didn't change the theology of the Gospel.

Islam's God Isn't Our God

Might the claims by translators who want to make it easier for Muslims to understand the God of the Bible sound an awful lot like the popular misconception that Muslims worship the same God that Jews and we Christians worship?  Particularly after 9/11, that fallacy has been etched into the public square by people like George W. Bush and other universalists, hoping that by claiming some common ground, a cooperative relationship can be established between Islamic cultures pursuing world domination and Western societies promoting pluralism.

Let's be clear:  the god of Islam is not the God of the Bible.  Mostly because Islam does not ascribe to Christ, Whom they believe to have been just a prophet, His rightful deity as a member of the Trinity.  This is one of the reasons why it's important not to water-down the doctrine of the Trinity.

Why worry if the God of the Bible doesn't fit the religious paradigm Muslims have been raised with in the Koran?  Our God isn't the god of the Koran, so the fact that our God can be described in divine familial terms is a further distinction for Him and proof that He desires to have a personal relationship with His children.  Isn't that part of the beauty of the Gospel?  Why deny Muslims the opportunity to read that for themselves?

Substitutionary Atonement  

Doesn't part of the Gospel's legitimacy come from the fact that God so loved the world, His creation, than He gave of Himself for our salvation?  How else could God do that except by having an heir?  That heir is Christ, Who was born of the virgin Mary, crucified, and risen from the grave.  Our sins were so heinous to God that a perfect sacrifice was necessary.  Substitutionary atonement; remember your eyes glazing over at that term?  Something - or Someone - was needed to pay the perfect price.  And Who else is perfect besides God?  His Son, right?

That's why it's essential for Muslims, like any other people group who need the Gospel, to have the Bible spell out Who the perfect sacrifice was - and, indeed, is today.

Frankly, it's baffling to me that an organization as grounded in the Scriptures as Wycliffe finds itself in such a controversy.  Of all the people groups to whom Wycliffe missionaries have translated the Bible over the years, suddenly this is the first one that can't grasp the concept of substitutionary atonement?

Is there something else about Muslims that has raised this red flag in Wycliffe?  Does this have anything to do with Islam's stunningly rapid ascent in terms of sociopolitical dominance in world affairs?  Does this have anything to do with the increasingly deferential attitude Western countries are portraying to Muslim countries and dignitaries?  Or is this simply an honest - albeit misguided - consideration regarding unprecedented peculiarities with Islamic dialects?

Word Up!

Now you can understand why my friend felt like she was ready to burst if she didn't share her anxieties over this issue with our small group.  The media may simply see this story as just another Christian group grappling sloppily with internal strife, but at its core, the fact that God is both Father and Son strikes to the very heart of the Gospel.

And in a way, this controversy may draw some distinctions between free-will Armenians, and predestination Reformists.  God's Word is foolishness to the unrepentant heart, but for us who are saved, it is life-giving power.  Reformists believe that those whom God is drawing to Himself will not be lost because their native culture doesn't immediately grasp the Gospel.  Because of sin, none of us would understand it without the power of the Holy Spirit.  Armenians may be tempted to assume the responsibility of watering-down texts so target audiences might understand it better - something seeker-sensitive contemporary churches have been trying for years - but what does watering-down do?  It dissolves the real thing, until it becomes fractured and unrecognizable.

Is Wycliffe simply the latest Christian organization to wander down the pathway towards irrelevance?  Hopefully not, especially since its leadership has agreed to an outside audit on their linguistic proposal.  Actually, this controversy might be helpful in reminding us evangelicals why Bible translation is important to begin with, and why getting it done right is important.

And even, indeed, why the Bible we have in so many translations just for the English language is vital to our lives and understanding of our Savior and our new life in Him.  Let's pray that our glut of peripheral translations doesn't help us forget that there are people groups around the globe who still don't have any of the Bible in a language they can understand.  Many of us take our Bibles for granted, but maybe now, we'll be reminded that it's not just ours to sit on a bookshelf or on an Internet server somewhere, waiting to be accessed.  We need to read it, believe it, and apply it.

Just remember, however, that the Bible contains God's words.  Not ours.

Note:  for my readers who insist that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, please click here to consider the earnest words of Dr. John Piper on a related subject.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Virginity Bounty is Underpriced

Ashley Madison is not the name of Tim Tebow's girlfriend.

Ashley Madison is the name of the website whose owner will pay anybody $1 million to prove that they've been able to take Tebow's virginity.

So does that mean that if he's been secretly dating somebody for months, he can get engaged to her now, get married in a few months, and be $1 million richer on the day after their wedding?

Not likely, is it?  After all, Noel Biderman, owner of, doesn't want Tebow to be virtuous about his intimate behavior.  He wants Tebow to fall for the same fornication Kool-Aid he and all of his website's fans - all 13 million registered users - have done.

"Confession is Selfish"

How perverse are Biderman and Ashley Madison?  Consider these excerpts from an entry entitled "How to Deal With the Guilt of an Affair" on company's blog:

"So you set up a profile on Ashley Madison, you met someone, and you started an affair. Now you feel guilty. What do you do about that? ...The first thing you need to know is, this is normal, and you’re not the only one who goes through it... Here’s the best piece of advice I can give you about all of this. Are you ready?

  "Don’t confess.  That’s right. I said don’t be honest. Lie. Never tell. You know why? Because while suspecting something’s going on may not feel great for your partner, knowing it for sure can be devastating. It can end your relationship. It can make your husband or wife feel horrible, and deeply damage their self-esteem.

  "Think about the reason you’d consider telling your significant other about your affair... It’s because you feel like YOU can’t live with the guilt, right?  ...So you think if you tell and get it off your chest, YOU won’t feel bad anymore.  That’s all probably true. But this isn’t only about YOU. As you begin to feel better for having cast off that burden, your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, whoever, feels like crap. How is that fair?

  "...Confessing is selfish. If you can’t handle the guilt, end the affair and move on. If you absolutely have to get it off your chest, tell someone other than the person you cheated on. Talk to your best friend, your sibling, your pastor, a bartender, or a taxi driver you’ll never see again..."

Words to live by, eh, Biderman?  Confession of guilt is all about the offender, not the victim?  Ignorance is bliss?

And, "tell your pastor"?!  You're kidding, right?  If their pastor is worth anything, what he'll tell them should contradict all of your "advice" and everything your company stands for.

Saying "confession is selfish" is one of the stupidest twists of logic and denials of reality I've ever heard.  Confession is liberating for both the offender and the offendee, even if you don't believe all of the Biblical reasons for why it's so.  Sure, confessing wrongs is rarely easy or fun, but it's the first step towards reconciliation and healing.  Denying the opportunity for reconciliation is what's selfish.

Virginity Bounty Elevates Tebow at Biderman's Expense

And what if, in a worst-case scenario, some slut does take your challenge seriously and manages to crush Tebow's faithful resistance against fornication to smithereens; what will you have proved?  That evil feels good?  We all know that.  That fidelity is passe?  We all know lots of people already believe that.  That cheating can leave emotional scars?  That some idiots will do anything for money?

That Tebow isn't as virtuous as some of his admirers assume him to be?  We believers already know that, too.

As a born-again Christian, whenever he sins - and like the rest of us, he sins all the time - Tebow benefits from God's grace.  And infidelity, before God's eyes, is equal to any sin other than denying His Son.  Sure, it would be a public relations blunder on his part, but in terms of his faith, it will be a sin that - just like all the rest of his sins - he'll need to confess before God and whomever else he's hurt.  Sexual morality is indeed a big deal to most evangelical Christians, but God's forgiveness is greater than your taunts.

