Cautionary Tales About Pigeons, Sparrows and Ideological Extremes

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For those who still remember Paul Harvey and miss his “and now you know the rest of the story” delivery style, Lance Geiger will scratch the itch. His episodes, on “The History Guy” YouTube channel, have been my entertainment in the morning before work and enjoy the storytelling adventure before his “forgotten history that deserves to be remembered” wrap-up at the end.

His show is not political. But two of the episodes sparked my thinking about the danger of ideological extremes and the need for checks and balances. One story an example of the central planning gone seriously awry, the other about the unfortunate consequences of technological development combined with market forces, and both stories involve the extinction or near extinction of a species of birds.

Socialized Sparrows and Starvation

The first video, “When China went to war with sparrows” is about the “Four Pests Campaign” that was part of the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The idea was to eliminate certain types of critters as a way to increase hygiene and reduce disease. The targets, mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows, were picked by the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong. Claiming that “birds are the public animals of capitalism,” armed with a population bound to statist fervor, they dramatically reduced the numbers of sparrows.

The end result of this sparrow control campaign was an ecological disaster. As it turns out, holding to Marxist ideals does not make a person an expert on economic development or biological science, and this deliberate elimination of sparrows came with some very serious consequences. This misguided policy is believed to be a leading cause of the Great Chinese Famine, a catastrophe that cost between 15 to 45 million human deaths and was abandoned when Chinese authorities, on the advice of an actual ornithologist, finally realized their terrible mistake.

Che Guevara T-shirt wearing, professional far-leftist ‘rabble-rousers’ may celebrate “people power” when it aligns with their personal prejudices. They often sit smugly and sanctimonious, on their intellectual ivory towers, confusing their book acquired knowledge and ideological indoctrination for wisdom. But given real power these people are dangerous. Mao Zedong, the well-educated son of a wealthy farmer, was not an idiot or especially ignorant. But the masses he controlled (with his anti-Capitalist rhetoric) amplified his mistakes, caused great suffering and claimed many innocent lives.

Sparrows, as it turns out, help to control locust populations. These bugs, now unrestrained by the sparrows, quickly proliferated and went on a crop-destroying rampage. This, along with the reckless use of pesticides and poisons by the Chinese government, was all well-intentioned. Likewise, there are many Socialist policies, championed in the past century in this country, that have failed us as miserably and yet continue to be touted as solutions. Unlike Mao, however, our crop of ‘progressives’ more often doubles down on their mistake, hiding behind their ever more convoluted logic, rather than ever reconsider.

Capitalized Pigeons and Profitable Purges

The second video, “How the extinction of a species affected whiskey production,” deals with the plight of the passenger pigeon. This North American species was once so numerous that the flocks would blot out the sun was hunted to extinction, the last of the birds dying September 1, 1915.

Native Americans had hunted passenger pigeons as they were plentiful and a good source of protein. But, because of the limits of their technology and smaller population size, never put a dent in the numbers of pigeons. But this would all change with the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Trains, telegraphs, and gunpowder enabled more people to join the hunt at pigeon nesting grounds. One well-aimed blast from a two barrelled shotgun could kill as many as 61 birds and tens of thousands were slaughtered with great ease.

The real compounding factor was not the hunters, not the tools that they used, but was rather the money and markets that gave them motivation. Unlike in times past where it only made sense to hunt for only enough to sustain your own family or village, the railroads made it possible to ship vast quantities of the fowl meat to city markets back East. The apparent plentifulness of the birds masked the severe drop in their numbers and the cheap source of protein (or profit) they provided ensured the hunts would continue.

That is not to say that nobody was aware of the decline of the species. There were indeed attempts to reign in the slaughter in the mid-1800s. But these conservationist efforts never gained enough traction to make a difference, the legislation introduced too little too late, and extinction followed.

It would be easy to say this plunder of natural resources was a product of greed. But, insomuch as greed is a selfish excess, that is not an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If it were greedy or selfish for one to merely act in their own self-interest then we would all be equally guilty for breathing. The real problem is that no individual accounted for more than their own harvest. There was not nearly enough consideration for the big picture and market forces took care of the rest.

In a Capitalistic system, productive behavior rewarded. That reward is distributed to those who have the ability and motivation to work. But, without anything to hold this motivation in check, a mass of humanity can quickly become like a swarm of locust devouring everything in its path. The beauty of the Capitalistic system is that it allows people to do more to advance their own self-interests and that is also the downfall of Capitalism as well.

What Is the Moral to the Story?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Perhaps if God cares about the sparrows we should as well?

In the two stories economic systems that could not be more different and produced nearly the same results. Both cases demonstrate the power of a mass of people and remind me of the demotivational poster in my bedroom (gifted from my awesome little sister) featuring a circle of skydivers and the text: “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

The poster, a satirical take on motivational posters, is meant as tongue in cheek humor and not to be taken too serious.

