Saturday, September 17, 2016

“Out, Damn Spot!”-- Injustice in America

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick, second string quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers, has been protesting police injustice toward minorities by remaining seated for the playing of the National Anthem prior to the opening of each preseason game.   In August, Kaepernick said in an interview with NFL Media:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Of course, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affords Mr. Kaepernick the right to freedom of expression.  The Constitution affords the same right to a growing number of NFL players and high school football players who are following in step with Kaepernick’s protest.

Marcus Peters raises fist in protest.
As I have watched the news reports and commentaries, I am reminded of the long history of protests against civil authorities and unjust practices in America.  Seeing Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs raise his fist during the National Anthem, on September 11, reminded me of how I felt upon seeing the raised fists of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics as they stood on the blocks after receiving their medals.

American Olympians  vs. America, 1968
The headline-grabbing protests of recent years and my study of American history remind me that nonviolent protests have had a significant and positive role in drawing attention to injustices. The nonviolent protests led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on behalf of minority rights transformed America in a positive way.  But
Dr. King's leadership as a Baptist minister of the Gospel was based on his commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially His fundamental command to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 19: 19) and when necessary, to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 39).  Dr. King’s focus on Christian love, character, and individual responsibility was an essential ingredient in the success of the civil rights movement.  

Although nonviolent protests have seldom been without at least some violence, several recent protests have boiled over into demonstrations of hate and mob rule.  For example, movements like Black Lives Matter claim that “Black lives matter” but fail to conduct themselves in a way that both respects all human life and property and presents a vision (e.g. Dr. King’s “dream”) for a better society.   Instead, there seems to be an unawareness or ignorance of the gains we have made in civil rights and racial reconciliation in America.  Protesters stir up social unrest by bringing up past injustices while interfering with the justice system by prejudging police actions. 

It is obvious that injustices exist in America.  But it is also true that many who make headlines through protest have been poorly educated in American history.  From elementary school upward, many of our children have been taught to view America through the lens of liberal progressivism.  The educational experience for many occurs within a constant stream of “news” provided by a liberal-dominated media that uses every opportunity to emphasize inequality.  Dissatisfaction among the poor and middle classes is fueled by the message that they have been mistreated by a system that favors the rich and dishonest.  While many press for “social justice” they ignore the fact that the disintegration of the American family hinders proper development of character which causes poor educational performance.   The result is a lack of competitiveness in the job market, resulting in unemployment, poverty, and proneness to join movements that foment protest.

Family breakdown and poor education impacts future generations.  Increasing numbers of poorly educated Americans become helpless pawns in a system that emphasizes groupthink instead of individual responsibility and accountability.  Instead of emphasizing human dignity, hope, and a pathway to achievement of joy and happiness as expressed in America’s founding documents, the liberal progressive message is, “See what you’re missing-- you’ve been cheated.  Look what you could have--just vote us into power.”

Janie Cheaney, in a WORLD article this month entitled, “Free and Equal,” writes,
Equality and inequality sound like complementary opposites, but they’re driven by non-complementary impulses.  Equality is about climbing up—a political principle written into our founding documents. It’s the theme when people feel empowered, or find empowerment within their grasp. Its primary emotion is hope.

Cheaney continues:
“I’m as good as you” backs up demands for equality: It may reveal a chip on the shoulder, but could also indicate a healthy desire to improve one’s condition. The complementary statement “You’re no better than me” hints at smoldering resentment. Inequality is about tearing down

Cheaney concludes that, Few if any political figures today are calling for more equality. Instead, they rail against inequality.  In the name of social justice they not only highlight contemporary inequality, but also condemn America because of the injustices she committed against minorities and the powerless throughout our history.   Social justice purveyors condemn the failures of the past based on current norms as if no moral gains have been made in respect to the rights of minorities.  Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist, condemns this presentism, the practice of applying contemporary moral standards to actions committed in the past, and then posthumously condemning all who were involved.  For example, Colin Kaepernick’s protest has led some to condemn both Francis Scott Key and  our National Anthem, the lyrics of which he wrote, because Key was a slaveholder.

