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.

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.