And what if Tebow remains faithful to his vow of chastity?  He won't even be able to claim he did it all by himself.  He'll have relied on strength and integrity that God gives all of His people to withstand attacks from people like you.  He'll have demonstrated that he values the price that Christ paid on the cross for a relationship with him far, far more than your $1 million pittance.

After all, as you probably have already learned with your website, you can't put a pricetag on love.

So be prepared, Mr. Biderman.  Either way - whether you get to pay out your $1 million, or not - God wins.  If you'd ever bother to stop and listen to Tebow, you'll learn that his life and skills aren't about Him, but about His Savior.  He confesses Christ as his Lord.  And he confesses his sins to his Lord.

I realize you won't understand any of this unless - or even, until - the Holy Spirit reveals these truths and how they work to your own heart and mind.  I pray that He does, especially since you're the one who has far stronger misconceptions about sex and fidelity than you think Tebow does.

In the meantime, you'd better be careful about which state you'll be in if you pay out that $1 million.  Being a pimp is only legal in Nevada, you know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Details Challenge Martin Catharsis


Is that the right word?  I'm trying to reconcile the things I see in this Trayvon Martin tragedy with the things respectable, evangelical Blacks are seeing, while at the same time, coming to terms with whatever latent racism I myself may be holding.

And I'm writing it all out for you, my gracious readers, to consider.

Maybe "catharsis" is just a more intriguing word for "rant."  Since this will be my fourth essay on the Martin killing, am I ranting, or being cathartic?  You can read my first essay here, in which I assume (apparently naively) that as additional facts reveal themselves, the focus of this tragedy should shift from George Zimmerman's probable guilt to a well-guarded "don't know."

In my second essay, I expressed my dismay at learning how differently some fellow evangelicals who are black have been interpreting this case.  And in my third essay yesterday, I explored what has become perhaps the key sticking point so far in this case:  the issue of racial profiling.

Today will serve as a sort of mop-up day for straggling details in this sad story of mistrust, over-zealousness, and death.  But will I get it all out of my system and feel better for it all?

I doubt it.

Are You Racist or Racial?

First, I'd like to return to the vociferous yet cogent Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent black Baptist minister from right here in Arlington, Texas, and his helpful definitions of some terminology we whites may have never heard before.

According to McKissic, in an April 23rd entry on his blog, there is a difference between being "racist" and being "racial:"

"A racist is intentionally, unashamedly, and foundationally comfortable viewing persons of other races as being fundamentally and inherently flawed or 'less-than.' A racist prejudges or relates to other persons based on their foundational outlook. A person who is racial in their outlook—and most of us are—are simply products of the fact that we were born into a racial construct and society, and we observed or were taught certain things about race that shapes or form our world view."

In other words, if I'm understanding McKissic correctly, being racist means that no matter what, you consider yourself better than somebody else based on a subjective opinion of their race.

Being racial, on the other hand, is far more benign than literal racism, and happens when we acknowledge differences between races without pegging negative stereotypes on those differences and making issues out of them.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that McKissic is splitting hairs here, because it all still boils down to taking sides based on race.  It's just that the racial people pretend as though any racism they may have doesn't really exist, while the racists just let their hatred consume them.

Personally, I'd like to think there is some point at which I can meet and interact with people based purely on our respective individual characteristics and merits.  Maybe McKissic is saying that's not going to be possible in this life.  I'm not claiming to have risen above race; I think I have a little bit of both racism and racialism in me.  Racism tends to rear its ugly head when I'm confronted with a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, and racialism tends to dominate most of the rest of the time.

If, as some people say, how one acts in a crisis betrays their true character, then I'll bluntly - if ashamedly - admit that there's a racist element in me that needs to be eradicated.  But I'd also frankly offer to McKissic that the way he's pushing the issues with the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land isn't helping in that regard.  Why?  Because I don't see why waiting for all the facts to emerge in the Martin death isn't Biblical.  How is that a "white" approach to this tragedy, as McKissic has suggested, and not the "fair" approach?

Let's Go To the Audiotape

The second issue I think needs airing involves the audiotape of Zimmerman's call to the Sanford, Florida 911 operator.  If you haven't listened to it yet in its entirety, please click here, because you will learn that what's actually said doesn't completely sync with what you've heard in the media.

For example, Zimmerman tells the operator that it's raining, and the suspect is "just walkin' around, lookin' about."  If the Sanford police department is anything like the police department here in Arlington Texas, they'll have told neighborhood crime watch volunteers to report anything to 911 that looks suspicious.  If you saw a hooded figure "just walkin' around, lookin' about" in the rain, wouldn't that strike you as suspicious?

Zimmerman also tells the operator that suspect "looks" black.  His voice is calm and hardly hateful.  He seems to be simply answering the operator's question.  Did Zimmerman include that qualifier on purpose, to disguise his racial profiling?  We'll have to wait until his trial to know for sure.

"Now he's just staring at the houses."  Zimmerman is giving a play-by-play to the operator, and considering how all of those townhouses in the gated community look alike, and that Martin was visiting the home of his father's fiance, and might not have been too familiar with which one it was, it would be logical for him to be "just walkin' around, lookin' about."  He was trying to remember where his father's fiance lived.  Had this been the case, however, how would Zimmerman know it?  And if I was in Martin's shoes, after I saw Zimmerman slow down and look me over, I'd have asked him if he knew where Ms. So-and-So lived, so I could get in out of the rain faster.  Might Martin have racially-profiled the light-skinned Zimmerman and figured he wasn't trustworthy?  Of course, at this point, Zimmerman could have called out, "Can I help you?"  But he didn't.  In my mind, that was Zimmerman's first mistake.

"He's got his hand in his waistband."  I've criticized that gangsta culture before.  And in this case, it may have helped create in Zimmerman's imagination the scenario of a black gangsta teenager with a pistol in his pants, looking for trouble.  It's hard to avoid such racial profiling when there are so many music videos, movies, and other pop culture media depicting black men, guns, baggy pants, hoodies, and violence.  For blacks like McKissic to not realize that is a form of racism too, isn't it?  Willfully refusing to recognize threatening behavior because the perpetrator is black is still race-based behavior, isn't it?  Do blacks not find the sight of other blacks reaching for guns in their pants threatening behavior?

Note, too, that it's almost half-way into the telephone call before Zimmerman confirms to the operator that the suspect is a black male.

"They always get away."  This quote from Zimmerman has been used in the media to assume his use of racial profiling.  And while that may be correct, could it also be Zimmerman's way of saying that burglary suspects in general always get away?  My neighborhood here in Arlington has been hit numerous times in the past several years with brazen burglaries, and most of the time, the crooks get away.  We've had white, black, and Hispanic burglars caught in our neighborhood, so we can't stereotype the burglars who've gotten away.  Yes, if you've already decided Zimmerman was racially profiling, this quote seems to seal your assumption.  But does it really?

Then comes what sounds like Zimmerman huffing and puffing, and maybe the dinging of a chime in his vehicle.  Has he opened his door and exited his vehicle?  Is Zimmerman now himself on foot, following the suspect?  It's plausible, since he's just muttered, "they always get away," and he may have begun to lose patience waiting for the police to arrive.

After a few seconds, the operator can hear Zimmerman continuing to breathe into his mobile phone like people do when they're walking briskly.  The operator asks Zimmerman if he's following the suspect, and he replies that he is.  You'll notice that the operator does not tell Zimmerman to remain in his vehicle, as some media outlets have reported.  You'll also notice that the breathing Zimmerman had been doing into his mobile phone stops soon after being instructed by the operator to not follow the suspect any more.