Nevertheless, as there is truth to every joke, the useful message is that it is prudent to stand apart from the crowd, to resist conformity and ask questions. Had enough people questioned the party propaganda or the collective actions of their profit-seeking neighbors the death of millions of Chinese and the extinction of passenger pigeons could have been avoided.

These accounts of pigeons and sparrows are also cautionary tales about two opposite ideological extremes. In Socialism the stupid decisions of a small group of people can be vastly magnified by the subjugated masses. In Capitalism the masses, motivated by profit and market forces, can become a source of terrible devastation. The central planning of collectivists and the lack thereof in individualistic and free-market systems both come with their own unique manifestations of the same risk.

It is worthwhile to note that the unchecked power of the central state, in the path century, is responsible for more deaths (due to wars, genocides, famines, etc) than any one person or group of people motivated by profit. Government policies, often favoring big corporations or particular individuals, at very least contribute as much to the problem as individual desire to profit and are, in fact, responsible for some of the worst man-made ecological disasters in modern times.

However, the properly restrained state can provide a good counterbalance to market forces, to keep the masses from acting like a runaway train unaware of the destruction at the end of the tracks and offers some necessary protection for endangered species. It is for our own long-term good that there are limits to our freedoms.

In the end, I’m not for unrestrained Capitalism anymore than I am for unrestrained government power. As much as possible I prefer to let people make their own choices and therefore, for that reason, shade towards free markets—which, when not interfered with by governments through subsidies or social programs, are the most democratic institution known to men. It is better to allow mistakes to be corrected at a lower level through bankruptcy and individual loss. That said, the extinction of the passenger pigeon speaks to the need for a collective consciousness to hold back our self-interested impulses.

Much destruction can be caused by taking a good thing too far or not keeping it properly restrained by other equally valid principles and concerns. Do not repeat the mistakes of these competing ideological extremes and their equal potential for economically or ecologically disastrous results. Remember the sparrows. Remember the pigeons.

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Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

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Judas is the most tragic characters of the Gospel account. Here was a man who was in the inner circle of those who had (at least outwardly) forsaken all and followed after Jesus. He was as close to Jesus as one could physically be, no doubt had done everything required of him, how did this man go from a chosen disciple to betrayer? And, more importantly, how do we avoid this same terrible end ourselves?

The Gospel accounts do not leave us without a clue as far as the motives of Judas:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:3‭-‬6 NIV)

Judas, in his sanctimonious rebuke of this woman’s extravagant display of worship, appears to be speaking up for the poor. But John slams Judas, saying he didn’t actually care about the poor, that he was really just a thief and stealing from the common purse.

We also know that Judas would soon betray Jesus for some silver coins.

Most thieves have justified themselves in some way and I’m doubtful that Judas saw his own motives in the same unflattering terms used by John and the other disciples. Judas probably had good intentions, at least some of the time, and probably saw himself as justified in what he did.

Moreover, Judas likely did not see himself as a villain at all. In fact, he was that devastated, upon realizing that his betrayal would lead to the death of Jesus, that he took his own life. There would be no reason for his suicide if his plan was to see Jesus killed. Nobody kills themselves because things went as they wanted them to go.

Why did Judas follow Jesus as long as he did?

There is plenty of reason to believe that Judas was like any of the other disciples and initially captivated by Jesus. However, he, like the other disciples, was likely looking for a political leader who would end Roman oppression and bring about an era of social justice or make Isreal great again. That is, after all, how the Jewish Messiah was described in Scripture:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord . He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is also, very literally, what Jesus told them:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 NIV)

The disciples followed after Jesus expecting to be rulers with him in kingdom soon to be established, where they would be able to bring an end to injustice and right all the wrongs in the world. They were Biblical literalists, that is what Jesus told them, and therefore that is what they anticipated would be the ultimate reward for their devotion.

These guys were not Sunday school teachers, they weren’t there to play church either, rather they were a bunch of sword-carrying radicals who followed Jesus thinking they would see the overthrow of Rome. They, like revolutionaries today, were motivated by political power and utopian idealism, that’s why they were so willing to give everything up to follow Jesus.

Judas was no different from the other disciples in this regard.

Why did Judas sell Jesus out at the end?

It is really easy to get behind a message of peace and justice—especially when you are promised a position of power.

Up until a certain point what Jesus said sounded like populist rhetoric. He spoke to the common people against the ruling elites. News of his miracles spread and got people excited. He gave the downtrodden hope that justice would reign. It is little wonder that the crowds of disenfranchised Jewish nationalists began to swell.

It is all fun when it is about affordable healthcare, free bread, and fish. People always like a vague message of hope and change. Promise them that their nation will be made great again and they’ll flock to you. Even today there are many willing to sacrifice their time and effort for political campaigns making similar promises. People will line up for a handout.

