Wandering the savage garden…

Response to an Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Someone posted An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham on Facebook, expecting it to be controversial (it came with a warning!) and I read it with interest. I commented on the letter itself, but I wanted to preserve it here just in case it got moderated away for some reason (I don’t expect it to be, but still, it’s my thought and I wanted to keep it. Plus, I wanted to be able to edit it to add some relevant information that I didn’t include when I wrote my original comment.)

It was an interesting letter, but it missed the mark on a few things.

For one thing, the sarcasm was appreciated by, well, me – because I love sarcasm, and I say that without sarcasm – but it’s directed at a man who publicly supported Trump. Sarcasm is not only wasted on such people, in my opinion, but it actually occludes the point; they don’t recognize it.

I thought this sentence was well done: “We just preach the good news of Jesus Christ; love one another the best we can (which sometimes isn’t very well); feed the hungry that come to our doors; care for the sick; comfort the dying; and bury the dead.” But… it ended up diminishing the role of the “good news” (the freaking Gospel, our whole mission and the point of everything for Christians) and emphasizing service. I know evangelical Christians who’ve forgotten how to help the needy, and I know people who call themselves Christians because all they do is help the needy. Between the two of them, as I understand the New Testament, the former are wayward Christians and the latter are just wayward.

See Matthew 7:21-23, using the HCSB for once:

21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’”

The loss of religious freedom is a fundamental point, and it’s where the pastor goes most astray. It’s not a loss of religious freedom to refuse to bake a cake for someone, but it’s also not discrimination to refuse to bake a cake, in the legal sense. That’s not a loss of religious freedom, it’s a loss of personal freedom, which is a much deeper issue; Rev. Graham is conflating the two, and in error… and Peter (the author of the letter) is mistaking civil liberty for a mandate to help the needy.

Funny thing: when I was married, we had a cake. But if we didn’t have one, I’d still be married. Having the cake was nice, it was traditional, I guess, but did I need it? Were my needs met by having a cake? No, they weren’t, apart from an abstract desire to have my wife’s wishes for traditionalism fulfilled.

So is denying someone a cake the same as denying them food? No, it’s not, and the President at the time of the most well-known cases of this nature asserted the same thing, by saying that we needed to feed our children something other than cheap slop in our schools. A wedding cake is a poor choice for the hungry; they’d be better off with chicken noodle soup or something like that. When the hungry come in demanding wedding cake, the reasonable response is not “sure, have a $200 cake” but “Hey, let me spend $12 on a bunch of soup cans and feed you for a week.”

On Trump… I agree. I do not understand how evangelical Christians can support Trump actively; I can understand that they might support Trump in opposition to Mrs. Clinton, but that’s reactive and not active; that’s “any other port in a storm,” and not “preference for the port with a whirlpool in it.”

Passover and Power

Passover is a marvelous holiday, celebrating and illustrating a lot about the relationship between the believer and God, and a marvelous example of the mercy God shows us.

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me a transcript of a “discussion” he’d had with someone else. The third person – we’ll call him “C,” since I’m “A,” and my friend is “B” – was trying to insult the idea of God, saying that God was asking for human help to figure out which babies to murder.

My friend didn’t really answer the challenge as posed, instead pointing out at length that C wasn’t actually asking anything, but was instead trying to score some cheap points at the mere cost of only his dignity and intellect. I understood that response, but I do rather wish B had answered C’s question.

So I’m going to try to substitute for B, since he’s too lazy to actually expound on it himself.


The Passover (פֶּסַח, pesach) is described in Exodus 12:29-32, with the relevant preparation beginning at Exodus 12:1-13. The preparation was, put incompletely, to mark the doorpost with the blood of a lamb (along with a number of other things, relevant but secondary for the purpose here). When the angel of death (or, if you like, “the destroyer” as the ESV writes it, or “the one who ruins” from the Hebrew) went to each house, it saw the blood on the lintel and passed over that home. The Egyptians didn’t do this, and thus the tenth plague (the loss of the firstborn) was such that there was not a house where someone had not died (Exodus 12:30).

The criticism offered by C was simple: why did the angel need human help in deciding to who slay and who to preserve? Doesn’t that imply a limit to the power of God? And if God is limited in power, doesn’t that strike against the possibility of there being a God in the first place?

However, C’s missing some important ideas.

There are three things I’d like to consider, the first of which was implied by B, and the last of which was actually observed directly by B, days later, and the middle of which is actually pretty important, too, but it’s mine. They are:

  1. Power
  2. The loss of the innocents
  3. The irony of atheistic criticism of Biblical events based on Biblical history

Power (or, the involvement in one’s own defense)

So let’s dive in. First, did the ruiner need the Hebrews’ involvement? The answer is no and yes.