Obviously, however, Zimmerman doesn't get back into his vehicle.  Or if he does, he gets out again at some point before shooting Martin.  He also asks the operator if he can tell the cops where he'll be when they arrive - he doesn't offer to stay put.  Does that mean Zimmerman had made up his mind to follow Martin, no matter the cost, even after the operator had told him to back off?  It looks that way, but we won't know for sure until his trial.

We also don't know the point at which Zimmerman encountered Martin for the second time.  How did that scenario unfold?  We simply don't know.  We can make conjectures and hypothesize, and that's all everyone seems to be doing right now.  But that's hardly the basis for a solid exegesis of this case, is it?

And that remains my point through all of this.  We don't have all the facts, but the media, in its earnestness to amass viewership and market share, wants us to listen to them, so they compete by encouraging us to begin formulating scenarios that seem to fit standard patterns of strife and hatred.  How much air time could they sell if they told everybody that so far, the evidence that has been accumulated is inconclusive?

John Piper's Take

It's a trap that none other than John Piper, one of reformed evangelicalism's most trusted preachers, appears to have fallen into.

On his blog, McKissic thanks Piper, a fellow Baptist (albeit of the reformed persuasion) for supporting the prevailing progressive view of Zimmerman as a racial profiler and Martin as an innocent victim.  But I suspect that although, like McKissic, Piper is an extremely busy man, his busyness involves criminal investigations even less than McKissic's does.  Instead, he perhaps relies too heavily on filtered feedback from his underlings and sound bites in the media.  The unfortunate result here is that Piper's comments related to the events surrounding Martin's killing seem to betray an analytical disconnect that is uncharacteristic for somebody of his educational and theological pedigree.

Indeed, the reason it's important to do a double-take on Piper's input on the Martin tragedy stems from the loyalty so many evangelicals have developed towards him and his opinions.

"Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman claims self-defense," Piper dramatically states, ignoring the fact that at the time, Zimmerman didn't know Martin was unarmed.  We don't even know the point at which Martin realized Zimmerman was armed.  Does it make a difference?  We don't know, so Piper shouldn't imply what none of us yet know to be true.

Piper mentions Zimmerman's rap sheet, but doesn't mention that Martin was on probation from high school.  How fair is that?  Piper also seems to have a problem with the Second Amendment, repeatedly referencing Zimmerman's gun, and failing to acknowledge that neither Zimmerman nor the 911 operator knew if Martin had a gun or not.

Piper makes the same mistake almost everybody has made about that fateful 911 call by assuming Zimmerman was still in his vehicle when the 911 operator told him the police didn't want him following the suspect.  As I think I've proven (above), the 911 operator didn't realize Zimmerman was following the suspect - on foot, even; not in his vehicle - until Zimmerman had already left his vehicle.  Does that make any kind of difference?  We won't know for sure until Zimmerman's trial.

Piper also wades into murky legal territory when he ascribes Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law to Zimmerman's motives.  It's the media and opponents of the law who've made that connection; we don't know for certain if Zimmerman was relying on Stand Your Ground to give him immunity in this situation.  We do know that Zimmerman somehow received two gashes to the back of his head, indicating that some sort of confrontation took place, ostensibly with Martin.  If the two were in what at least one of them considered to be a mortal struggle, then using one's gun for self-preservation is understandable.  Here again, we're bordering on the hypothetical here, so we need to wait for facts to emerge at trial.

From there, Piper begins a well-crafted homily on befriending the mistreated, towards which I have no objections.  Indeed, I don't fault Piper for speaking out against racism; I simply think his interpretation of the facts rely too much on suppositions and weak correlations that have already been parroted unconvincingly in the media.

Can't We All at Least Agree on This?

Yet even though his grasp of this case's details is disappointing, Piper manages to point out something on which every evangelical watching the Martin tragedy should surely agree:

"O what a difference it would have made if George Zimmerman had thought: 'I have a gun,'" Piper writes. "'For Christ’s sake — for the sake of love — I better not follow this young man. I might wind up using it. Law enforcement is on the way. I have done my duty. Lord, I pray that this man will be treated with respect, and that justice will be done, and that your name will be great in this place.'”

As conservative evangelicals are disproportionately represented among die-hard advocates for gun rights, it's too easy to forget that the Second Amendment is one thing, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is another.  We are to love our enemies, and that includes the people we think may be our enemy.  All of the factors leading up to Martin's death notwithstanding, if Zimmerman had taken his responsibilities for gun ownership as gravely as we should, he would not have exacerbated a situation in which he didn't know if Martin had a gun as well.

If lacking prudence was a crime, Zimmerman would undoubtedly be guilty.  But a lack of Christ-like love for our fellow man is a sin.  Not that shooting somebody in self-defense is a sin.  However, not respecting life enough to be prudent with the situations to which one exposes one's self could be.  God will know how that relates to both Zimmerman and Martin better than anybody else.

As for Zimmerman's criminal liability here on Earth, meanwhile, nothing has yet been proven in a court of law.  Until it is, doesn't Zimmerman have the right to be considered innocent?

I'm not asking because I'm a bigoted white man.  I'm asking because I want to believe I'm not.

Update:  To further support everything I've said in this essay, consider this report from Reuters, which was posted an hour before my essay was yesterday evening.  And if you think I can compose an essay like this in an hour, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn!  By chance, I found the Reuters article Thursday morning.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Profiling Racial Profiling

Sometimes, stories in the media take on a life of their own.

And before you know it, a whole new reality has been constructed out of an insubstantial collection of facts and even less authoritative assumptions.

Case in point:  the Trayvon Martin shooting tragedy.  Forget all of political posturing over this case for a moment.  Last week, all you-know-what broke loose amongst Southern Baptists when one of their executives, Richard Land, made some poorly-worded and carelessly potent charges against blacks in general and supportive of racial profiling in particular.

At least one friend of mine, a black pastor from Maryland, has joined with Rev. Dwight McKissic, an evangelical black pastor here in Arlington, Texas, in demanding that the SBC denomination "repudiate" Land and his remarks.  Meanwhile, as you might expect, this debate spilled onto the sidewalks outside of the Baptist inner circle and become fodder for liberal websites and news organizations across the United States.

Having Baptists airing their dirty laundry within earshot of the media is like handing candy to a baby.

What is It, and Who Does It?

One of the most contentious flash-points in this Baptist brawl involves the issue of racial profiling.  As I understand it, racial profiling refers to the generalizations we make about somebody based on their initial appearance, and our reflexive physical and mental responses to those generalizations.  In its most politically-charged scenario, racial profiling can cast the other person in a disadvantageous light, or at least in a way that results in a negative viewpoint of them on the part of the profiler.

In other words, with racial profiling, we look at somebody and deduce basic stereotypes based on assumptions about a group, not the person's individual character.  When whites racially profile blacks, this usually means we denigrate blacks because of preconceived notions about them that are mostly negative.

Yet I would propose that not only do many whites engage - however subconsciously - in racial profiling, but so does everybody else.  Black, Hispanic, Asian:  everybody engages in racial profiling.  For better or worse, it's part of how we navigate our cross-cultural world.

When you make a call to a law firm, and a principle at the firm answers his phone, "Ira Silverstein here," what immediately pops into your head?  "A Jewish lawyer," right?  And you immediately assume that, at least if he's going to work for you, you'll probably win your case.

When you hear that an accomplished musician with an Asian-sounding name is going to perform at your local concert hall, what immediately pops into your head?  "That will probably be some exquisite music," since we've come to assume all Asian musicians are impeccable masters at their craft.

When an elderly, black woman is walking down a dark block during the evening, and she sees a tall, young, white man walking towards her, is her first instinct to grip even tighter on her purse, because he might mug her?