The events surrounding slavery and the Civil War represent a dark time in American history, and perhaps removal of all vestiges of the Confederate Flag is a respectful practice.  But as Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth learned, none of the attempts no matter how well meaning will purge away the “damn spot” represented in each sinful act of the past.   How then should America proceed in the midst of an era of media bias, misrepresentation of history, presentism, and collective guilt over past sins?

First, there is a great need for honest and accurate reporting by those responsible for conveying each day’s news and commentary.  And, we as watchers and listeners, and users of social media need to seek out all sides of the story.  We need to recognize the difference between news and commentary, and between objective journalists and political water boys or girls.

When we fail to get accurately reported news and perhaps are hampered by having only an elementary understanding of American history we end up like Colin Caepernick.  The 49ers quarterback and those who follow in his steps do not seem to have an accurate picture of either American history or of the current statistics on police actions toward young black men.  According to Charles Campisi, author of Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops, “In [New York City] a city of 8.4 million people…NYPD officers shot and killed 8 people in 2013—all males, all of whom were carrying guns or knives, 7 of whom had criminal histories….”  These statistics are not atypical of many of our cities.  Nor do they justify Kaepernick’s claim that police are oppressing black people and people of color…[while] …getting paid leave and getting away with murder.  People who wish to lead protests must have their facts straight—both from American history and from current events.

Second, we must recognize that no amount of group protest, collective condemnation of historical personalities and their unjust actions, or purging of our landscape and history books of names and symbols will atone for past sins.  There is only one way to account for past injustices.  That way requires that we recognize the Truth of the Christian Gospel (Good News) which does not deal primarily in group consensus or actions of either the past or present.  Our founding fathers understood that freedom and the pursuit of happiness can only flourish in a nation which recognizes that God is the Giver of opportunity.  Each individual is responsible for how he or she uses the opportunities God affords—i.e. exercises stewardship of the time, talents, and treasures entrusted to him or her.   The great commandments to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10: 27) are the basis for a moral code.  The injustices throughout human history and up until our present day result when individuals fall short of these standards—i.e. what God calls sin.  How then should we respond?

The social justice approach is to point out injustices and then enlist followers into the business of correcting the injustice through protests, court actions, legislation, and coercion.  But social groups and governments do not sin.  Nor are these groups of well meaning individuals able to rid our nation of the “spots” left from past history or current injustice.  It is the individual who sins.  According to the Bible, no individual can make amends or atone for his or her own sins; or the sins of others.  In Psalm 49: 8-9 we read,

No man can by any means redeem his brother Or give to God a ransom for him--
For the redemption of his soul is costly, And he should cease trying forever--

Romans 3: 23 adds that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…  Romans 6: 23 explains how God, not mankind, has made provision for each sinner who recognizes his sin,  confesses, repents, and receives God’s Gift of atonement through faith in the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ:  The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Jesus Christ is the only Way to rid our souls of the “spots” of sin.  He said, …if the Son [Jesus] makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8: 36).

Suppose we allow that Colin Kaepernick means well in protesting injustices of police toward black men.  Still, it doesn’t appear that he has either his present facts or past history correct.  Nor does he appear to realize that we are all plagued by sin, the tendency to rebel against God’s plan for true freedom and justice.  Furthermore, does Kaepernick know that each individual including himself needs a new heart through Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  God’s forgiveness and empowering through His Holy Spirit can help us put away the anger, resentment, envy, and a host of other sins that plague our souls.  The Apostle Paul admonishes Christians to live by this command:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Only God can transform lives and set individuals free.  These individuals have opportunity and inspiration to love God and their neighbor and contribute toward building strong families, schools, communities, and civil government.   But if Americans continue to reject God’s justice and mercy, and refuse to own up to our individual responsibility for sin, we will continue to wander blindly about, biting and devouring one another.  On the other hand, if Americans realize that laws and their enforcers are for our good, and if punishment is justly given and received, then the guilty can be placed on a path to redemption, forgiveness, and freedom.

