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Archive for the tag “constitution”

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.



Scattershot Thoughts

English: Side view of a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm, semi...

“When a person has a gun, sometimes their mind clicks that this thing…will win arguments and straighten people out.” – Bill Cosby

This will be one of my more disjointed posts. Post-Newtown, so many ill-conceived and disingenuous ideas about guns are flying around, it’s hard to know where to begin. Both sides need to get a grip. I’ve already said my piece on the Second Amendment, so I won’t rehash it here. But there’s more to say.

I’ll start with the extreme anti-gun side of the debate.

Look at the numbers.  Hear this: there are 270 million civilian-owned guns in the United States, easily exceeding the adult population. You could ban them tomorrow, but you will never, ever come remotely near to getting them all off the streets, out of dresser drawers and glove compartments and mattresses and everywhere else people stash them. No doubt millions of guns are in criminals’ hands, and the police can’t be everywhere, all the time. We must face the reality we have, not the one we wish we had. So if people want to take reasonable steps for self-defense, I’m not about to deny them that right.

It is what it is. The Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous, but you will never make it prohibit private gun ownership or confine it to hunters. Barring a political earthquake beyond your wildest imagination, this amendment isn’t going away. Deal with it.

Now, to the other end of the gun-rights spectrum.

Look at the numbers. Yes, those same numbers above. Can anyone seriously argue that there aren’t enough guns legally in circulation to arm every “good guy” who wants one? Would it really be so wrong to turn off the spigot for certain classes of weapons, and add some flow restrictors for others? And look at some other numbers. 851 unintentional gun deaths in 2011, and nearly 12,000 suicides by gun. How many suicidal people would act on the impulse without the gun-based expectation of instantaneous lights out? Meanwhile, successful uses of guns in self-defense are an elusive number. Not begrudging those people who succeeded, but on the other hand, how many petty criminals effectively draw a death sentence for burglary? Forgive me if I speak heresy, but maybe sometimes we need to let our stuff go.

Which is it? That last point leads to another. The rules of gun safety espoused by the NRA and others are pretty clear. Guns should be locked up and unloaded when not in use. So, if you’re depending on your gun when an intruder threatens, how are you going to retrieve, load and use it if it’s properly stored? Or are those safety rules window dressing to keep the NRA looking responsible? You’re going to lock up that weapon, Mr. Gunowner, right (wink, wink)?

Armed teachers in schools? I’ll just leave this here.

Bill Cosby and George Zimmerman. The next time I encounter the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I hope I’m reading it in print. I don’t want to damage my TV or computer. Last year when the Trayvon Martin case was monopolizing the headlines, Bill Cosby gave an interview to CNN’s Candy Crowley, and you might expect he talked about race. He talked about guns. Cosby is a wise man. He carried a gun for a time, and he described the effect it had on him. To summarize and paraphrase, in certain hands, a gun subtly becomes an answer in search of a problem. I suspect it did the night George Zimmerman met Trayvon Martin. Would he have left his car without that Kel-Tec PF-9 in his waistband? I doubt it. And a kid who was surely flawed, but didn’t deserve to die, would still be alive.

There are certainly many ways to kill people, but I don’t think most of us come home with a set of new cutlery or a new baseball bat and think that we’ve got a little edge against the bad guys. Guns are different. We need to treat them as such and face the realities of life in 21st century America: a place where some people need to be ready to defend themselves and their families, but also a place where just maybe enough is enough.

The Answer is Yes

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“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”–The First Amendment

Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular state?

It’s a needlessly polarizing question, rooted in almost willful blindness on both sides of the argument. Those who dismiss any religious role in the nation’s founding build their case on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, those who imagine God’s kingdom on American soil point to countless customs that have woven faith into both public and private life. Not to beat around the bush, I believe the answer to my opening question is yes. America was both from the beginning. Here is how I break it down.

At its founding, the United States had a sketchy national identity, less religious than we like to think it was. But the seeds had already been sown for a nation that would be bound by a Christian culture, or more broadly, Judeo-Christian values.

Arguments against this make much of the founding fathers’ ties to the Enlightenment or to deism, a more generic belief in God. The establishment clause of the First Amendment makes clear their desire for government to be neutral toward religion. But it’s a mistake to dismiss pervasive references to God — from the Declaration of Independence to inscriptions on our currency to the opening of legislatures with prayer — as quaint artifacts or obligatory flourishes.

Whatever the framers’ intent in the Constitution, the people teaching, governing and judging in the nation’s classrooms, town halls and courthouses were accustomed to seeing faith, mostly Christian, expressed in everyday life. They weren’t constitutional scholars, and the signing of a piece of paper wasn’t going to break old habits. The easy blending of religious expression with official functions illustrates the cultural force of faith in America.

As the country grew still more religious, such expression crossed clear legal boundaries largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century – aided, no doubt, by the political benefit to officials who put on a pious face. For most of that time, the American understanding of the divine was largely from a Christian perspective. In many parts of the country, it remains so.

So when secularists say that our national, i.e., cultural identity wasn’t Christian at the beginning – they need to look past the letter of the law to the practical reality that has prevailed for most of our history. And take care how hard they push to bottle up faith in houses of worship and private homes. Authentic faith is not lived out that way, and this isn’t France. Christians – indeed, people of many faiths – will not be silenced.