When many Hispanics encounter whites here in north Texas, they avert their eyes and step out of the way, hoping to avoid any type of interaction.  This is likely because they either don't speak much English, and are intimidated by the language barrier, or they don't want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves because they're in this country illegally.  Yes, those are two racial profiles I've just drawn, but aren't these Hispanics racially profiling us whites?  Assuming we don't speak Spanish, or that we'll turn them in to immigration authorities?

Indeed, racial profiling is far more complex a scenario than many people like to believe.  Our profiling doesn't even have to be racial.  Why do you think ex-prisoners have such a hard time finding a job?  Why do many car salesmen and mechanics treat their female customers differently than their male customers?  Why do retail chains stock different items based on the geographic locations of their stores?

Why have our airport screening measures become so intolerable these days?  Because the Transportation Security Administration is bending over backwards to avoid being accused of profiling.

Why do your insurance rates vary from your next-door neighbor's?  Because insurance companies and actuaries have developed lifestyle patterns that affect your rates, and they profile you according to those patterns

From Profiling to Perspective

Of course, none of this is intended to excuse racism.  Or even profiling.  This is an explanation of profiling, not a justification for it.  Profiling itself does not justify racism, either.  Racism exists whether profiling exists or not.  Some people will just hate people who are different from them regardless of whether they have any data to support a negative profile.  Indeed, the reason profiling exists is because data has been collected to lend a certain level of support to the profile.  Profiles don't just create themselves, like racism does.  True, profiles may still be horribly inaccurate, out of date, or simply incorrect, but racism can exist even when a particular profile doesn't.

Admittedly, the more I consider the comments from the SBC's Land, the more I can hear him talking out of both sides of his mouth.  He both theorizes that George Zimmerman initially profiled Trayvon Martin as a thug teenager, and then calls for restraint in making judgments until all the facts are known.  But we don't really know what Zimmerman thought of Martin when he first saw him, except that the hooded figure looked out of place in their gated community.  And the shooting apparently didn't take place until a few moments later, when Zimmerman had lost sight of Martin in the darkness.  Anything else is pure speculation at this point.

It may very well be that Zimmerman utilized racial profiling as that evening's scenario with Martin developed, and if Zimmerman deduced from his racial profiling of Martin that the teen posed a mortal threat simply because he was black, then we'll have a case of unmitigated racism of the ugliest order.  And we'll need to address that accordingly.

But right now, we simply don't know for sure.

Personally, I think if Zimmerman, upon seeing Martin, considered the hooded figure to be a threat, he wouldn't have abandoned the relative safety of his car, and go against the 911 operator's orders to stay in his vehicle.  It makes more sense that it wasn't until Zimmerman continued to insert himself into a confrontational posture with Martin that the fears of mortal danger flooded his mind.  At that point, if Martin displayed aggression first, it likely wouldn't have mattered to Zimmerman if he was black or white or purple.  And what if Martin racially profiled the light-skinned Zimmerman?  Might there have been dueling racial profilers?  Here again, at this point, I can only speculate.

As can anyone else.  And that's perhaps almost as bad as Martin losing his life that fateful night in Sanford, Florida.  Because people are name-calling, ranting, and becoming bitterly divisive on hearsay and speculation.  We don't know if Martin lost his life because Zimmerman profiled him as a person who needed to be killed simply because he was an unknown black teenager.  Would Zimmerman have shot Martin if the teen was white?  It all comes down to why Zimmerman pulled the trigger, and we won't know that for sure until his trial.

As for the racial profiling component, I could take offense that some black people might be profiling me because I'm a white guy in suburban Texas, so how could I possibly have anything relevant to bring to this discussion.  Instead, I'll take the high road and wait for Zimmerman's day in court.

Not because racial profiling caused the death of Trayvon Martin.  But because we don't know whether it did or didn't.

In the meantime, all of this bitter acrimony only makes the path to justice for Martin's family - and indeed, for race relations in the United States - that much more elusive.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Time for Our Lives

Can you make your life longer?

It's a familiar passage of Scripture, the Sermon on the Mount.  And parts of the Sermon on the Mount are more famous than others.  You'll likely recall the part about not being anxious about life, what you'll eat, or what you'll wear.  Lilies of the field, and birds of the air, right?

But how often have you stopped, cold still, at Matthew 6:27?  I don't know that I ever have.  Yesterday, however, when in his sermon, my pastor pointed out that none of us can add a second of life to our time here on this planet, I sat bold upright:

"And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?"  (ESV)

Because it's true, isn't it?  God ordained when we were born.  And before we were born, God knew when, in His sovereignty, He would call us home to be with Him.

...Or not - which is really the only scary part about this.  If you don't have a personal relationship with God's Son, Jesus Christ, knowing there's a celestial clock somewhere in Heaven clicking down the seconds of your heretofore unrepentant life should send chills up your spine.  As a reformed believer, I believe God doesn't lose any of His own, which means that if that celestial clock's alarm goes off on your life, and you're not saved, God's sovereignty still works.  But that doesn't mean the moment of salvation can't come after too much of one's life has been wasted on selfish pursuits.  Even if God draws you to Himself in the final days of your life on this planet, that doesn't mean He'll give you more time to do something else for Him while you're here.  Suffice it to say that it's in your best interests to surrender your life to Him sooner, rather than later.  Waiting won't lengthen your life.

It's so profound, it bears repeating:  nobody can lengthen their life.  According to Psalm 139:6, all the days God ordained for us were known by Him before one of them came to be.  So once we arrive, pop out of the womb, work our way up through high school, and on into college - if we even live that long - there's nothing we can do, no education we can pursue, no life choices to make, that will add one second to the time God, in His sovereignty, has ordained for you and me.

And don't think because I say it so bluntly means that I appreciate the gravity of such truth.  Frankly, it strikes me as bizarre.  How counter-cultural to believe that all the good things we do to our bodies won't lengthen our life, and all the bad things won't shorten it.

Think about it:  Jim Fixx, the jogging guru, died of a heart attack immediately after finishing his daily run in 1984.  In 2010, a woman in Britain died at age 102 after smoking since she was 17.

Does this mean, then, we can treat our bodies as though our physical self doesn't matter?  Can we eat, drink, and sit our way through life since our health means nothing to our longevity?  Of course not!

Laziness is a sin.  So are gluttony and being drunk.  Keep in mind:  our body is still the temple of the Holy Spirit for as long as we're here.  Good health habits may not extend our lives past God's original expiry date, but they can certainly make the days we have more productive.  Treating our bodies right makes us feel better, gives us more energy, and keeps us more healthy, all so we can glorify Him more effectively with the talents and abilities He's given us. 

Does this mean we shouldn't take death-defying risks?  Should we bungee-jump every day, skydive every other day, play Russian Roulette every weekend, or attend the Democratic National Convention this year with one of those "Miss Me Yet?" t-shirts with that goofy shot of a smirking George W. waving his hand?  (OK, that last one is a complete joke).

Wisdom, maturity, self-control, a healthy respect for death, and common sense are all Biblical qualities.  Leading a risk-averse life might not lengthen your days, but might your personal testimony of faith be stronger by abiding in God's purposes for satisfaction instead of ruthlessly pushing the daredevil envelope?  How much of a testimony do you set by taking too many foolhardy risks?  If you jump off of a bridge with nothing but a glorified rubber band keeping you from plummeting to certain death, whether you survive or die says little about your own ability to cheat death, and more about God's sovereignty.  So what's the use?  Some personal thrills?  If that's what it takes to get your juices going, you may not sinning, but I would question whether you're putting your thirst for adventure to good use.

Granted, in the specific context of Matthew 6:27, it's anxiety that doesn't add any more days to our lives.  In fact, science tells us that anxiety is bad for the heart.  Although the irony of this is that anxiety won't cost us days of life in penalties, either, will it?  We'll just be that much more miserable in life, and display that much less faith in God's sovereignty.

