The Unpardonable Sins

In case you haven’t been paying attention this past week, Donald Sterling*, owner of the L.A. Clippers has been banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million. In addition to being slapped with heavy sanctions, Sterling will likely be forced to sell the Clippers, even if he stands to make a ton of money on the deal—but that’s another story for another day.

What, you may ask, was Donald Sterling’s transgression? Well, in case you have been living under a rock, Sterling was recently recorded** by his mistress*** spewing offensive racist comments. A celebrity gossip Web site broke the story, and the response from basketball players to cultural commentators to even the president of the United States has been swift in rightly condemning Mr. Sterling’s comments. Actually, some of the responses have condemned Mr. Sterling himself, and not just his comments.

Follow me here for a second: 1) Mr. Sterling’s racist comments are repulsive, and they betray an apparently stable attitude and worldview that he has espoused for many years. 2) For my limited knowledge of professional basketball, the NBA was right in their disciplinary action against Mr. Sterling. 3) An accepting and multicultural society like ours needs to address poisonous attitudes and encourage mutual respect among all people.

However, I wonder if our culture hasn’t gone too far. It seems that every few months we (with cheerleading by the media and our cultural Sirens) root out another person in our midst who is unacceptable to us, we flog him or her with righteous indignance, and we throw him or her away into the garbage dump for bad people, feeling collectively better about ourselves for having exorcised some social evil embodied in that person. And it’s not just one type of person with one type of political persuasion that receives the scorn and shame of an entire nation; everyone is already on their last warning to keep their thoughts and behaviors in check, lest they, too, be cast into the outer darkness.

But as a Christian leader, I am concerned that we condemn people so readily and close out the possibility of forgiveness and restoration. Think with me another second: What if Donald Sterling were to publicly apologize for his racist attitudes and behaviors?**** And not just the politically motivated non-apology that says, “I’m sorry if you were offended by my comments.” But what would we as a society do if he had a genuine change of heart, publicly repented and turned to God,***** and asked for forgiveness? Would we accept him and give him another chance? Or is Sterling’s sin one of the many unpardonable sins we have in our culture today?

As Christians, forgiveness is at the heart of who we are. We have been forgiven of our sins, so we must be ready to forgive others for their sins (see Colossians 3:13b). It’s what we do. Even Jesus—to Peter’s dismay—told his disciples that they must keep forgiving others who offend us, because God keeps forgiving us when we offend him.

So if I can offer yet another voice to this conversation about Donald Sterling and racism, it would be this: Yes, we need to gently encourage others toward respecting and loving all people, but yes, we also need to practice humility when faced with the temptation to condemn others.

And while we’re at it, why don’t we all take a second and pray for Donald Sterling.

* Born in Chicago in 1934 as Donald Tokowitz.

** Apparently without his knowledge or consent, which is actually illegal and inadmissible as legal evidence in California.

*** That is, not his wife, Rochelle Stein. Apparently adultery is acceptable in the NBA.

**** Not to mention his adultery.

***** He’s Jewish.

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State vs. State

This is a wonderful set of graphics that compares financial data, state by state.  There are lots of interesting comparisons waiting to be made.  For instance, California has among the highest percentage of millionaires and the highest rate of those living in poverty.  And just as an observation: this is evidence that we in the heartland have it pretty good (low housing costs, low unemployment, and good household incomes).

I Am a Survivor

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I am a survivor. No, I wasn’t on board the U.S. Airways jet that splashed down in the Hudson River. No, I wasn’t robbed, beaten, and left for dead in some alley.  No, I’m not old enough to have lived through the Holocaust in Europe.

I am a survivor because I was born March 19, 1975, a little over 2 years after abortion on demand was established as the new, default reality in our country by the Supreme Court.  I am a survivor because I could have just as easily been aborted as born alive, and I would have had nothing to say about it.  (Of course, there is no doubt that, knowing my parents, I was going to be born; but the truth is that my life could have been ended before it officially started, and there would be nothing more said about it.)  I would not have grown up, I would not have met my wife (who is also a survivor), I would not have gotten a job, I would not pay taxes, I would not have brought my own children into the world.