However, when Jesus began to talk strange, telling them to drink his blood and eat his flesh, we are told, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66 NIV) And, I mean, who can blame them? Jesus, when they started to get weirded out, only doubled down on this claim. It does not surprise that many began to express their doubts nor that this is when we start to hear more about a coming betrayal.

Judas, whether motivated by impatience or disillusionment with a leader going off the rails, seems to have sought to force the hand of Jesus. It could be he was also a bit upset having been shut down by Jesus for a point that seems very reasonable on the surface. Why, after everything Jesus had said, would they not sell the expensive perfume?

Of course, we also know that his motives were not as pure as his sanctimonious words would suggest. If Judas were honest, he was following Jesus primarily for the benefits he anticipated and just wanted more money in the bag he carried. It is, therefore, a tragically ironic twist that he received payment for his betrayal, despite not asking for it, and suddenly lost appetite for it at the end.

Why do people betray Jesus today?

Many who go to church and claim to love Jesus are truly his betrayers. They, like Judas, talk the talk, they may share their consternation for the state of the world, give up material possessions, and seem very spiritual and sincere. But beneath this righteous facade is a rotten core. Sure, they might say that they love Jesus, they may have even deceived themselves about their own corrupted motives, yet their real motivation is social standing, monetary gain, political power.

How do you know if you or someone else is a Judas?

Here are some of the tells…

#1) A Judas spreads gossip and backstabs…

A few years ago, when I most desperately need allies, I got wind of a rumor being spread about me. A young man, who would always be nice to my face, claimed to have overheard me saying something absolutely ridiculous. His claim was utter unadulterated nonsense and had the potential to be very damaging to my reputation.

Fortunately, not everyone took his word for it. A true friend asked me “did you say…” and gave me an opportunity to respond. I confronted this ‘brother’ (always so sweet to my face) for his backstabbing and got a quick apology as I recall. However, they did not seem too remorseful. In fact, while saying sorry to me, they went off on the person who came to me with the slander—which led to a second, slightly more animated, confrontation.

Gossip spreads like wildfire in many churches, it is easy to share salacious tidbits about other people, that may or may not be true, and sometimes a thrill that comes with it. Those who ply this trade often use the guise of friendship to obtain information and then piously disseminate their tales as prayer requests or concern. However, like Judas, the reality is that they are backstabbers and truly motivated by hidden jealousy or desire for social gain at the expense of others.

Gossip is a betrayal of Jesus. It is a kiss of Judas. It is a sin listed with murder and hate for God.

#2) A Judas engages in shady business…

Jesus told his followers to “let your yes be yes” (Matt. 5:37) and to “give back to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” (Matt. 22:21), but that does not stop many professing Christians from telling lies or trying to game the system in their favor. In fact, I’ve been severely disappointed in a few business transactions, with people trained to know better, where the other side reneged on their word.

In the worse cases, I’ve elected to take the approach of Psalms 26:4: “I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.”

Everyone works for a profit and there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get the most bang for your buck either. However, there comes a point where being shrewd in business crosses over into screwing other people over and goes from saving money to being a sin. Sadly, many faithful church attendees do not only flirt with this line, but they are so fully engaged in their lust for monetary gain that their word means nothing—they actually prefer making money over their commitment to Christian love.

This is a betrayal that takes many different forms, from the televangelist trying to exploit the vulnerable to the person who is miserly in regards to compensating employees, conveniently forgets a verbal agreement when another offer comes in, and otherwise can’t be trusted unless the terms are put in writing. And then there is the tax fraud, those who feel they have a special right to avoid payment and engage in questionable accounting practices to save a few dollars. Sure, a person should not pay more than they owe and yet it is very sad many have given Christians a bad reputation.

A handshake should not be necessary for a Christian to keep their word, let alone a legal contract, and stinginess in business is not a virtue. Jesus told us to give freely, to give the shirt off our back along with our coat if asked, and it certainly is not easy to truly live this out. However, if you can’t be a man of your word on Monday, then you are wasting your time going to church on Sunday morning. If making money is your primary objective during the week and justifies doing almost anything to win, then you have betrayed Jesus—you cannot serve two masters.

#3) A Judas believes that the ends justify the means…

One of the most egregious errors of the disciples, including Judas, was to assume that Jesus came to establish a worldly kingdom where they would rule with him. Their confusion about this left the disciples feeling devastated as Jesus hung on the cross. It could be the very thing that led Judas to betray Jesus as well.

Judas could’ve been attracted to Jesus because of his greed. He saw an opportunity to fleece the crowds (and his fellow disciples) and eventually decided to cash in. However, that seems more of a bond villain explanation and would leave most of us off the hook. More likely is that Judas was motivated (at least in part) by a political ideal, became a bit disgruntled with what he saw as slow progress, and intended to force the hand of Jesus.