After all, anxiety poses one of the strongest suppressive agents to our faith, doesn't it?  From worrying about how things will look to other people, to whether or not we'll experience rejection, to even fearing for our lives.  Not that prudence and discernment aren't also Biblical qualities, but sometimes, don't we forget that we're supposed to be "anxious for nothing?"  As we contemplate ways to serve God, how often do we relish the reality that there's nothing we can do that will cost us our life prematurely?  Or give us a few bonus years?

None of us can add any time to our lives.  They're ready.  Their timeframe is set.  So why don't we go and live them?

For His glory, and through His sovereignty, we've been given all the time we need.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Right of Way

Two of my nephews are learning how to drive.

No, they're not learning how to drive their parents crazy - they've already mastered that skill!  They're learning how to drive a car.  And in a way, that's driving their parents crazy, too.

I feel sorry for the good citizens of suburban Detroit.  Not only do they have to endure the foul weather, rutted freeways, and corrosive politics of southeastern Michigan, but they've got to share the same roads as my fine young nephews.  I wonder if my brother and sister-in-law's insurance agent has already changed his phone number? 

Unfortunately, one of my nephews, in particular, is having an extraordinarily difficult time adjusting to the rules of the road.

Earlier this week, he and my brother were driving down a major suburban boulevard, and another vehicle further on ahead of them came to a stop in their lane.  But my nephew, behind the wheel, wasn't slowing down.

My brother does not panic easily, but he grew quite concerned, as they were rapidly losing time and space to take evasive action.

"Why aren't you slowing down?" my brother finally yelled.

"Well, I was already in this lane, so I have the right-of-way," my nephew calmly, yet illogically, reasoned.  It was as if the entire world knew that my nephew was navigating this lane of roadway and would acquiesce to his prerogatives.  My nephew, who currently holds a 4.0 GPA in high school, didn't understand that driving is far more complex than knowing who has the right-of-way.

Having the right-of-way is one thing, but you also have to be constantly accommodating the actions of other drivers.  Even if it means that you have to cede your right-of-way to avoid an accident.  Which, fortunately, they did.

It's going to be a long spring up there in my brother's household!

Even though a driver cedes his right-of-way to avoid an accident, that doesn't mean the other driver has "won," does it?  It just means that, particularly when other drivers do stupid things you have to avoid, you're the better driver for better recognizing the urgency of the situation.  Your reward may not seem glamorous - sparing yourself an accident - and indeed, you might get quite aggravated, especially when it seems you're always having to accommodate the bad moves other drivers make.  But you get to your destination in one piece, and life goes on.

Sometimes I think life itself is like that.  Especially the part of life that involves politics and public policy.

How many times do you feel as though you have the right-of-way in a course of action or policy decision, but you find yourself being confronted with a head-on collision if somebody doesn't maneuver out of the way?  People who get in our lanes of life may be there for no good reason, but don't we often find ourselves being the ones being forced to take evasive action, even when we're in the right?

Yes, the other driver who's obstructing the traffic flow in our lane may be stupid.  They may be belligerent.  They may feel a sense of entitlement, and then criticize us for feeling entitled to exercise our right-of-way, trying to accuse us of being at fault.

But what does the better driver do?  In such cases, they take the evasive action necessary.  As soon as they can, they maneuver back into their original lane, and continue on their journey as best they can.  Of course, the hope is that you can proceed far enough down the boulevard of life so that at the next red light, the wacko driver who pulled out in front of you doesn't catch up with you.

Then too, sometimes the lane the wacko driver forces you to switch into turns out to be not so bad after all.  Hey, look:  it even gets you closer to the turn lane you need up ahead!  Indeed, sometimes it takes a scare before we appreciate the little things in life.

Hopefully, it won't take an accident to learn how to important it is to navigate around the wacko drivers in our lives.  Both on real streets as we're really driving, and the bigger picture of our life experiences.  And our country's politics, too.

Not to say that once in a while, we'll be left with no other option except slamming into the obstacle blocking our right-of-way.

But at least we still need to slam on our own brakes.  You never know how much the impact might impact yourself.  Even if you it, you will want to be able to sort out the situation based on the facts.

Drive on, gracious road warrior!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Plea for Patience in the Martin Tragedy

Now I'm confused.

Confused, and discouraged.

The growing outcry among Southern Baptists over Dr. Richard Land and his comments - and then apology - regarding the Trayvon Martin death in Florida has gone from talk radio pontificating to borderline scandal.  And now, someone I highly regard has joined in the grievances against Land, saying that Land's initial comments and apology are "repugnant."

And I'm confused.  And dismayed.

The Controversy

Frankly, I didn't pay attention when Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, first talked about his reaction to the Martin killing.  Just another person pointing out that nothing has gone to trial, and that the court of public opinion needs to wait until our justice system vets the facts in this case.  That's my position, too.  Of all the things Americans do well, waiting isn't one of them.  But justice doesn't always accommodate itself to our schedules.  Until George Zimmerman, the man who himself has admitted to shooting Martin, gets to tell his side of the story, we all need to calm down.  Personally, I was relieved that the special prosecutor appointed in this case decided to charge Zimmerman, because at this point, a courtroom trial is in his best interests.  And the best interests of Martin's family.

The media picked up the story about Land's remarks when some black Baptists expressed alarm and began to challenge them as racist.  Land, apparently caught off-guard, released an apology in which he attempted to clarify his remarks.  Although that has not satisfied everyone, I figured the people who were still angry at Land were the agitators and malcontents who always have other axes to grind against the frequently-maligned SBC.

People, yes, like Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church here in Arlington, Texas, and a prominent social activist in our area.  He has a history of publicly wrangling with the SBC and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary nearby in Fort Worth, but he's also taken the lead on addressing serious gang problems in the sector of Arlington where his sprawling megachurch is located.  I don't agree with McKissic on everything I hear him say, but I've no reason to doubt that he loves Jesus Christ and His Gospel, so I'm willing to consider his perspectives, and believe he deserves my respect.

Yet sometimes it seems as though black pastors hold a certain entitlement to command the inter-racial dialog, as if they're the only victims of bigotry.  If racism is indeed a struggle between races, doesn't it stand to reason that more than one race needs to participate in our national conversation on the topic?

That makes it frustrating when people of any color other than white perceive our battle for civil rights to be something to which people sharing my skin color need to reflexively capitulate.

Civil rights are based on the truth of equality.  And equality demands civility, logic, and yes, integrity.  From and to all of us.

To learn that McKissic is uncomfortable with the wording in Land's remarks would be understandable.  I'm not crazy myself about some of the terminology Land used.  Nor does it help that Land apparently quoted extensively - and without attribution - from material written by a columnist for the right-wing and journalistically dubious Washington Times.  I'm not a high-profile executive at a global organization, but I'm smart enough to know that I can't rely on the Washington Times for unbiased content.  As it is, Land is now being investigated by the SBC for both the content of his comments and his questionable attribution of them (apparently, his website did give credit to the Washington Times).

But in his letter to the SBC, McKissic doesn't mention the claims of plagiarism others have pegged on Lamb.  Instead, McKissic's scathing condemnation of Land, and indeed of his own denomination, consists entirely of bitter accusations of racism that appear to ignore our lack of facts in this case and the lack of credibility in other activists whom McKissic appears to affirm.

Indeed, I'm quite confused.  And I'm not saying that sarcastically.