And yet: the establishment clause is clear. As a matter of law, American government is not to endorse, enforce or inhibit religious belief or practice. Widespread disregard of this principle over 200 years may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. In recent decades, religious encroachment in government functions has been challenged, and Christians have taken to the barricades as if the faith itself were under attack.

It’s time for Christians to realize that what they and previous generations enjoyed all those years was a triumph of culture over law. The culture is changing. One in five Americans now identifies with no religion at all, and Protestants now represent less than half of the population. Christian influence has weakened to the point that violations of the establishment clause won’t be ignored any more. Nor, I would argue, should we want them to be.

The church loses vitality when it becomes too institutional, too much a part of the secular power structure and the cultural mainstream. It’s easy to point to the history of the Catholic church in this regard. But American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own power structure and dogma, with the government and educational system at times bending to religious pressure. This cultivated a 3,000-mile-wide, inch-deep “Christian” orthodoxy that was long on ceremony and rhetoric but short on authenticity. In the process, politics and faith became entangled in unhealthy ways.

This is not to write off America’s Christian tradition, or to say that Christian government officials shouldn’t put God at the center of how they individually perform their duties. And I am certainly thankful for freedom to worship and practice my faith. The Bible promises that righteousness exalts a nation, and at times when America has been righteous, I believe God has exalted it.

But those days may be past, and while this isn’t France, neither is it ancient Israel. The God of the New Testament isn’t about building earthly nations. Neither should that be Christians’ focus. At a minimum, chasing a Christian national identity can distract us from the need for individuals, one at a time, to hear and respond to the Gospel. At its most extreme, blended Christianity and nationalism – confronted by a changing culture – can produce the offspring of fear and anger: cult-like and white supremacist movements.

When Christians rise up in fury over the end of organized school prayer, the expulsion of nativity scenes from public property, or the stripping of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse wall, what is the goal? For the government to rescue the faith? We’ve seen culture override constitutional law, but we shouldn’t reach for earthly laws to recapture a culture that’s running from God. It doesn’t work, and we’re putting our faith in the wrong thing. We have a constitutional right to practice our beliefs, and we should defend that, but see that we don’t get bogged down trying to regain privileges that were never constitutionally ours. God, not the government, is our ultimate protector and defender.

Amendment 2.1

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. — Amendment II, United States Constitution

This is one of those areas where, if I were running for office, I would have both sides of the debate trying to bankroll my defeat. Once again, legally purchased guns are at the center of an unspeakable tragedy in Colorado, and the perennial debate over the Second Amendment gets fresh fuel.

Full disclosure: I have never owned a gun and don’t plan to. That said, I do not regard gun owners as scary or unstable people. OK, some of them, but I could say the same about many non-gun owners. The point is, I don’t have a dog in this fight.

The debate over the Second Amendment is about as futile as it gets. We can only guess at the unexpressed assumptions buried in this tortured sentence. The only one made explicit is the need for a “well regulated militia.” Those three words alone have consumed an ocean of ink in the debate over their interpretation. What seems clear is that the founders intended local militias as a check on the national government’s power, particularly should that government build large, standing armies.

Let’s dispense with that one quickly. Assuming the intent was to counter federal military power, that train left the station about a century ago. When in the past 100 years has it been possible for loosely organized citizens armed with light weapons to challenge the increasingly formidable hardware of a modern army? It’s pure fantasy. If our national government were to turn on us to the point of provoking a violent insurrection, only a widespread mutiny within the military could offer any hope of victory.

So, on the most significant count, the Second Amendment is already obsolete. But other “givens” of 18th century life may well be embedded here, so obvious that it would have insulted the people’s  intelligence to spell them out. What are they? Here are a few possibilities:

– People in the 18th century tended to put their own meat on the table with their own weapons.

– There was no policing as we know it; self-defense was always up to the individual, and law enforcement came after the fact.

– Any other threats that existed, whether from wild animals or displaced Native Americans, were likewise for the individual to confront.

None of these conditions, which were woven into the framers’ consciousness, are nearly as relevant today. If you live in the backwoods, yes, the nearest cop may be far away. Some people still hunt for food, not for sport. Some live at times perilously close to nature.

But by and large, the Second Amendment – even if you read into it only what’s explicit– is an answer to questions that aren’t even on the table today. There are other questions, though. What’s the proper treatment of firearms in a society beset with drug- and gang-related violence, where guns are cheap, plentiful and able to do more harm, more quickly, than our forefathers could have imagined? When does self-defense cross into vigilantism in a society where organized law enforcement is a critical line of defense against crime?

I’m not implying any particular answer in posing those questions. But the conversation needs to be had over a blank sheet of paper. As long as we talk in circles around the Second Amendment, we’ll keep passing the same old landmarks without reaching a destination. The premise of the gun debate needs to shift to the replacement of the Second Amendment. Not plain repeal — we could never live with that vacuum — but replacement.

I don’t kid myself that this will ever happen. It would require a mass political suicide unprecedented perhaps in the history of elected governments. But I can dream.

Meanwhile, I’ll consider some of the imponderables, such as this one: why the tie between evangelical Christians and gun rights advocates? I’m sure many Christian gun owners hold their views on the Second Amendment separate from their faith. Still, sometimes I wonder whether I would be considered un-Christian if the person sitting behind me in church knew my views.

Is there something I’m missing in the New Testament? Or is it the thought process of people who are convinced God is a Republican, and Republicans favor gun rights, therefore God favors gun rights? Just asking.

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