Mobs and Justice

September 25, 2020

Once again there are mobs floating around major cities in our country demanding justice after the decision of a grand jury not to indict any of the police officers involved in the tragic shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The range of these protests is typically broad, from peaceful protests to more violent protests. The Los Angeles Times reported about two cars that “plowed” through protestors, implying guilt on the part of the drivers, though when you actually read the article it’s far from clear that’s necessarily the best characterization of what happened.

First off, a reminder that protests which block traffic are illegal, though some states allow protestors to block streets if they obtain a permit in advance. But a mob of people arbitrarily deciding to block traffic is in itself an illegal act – pretty much all the time as far as my limited Internet research shows. I’m happy to be proved wrong with appropriate links in the comments section. This document from the ACLU indicates as much. Blocking traffic is in itself illegal, an irony somehow lost in the shuffle of cries for justice, which clearly then are cries for justice in certain situations rather than others, problematic in the least. And needless to say, attacking vehicles and their drivers is very, very illegal, very much against the idea of justice the protestors claim to be demanding. At least one of the vehicles in the LA Times article received extensive damage from protestors who were angered it didn’t want to stop. The car that struck one of the protestors is also said to have damage on it, damage the driver claims was inflicted on the vehicle first and which caused the driver to try and escape the crowd.

Complicated stuff at best, though the headlines certainly wouldn’t lead the casual reader to that conclusion. I don’t think they intend to, frankly.

The cry for justice in this situation is also problematic. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and certainly the death of someone in their own home at the hands of public agents of any kind is additionally odious and should call for investigation. However, investigation actually did happen. The cries and protests for justice come after a grand jury determined no criminal charges were appropriate against the officers involved for Taylor’s death. The officers weren’t cleared of wrong doing by an internal investigation but by a grand jury. A grand jury is a means for determining possible offenses in a situation and lodging official charges to be pursued in a court of law. A grand jury is made up of private citizens, similar to the jury in a court case. They are assembled and tasked with determining to the best of their ability whether a crime has or hasn’t been committed.

So the crowds blocking roads and attacking motorists in a demand for justice are ignoring the fact that justice has already been applied. Typically 16-23 people are assembled for a grand jury and a majority of them must agree a crime was committed and indicate which law was broken. So the majority of the people on the grand jury for this case determined the police officers did not violate a law.

That doesn’t mean Taylor’s death isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean that perhaps the existing laws might need to change, and already there is discussion towards that end regarding the serving of no-knock warrants, where police can enter a home without prior notification or warning. Of course there are also reasons why such warrants exist, such as protecting officers from a coordinated, deadly response to their ringing of the doorbell or knocking on the door. In this particular case the man they were looking for – an ex-boyfriend’s of Taylor – was not there. Yet her current boyfriend was there, and he was armed, and he opened fire on officers first.

I don’t hear the protestors talking much about that. Clearly, this is a more complicated situation than some people would like it to be. Some details don’t contribute to a story of an innocent young woman shot to death in her own home by reckless and uncaring agents of the State. Apparently the majority of the grand jury realized this as they explored the facts of the case.

So what is justice then? If the due process of the law is inadequate, what do the protestors suggest as an alternative? Is it a matter of mob justice, so to speak, where if enough people scream and yell and threaten and destroy property, they determine the appropriate verdict in a trial? Is this justice? Do what we demand or we destroy things?

Grand juries have been around for over 800 years and are part of a cherished and celebrated legal process and set of protections against mob justice or the arbitrary whims of power. They’re intended to provide as much assurance as possible that a crime really has – or hasn’t – been committed, regardless of which persons or powers demand an outcome to suit their own preferences or interests. Against this what do the protestors suggest as an alternative?

Deadly force is deadly serious, without a doubt. That’s something police officers are trained to recognize and to which they are at least theoretically held accountable. They are also responsible for performing dangerous work like serving warrants on premises or for people that are known to be dangerous and capable of killing them. That’s a lot of pressure to be under, even for professionals, and something the law seeks to take into account. I also assume the man who fired on those police officers when they entered the home understands that deadly force is deadly serious, and if you’re going to pull a gun and start shooting immediately rather than waiting to assess the situation a bit better, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably more comfortable with deadly force than the average person. Cries for justice ought to reasonably include why this man opened fire immediately.

Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad people, and in those situations the bad people should be held accountable. But not all bad things are matters of injustice or a matter of bad people. This is something that should be – and is – evident regardless of your ethnicity. Yet even ethnic minorities are denounced and vilified if they question or disagree with the mob justice mindset that insists on a particular verdict. Do the mobs have all the details and information the grand jury did? Is their shouting and blocking traffic a superior insight into the happenings of that fateful day? Does their anger somehow trump whatever facts are available?

Should it? Is that how we want verdicts reached – by whoever screams the loudest or makes the most intimidating threats?

Are the protestors demanding an end to grand juries? Are they demanding that police be disbanded? Are they demanding an end to no-knock warrants? Are they demanding a particular charge and conviction of murder in this particular case? Are they demanding other things not specific to this case but part of a larger agenda of change? And how will they respond if a larger or more vocal or more violent group of protestors shows up and demands just the opposite? Who decides who is right? Is it just a matter of starting to shoot and stab each other and see who is left at the end of the exchange? Or do we rather place our faith in a good albeit imperfect system of law, knowing that sometimes injustices will go unpunished, but that far more often than not justice will be done, and can be relied on to be done without protests and threats and violence?

If the laws need to be changed then work for change. But that change involves not simply making demands under threat of violence but wrestling with the difficult realities of a sinful and broken world where many bad people exist, and where most of them probably don’t wear a badge. If you want to agitate for change then know what it is you’re agitating for as well as what you’re agitating against. Because tragedy happens every single day. This doesn’t make it less tragic. But compounding tragedy with riots and threats of violence does make it more tragic, especially if you don’t really understand what it is you’re asking for or protesting against.

COVID Coping

September 25, 2020

We’re all trying to figure out how to get through this season of COVID. With restrictions on where you can go and what you can do and who you can be with, people are getting a bit stir crazy and I’m no exception. I’ve admitted to being not the smartest guy on the block this summer, an admission some would argue was far overdue and hardly limited to this summer. But as a closing foray into stupidity, last night I took the Paqui One-Chip Challenge.

I’d like to defend myself somewhat. I haven’t eaten Tide Pods or overindulged on cinnamon. I haven’t poured ice water over my head. I’ve never been much of a joiner, and taken more pride than probably reasonable in going against the flow. I’m fairly discerning usually when it comes to common sense. But apparently not always.

Because another source of pride throughout my life has been an affinity for spicy food. The hotter the better. And the more other people back off and avoid it, the more inclined I am to try it. So when I saw a YouTube video for the One-Chip Challenge, I immediately started Googling to see where they could be purchased locally. Just a few hours later I had two small bags of their chips and one of the casket-shaped One-Chip Challenge boxes.

I tried the bag of Fiery Chili Limon chips for lunch. It claims to be Super Hot!, but it was disappointing. I mean, there was some heat to it, but I ate the small bag without the need for water – let alone bread or milk. I make much hotter pico de gallo and while these chips were somewhat respectable by mass produced chip standards, they certainly didn’t live up to the hype.

So when my kids found the box at dinner they naturally assumed I should do it. Right then. And really, why put it off?

Frankly the most impressive thing initially was that this company found a way to keep their chips intact! The small bag of chips was not a bunch of crumbs as is often the case with chips. Almost all of the chips were intact, which was impressive in and of itself. And the One-Chip Challenge was even better insulated to ensure I found it intact. This year’s challenge uses a blue-corn tortilla chip covered in their signature blend of ground chili spices, utilizing the Carolina Reaper chili, the Scorpion Chili, and Sichuan peppercorn. The chip looks black and it’s covered in this black spice. The challenge says you have to eat the entire chip, so I broke it in two and ate it.

Initially it wasn’t terribly impressive. But, as chilis sometimes do, the impact grew over time. Still, it wasn’t really all that painful initially. Eventually it was the sides of my tongue that took the brunt of the burning. The rest of my mouth was relatively unaffected. Or perhaps completely numbed. I’ve longed to take spicy challenges for years, but this is the closest I’ve ever come to actually doing one. Beyond the growing burning on my tongue were other physical reactions I’ve watched in other people but never experienced myself. I began perspiring. My eyes started watering and my nose started running. My hands were shaking and my legs were a bit weak. There was a jumbled sense to my thinking, as my brain rapidly occupied itself almost completely with what was going on in my body and how unhappy it was with it.