According to the Survivors Web site, more than 53 million Americans have been killed since January 22, 1973–far more than have died in the other atrocities that have happened since then, like Vietnam and the wars in Iraq.  Even the Guttmacher Institute, an organization whose mission it is to further “reproductive health,” gives the grisly, hard facts on abortion in the United States.  Interestingly, they show that a disproportionately high number of abortions are performed on African-American women (37% of all abortions, even though they make up only 13% of the population), spawning what some leaders in the Black community have called “black genocide.”

No, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind.  That’s not necessarily my goal.  But I do know that my mind has changed.  I used to be ambivalent about abortion, claiming that it’s not my job to say what others should and should not do.  I’m just a man, I reasoned to myself, and unable to identify with women and their choices.  And really, I still don’t think illegalizing abortion is the right approach for ending this atrocity (a whole generation of pro-lifers has been barking up the wrong tree).  But at some point my eyes were opened to the horrors of ending a pre-born baby’s life.

And I am alive today and able to make a difference by saying publicly that a significant swath of my generation has been obliterated, quietly and legally, by a broken and confused culture that worships calloused individualism, personal irresponsibility, and satisfying its collective libido at all costs.

It doesn’t really matter if we consider ourselves “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” or “undecided” in the matter.  Because abortion affects us all.  Collectively, as a society, we need to cast off our tepid indifference and take a hard look at abortion as the scourge that it is.  And I’m not just some conservative hack sounding off; and I’m not advocating for change at the Supreme Court level.  The point is that such ubiquitous death pollutes our land and brutalizes our culture.  In fact, I believe we need to look at the full range of life issues today as a whole piece–abortion, murder, capital punishment, war, and euthanasia–rather than a discreet set of ideologies that can be neatly sorted into “conservative” and “liberal” values.

Especially to you fellow survivors, I encourage you–even challenge you–to do the difficult thing: don’t turn a blind eye to the problem; and yet don’t ignorantly support the death of the unborn.  But let’s together find ways to end the plague of abortion.

The Collision of Two Societies: Follow Up

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Just a Note: During the summer, I will try to post a new blog entry every other week, beginning next Monday, June 23.

Last week I wrote in response to the California Supreme Court’s decision to grant same-sex couples the right to marry, expressing my concern about the coming collision between religious liberty and personal freedom in the United States.

I was pleased to discover Marc Stern’s article in the L.A. Times, in which he says, from a legal standpoint, what I was trying to say from my own, religious viewpoint.  I am still concerned about the future of religious liberties in America, and I believe people of all faiths should be vigilant about erosion of First Amendment rights.  Please read Mr. Stern’s article, and feel free to comment.

The Collision of Two Societies

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

As most of you already know, in mid-May a divided California Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to legally marry is unconstitutional.  While that was controversial for many reasons, one related news story in particular caught my eye.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, San Diego County Clerk Gregory Smith said he would consider allowing clerks in his county to not process same-sex marriages if they had moral or religions objections.

Reuters reported that Gavin Newsom, the often colorful mayor of San Francisco, was quick to condemn Mr. Smith’s failure to fall in line behind the Court’s decision.  “I was pretty shocked about all that, candidly, and pretty outraged,” Newsom told Reuters in an interview.  “This is a civil marriage that civil servants have a responsibility to provide, so for civil servants on religious grounds to start passing judgments, they, I think, are breaking the core tenet of what civil service is all about.”  And, apparently mocking those who have moral qualms about gay marriage, he continued, “I’ve got very strong religious beliefs.  So now, all of a sudden, I don’t have to do certain things, even though that’s my responsibility as mayor?”

Mr. Newsom even went so far as to suggest that clerks who refused to marry gays in California should lose their jobs.  “If that is their job and they are going to be able to pick and choose based on their morality, then all of a sudden they are not doing their jobs…If you don’t want to provide a marriage certificate and you’ve got a job that does that, then you should think twice about why you got the job in the first place and maybe you should get a new job.”

And in a purely logical way, Mayor Newsom is right.  Civil servants are hired to execute the law, not interpret it selectively.  Police officers, letter carriers, school teachers, and county employees of all sorts, by virtue of their jobs, need to consistently uphold the law of the land.