The answer is “no” in that the destroyer was acting as the messenger for God (thus, “an angel” is one rendering.) Did God know who the Hebrews were? One presumes so, since He communicated with them and selected them specifically. If that’s the case, surely God could select them based on His will and knowledge… but He chose not to, because the Hebrews were expected to participate.

There’s an old joke that seems faintly relevant:

A man’s house was threatened by a great storm. When the flooding began, rescuers sent a truck, and he rejected rescue, saying that God would rescue him. Then when the floodwaters entered his home, he went to the roof, where a helicopter offered to pick him up; he said no, saying that God would rescue him. When his roof was covered, a boat tried to pick him out of the water, and he said no, saying that he had faith in God to rescue him. He then drowned. Meeting God at last, he protested, saying “Why didn’t You rescue me?,” to which God replied, “What do you mean? I sent a truck, I sent a helicopter, I sent a boat…”

The man in that joke was refusing his own power in his situation. He had to choose to accept rescue, but instead chose to be passive… and died. Thankfully it’s only a joke, but it’s pretty illustrative… and accurate, within that point.

After all, the covenant between the Hebrews and God was exactly that: a covenant. It was entered into, actively, by both participants. Even the Sh’ma (starting at Deuteronomy 6:4) is worded as involving an act by the Hebrews; the first words are “Hear, O Israel,” and Israel – the Hebrews – were expected to listen, to hear — not passively, but to hear, to understand, to commit, to act. Passively hearing wasn’t enough; hearing meant identifying with what was heard, grokking it, not just noting it.

So the passover was not just God sending a message to the Egyptians, but also a message to the Hebrews: they were expected to sacrifice something too. They were expected to act. They were expected to participate.

It wasn’t God needing their help in identifying who and who not to punish – it was God expecting them to be involved, personally and directly.

The Loss of the Innocents

There are a lot of explanations regarding the loss of the firstborn Egyptians; some amount to what might be considered foolish chatter.

An example of foolish chatter: some rabbis claimed that multiple children died in many households, because the children of that household were all the firstborn of one of their parents – thus implying rampant adultery, a sign of the pestilence of Egyptian culture. Maybe it’s true – I don’t know, but the Torah doesn’t address that aspect of the culture, and I find that particular accusation distasteful, and I think many other rabbis did as well. It feels petty to take the loss of innocents to that level.

Less foolish is the idea that the Egyptians were receiving what they had demanded themselves; Moshe’s birth is documented as taking place after Pharaoh demanded that all male Hebrew children were to be put to death at birth. The death of the Egyptian firstborn, by that light, seems like a just illustration: “May you who valued the Hebrew children so little suffer the pain you wished inflicted upon others.” That’s not likely to be much of a comfort to the actual children involved, but it seems just when looked at through the eyes of a corporate culture (i.e., culture considered as a whole and not as a set of individuals.)

In retrospect, I think Judaism is a little saddened by the loss of the innocent Egyptians – better that the Hebrews had been let go to worship God in the wilderness for a few days than have the loss of all of that life. (After all, that was what Moshe asked for, for the Hebrews to be allowed to worship God — not their freedom! Their freedom ensued when the Egyptians refused to allow them to worship God at all.)

Irony

In retrospect, C’s accusation is amusing.

This is a fellow whose archetype is likely to claim that even Christ did not historically exist; the stories in Genesis are myth, the histories in the Old Testament are lies. However, this doesn’t prevent such people from blaming the Israelites for the horrors being lied about.

I don’t quite understand that. After all, that’s like reading Jack and the Beanstalk, and proceeding to prosecute Jack for the death of the giant… if the story’s not real, then the things recorded in it can’t be relied upon in order to form a negative opinion (after all, any atrocities would be considered as something like “let me tell you about the time that my team won the game!”)

If the stories are real, then you have to consider whether the context of the stories are real, too… in which case the events have to be considered as artifacts of their time and place, much like one would have to wonder whether the loss of the Egyptian firstborn wasn’t justified in any way.

Of course, that kind of consideration is often beyond the capabilities of those who are merely intending to snipe at the Bible.

More’s the pity for that – I think those discussions would be worth having.

Re-emerging?

Wow, it’s been something like nine months since I’ve last posted. I’m not sure why – there’s been a lot of turmoil in life, but it’s not like I haven’t been thinking, or praying, or living, for that matter. I just haven’t posted anything; most of my thoughts have been so focused on the moment I’m in that none of them have really been worth preserving.