The challenge grants different levels of recognition depending on how long you can hold out before eating or drinking something after eating the chip. My goal was to last at least five minutes – the lowest level of Featherweight. It’s what I had seen the host do on the YouTube video, and since we had guests for dinner I didn’t feel like drawing it out indefinitely. And, honestly, it hurt. So the glass of milk I had my kids bring me in advance went down pretty quickly but only provided moderate relief. As with the water after. Ice cubes were more effective at numbing my tongue and easing the pain. And with homemade apple crisp with ice cream for dessert, I found the frozen dairy was most effective in helping neutralize and disperse the oils binding the burning to my tongue. Within 15 minutes or so I was feeling mostly back to normal.

I could feel it in my stomach, as the packaging said I would, but it wasn’t anything bad. Until about 30 minutes later. I was sidelined severely by a terrible burning sensation in my stomach that left me almost completely incapacitated for about 10 minutes. Some cold water eventually helped to ease the pain, and within another 15 minutes or so I was fine again. I panicked a little, thinking perhaps the spices had eaten through my stomach or aggravated an ulcer I didn’t know I had. But a few years ago I had a similar (though far less intense) pain from a particularly powerful chili pepper I ate, so I figured it was basically the same reaction this time and it would pass before long.

Blessedly, it did. I was able to sleep without any other side effects and, other than a slight tenderness in my stomach today, I appear to be fine.

This challenge is not for the faint of heart. Visit the web site to see different reactions from customers. I have a good tolerance for heat and rarely find something uncomfortable, but this certainly was. Paqui doesn’t indicate what heat level the chip is, but the Carolina Reaper chili clocks in at 1.5 million on the Scoville scale (a typical jalapeno clocks in at 2500-10,000). So it’s a serious heat!

I’m glad I did it. That being said I feel no need to do it again. And I’ll probably let the small bag of Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper chips lie untouched for a little while. I know it won’t be anywhere near what the One-Chip Challenge felt like, but still. I’ve had enough heat for the time being.

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.

Grace and Judgment

September 23, 2020

In traditional seminary/theological education, there are four main fields of study:

  • Historical theology studies the history of God’s people and the Christian faith
  • Exegetical theology deals with the study of Scripture, and includes learning Hebrew and Greek towards this end
  • Systematic theology encompasses and studies Christian doctrine
  • Practical theology explores the Christian life and the application of doctrine and tradition to the lives of people here and now and includes the role of preaching

Although I enjoy the logical aspects of systematic theology, even in seminary I understood that doctrine is all well and good but essentially useless if it can’t be applied. To know there is a truth has little value unless that truth is connected in some way to daily life or certain situations. I trust the quadratic equation is true – but it is of little value to me personally as I’ve had no need to know or use it in my life. I’m glad others can and do, and I know that must benefit me in very tangible ways, but my thoroughgoing ignorance of that means I ascribe little practical, personal value to this undoubtedly crucial truth.

For us Lutherans, the go-to in terms of systematics study is a guy by the name of Franz/Francis Pieper. He wrote the current definitive text used by Lutherans in studying systematic theology. I can number on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look at his 3-volume (I don’t have the fourth volume which is an index of the previous three) Christian Dogmatics, but it’s a handy resource on those occasions where I need to talk about a complicated topic

One such topic which has arisen in several quarters recently is the relationship of salvation and grace to the issue of final judgment. It makes people nervous to know that we will stand before Christ for judgment, and it also seems a bit odd, since we know we are forgiven in Christ already through faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And granted, it’s not a pleasant idea to know our dirty laundry might be aired before all creation. Couldn’t we just sweep that under the rug, since it’s all forgiven in Christ anyways?

I tend to address this topic with the assertions that yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we will participate in Judgment Day along with the rest of creation. And even if all our bad deeds are on display, it will only be for an instant, and only to glorify God whose forgiveness is so immense, his grace so abundant, that the worst of our sins in thought, word or deed are nothing compared to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf. But I decided to do a little brush-up with Pieper on the specifics.