Many today are like Judas. They see the objective as being a worldly utopian ideal. They attempt to use the teachings of Jesus as some sort of political roadmap. They seek to use the government to enforce Christian morality and subjugate their neighbors. To them, Jesus preached “social justice” or some other political machination and believe that any means of accomplishing their ends is acceptable. They weaponize Bible verses to gain an edge on political opponents, they constantly confuse the duties of church and state and their unloving attitudes turn many off to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus did not come to advance an ideological agenda nor to establish a new political order. His message was one of personal repentance and led by showing an example of self-sacrifice. He said, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and did not resist the unjust leaders even knowing it would cost him his life. He did not demand that his rights be respected nor did he ever urge his followers to become political activists.

Furthermore, Jesus, in his answering the indignation of Judas pertaining to the woman’s extravagant display, by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) is making a statement about his purpose. He did not come to right every wrong nor to overthrow those who oppressed his people through force, but rather he came to show God’s love and bring salvation from sin to the world.

Jesus may have used physical means, like miraculous healings, and had real compassion for all human needs, but his goal was always to prove who be was and promote spiritual ends. This is where many fail to comprehend. Some cynically use the teachings of Jesus cynically to advance their political agenda, whereas others very sincerely attempt to use politics to try to advance a Christian agenda, but both are examples of an “ends justify the means” logic and completely anti-Christian.

Christian ends are never severed through means of violence. Political ideologies—all justifications for use of government coercion—may pose as love, moral virtue, and application of Christian teachings, they are often packaged insidiously and hard to detect. However, like Judas on his high horse about the woman’s worship, it is only ever counterfeit—Christians moral ends never ever justify immoral means.

It makes little difference whether someone uses Jesus to advance political ends or uses political means to try and obtain Christian ends—both are a betrayal.

A something other kingdom…

In the end, what Judas and the other disciples lacked was comprehension and faith. Whether Peter swinging a sword at those arresting Jesus before fleeing and denying him, to Thomas doubting even after hearing the good news of the resurrection, the disciples grossly underestimated who Jesus was and sold themselves very short in the process.

Many who profess Christ today are no different than the disciples. They are motivated by things that really do not matter and may, in fact, put eternity in peril in the same way that Esau sold his birthright for a pot of stew. Lifelong church members, baptized at birth or a young age, will be held to a higher level of accountability than their unbelieving neighbors, and could end up crying “Lord, Lord” and told to depart at the final judgement. We need to decide now if sharing juicy bit of slander or a few dollars saved by means of dishonesty is worth our soul.

There are many more fearful, who have this idea that the trials we face today are unprecedented, who disobey Jesus because they do not see him as powerful enough to save them—like he did those Hebrew boys who faced down death when the fires of Babylonian tyranny burned hot. To them, to those always peddling doom amd fretting about the collapse of Western Civilization, maybe consider this story out of war-torn Syria: “Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State.

Does it matter if the world as we know it burns and Christ triumphs?

Even in betrayal Jesus brought glory to God in a way nobody expected—he defeated death by death, the grave could not hold him, and he rose again on the third day as he had promised to those who could not comprehend. It is because of that I will to forgive those who have betrayed my trust. Yes, they should be called out. Yes, they should repent and confess their sins as well. But the resurrection changes everything, those who truly believe are able to forgive all offenses—because to do otherwise is to be a betrayer of Christ.

Redemption In An Age Of Unjust Outrage—Should People Be Given Second Chances?

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was very well received and perhaps some of the reason for that being his call for redemption. Two of the special guests had been incarcerated during the Clinton administration (when things like “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes,” often disproportionately impacting minorities, became Federal law) and have been recently given their freedom.

The first mentioned was Alice Johnson who had been convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization (apparently not the CIA), sentenced to life in prison, and having their sentence commuted by the Trump administration:

Inspired by stories like Alice’s, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption.

The second guest mentioned, in relation to this redemption theme, was a man named Matthew Charles. Charles, with a face that beamed with gratitude, had been sentenced to 35 years in 1996 for selling crack cocaine in 1996 and became the first prisoner released under the “First Step Act” signed into law recently by Trump.

Like the President or not, this kind of criminal justice reform—after decades of excessive punishments—is something worthy of our praise. It is a first step back towards what once made America great and that being the opportunity to move on from our past failures, both individual or collective, and pursue a better tomorrow together.

Grievance Culture Never Forgives

Unfortunately, while legislative reforms are important, the President can’t undo a cultural progression away from Christian ideas of redemption and towards that of eternal grievance. Those sentenced by an outrage mob in the “court of public opinion” cannot face their accusers, they are denied any form of due process and are rarely, if ever, pardoned.