I had lots of thoughts about the recent election in the United States – one that resulted in our election of the “Honorable Donald J. Trump,” with few apparently recognizing the sarcasm inherent in that phrase. However, my thoughts tended to be negative – I have a hard time accepting the election of a President with whom I’d be unwilling to leave my wife alone. I try to keep negative thoughts away from this site, so I curtailed the subject.

My sons have been enduring their own challenges, based on their maturations; my youngest entered high school, my middle son is finding out about life as an adult, and my oldest is trying to determine a direction in life. They’re all struggling, in their own ways; I’m proud of all of them, but they’re all having to endure sea changes of their own.

They’re doing it with as much support as my wife and I can manage to offer them, as far as we think it proper to give. (At some point, they’re adults – or young men, at least, in my youngest’s case – and too much support from their parents would stunt them.) However, something my wife said a couple of days ago was one of the saddest phrases I think I’ve heard in a long time.

We relied too much on the church.

In a way, she’s right. We expected the church to support us – instead, the social structure of our church actually worked against our kids, even though the church was (and is) sound theologically. They mean well. They were just not successful with our kids; our kids ended up being marginalized by the church, relied upon without compensatory support, expected to lead against their wills and before they were ready to commit to such leadership.

Make sure your church pays attention to every one of its members – even you.

Goats in Sheeps’ Clothing

People don’t know who Christians are, and I think that’s largely because people don’t know what it actually means to be a Christian. As a result, a lot of people think that they represent Christianity, when they … just don’t. Nonchristians see the disparity between people who are actually Christian and people who claim Christianity, and confusion ensues.

For an example, one person I know (and respect, actually) claims that he was raised as a Christian, but when given a chance, is free to condemn Christianity… while never praising Christ. There’s nothing wrong with the former, honestly; Christianity isn’t perfect by any measure that I can see. (Our righteousness – such that it is – comes from Christ, not the church itself.)

There’s nothing wrong with saying that Christianity isn’t perfect – but there’s a lot wrong with not showing Christ in how you live.

Another person proclaimed that Christians – sorry, “Christians” – he knew had told him that he’d be a great Christian despite his atheism, because of his attitude toward the poor and disenfranchised. I suppose that he – and they – thought that a liberal outlook makes one a Christian worthy of the label. This same person said that Christians didn’t bother him – but evangelicals did.

I’m horrified by both people. (Well, not by the people, but by their attitudes towards Christianity.) I can’t judge the former person’s life – they say they’re Christian because they were “raised Christian,” but I can’t say that they don’t have a relationship with Christ. They just don’t show it much. (And obviously the atheist would claim otherwise in any event.)

The first fellow is someone who thinks he’s a Christian because he’s been told he’s a Christian – he’s been labeled, and he accepts that label because it fits into the narrative of his life. Rejecting that label would become a rejection of his own past, so he doesn’t evaluate whether the label was applied properly or not – and since he doesn’t actually care about Christianity, he does no investigation to understand whether the label was justified.

The latter person is one whom I struggle to understand, and honestly, that’s an aspect where Christianity has truly failed: this is an intelligent person who misunderstands the simple axioms that make Christianity what it is. Christianity has failed this person on a grand scale, by not being clear about itself. (See? I have no problem criticizing Christianity! What a Christian I am!)

Here’s the thing. Christianity is not:

  • Feeding the hungry.
  • Housing the poor.
  • Healing the sick.
  • Teaching the uneducated.
  • Sheltering the homeless.

Christianity is:

  • Having an individual relationship with Christ such that you believe He died for your sins.

If you are a Christian, then it follows that you might feed the hungry, or house the poor, or heal the sick, or teach the uneducated, or shelter the homeless – because those are the things that flow from the love of Christ reflected through you. But people who say that they’re Christian because they do those things – who make the relationship with Christ optional – aren’t really espousing the love of Christ.

They’re acting Christian, not being Christian.

A Christian can be a Christian while doing none of those things – but a Christian also lives for Christ, such that others might see Christ in them. And Christ loved everyone, enough to die for them… and loving someone means feeding them when they’re hungry, or housing them, or … helping them, showing them the love of Christ actively.

That’s how they’ll come to Christ, through that act of worship. Just helping someone, with no motivation of Christ, is better than doing nothing, I suppose, but the motive of a Christian should always be the display of the love of Christ.

And I don’t mean forcing it down someone’s throat, either. Loving someone through Christ means showing them the love of Christ, not telling someone about it, especially if there are contextual reasons they might not accept the words – imagine helping someone who’s been victimized by the church, for example.

My prayer is that people would understand Christianity for themselves, and then live it.