The issue of judgment comes, perhaps fittingly, at the end of his last volume (Volume III) starting on page 539 in case you want to follow along at home. He lays out the following basic tenets of the faith:

  • Judgment is linked to the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31)
  • All persons will be subject to judgment – including “men, pious and wicked, dead and living, and besides mankind also the evil angels” (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Acts 10:42; 2 Peter 2:4)
  • The norm of judgment will be the works of men (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, our eternal fate is determined by our works, but not necessarily in the way we tend to think about these things. It isn’t as though (as with Islam), all our good deeds are piled on one side of a cosmic scale and all our bad deeds on the other side and our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds to merit eternal joy. Rather, good deeds is a technical term/concept, defined first and foremost in terms of our relationship to God and in particular to God the Son. Only in right relationship to God can anything we think, say or do be considered good. Apart from proper relationship to God, good does not exist, by definition. Oh, there’s the ‘good’ we define in terms of our relationships to one another, but even those definitions can’t ultimately be separated from their source in God, otherwise they’re arbitrary fads or fashions and can’t really be said to be good in any substantive way. Whatever we know of good, we know because of God. Whether we accept that or not makes a great deal of difference!
  • Consequently, using Matthew 25 as a basis, believers will be judged, but only their good deeds will be considered, since their bad deeds are indeed forgiven and forgotten (Malachi 7:19). In Jesus’ story in Matthew 25, only the good deeds of the people of God are mentioned, not their bad deeds.

Thus sayeth Pieper.

There are those who would argue and say that’s not much of a judgment, and therefore the bad deeds of God’s people must also be mentioned. Pieper doesn’t see this as reasonable, but rather the improper conclusion of trying to hold together two Scriptural teachings – 1) all people (including believers) will be judged, and 2) believers are not judged. How do we hold together these seemingly contradictory statements?

Pieper harmonizes these two statements with the use of another Lutheran theological/systematic idea – Law and Gospel. The Word of God is either Law or Gospel, either condemning us of our sin or freeing us from our sin through the grace and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in condemning us of our sin the Bible reminds us that all will be judged. This should spur in us a serious assessment of ourselves, a daily acknowledgement of our sinfulness, and a daily seeking of refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we are no longer under the judgment of God and the Gospel must immediately be spoken, assuring us our sins are indeed forgiven and forgotten in Christ and won’t ever be held against us or even brought up on Judgment Day, again citing Matthew 25 as evidence.

I’m not all together certain Matthew 25 can be relied on exclusively as the clinching argument in this matter, but I’m willing to roll with it until I encounter a compelling alternative argument. For the believer in Jesus the Christ, we are to have peace, trusting in his forgiveness. However that exactly plays out on Judgment Day is a matter of technicalities – we know the end result is our being welcomed into the presence of God eternally. Towards that end we must continue to take sin seriously, never making the mistake of ceasing to recognize it or acknowledge it as such. Not because we won’t be forgiven, but because eventually our sin could cause us to reject God because we love our sin too much.

Reporting Jesus

September 22, 2020

I don’t for a second believe this guy is legitimate in the least. That’s not the point of this post.

But in reading this news report I realized this is probably how Jesus’ death was reported by the Powers That Be. We have the underground report, the eye-witness up-close reports in the Gospels – four separate, individual reports by or of people intimately familiar with Jesus – Matthew and John, both in Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples, Mark’s account which is basically a retelling of Peter’s preaching and teaching about Jesus, and Peter was another of the twelve disciples, and finally Luke’s account which is a compilation of testimonies. Although modern, more liberal scholarship will try to argue that Matthew and Luke are basically just copies of Mark, careful reading argues against this assertion.

In any event, the Gospels portray Jesus by those who knew him best. But how would Jewish or even Roman reports have read, were newspaper articles a thing? The article above probably gives us a good taste.

It would describe Jesus as a cult leader, which immediately categorizes ahead of time how the reader/hearer thinks about the person. Cults are bad and dangerous, right? Fanatical at the least, abusive and evil at worst. Jesus was likely described as a cult leader claiming to be the Son of God. Cults are small and separated from the mainstream and therefore inherently suspicious.

Jesus would have faced charges for an illegal religion, perhaps, but certainly for blasphemy, and perhaps for allegations of abusive behavior. Jesus didn’t often mince words with his opponents, which I’m sure some might categorize as abusive. Certainly his stern rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:23 could be interpreted as abusive. Without knowing context, or by misinterpreting context (either intentionally or accidentally) any number of situations could be classified under dire-sounding language. I’m sure the article might characterize Jesus as a former carpenter. Such wording lead the reader/hearer to question why the accused wasn’t still doing their former work, what prompted their shift to religious leader or spiritual teacher, and calls into question their credentials for doing so.