Media fueled public shaming campaigns, often at the behest of social justice warriors or their sympathizers, have destroyed careers mid-flight over a bad joke on Twitter—who can forget Justine Sacco’s sardonic quip about Africa, AIDS and race? One moment she was an anonymous leftist speaking cryptically about her white privilege to a small circle of friends and the next she is an international pariah for an allegedly racist remark.

Then there is Austen Heinz, the socially awkward genetic researcher and entrepreneur, who was driven to suicide by a bullying campaign led by Huffington Post, Daily Mail, BuzzFeed and other clickbait media sources.

His crime? He mentioned, off-the-cuff, some potential to change feminine scents, which was characterized as being “misogynistic” and “sexist” in one sensational story after another. Who knows what amazing breakthroughs someone as brilliant as Heinz could’ve produced in his lifetime had it not been cut tragically short by those who profit by pushing identity politics and division?

That’s not to say that there is no pushback against this sort of abuse. The wrongly accused boys from Covington Catholic High School are being represented in defamation lawsuits after suffering harassment and threats as a result of a media campaign, involving celebrities and other public figures, to shame them. One of the vicious commentators, Kathy Griffen, who called for their identities to be revealed and falsely accused them of using Nazis signs.

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Of course who can forget the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or ignore the current uproar in Virginia over a photo in Democrat Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface with a Klansman?

And that’s not to mention the two sexual assault allegations that surfaced since then against Virginia’s Lt Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a Duke basketball player. Reportedly Fairfax used his knowledge of a young woman’s prior rape allegation being quashed by university officials as a means to victimize her again since he believed she would be unlikely to report as a result of her prior experience.

In all of these cases the evidence and allegations are different. They all should be addressed on their individual merits and in the correct venues. But all are also in the realm of politics and from many years ago, which really does significantly complicate matters. Who or what many believe seems to become more of a matter of whose ideological team you are on or the potential political fallout more than the actual veracity of the claims being made.

Political campaigns have long relied on digging up comments, years old, served up out of context, is simply how the game has been played. That said, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the more serious allegations, it is one thing to accuse someone of being a racist, sexist, or liar (largely subjective judgements) and quite another to be accuse them of rape. The latter accusation is either objective reality or it is not, potentially criminal behavior, and definitely reflective of a serious character flaw if true.

Still, with the lessor offenses or with unsubstantiated allegations, at what point do we forgive “human frailty” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it), remember that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 2:10), “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:2), and move on? Should we ever treat human failure (real or alleged) like a permanent stain, a reason to always be suspicious of a person, or an irredeemable blemish? I would say no, based on the references provided above, but then…

Maybe Forgiveness Is Only For Some…?

One of the problems with how forgiveness is often used is that is used as a license for our friends and political/religious/tribal peers while simultaneously denying the same privilege to others. This is why a perceived smirk can become a national outrage while actual violence in malls is dismissed as “teenage boredom” and largely ignored.

I’ve long been against collective punishment for individual sins. I’m part of that generation who had Martin Luther King’s “content of character” rather than “color of skin” speech drilled into them and have always made a sincere effort to put that axiom urging judgment based on individual merit to practice. But I’ve found that this steadfast conclusion makes me a relic in the time of intersectionality, group shaming, unforgivable guilt for some and permanent victim status for others.

Perhaps this current generation is a correction to the overly optimistic outlook of my own?

Stereotypes are not entirely baseless, statistics do bear out differences in attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of groups, which could be proof of systemic oppression or simply our own cultural and biological inheritance. There is a reason why many professional athletes are typically of one demographic and chess players are of another, it has to do with discrimination and yet is discrimination based on ability despite coinciding with differences in race or gender. So it is conceivable, as well, that some groups are more likely to become school shooters and for others to me more generally violent as well.

There is a time for generalization…

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:10‭-‬14 NIV)

There may indeed be tendencies of groups that should be called out. That said, I doubt very much that St Paul, in the passage above, is making a case for unforgivingness or collective punishment. No, I’m quite certain that he, as one who once persecuted and killed Christians before his dramatic conversion, understood very much the need for redemption or he himself would forever be condemned. Had he been held to the same standard of today he would likely be completely disqualified from leadership and certainly never embraced as a brother by those whom he harmed.

Forgiveness Is For Those Who Repent.

One of those other problematic teachings that I’ve frequently encountered (particularly in my Mennonite religious culture) is this idea that forgiveness should be bestowed upon all people regardless of what they do or how often. This is based in a misapplication of Christian examples in a way that too often provides shelter for repeat sexual abusers and others who have learned how to game the system.

This idea that forgiveness removes any sort of accountability for sin is dead wrong. Sure, Zaccheaus needed to be forgiven for his taking advantage of people as a tax collector, but he also needed to repent of his sin and repentance required taking responsibility (financial or otherwise) for the wrong he had done.

In other words, had Zaccheaus been a child-molester simply admitting the sin or even an “I’m so sorry” speech is not enough, he would need to also face the civil penalties for his actions and also the social consequences as well.