My Confusion

What's even more confusing is the endorsement McKissic's opinions have received from somebody I know far better than McKissic, and with whom I used to work.  Rev. Eric Redmond, who now pastors Reformation Alive Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, was a pastoral intern at Pantego Bible Church when I worked in its accounting office.  Witty, smart, and engaging, Redmond carried himself with a rare combination of confidence and humility.  Today, he's a Facebook friend of mine, and more importantly, a council member of Tim Keller's popular Gospel Coalition.

Last night, on Facebook, Redmond posted a link to McKissic's official letter to the SBC, along with his  personal endorsement of McKissic's call for the SBC to "repudiate" Land's remarks.  And I was dumbfounded.  Indeed, much of this blog essay I wrote last night, unable to go to sleep for a while, struggling with how to reconcile my perspective of the Martin tragedy with my friend Redmond's.

Deploying his trademark style, McKissic doesn't pull any punches.  He takes personal offense at Land's attempts to clarify his comments, calling Land "unrepentant."  McKissic makes the same erroneous assumptions as the media by attributing factual status to reports of Zimmerman using racial profiling without acknowledging that all of the evidence has not yet been validated.  McKissic also appears to condone the actions of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan, three people who consistently incite bigotry and spite without full knowledge of facts in practically all of the cases they claim to champion for blacks (remember the Tawana Brawley fiasco?).

Is the black/white divide, despite what many Americans consider to have been years of racial reconciliation, as wide as McKissic seems to be claiming?  Is it still so wide that I'm stunned when somebody with as much integrity as I know Redmond has agrees with him?

How much of all this stuff have I been getting wrong?

I'm aware that in many communities across the United States, law-abiding parents of color fear for their teenaged sons when they're out with their friends.  I understand that racial profiling takes place, but don't we all do it?  We profile everybody, regardless of their color.

Did Zimmerman racially profile Martin with the intent to harm him?  Did Martin assault Zimmerman?  We don't know for a fact, do we?

When we do know, the answers might be truly upsetting to many of us who make valid attempts at defeating racism in our mentalities and behaviors.  But by wasting energy on combating a racist enemy we don't yet know exists, don't we weaken whatever efforts will need to be mounted after a jury trial determines that racism played an ugly role in Martin's death?

Although I haven't worded my opinions on the Martin killing as strongly as Land has, I agree with Land that President Obama used prejudicially nuanced language when saying that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin.  I realize that Obama's predecessor had a bad habit of injecting his opinions where they weren't helpful (such as the Terri Schiavo case, also in Florida), but Obama doesn't understand that presidential interventions in local police matters rarely solve anything (recall his inconclusive "beer summit" between a Harvard professor and a Massachusetts cop).  Yes, Land was wrong in claiming Obama made the Martin killing a national news story, but is that heinous enough of an inaccuracy for McKissic to rake Land over the coals?

And despite his barbed terminology, isn't Land correct in pointing out that the Sharptons, Jacksons, and Farrakhans who, with their vitriol and anti-white bigotry, make a spectacle out of tragedies like the Martin killing, actually tarnishing whatever legitimacy may have originally existed in their crusades?  Personally, I was initially feeling sorry for the Martin family before those three men got involved.  When I learned that Martin's parents actually asked Sharpton and Jackson for help, it was easier for me to conclude they weren't so much interested in accurate justice in this case, but their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.

McKissic seems to be wanting us to believe that Sharpton and Jackson are pastors sharing the same level of Biblical integrity as himself.  But with all due respect to McKissic, it's his own reputation that he's denigrating by such attempts.  Just yesterday, word began to spread that Sharpton still owes nearly $1 million from his defunct 2004 presidential bid.  Jackson has himself used racist language against Obama - of all people - and Jews, as well as fathered an illegitimate daughter.  His former lover claimed recently that Jackson had fallen behind in his child support payments.

Sharpton and Jackson do not meet the social standards necessary for public reverence, no matter what color they are.  Or am I the one who's completely off-base here?

Reason Together

Still, this isn't about Sharpton, Jackson, or even Martin and Zimmerman.  It's about why evangelicals like McKissic and Redmond are so angry about the viewpoints of SBC's Land.

While an executive administrator for such a prominent religious organization should have used less potent language in his remarks, am I as bad a white man as Land apparently is for thinking he was pretty accurate in his overall assessment?  Basically, wasn't Land asking for the court of public opinion to back off and let a court of law sort through the Martin case?  Wouldn't most prudent people consider that a rational plan of action?  Why is that considered racist?

I'm not asking because I want to downplay my own bigotry, or make it appear as though McKissic and Redmond haven't thought this through, or because I'm trying to be impudent or snarky.  I'm asking because this case is causing serious divisions based on heresay, bad media reporting, rhetoric, and assumptions.

America is supposed to be about truth and justice.  And even moreso, we evangelicals should be about truth and grace.

Sometimes, yes, the truth will hurt.  But we've gotta get to the truth first.  We're not there yet in the Trayvon Martin case.

Come.  Let.  Us.  Reason.  Together.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pray or Bicker?

Before social media, I guess we couldn't really see how much time we spend talking rather than doing.

As I browse certain blogs and my friends' postings on Facebook, it's amazing to realize how much time and effort some people put into defending their opinions.  It's something I used to do as well, until I realized that continuing to argue a point with somebody else who's obviously as dead-set against changing their viewpoint as I am is a waste of time.

It's one thing to put your opinion out there and let it stand or fall on its own merits.  Sometimes that can be productive, and sometimes not.  What's definitely not productive are those strings of posts and replies that run down the page.

One of the objectives I have for this blog you're reading involves laying a framework by which reason and rationale stand a respectable chance of resonating with people who may not have considered viewpoints like mine before.  I'm not saying that I'm absolutely, 100 percent correct all the time.  But if anybody disagrees with me, do so on the facts, like I try to do.

Yet even I am growing acutely aware that many of us evangelicals spend far more time debating among ourselves the things we should be doing, instead of going out and risking doing those things wrong.  In particular, I started reading a string of reader feedback on a popular Christian blog today regarding our response to the abortion crisis, and before long, I realized that instead of belittling other readers, like most of the men were doing, nobody apparently had realized that the time they were spending arguing their own perspectives (some of which were appallingly flimsy, by Biblical standards) could have been better spent at least praying for women seeking an abortion, and praying for our own attitudes on the subject.

If, after all, God looks at the heart (which we know He does), what does all of our arguing say about our response to the abortion crisis?  Which is better - arguing amongst fellow Christ-followers, or, when we really, honestly, don't know what more we can do about abortion, simply praying about it.  In the time it takes to blast out a vitriolic feedback response on a blog, we could beseech our Heavenly Father about it instead.  If we're serious about wanting to help save lives, shouldn't we trust that as we communicate our concerns with Him, He'll direct our paths regarding our response?

The abortion controversy has yet to be resolved to everybody's satisfaction in the history of our planet, and it won't be, because of the nature of sin, so what makes any of us think we have the perfect solution?  If we believe prayer changes things, then why don't we do more of it?

And believe me - I'm not preaching to you, as much as I'm yelling to myself.

Social media is great, in terms of allowing us to communicate in more immediate methods.  But if all we're doing with it is the same old arguing that Christians have been doing for millenia, then how is arguing faster going to solve anything?

This isn't just about abortion.  But we can usually rely on the topic of abortion to really incite strong reactions from the widest spectrum of society.  Which means that those reactions are all horizontal, aren't they?

Vertical communication would probably work better.  It's always been God's social media.

Only you'd better be prepared to let Him change your heart, and your perspective.  Maybe that's why we don't pray as much as we should.  Deep down inside, we unconsciously forget - or worse, intentionally disbelieve - that His ways are better than ours.