But the mayor’s remarks reflect the looming collision of two societies that is beginning to take place all around us, a collision between the church and the state, between religious folks and secular folks.  The California Supreme Court decision raises some fundamental questions that we must address.  Like, what happens when a Christian’s conscience is at odds with the law of the land?  What happens when the church’s enshrined beliefs and practices become a stench to the government’s enshrined beliefs and practices?  (We have already seen this play out with the controversy surrounding pharmacists and the “morning-after” pill as well as Catholic Charities quitting adoption in Massachusetts following the gay marriage decision back in 2003.)

As a pastor–and as someone who loves my country and the church–I am a little worried about the direction of the marriage debate these days.  Although Mayor Newsom’s rebuke was for civil servants in particular, is it a stretch to believe that similar condemnations will eventually come for other representatives of the state (and common citizens, for that matter) who refuse to participate in government policies based on religious objections? 

From the beginning of our country, there has been a cozy partnership in officializing marriages between the church and state, and clergy are credentialed by their states to perform weddings as representatives of the state.  And when church and state share congruent convictions about marriage, things are fine.  But what happens when the church and state don’t share congruent convictions about marriage?  This is where the sparks fly–when citizens’ religious freedom collides with citizens’ civil rights and personal freedom. 

If gay marriage eventually becomes the norm in the United States, which seems quite plausible, what will happen to churches and clergy who refuse to participate (which, I contend, would be the vast majority)?  Will they be officially labeled as bigots and marginalized?  Will they lose their tax-exempt and privileged status in our society?  Will there develop “civil weddings” that happen at the courthouse and that are distinct from “religious weddings” that happen in the context of the church? 

At very least we need to have a serious conversation about the extent of religious freedom and how it interacts with personal, civil rights.  As Christians, however, we need to remember that we belong ultimately to a society that is not the same as the United States.  Certainly, we need to be good citizens of our country, but we Christians finally answer to a higher calling.  The apostle Paul, addressing Christians in the cosmopolitan city of Philippi, reminded the believers there that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)  And Jesus declared openly to the Roman governor that his “kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) 

So, in the mean time, until that kingdom comes in its fullness, we need to ask some serious questions about our religious freedom in America and work actively to protect our liberties in this great country.

Religion and Government

Back in December, presidential candidate Mitt Romney quoted John Adams in his “Faith in America” address delivered at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas.  Many bloggers have already analyzed how Romney incorporated Adams into his speech, so I don’t need to go there.  But I am fascinated by the relationship between faith and government that is found in Adams’ writing.

John Adams was not only the second president of the United States and one of the framers of the Declaration of Independence, but he was also an important political philosopher during that crucial embryonic phase of our Republic.  He had many great ideas that still shape our life today in America. 

The Adams quotation that Romney used (in part) is this one: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

[As an interesting sidelight, John Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and–cue The Twilight Zone music–the exact same day on which his political nemesis Thomas Jefferson died.]

I was curious–and a little disappointed–to learn that Adams, like many of his contemporaries, was a Unitarian and rejected the bulk of Christian orthodoxy.  However, at least on this occasion, Adams hit the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of the relationship between government and religion.  “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.”  That is, the way our government is set up–to maximize our liberties and freedoms–requires the masses to possess a certain amount of common moral and religious ground in order for it to keep functioning. 

And this speaks volumes to our society today!  The simple fabric of our Constitution (it is breathtaking in its simplicity and comprehensiveness!) is stretched over the moral framework of the Enlightenment, which to a large extent was founded on Christian ideals.  While the framers of the Constitution were clearly against establishing an official church (they had seen the abuses of that model in Europe), they clearly assumed the moral and religious behavior of the people undergirding the strength of the Republic.

A good, contemporary example of this idea concerns the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.  Along with this Constitutional right comes a great moral responsibility not always shared by people today!  Take, for instance, Robert Hawkins, the shooter at the Westroads Mall massacre in Omaha in December of 2007: Was he exercising his explicit Constitutional right to have a firearm?  Yes.  But was he exercising his implicit Constitutional responsibility to use that firearm in a moral way?  No!  Our freedom is not freedom if we pervert it for our own ends.  In other words, if we abandon our moral and religious moorings and use our rights for evil, then it is not freedom at all!