The plea of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not permission for those in the crowd chanting “crucify him” to go on murdering innocent people or an escape from need for repentance. Those in that outraged mob who called for his death would eventually need to repent and face the consequences of their sins like everyone else.

Forgiveness does not absolve a person from need to repent. Yes, there are times when we need to forgive those who have offended us without them repenting, we should always give a second chance (even 70 x 7 chances) to those who do truly repent (ie: have confessed and also paid the penalties for their sin), but this idea that forgiveness means complete freedom from consequences or removes the need to repent fully is not at all Christian—repentance is a requirement.

So, yes, we must forgive as we want to be forgiven and we should also not hold a grudge against those who have wronged us, but there is no indication that those who do not repent will be forgiven by God and we owe it to them to tell them the truth. Furthermore, according to 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, we should not even associate with a person who calls themselves a Christian and continues to live in unrepentant sin.

So, returning to the question initially asked…

Should People Be Given Second Chances?

The answer is both yes and no.

Forgiveness is something conditional. Jesus called for repentance, saying “go and sin no more” to a woman whom he forgave, and using a parable of a man forgiven a great debt who did not forgive to illustrate the point that forgiveness can be revoked for the unrepentant.

Second chances are for those who acknowledge their error (and repent) or can’t be found guilty of wrongdoing after the matter has been addressed in the appropriate manner.

There should also be allowance for growth—people do mature and change. There should also be some tolerance given to all people, because nobody is perfect, we all have our flaws, and would probably look pretty bad if our lives were put under the microscope of the outrage mobs. However, this tolerance and allowance should not only be for those who are on our team.

For example, we cannot say that blackface is the unpardonable sin of racism in one case and then play it off as a “coming of age ritual” (it certainly wasn’t for me) because our own guy got caught. We can’t treat a boy’s expression as a “facecrime” (thank you, George Orwell) worthy of national contempt while totally ignoring the grown men yelling homophobic and bigoted things (or worse, describe their hateful and intentionally provocative slurs as “preaching about the Bible and oppression” (*ahem* CNN) while simultaneously heaping condemnation on a boy for wearing a MAGA hat and an awkward smile.

That said, I would expect more from a fellow Christian, raised in a good home and under good instruction, than I would from some random dude on the street. Jesus did say that more will be expected from those who are given more (Luke 12:48) and that may mean we hold some to a higher standard. And yet we should also be aware that our own judgment is clouded by prejudice, that we don’t see everything a person is going through or the disadvantages they’ve faced in their lives, and therefore should err on the side of forbearance in all cases.

So there is no simple answers.

I do believe that our culture, due to social media, click-bait stories and a progressive decline in moral values, has veered dangerously away from forgiveness and redemption. We should definitely think twice before joining an outrage mob, we also need to do whatever it takes to keep partisan politics and tribal identities from perverting our judgment, and we should always give as many second chances to others as we would want for ourselves.

No matter your politics, you very well could be the next less-than-perfect person turned into an unforgivable villain by the mob, so keep that in mind next time you see a sensational headline, read a poorly concieved Tweet or watch a video clip without context.

Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based on a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward-facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash-landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

Zero Tolerance and the Trolley Problem — The Law Demands Perfection

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This is the first part of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia. Stay tuned!

When I was out on the road hauling commodities there was a mill receiver who always did an excellent job keeping trucks moving through the bulk unloading area. In fact, he was so dedicated to good service that he would voluntarily open the pit early to keep things running smoothly and help us truckers get on our way again. He was a fixture, a competent employee with a great attitude and good sense of humor.

One week I arrived at the mill and the place was a total disaster. There were trucks jammed everywhere waiting to be unloaded, there was an industrial vacuum truck at work near some of the storage bins, and, as I would discover upon entering the receiving office, a familiar face was gone. When I asked what had happened, the other mill workers told me he had put an ingredient in the wrong bin and the management fired him on the spot.

It was a costly mistake. The ingredients he accidentally mixed were expensive and now unusable as feed. Hiring a crew to suck out the contents of a bin is not cheap and the company policies were clear—it was his job to make sure the equipment was set up right. It was nothing personal. He has been warned about their zero-tolerance policy for this kind of mistake and had violated established procedure by starting to unload before checking the driver’s paperwork.

From the company’s standpoint, there was no other option. The rules were established for a reason. If they let everyone get away with doing things his or her own way it would most likely result in more mistakes like this and could not deliver the same quality of product at the same price. If their competition did better they would lose customers and eventually be unable to stay in business. The result would be everyone losing their jobs. So firing him was simply loss prevention and a move to ensure profitability in the long-term.

Furthermore, making an exception here would undermine the effectiveness of their corporate policies. Other employees, observing that these rules were not always strictly enforced, might decide to disregard the procedures and incur more losses in the future. Not only that, but selective enforcement is discrimination and could open them up to accusations of favoritism and lawsuits. In an organization of hundreds, one-size-fits-all solutions often prevail over true justice.