I'm as guilty of that as anybody.  The difference, I know it, and I'm trying to let Him guide me, instead of my own warped self-confidence.  Sometimes I like to think I'm carrying a righteous banner when I pursue an argument, but how much of that really is more personal pride in winning an argument than making sure I'm standing for God's honor?

Remember the Fruit of the Spirit?  Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.  Not so we become doormats, but so we glorify God in all that we do.  We can get angry out of righteous indignation, but we're still not to sin.  And if sin can be defined as anything that diverts glory from God to ourselves, as well as anything that detracts from God's glory, how might we re-calibrate the ways in which we communicate?  Not only to the unsaved, but also to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Hot-headedness is considered a virtue by many people.  But it's kinda hard to remain hot-headed while you're praying, isn't it?  When you're talking to God, you realize that all of our battles here on Earth are really His battles.

Battles for which, don't forget, He's already won the victory.  We don't win anything for God.

So how does bickering over battle plans help anything?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Raw Truth About Our Nanny State

If you think life on this planet can't possibly get much worse, consider this:

You have a 90% chance of eating mislabeled sushi in Los Angeles, California.

Oh, the horror!  A recent study published today on warns that "species substitution" may be taking place in 55% of the city's supermarkets, and almost all of its celebrated raw fish emporiums.  In other words, that fish for which Angelinos are paying a premium may not be the fish they think they're eating.

By way of full disclosure, I have never in my life had sushi, as the very idea of eating raw seafood makes me gag.  I like chilled shrimp and lobster, but they have to have been cooked first.

According to the non-profit watchdog group, Oceana, the most common fish subject to species substitution are red snapper, Dover sole, and white tuna.  In fact, red snapper was mislabeled 100% of the time in their testing.  Apparently, Oceana ran tests in various cities across the country, but found the most flagrant violations in the City of Angels.

Democratic state Senator Ted Lieu didn't need Oceana's report for him to file a bill in February legislating how restaurants are to label fish in California.  Lieu justifies his proposed law by reasoning that food poisoning is a major problem in the United States, and uncooked seafood can contribute to that problem.  But can you get sick from mislabeled seafood?  Species substitution usually involves simple deceit, using a cheaper fish in place of its more expensive cousin, so the consumer gets ripped off and the restaurant makes more money.  It's not like restaurants and seafood stores are swapping talapia for the exotic - and toxic - blowfish.

On the one hand, who really cares if  Los Angeles sushi lovers are being swindled after willingly paying for fish that isn't even cooked.  After all, would it be cheaper if it was properly cooked?  So what if restaurants are taking further advantage of their patrons' ignorance about fish by pulling a switcheroo in the kitchen?  Seems to me if you're already going to pay a restaurant NOT to cook your food, what difference does it make if they continue the charade and NOT serve what you ordered?

I didn't like sushi before learning of this study, and there's nothing here that changes my mind about it now.

Having said all of that, however, and pontificated about the vanity of sushi, let me redeem myself to all of you raw fish lovers out there, and point out why this is an important story.

It's the whole nanny-state thing.

If fishmongers weren't mislabeling fish, which is what Oceana suspects is part of the problem, and restaurants weren't greedily willing to substitute cheaper fish in place of the more expensive fish for which their customers are paying, then Senator Lieu wouldn't be parading another bill through the California legislature, adding to the plethora of laws by which small businesses will need to abide.  Because let's face it:  there aren't many major corporations selling sushi who can absorb additional regulations in their already-massive overhead.  Not that we should assume major corporations should have to absorb higher overhead costs any more than vulnerable Mom and Pop shops?

And if sushi lovers already think the price of their uncooked seafood is high, who do they think will be paying down the road for the extra work Lieu's legislation may kickstart?

Incidental mistakes in labeling fish are to be expected, but mislabeling red snapper 100% of the time isn't a mistake.  It's fraud.

And yes, like sharks drawn to blood, lawmakers consider any level of fraud a perfect excuse for another law.  Add up this example with all of the other little examples of fraud-fed laws, and pretty soon, you can see how much the lack of ethics costs us.

Raw fish.  Now we know something else smelly about it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Views of Skyscraper News

It was supposed to open yesterday.

April 15, 2012.  Tax day in the United States.  The Ides of April.

Except it was supposed to open in Pyongyang, North Korea, as part of this past weekend's 100th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Kim Il Sung, father of that country's despotic Communist dynasty.

What is it?  Well, that depends on whom you ask.  Several years ago, Esquire dubbed it the "Hotel of Doom," an unfinished luxury hotel of a "brutalist" aesthetic (to use a slang architectural vernacular) in one of brutal Communism's final wastelands.  Derided for decades while its hulking, 105-story concrete shell decayed, unfinished, an Egyptian conglomerate has apparently slathered some sleek glass panels across its tetrahedronical form and come close to polishing it off.

Close, yet apparently still not in time for this weekend's pageantry, which included, among other bizarre flops, North Korea's self-destructing rocket.  As of today, there's still no word that the hotel managed to open on what would have been the latest deadline for a project doomed from the start.

Ryugyong Hotel, as it sat for years: just an enormous concrete shell.
Back in the 1980's, Ryugyong Hotel would have been the world's tallest hotel, had it been completed on its first official timetable.  But its construction stalled, after two years of heady - and hefty - concrete sculpting couldn't keep pace with dwindling financial and materiel infusions from the crumbling Soviet Union.  By the mid-1990's, after being abandoned for several years, experts were dubious that it could be salvaged.  Rumor had it that elevator shafts were crooked, concrete had been mixed inaccurately, and that being left open to the elements during North Korea's extreme temperatures for so long would make any reasonable attempts at finishing the project unlikely.

And they were right - at least when it comes to "reasonable."  A term which, of course, had already been stretched to the limits of its legitimacy, since this was a frivolous hotel being built in one of the world's most impoverished countries.  Skyscraper technology - like rocket technology - is not North Korea's strong suit.  Instead, oppression, deprivation, and severe order are North Korea's strong suit, even as the Ryugyong's new, glassy facade beams ever still lifelessly over the hapless residents of Pyongyang.

Impressive it may have always been, whether in the foreboding despair of its formerly unfinished shell, or the surprisingly modern stance with which its Egyptian contractors have managed to sheath it.  But in terms of meeting a need, when starvation is rampant across North Korea, wide boulevards are eerily devoid of life, no private corporations function north of the De-Militarized Zone, and the country is officially closed to non-Communistic tourism, does a 105-story hotel with a revolving restaurant qualify as progress?

Ryugyong Hotel with glass facade installed.
Estimations by experts in South Korea and other First World nations put the costs at salvaging the Ryugyong in the billions of dollars, a sizable chunk of what anybody can realistically identify as North Korea's economy.  Even if Orascom, the Egyptian firm which invested a minimum of $400 million to assume the project and install telecommunications equipment at its apex, manages to finish-out the interior into a lodging facility worthy of any star, will it ever achieve 100% occupancy?  On a regular, profitable basis?

Critics pan Orascom's inclusion of telecommunications equipment into the project as dubious, considering the fact that ordinary North Koreans are prohibited from owning cell phones or accessing the Internet.  Indeed, Pyongyang is not one of the world's major iPhone markets.  It's been suggested that the Ryugyong is simply an Orwellian icon for the relentless government spying and personal intrusions to which North Koreans have already become acclimated in their totalitarian regime.

If it ever gets built-out inside and furnished as a hotel, having a foreign telecommunications company helping foot the bill for its completion should make any potential customers think twice.  Who would assume that their every move inside the Ryugyong won't be watched meticulously via sophisticated cameras, sensors, and other bugging devices?  Even North Korea's own government elite, the folks Pyongyang will most likely recruit as guests for their charade at the Ryugyong, would probably prefer to spend their free time in their own apartments where they already know where the secret microphones are located.