Like the article above, Jesus was apprehended by a special operations unit likely consisting of Roman soldiers as well as Temple police, guided by an informant. The desire to apprehend an influential figure away from his followers who might endanger themselves to protect him is nothing new.

A historical news report might cite how Jesus embarked in a radically new direction after a spiritual awakening in the Jordan River under the influence of another charlatan, John the Baptist. The sudden change in lifestyle would certainly demonstrate some level of psychological instability, or at least cause the reader/hearer to infer it.

The need to try and evaluate what is reported and how it is reported is important, as the ability to smear someone in the press is nothing new and perhaps easier than ever with ubiquitous, instant news feeds and the ability to create or locate condemning evidence of a digital nature. The particular charges will vary by circumstance and reflect those charges considered most odious in a particular context. Christians were accused early on of both being atheists as well as cannibals. Jesus was charged with blasphemy. Jewish people through the centuries have been accused of murdering Christian babies. Charges hardly need to be religious in nature. Consider the sudden disappearance and then reported arrest and conviction of a leading Chinese dissent figure, convicted of corruption, something odious in a Communist country.

It’s said that history is written by the victors and there’s truth in this. Likewise, news is written by people who control the channels of information. In both cases, truth is sometimes difficult to discern or separate from opinion!

Cold Comfort

September 21, 2020

What a relief.

If a COVID vaccine in the United States turns out to be dangerous or unsafe, we know who we can blame. Dr. Anthony Fauci has assured MSNBC and the American public that if anything goes wrong with the vaccine process, he’ll take “the heat” for it and make sure we’re kept informed.

I’m sure he will. Whether he should or not is more complicated. But not as complicated as exactly what his taking “the heat” will actually accomplish. I assume at some level it means he’s willing to fall on his sword and resign in disgrace from his position if a vaccine is approved that turns out to be dangerous. Of course, with no long-term clinical studies ahead of time, it may well not be possible to know of potential problems with the vaccine until long after Dr. Fauci has either been replaced as political flotsam or retired peaceably or even died.

Worst case he’s still in office and has to retire. In which case I have no doubt there are plenty of sympathetic individuals and companies who would be happy to ensure he doesn’t end up homeless in exchange for the relative luster of even a disgraced former Surgeon General on their board or consulting with them and greasing the wheels of product development in a very convoluted bureaucracy.

Fauci might take some level of official blame, but that hardly means much. Not if you or your child or loved one is affected for life by unanticipated side effects of a vaccine. At the very worst, Fauci can rely on the passage of time and the dustbin of history to remove his name from common parlance and disparagement. But I guess that’s what those who might suffer side effects can count on as well. Nothing lasts forever, certainly not even life itself.

I’m not faulting Dr. Fauci or even MSNBC. This is political talk and it’s expected and perhaps has some place. But let’s be clear about the limitations of such talk. Having a scapegoat hopefully won’t be necessary. But if it is, nobody’s going to be very comforted by knowing who to point the finger at, no matter how willing that person is to be pointed at.

Replacements and Rhetoric

September 20, 2020

With the death of long-time Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the battle over her replacement begins. At least the public battle. Have no fear, folks on both sides of the political aisle have long been considering how this would go down, and her unfortunate failing health in the last year only accelerated those back room discussions. But now that she’s gone, you and I begin to be privy to the battle over her replacement.

The battle is accentuated because Ginsburg was noted for her steadfast ideological concerns over issues of reproductive health and gender. It’s unfortunate that the career of anyone should be boiled down to issues that probably occupied a relatively small percentage of her 27-year tenure, but there it is. Those who share her ideological views are adamant that her successor must embody those same ideological views and carry on her legacy. Those who disagree with her ideology see an opportunity to create long-lasting change in the Supreme Court.

Obviously, this disagreement is going to cause problems. And the problems have already begun. Prominent liberals are already threating violence if RBG’s seat is filled by the Republican controlled Senate and Oval Office prior to the election (and before the possibility of a shift in control to the Democrats of one or both branches of government).