From my own perspective, knowing the quality of the individual and considering the replacements, this seemed wrong. I had to think what this might do for employee morale when you show no loyalty to someone who went above and beyond what was required on so many occasions. Surely his good contributions outweighed the bad. Besides, he was conscientious, it was the truck driver who had misinformed him, and would likely learn from the experience, right?

Doing what I would hope others would do for me in a similar circumstance, I contacted the corporate office and pled his case. But, their decision had been made, his employment was terminated, there would be no grace shown, rules are rules.

Old Testament Law and the Trolley Question

From a modern American perspective, the law of Moses is unusually excessive and unnecessarily harsh. Under that law, everything from adultery to uttering profanity and disrespect for parents was punishable by death. We even have an account of a man being executed for merely picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32‭-‬36 NIV)

In those days it really paid to pay close attention in Sunday school class.

By that standard, would any person living today *not* be condemned to death?

Why would they punish a man so severely for what seems like a very minor infraction?

The answer to that is two-fold.

First, having come out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were without a strong cultural identity or social structure, they were in an extremely harsh environment and thus would need to quickly become cohesive as a group to survive. Second, those who couldn’t follow instructions or fall under the authority of the leaders could easily cost the entire group and therefore had to be weeded out. The journey they were on required cooperation, order needed to be established, and thus a zero-tolerance policy was instituted.

Read the story of Achan’s disobedience in the book of Joshua:

Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. (Joshua 7:11‭-‬13 NIV)

There is a connection being made in that story between lack of individual discipline leading to group failure.

The account continues that Joshua went through the camp to find the offending party. They find one man, Achan, who confesses to having brazenly violated clear commands. His actions reflected a disrespectful attitude towards the authority above him. It was representative of a general problem that was causing the Israelites to lose in battle. They had to make an example of Achan or there would be little chance of their survival as a group. They put him and his family to death for the good of the group.

This is a case where the Trolley problem applies:

If there is a Trolley going down a track that will end up killing multiple people and could switch it to a track that kills only one—what would be the moral thing to do?

That is the dilemma underlying every attempt at governance. Laws are written as a means to save the group from the sins of the individual. Sometimes it is very clear who is dangerous to the group. For example, when someone murders another member of the group they—through their established pattern of behavior—present an existential threat to the group and must somehow be removed. In lean times, when there is a lack of resources to be spent on unruly people, it is simply more practical to execute those who present a potential threat to the group. So, rather than kill the many through inaction, they kill the one.

The Old Testament law is similar to the hardline policies of the story I told about the fired mill employee. Chaos is costly in the corporate world and very dangerous to a group struggling to survive in a wilderness. In these cases, when there’s a very real chance of group extinction, the collective concerns take precedence over the rights of the individual. Poorer countries, or those that lack the resources to mete out justice the way more developed nations do, are often very harsh because they cannot afford to do otherwise and would rather sacrifice a few individuals than the entire group.

Does the New Testament change this?

Many modern-day Christians, especially in Protestant denominations, dismiss the importance of the law and play up the importance of grace. There is good reason for this bias given what Jesus taught about our right (as individuals) to judge others and God’s grace.

But this is not the dramatic departure from the Old Testament law that some people imagine it to be. Nearly everything Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount was a restatement of what was already written and, in some cases, Jesus made the standard even higher. There was never a time when it was okay to take personal vengeance. The words “vengeance is mine” (meaning only God has the right to judge) come directly from the Old Testament and do not do away with the institutions responsible for measuring out justice.

The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, very clearly instructs Christians not to oppose punishment of the evildoer by civil authorities. He also commanded the Corinthian church to remove evil people from amongst them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you. (Corinthians 5:9-12 NIV)

If the Old Testament were entirely nullified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why is Paul quoting from Deuteronomy? Paul uses the expression “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” in his rebukes of the church—what this means is that individuals and their actions or attitudes affect the entire group. He makes the case that is better to remove those who are sinfully disruptive and unrepentant than to risk the entire group.

One might think that putting a badly behaved person with multiple good and conscientious people would influence them for the better. But it is more likely to work in reverse. When bad behavior is not adequately addressed in a group it causes others to lower their standards. I mean, why try so hard to live a disciplined and responsible life when you can join the riot and have a little fun? Troublemakers must be removed from a place where they could influence others negatively and dealt with or all chance of order will disappear.

So, yes, the law does still apply within the church and we should make every effort to obey it—because the penalty for breaking it is still death:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1‭-‬11 NIV)

That story of instant justice is from the New Testament. And I believe it is there to underscore the point that God’s opinion of sin has not changed because of the availability of grace. We, as Paul says, cannot continue in sin that “grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) and that’s because sin still has serious consequences—it hurts both individuals and the group. It was better that one couple, Ananias and Sapphira, make an early trip to the grave (may God have mercy on them in eternity) and the whole church be warned—from that day until to now—than it would be to allow a casual view of lawlessness to spread and infect the whole body of the church.