The Shard, a glassy obelisk of sorts, in London
Oddly enough, the North Koreans, who have a variety of traditional alcoholic beverages they enjoy, may run into some stiff opposition if the executives at Egypt's Orascom impose strict Sharia standards to their towering investment.  Turns out, the latest controversial skyscraper being erected half a world away in London right now, the Shard, is owned by Qatari Muslims who have already restricted alcohol consumption in their yet-to-be-completed trophy.  It's made for some secretly difficult attempts to fill the building's lower floors with posh restaurants, since they make significant chunks of their profits from alcohol sales.

Fortunately for the Brits, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, which also owns England's iconic Harrod's Department Store, is obtaining a special Islamic "dispensation" so it can sell alcohol in their home country during its hosting of the 2022 World Cup in Doha.  Maybe it can still do the same for its Shard.

And maybe Egypt can piggyback on the dispensation for the Ryugyong.

Last week, the Shard, designed by celebrity architect Renzo Piano, unofficially became the tallest building in Europe when the final steel framing for its superstructure was welded into place.  While it's easy to poke fun at the Ryugyong as being completely frivolous, the Shard is being constructed in a hot commercial office district in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth.

As if, from out of nowhere, the Islamic domination of the world's haughty skyscraper race increases its reach from Pyongyang to London.  For them, the sky apparently is the limit.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Counting Joy with Dollar Signs?

I've told you before:  this blog is as much for me as it is for you.

In fact, many times, I'm talking more to myself than anybody else.  So you'll excuse me as I work out some cathartic therapy regarding money.

Money, my lack of it, and my frequent envy of people who have way more of it than I do.

People like the Dallas couple who are hosting an information session for a missions organization I used to support (before the missionary I supported through them transferred to a different organization).  I still get all the mailings from this prior missions agency, and I received an invitation today to attend this year's get-together with its leaders who serve overseas.

Despite already knowing I'm not going, I Google-Maps'ed the address on the invitation out of curiosity, because the last time I did attend their annual event, it was held at a posh McMansion in University Park, one of Dallas' most exclusive enclaves.

And no, this year's meeting isn't in University Park, but in an equally-exclusive neighborhood near the compound of former president George W. Bush.  This home is even grander than the manse in University Park, with an ornate wrought-iron fence along the street, a sweeping circle drive leading up to an impressive two-story entryway, and opulent urns holding flowers in each corner of the motor court in front of the front door.  It looks like a miniature French palace.

Cake was probably on the event's menu, too.

I confess that I was disgusted.  Embarrassed that I will never own such a home, and even somewhat chagrined that I don't even have the drive to push myself to earn the money it takes to own such a home.  After all, a friend once told me that the only thing keeping me from earning the big money Dallas' elite earn is the enormous ambition.  He told me a lot of the wealthy people he knows are dumber than I am; they just have that drive to excel in careers that pay big bucks.

But that's small comfort, isn't it, knowing I have the intelligence it takes, but not the thirst?  When I'm living where I'm living, tithing and giving what I think I can to cross-cultural missions, and these people are doing the same thing - at least, ostensibly - while living in a $3.4 million house.  At least, that's its appraised value for tax purposes.  It would likely sell for much more, especially with its five bedrooms, four fireplaces, and two - count 'em, two - wet bars.

Yes, I researched the property on Dallas County's tax site.  Is that really bad of me?

Hey - I was disgusted, remember?  What business did this missions organization have continuing to pester me with requests for money when at least one of their board members lives this kind of lifestyle?  Remember, $3.4 million is just the taxable value; then there's the cost of furnishing a place like this, paying the summer air conditioning bills, having a small army of landscapers grooming the grounds every week... and I'm pretty sure the lady of the house doesn't clean all of its 10,000 square feet of living space by herself.

And what did a board member at an evangelical missions agency need with two wet bars, anyway?

Maybe part of my frustration stems from the fact that I did my taxes this morning, and as a freelance writer, you can guess that the process - and its outcome - didn't exactly flood me with joy.  Isn't it odd how the IRS can actually make you feel guilty about being paid for your work?  Alas, even if I had been getting a nice, fat refund this year, it likely wouldn't have put me in a better frame of mind when I learned about the home owned by this mission agency's board member.

Let's face it:  I struggle with envy.  Sometimes, I don't "struggle" with envy, but that simply means that at those times, I've caved in completely to it.  Wallowing in a good old, green-eyed fit.

As they say in pentecostal churches, "Can I get a witness?!"  Indeed, I know this is not an experience unique to me.  And I daresay the owners of this home might even look with envy towards the homeowners at both ends of their street who each own an even more palatial mansion with exquisite English gardens and separate gated service entrances.  I saw them - on the same Google-Maps search.

Indeed:  wealth, like almost everything else, is relative.

Which reminds me of a sermon I once heard from the former pastor at my church, Park Cities Presbyterian.  Park Cities Presbyterian counts among its congregation a sizable stable of millionaires and at least one billionaire.  Yup - the guy's on several Forbes lists.  Suffice it to say that it's a wealthy church, with a budget before the Great Recession that ran over $12 million annually.

You'd think a church like Park Cities Presbyterian wouldn't have any problems with money, but you'd be surprised.  Many people in the church don't tithe at all, and that's the problem.  I used to be one of those people.  For years, even after I started attending, I'd send my tithe to my old church in New York City, figuring they needed my money more than my Dallas church with its legions of uber-wealthy congregants.

Yet Dr. Ryan, our former senior pastor, caught on to the misguided thinking of people like me at Park Cities.  One Sunday, he bluntly challenged all of us to reconsider the principle of the tithe.  First of all, it's not our money we're giving to the church; it's God's money we're returning to him.  Second of all, we're not supposed to give in relation to what we suspect other people are giving.  Proof of that is the widow's mite, where a destitute elderly woman gave all she had, while people far wealthier than she were giving a far less generous portion of their money to the temple.

And the third thing?  God looks at the heart.  He looks at why we're giving, not just what.  He wants cheerful givers, not people who give out of obligation.  He wants people to return a portion of His money back to Him so that we'll need to trust Him to provide our needs.

It's not so much the amount, or percentage, of the tithes and offerings, but our attitude.

Shucks, I'm probably guilty on all counts more often than not.

So, what is the amount we're supposed to return to him?  Many people say it's ten percent, but like one of my former pastors at another church, Randy Frazee, liked to say, "ten percent is a convenient starting point.  We're not going to stop you from giving more!"

Basically, money is something you and I use to gauge how well we're doing.  But we're comparing ourselves with each other when we do that, aren't we?  And what kind of standard are you?  What kind of standard am I?  You're pegging your worth on something as unreliable and faulty as me, and I'm reciprocating.

No offense, by the way.  That's just the way it is.  And even though you're probably wealthier than I am, do you ever give out of true joy?  I'm wealthier than some folks, and I'm rarely joyful when I tithe.  It's usually more obligation than anything else, but the funny thing is, God doesn't "need" our money.  His Kingdom work won't sputter to a stop if you and I don't return to Him a portion of what's His to begin with.  The whole point of tithes and offerings is to increase our happiness in service to Him.

This means I shouldn't care if the board member at this cross-cultural missions organization lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.  I shouldn't even care if he and his wife are tithing fifty to sixty percent of their income, which means this home of theirs pales in comparison to what they could afford if they didn't tithe so much.

Dear Lord God, please help me to be satisfied and joyful and giving, and not to make any of this a competition. 

After all, it's not "he who dies with the most toys," but "he who dies with the most joy."

Which, actually, means Christ has already won, since He counted it "all joy" to be crucified for us.

The payment that matters most, amen?