Although it is easy to point to the Kaepernick’s and other protesters of this world, I must first be sure that God’s justice and righteousness does its work in my own heart.  If you and I are  “born again” believers, this closing challenge is for us and for all who claim faith in Christ:

For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, [then we may ask] what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? -- 1 Peter_4:17

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pondering and Praying, then Picking a President

Candidates Clinton (top) and Trump.
Our presidential election is less than two months away.  While many Americans now reside in the land of #NeverTrump, I do not believe American voters should be residing in that land, or in the land of #NeverHillary.  I have considered being a citizen of “#NoVote,” but history teaches that people who choose not to vote can determine election outcomes as much as voters.  Therefore, I’ve decided to pull up stakes and move to #MaybeTrump.  Although my final decision must wait, let me share a few points I am considering.  [I invite you to use the “Comment” box below to respond.  I am not offended by polite disagreement.]

First, we can be thankful that there are still two months until Election Day, and a lot can happen during this time to influence our voting.  Therefore, I am joining what I hope is a host of American voters who are thinking carefully and discussing how to vote in this difficult, presidential election year.

 The wisdom books of the Bible have much to say about making wise decisions.  Proverbs 15:22 states, Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.   Proverbs 18:13 adds, He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.   Regardless of political party or religious affiliation, voters should apply the principles of these proverbs and use the time remaining to stay informed and become well prepared to exercise our freedom to vote.  Based on these Scriptures, voting early in this election could be your first bad decision.

Dr. C. Fred Smith of Southwestern Baptist Seminary has written a blog article entitled “How to Really Choose the Best Candidate!”.  Here is an edited summary of his “basic principles for becoming an informed and biblically grounded voter:”

1.      Study what the Bible says about character and leadership--Key concepts: virtuecharacter, vice, wisdom, behavior of Kingsetc.
2.      Read one or two good books on Christian Leadership principles.
3.      Read Article One and Article Two of the U.S. Constitution often enough to get familiar with them.
4.      Evaluate candidates in light of Biblical and Constitutional teaching, knowing that no candidate has ever been perfect. 
5.      Ignore most of the media circus.  Instead look at full transcripts of their speeches for evidences of their leadership style, vision for the country, moral character, virtues, etc.
6.      Ignore extremist websites–especially those that focus on tearing down the candidates.
7.      Look up the candidates’ resumes–What have they accomplished in the past? How does that relate to the office they are seeking?
8.  About a week before the election, decide who will get your vote–and again, do this with the knowledge that the candidate you choose will not be perfect.

     My second consideration before voting-- Americans who profess Christianity have an obligation to do more than vote wisely.  Scripture commands us to pray.  The primary season allowed Americans to chose two candidates for president of the United States—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Many agree that both candidates have moral and ethical deficiencies.  But as such, they reflect much of what is endemic to the majority of Americans who elevated them to victory.  In fact, if we are honest when we look in the mirror, we may see some of our own values and character flaws in one or both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I believe Christians must choose how they will respond to a weak field of candidates.  We can continue to highlight their character flaws as if God is powerless to transform them by Election Day.  Or, we can pray that God will work mightily in the lives of the candidates through people and circumstances surrounding them between now and Election Day.  Furthermore, we ought to pray that our hearts and minds as American voters will be honest, humble, and discerning.  Have we made this presidential election a prayer priority?

Franklin Graham emphasizes the importance of a praying electorate in Decision Magazine, saying, “When the Scripture says that the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water (Proverbs 21:1), it means that a Sovereign God can turn the heart of a king at any time and in any way.  If there are policies and platforms that don’t conform to biblical ethics, the intercession of Christians can be used in a powerful, transforming way.”  Grahams’ point applies not only to those currently holding high office but also candidates running for office.  He notes further that “… the ultimate reason the Bible instructs us to intercede on behalf of our leaders is so that they might come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Graham cites Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:3-4:

This (our intercession for those in authority) is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

That is right!  The Bible not only commands us to pray, but that we intercede for the souls of our leaders and candidates for office so that, in the words of Franklin Graham, “…our leadership would personally know God and the salvation found through faith in Jesus Christ alone.”   Graham solemnly adds,  “I can’t help but ask myself if all Christians had fulfilled this admonition and been faithful to pray for our leaders, would our nation—even our world—be different today?  Can our diligent, heartfelt prayers make a difference for the future?  Most certainly.”

Therefore, while we wait for Election Day, why not pray fervently and expectantly?  This question is only partly rhetorical.  I say this because I am facing two obstacles against my effort to pray fervently before I vote.