The apostle Paul said it best: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13 TNIV)  Although The Westminster Confession of Faith addresses specifically Christian freedom (that is, our freedom in Christ), its words are important background color for the fragile freedom we enjoy as Americans: “They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty….” (6.110 Book of Confessions)

Although I am not normally so pessimistic, this is a point where I fear for our society.  As we become more and more relativistic in our moral convictions, we will enjoy less and less freedom.  Take, for instance, air travel: because of a few radicals who abuse our freedom, all of us are restricted in our movement.  As we move away from basic morality in our public life, we will see the proliferation of rules and laws designed to restrain vice and promote virtue–something that should be instilled in homes and churches, not in Congress–while at the same time curtailing the freedom we have.

Where is John Adams when you need him? 

May God have mercy on our great country.

The Moral Question of our Generation

Monday, December 17, 2007

A month ago, the Associated Press ran a story on presidential candidate Mike Huckabee regarding his views on abortion.  Of course, many Republicans support overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed abortion on demand throughout the country, and favor letting individual states decide their own abortion laws.

Huckabee rejected the idea of letting states decide their own rules and offered a key insight to abortion, especially from a Christian perspective.  According to the AP article, he said, “It’s the logic of the Civil War…If morality is the point here, and if it’s right or wrong, not just a political question, then you can’t have 50 different versions of what’s right and what’s wrong.”  During the interview, he continued by saying, “For those of us for whom this is a moral question, you can’t simply have 50 different versions of what’s right.”  To which I reply, “Well said, Governor!”

I would heartily agree that abortion is primarily a moral (rather than legal) question–in fact, it is the moral question of our generation, and we must treat it as such.  But it seems to me that the courtroom is a terrifically bad place to discuss the morality of abortion.  In fact, by the time we make it all the way to court to decide such an important question, I would argue that we have already given up tremendous moral ground.  For example, when I read about churches and ecclesiastical governing bodies who are turning to secular courts to settle moral and ecclesial issues, it strikes me as inappropriate, not to mention unbiblical (See 1 Corinthians 6:1-8!).

After many years of wrestling with this issue, I have come to the conclusion that abortion is a moral evil; any time we consciously take a human life, from conception to natural death, it is wrong.  (I’m not going to bother exploring the edges of this moral conviction; exceptions only muddy the important directives that should guide our society.  I actually applaud the Roman Catholic Church for their consistent perspective regarding issues of life; they make my own denomination look like a bunch of barbarians and hypocrites.)

The question for me is not whether abortion is wrong, but rather, what should we do about it?  How do important issues of morality (like abortion) find their way back into politics and law?  This is where things get a little sticky, in my opinion.  Governor Huckabee favors amending the Constitution to outlaw abortion.  Once again, attempting a drastic legal maneuver like amending our Constitution (which, from my libertarian-leaning perspective, should remain global, rather than specific) shows how much ground we Christians have already surrendered in the cultural conversation.

As the old saying goes, “You can’t legislate morality.”  And it’s true.  If abortion is at its heart a moral issue, as Governor Huckabee rightly pointed out, then we need to be primarily addressing that issue in venues that are conducive to moral discourse, like college campuses, Sunday schools, high school cafeterias, churches, coffee shops, golf courses, and hair salons, but not primarily in courtrooms!  Likewise, I question the effectiveness of picketing and using graphic signs to confront people with the ugliness of abortion.  More than likely, this approach alienates people who might otherwise agree with you and causes one’s opponents to dig in to their own position.

We as a nation will finally eliminate the scourge of abortion, not through expensive, protracted legal battles or even through graphic, in-your-face public demonstrations, but by convincing one person at a time with a winsome and gracious witness that abortion is always wrong.

Omaha Shooting

Monday, December 10, 2007

Two things about the shooting last week at Westroads Mall in Omaha.

First, my uncle-in-law forwarded me a miraculous story about a family who narrowly missed being involved in the rampage at the Von Maur store, thanks to God’s intervention. And I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this account, relayed by Breaking Christian News:

“This week, Joe Smith, a resident and pastor, living in Omaha, Nebraska, learned firsthand the value of listening to the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit. Because of his prayers for the protection of his wife and son—which he felt specifically led to pray over them on two separate occasions just a little while before the mall this week—Joe’s loved ones narrowly avoided being part of the tragedy when 19-year-old Robert Hawkins opened fire in the crowded Omaha mall.”