God’s Zero-tolerance Policy Towards Sin Has Not Disappeared Because of Grace.

Grace is not an excuse for sin. It is not an exemption from the law or a way of saying that breaking the law has no consequences. No, it was that sin that (quite literally and also metaphorically) put Jesus on the cross. There is always a price to be paid for bad behavior and disobedience. The message of the Gospel is not that sin doesn’t matter anymore. The message is that Jesus switched the track and sacrificed himself in order to save humanity from certain death. The message is that Jesus paid the price on our behalf and there is only one way to show our gratitude—we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

There is no excuse for sin.

The Two Types of Truth-tellers

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There is a story about two con artists who convince a vain emperor that they’ve made a garment for him so fine that it is only visible to the smartest and most competent people. The emperor, more concerned with what other people think that what is own eyes tell him, plays along with the tricksters as not to appear unfit and stupid.

The emperor pretends to put on the imaginary new clothes. His ministers, also fearful of appearing unfit for their positions, ignore the emperor’s true nakedness, go along with the charade and allow him to parade through town in his make-believe garment. The townsfolk, while uncomfortable, do not dare offend the emperor and keep up the pretense.

The collective self-delusion comes crashing down when a young child, lacking social awareness, blurts out the truth: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” His father first tries to hush him, but the word is whispered through the crowd and, eventually, the townsfolk erupt into laughter. The emperor suspects they are right and yet he with his ministers continues on the ridiculous procession.

This ironic story about willful blindness to reality is an accurate description of how social pressure works. It is extremely relevant in our age of political correctness. Today, like in that fictional account, scientific evidence is ignored in favor of popular narratives and many smart people lack the courage to face down the social elites.

But there are truth-tellers…

1) Those too socially unaware to know the ‘correct’ answers. These are people, who like the child who blurts out the truth, are those of lower social status and a little stupid. They are unable to rationalize their way around the obvious reality like smart people do, they do not know (or care about) the socially “right” answer and simply blurt out the truth. They are easily ridiculed, they are often unsophisticated in their use of language and uncouth, they might not be morally upstanding individuals or always truth-tellers, but they are often brutally honest in ways that the polite people are not because they lack a filter their thoughts. They, in their lowly position, do not care about what the elites think of them and might even be empowered by offending their superiors.

2) Those unwilling to ignore the consequences of living a lie. These are the rarest of people. They are socially aware, they are able to see through the propaganda and brave enough to speak out against the popular narrative. They are able to see beyond what the socially smart people do, they are too principled to play along with the delusion and yet also understanding of the consequences of speaking an unpopular truth. Still, because it is dangerous to have social leadership that is divorced from the truth, conscience compels them to speak out. So they do, albeit carefully and using their intelligence, by telling stories about naked emperors in the hopes that others will read then awake to the lies that have ensnared them.

What part do you play in the story?

Most people, at least those intelligent, like to think that they are the ones who see reality as it is and are above delusion. Unfortunately, that is the first lie that blinds a person to the truth. Even the brightest minds are not entirely rational. We all suffer from a problem called “confirmation bias” where we select or ignore evidence-based in our established beliefs.

Many people eventually lose their sight because of fear, social pressure or indoctrination. They see themselves as smart and savvy for their ability to give the socially correct answers, but they are really only parrots of popular opinion and puppets to the status quo.

There are many taboo topics in the public discourse. There are many whom we are supposed to shield from certain truths lest they become outraged when their nakedness is exposed. They may call you “hateful” or many other nasty names if you dare to challenge their protected status. They attempt to use social pressure rather than logic and reason to defeat counterarguments.

The emperor’s new clothes story is only inaccurate in that it doesn’t depict what often happens to truth-tellers when they humiliate the emperor. In reality, speaking unpopular truth often leads to social alienation and sometimes to persecution. Speak out against patriarchal abuses in a fundamentalist church, for example, and you might be unfairly labeled a “Jezebel” or feminist agitator.

There are many social domains—religious, denominational, secular or otherwise. Our keen awareness in one domain doesn’t make us immune from being deceived and deluded in other domains. Our only defense is humility and understanding the limits of our own ability to see beyond ourselves. We must first realize that we are ourselves not above being fooled individually or as part of the collective group.

The first step to being a real truth-teller is to be humble and see your own moral blindness. Once you understand the limits of your own vision you will be able to help others overcome their blindness. And, at very least, don’t walk around naked because you are too vain to admit that a ‘truth’ you were convinced of is a lie.  Being a truth-teller means first being brutally honest about your own vulnerability.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.