Speaking of government and branches. Y’all remember your basic civics lessons, right? The division of our government into three different branches – Executive, Legislative and Judicial? Checks and balances, to ensure that no one person or group gains to great control over things? And as part of this checks and balances system, Supreme Court vacancies are filled by Presidential appointment with Senate approval (a process some have humorously expanded)?

It’s all about balance, presumably. And the funny thing about balance is that it’s rarely a matter of stasis. Like driver’s education used to teach, staying between the lane markers requires constant adjustments, which means at any given point in time you might be straying a bit to the left or a bit to the right, but through constant corrections you hopefully stay in your own lane and don’t go veering off the road. Or into someone else.

Ginsburg apparently forgot this concept when she allowed herself to disparage the process of checks and balances and judicial appointments. And both she and her supporters conveniently forget (and the media certainly isn’t going to help us with a pertinent history lesson) that Ginsburg replaced someone else, a Supreme Court justice by the name of Byron White. White was appointed to the Supreme Court by John F. Kennedy. White cast a dissenting vote in Roe v. Wade, meaning he voted against legalizing abortion. He also voted not only to outlaw capital punishment but to reinstate it under allegedly better legal conditions.

So Ginsburg herself hardly carried on the ideological bent of her predecessor. I’m sure if someone had suggested to her at any point in her career that her duty was to carry on the ideological leanings of a particular predecessor, she would have dismissed the idea as ludicrous and odious. It’s unfortunate if she really did express a desire that the process should be short-circuited intentionally, and that others would take the opinion or wish of any single person, no matter how beloved, as a pretext for a call to violence on a national level.

Supreme Court appointments are usually passionate affairs, at least in the last 40 years. The decisions have long-term effects on judicial rulings that impact law on a national level. It’s right that people want to see someone they agree with given the honor of serving in this capacity. But it’s unconscionable that anyone would advocate violence or a deliberate disrespect of the mechanisms that protect all of us by rule of law. Our elected legislators are quite good at utilizing or inventing all manner of mechanisms to sway things in their preferred direction, and there has only been one Supreme Court Justice nominated to the position in an election year (early in 1988, rather than a month or two before the election). But to call for violence, as though the law of the land has now become mob rule or might-makes-right is a sign of just how dangerous our current cultural and societal situation is.

And a sign of how important the law has become – or not become – whether at the Supreme Court level or otherwise.

Reading Ramblings – September 27, 2020

September 20, 2020

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 27, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18; Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32)

Context: God’s Word convicts us of our sin and offers us eternal life. This Word can be rejected, but we have to consider whether what we reject it for is more reliable or not, whether the directives that contradict it are better for us or worse. What we often find is that our own good authority is often compromised by self-interest or self-preservation, and sometimes we aren’t even aware this is happening. Even authorities of God’s Word have to be acknowledged as sinful and compromised, though hopefully well-intentioned and guided by the Holy Spirit more often than not!

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – God responds to accusations from his people that He is unfair in his relationship with them, punishing the innocent for the sins of the fathers. God responds the accusations are incorrect and unfair. Who stands innocent before God? And who can say to the God who created him, I have no business with you? The irony is Israel stands guilty of abandoning her covenant with God and seeking help and wisdom in other gods and other ways. But to deflect her guilt, she accuses God of being unfair, as though his ways are inscrutable and undesirable. God demonstrates the foolishness and evilness of her accusations, though. With God there is mercy though his people have become notorious for perverting truth and justice among themselves. As such, God can judge them even by their own invented alternatives to his Word, his Truth, his mercy. And they will be found guilty even by the systems they claim as superior to his. Their guilt is only compounded by trying to cast God as the villain, as though they could invent a system that would be superior or independent to his!

Psalm 25:1-10 – When all the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket around us, we are called by the psalmist to keep our hope and trust in God alone. Regardless of what our world tells us in politics or economics, God alone oversees all things, and any and all efforts towards improvement that leave him out of the equation will be shown eventually for the foolishness they are. God’s people are to put their faith and trust in him which means a focus on seeking his ways and paths, looking to God to provide wisdom and answers rather than trusting the schemes of the world. Such hope and trust is well founded as God has proved himself faithful over and over again. And in him alone do we find mercy and forgiveness that wipes clean our sins so we might truly trust in his goodness. Unlike any human effort, God alone is good and upright in all things, never pandering or compromising, never discovered to be unfaithful or untruthful. Rather He extends to even the least of us the fullness of his love and mercy, so that those who trust in him will never be disappointed even if the ways of the world appear to be winning for the moment.

Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18 – Verses 5-13 are optional in today’s reading and I’m omitting them as mostly a supporting discursis explaining that in the behaviors the Holy Spirit exhorts us to through St. Paul, we are only emulating Christ. We are not called to do anything more than our Lord, and frankly are called to do and be immeasurably less as, by definition, we are not divine. Once again the theme of unity is driven home, with the first four verses of this passage all dealing with aspects of unity. Unity doesn’t simply happen. Unity isn’t a feeling but rather the result of concerted efforts, a singleminded insistence that the unity we have in Christ is most important, far more important than our own personal goals, ambitions, preferences, or wisdom. Once again humility is highlighted as essential to unity. When we allow (or insist) that our ways of doing things are best or right (even if they are) we do damage to the unity of the body of Christ. This unity demands we look to the interests of others, not simply in an economic sense but in terms of this same unity. Is our insistence on our way of doing things driving others away? Then our selfishness needs to be reigned in. And this is not a bitter, snippy restraint, as v.14 continues. It is a joyful setting aside of the self for the betterment of the whole. Such behavior is not natural or normal but rather is a demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit at God at work, so He receives the glory in our unity. Not even life or death should dissuade us from this insistence on unity to the glory of God! Rather, even as individuals come and go in life and death, the body remains whole, knowing that not even those who die are fully and completely gone, but are part of the vast multitude of the saints we will enjoy perfect unity with for eternity.

Matthew 21:23-32 – This passage is a complicated one. Jesus is challenged as to the basis for his teaching (what He was doing at the moment). They say this because they do not acknowledge Jesus’ acclaimed status as a rabbi or teacher as He has no formal rabbinical training, and is not teaching the sayings of an accepted rabbinical tradition. This issue of authority is prominent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Jesus is marveled at as one who preaches as though He himself holds authority, rather than relying on the authority of other rabbis and teachers. But to the religious leaders who see Jesus as a threat, this lack of rabbinical authority is a means by which they seek to discredit him or silence him. Instead, Jesus makes his answer contingent on their answer to his question – a question regarding the work of John the Baptist. Unwilling to fall into judgment from Jesus (if they say John’s authority was divine but they refused to listen to it) and unwilling to risk censure from the crowds (by saying John had no authority when clearly the majority of people held him to be a prophet), they think they will end the discussion by not answering Jesus. This appears to be the case, as the parable Jesus then tells seems unrelated in some ways to this exchange. But it isn’t. The two are linked together and Jesus intended it this way.

Jesus’ parable of two sons paints the religious leaders into a deeper corner than it first appears. It seems as though they might be able to save some face depending on their answer. It’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two bad choices, which would appear to be the first son. Except that the religious leaders haven’t repented and embraced John the Baptist as a prophet! Both sons are disobedient and obedient. The first son is disobedient in his response to his father, and the second son is disobedient in his actions to his father. The first son is obedient in his actions while the second son is obedient in his words.

But the religious leaders are disobedient in both counts – with their initial response to John the Baptist’s call for repentance – and in their continued refusal to accept Jesus, the one John the Baptist proclaimed to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29). They are worse than both sons!

What is the way of righteousness in which John came? The same righteousness referred to be Jesus himself when John protests baptizing him (3:15). Jesus’ baptism is to fulfill all righteousness, and this means not a personal righteousness, as though Jesus needs baptism or repentance, but rather the righteousness of God the Fathers’ plan of salvation that has been in the works since Genesis. John the Baptist fulfills his part in that plan by baptizing Jesus, and Jesus fulfills part of his role in that plan by receiving baptism. Likewise, John the Baptist is fulfilling his role as forerunner of the Messiah as part of God the Fathers’ plan, just as Jesus is now obediently fulfilling his role as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. The righteous response to John the Baptist and Jesus is not fundamentally or exclusively a call to ethical or moral living, but rather a call to believe what has and is happening, and to place faith and trust in Jesus. Tragically it may be the religious leaders of Jesus’ day never touch the righteousness of God because they refuse to acknowledge what God is doing right in front of their eyes!

Words Matter

September 19, 2020

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

Fear of Self and Others

September 18, 2020

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.