Joe’s Account: “[Wednesday], my wife called me at 12:00 [noon] and said, ‘Let’s meet for lunch at the Westroads Mall.’ [I thought], ‘Great, I love that teriyaki chicken from Sarku restaurant.’ The 3 of us met, my wife Gayle, my son Benjamin, and I. ‘We finished lunch at around 12:45 or so, and I had to get back to work. Before I left the mall, I pulled my wife and son to me and said, ‘I am led to pray for you both before I leave.’ We prayed, (I pleaded the blood of Jesus over them) and I left. ‘ At 1:30 the Lord had me call my wife again, and say, ‘Honey, I am troubled for you and Ben, and am praying for you both, but I am deeply troubled in my spirit for you both….’ She was going [to go] into Von Maur, to the girl’s department (on the 3rd floor of Von Maur, where just minutes later there would be a massacre), to shop for our 10 year old daughter, [but] she decided to leave the mall. ‘At 1:35 or so, she and Benjamin walked out the door (from the Von Maur side of the mall), and got in the car and left. At 1:42 the shooting started!”

Gayle’s Account: “At about 1:30, Joe called my cell and asked what we were doing, I said, ‘Still shopping,’ and he said ‘Gayle, I am really praying for you guys, I’m not sure what is up, or if it maybe has to do with the President being in town, but God has me really praying for you guys.’ I said, ‘Great, keep it up,’ not sensing any danger, any urgency, just totally enjoying my time with Ben and the joy of the season. At 1:35, I left the Younkers store heading into the mall, and glanced at my watch thinking I had time to still hit Von Maur’s girl section. ‘It was at that moment that the thought came to me that ‘you do not have time to do that, you need to go to the bank and get Jaymie from school.’ I turned to Ben and said, ‘We have got to go, we will have to do Von Maur another day, we are just out of time.’ We walked straight to the exit through the food court and stopped by the doors. I knelt down and struggled with Ben’s gloves and hat and all, he could not seem to get his fingers into his gloves properly and I felt stressed that we weren’t out the doors yet. So I told him to leave them on and I would straighten them in the car. We loaded up and pulled out, driving directly by the Von Maur store, at what must have been about 1:42, which is exactly when the shooting started….”

God is good!

The other issue related to the Omaha shooting…

The first letter to the editor in Sunday’s Omaha World-Herald was from Francie Hornstein in Oakland, CA, formerly of Omaha, commenting on the rampage. She wrote, “I was disheartened to read comments referring to the acts of Robert Hawkins as evil and cowardly…As long as mental illness is seen as evil, people will not get the treatment they need.”

Funny, those are the two exact words I used to describe Robert Hawkins’ actions last week: evil and cowardly. Ms. Hornstein goes on to advocate more mental health services, education, and support to curb future violence.

The necessary, politically correct disclaimer: Of course mental health treatment is good and helpful, and I have tremendous respect for those who commit their lives to helping those who struggle. Blah, blah, blah. But Ms. Hornstein is apparently advocating a purely therapeutic worldview that relativizes all behavior and excuses even the most heinous actions, tossing them into the “don’t-judge-a-person-because-of-his-low-self-esteem,-bad-parenting,-and-mental-health-issues-because-after-all-he’s-the-victim-here” bin.  We live in arguably the most enlightened time during human history.  We have access to information instantly, we know a great deal about the human organism and how to treat it.  But has our enlightenment brought us closer to perfection?  Nope.  Because our problem has nothing to do with treatment, education, and support.

If $265,000 worth of intervention didn’t help Robert Hawkins, then what could have?  It seems there were two options for him (besides a bloody rampage culminating with a gaping hole through his own head)–to be locked up indefinitely or to be transformed by Jesus Christ.

When we look objectively at what happened last week in Omaha–mental illness or not–we can call it for what it is: Evil. And only when we recognize the evil in our world with eyes unveiled can we begin to pray that God will do something to root out the evil among us.