First, my faith is often too small to believe that God could intervene to transform the life of one or both of the presidential candidates. But then, I follow Dr. Smith’s principle #1 above and open my Bible. There, I find encouragement in the historical and prophetic books like Daniel.  In Daniel 4, we read the account of how God transformed prideful, pagan King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon into a humble leader who afterwards spoke these words publically:  Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride (Daniel 4: 37).  What an amazing change of heart!

We can also read in Daniel 9 how this prophet interceded by fasting and prayer in sackcloth and ashes for his nation in exile. Daniel’s prayer is a model for those of us today who strive to understand the power of fasting and prayer.  God eventually turned the hearts of, not one, but several pagan kings who amazingly allowed the release of the Jewish nation from captivity. These pagan kings even assisted in the return of the Jews to Israel.  For example, in Nehemiah 1: 4, we read that when the prophet heard of the deplorable state of the city of Jerusalem during the Jewish exile (445 BC), he sat down and wept and mourned for days… fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  Then, Nehemiah appealed to the heart of the Persian King Artaxerxes I.  Amazingly, Artazerxes granted him permission to rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem.  Then this pagan king willingly supplied Nehemiah with the resources and protection to accomplish the mission!  Truly, the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord…and God can direct that path a king takes like the rivers of water (Proverbs 21:1).

Daniel and Nehemiah are only two examples of how God worked in history through great men of prayer and faith.  The author of Hebrews 11 lists many other men and women who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions….  Accounts like these from Scripture ought to encourage us today to fast and pray fervently and expectantly.  

Perhaps like me, you face a second obstacle against praying for our leaders and the candidates for office.  Suppose even if one or both of the candidates were miraculously transformed spiritually before November.  Can we trust that they would have the moral and spiritual maturity necessary for the office of president?  After all, look at their habits and past reputations—liar, adulterer, pro-abortion ‘murderer,’ proud, boastful, rash, brash, etc.  It’s no wonder many Americans are tempted to reside in the land of #NeverTrump, #NeverHillary, or #NoVote.  But then, was there ever a presidential candidate the all voters agreed would make a  good president?

For now, my focus for prayer is upon my personal attitude, my proneness toward sin, and the sin so prevalent in the American electorate.  As a born again believer in the incarnation, sinless life, death, resurrection, and imminent return of Jesus Christ, I am thankful that God did not look at my life and declare, “#NeverJohn.”  Instead, as the old hymn declares, God sought me, and bought me with His redeeming blood.  And God is still working to transform this stiff-necked rebel by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12: 2) through learning from people, experiences, and the Scriptures which are intended for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…(2 Timothy 3: 15).

Or have we as believers in Christ’s atonement forgotten how terribly unsuited we were for an “office” in God’s kingdom?  Have we come to the point in the recognition of our spiritual poverty that we can see ourselves in the center of the crowd of Jewish Pharisees, each ready to stone us until Jesus defends us, and says to our accusers, He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone (John 8: 7)?  Or instead, do I see myself among the accusers surrounding a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton lying on the ground while shouting out accusing words? ADULTERER! “LIAR!” 

Thankfully, many of God's people are humbly praying for our nation, for the person God will allow to assume leadership in January, and for a new resurgence of moral clarity and integrity in America.  Many Christians are concerned about their own personal walk with God so that their eyes are clear to identify candidates with integrity.  Perhaps if the spiritual eyes of God’s people had been more “clear” (Luke 11:  34) in 2012, fewer Christians would have abandoned presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a decent, moral man, who then narrowly lost to Barack Obama.  Romney had campaigned as a social and fiscal conservative, so there is reason to believe that the past four years could have been different under his stronger moral and ethical leadership and prior experience as a governor.

In this year’s election, many moral and fiscal conservatives view Donald Trump as a weaker candidate than Romney because of Trump’s lack of moral and spiritual maturity.  However, I am encouraged that Trump campaigns as both a fiscal and a social conservative (e.g. support for sanctity of life, and for maintaining law and order).  Trump’s choice of Gov. Mike Pence, a man of proven character and leadership, for vice president suggests that he knows the importance of making responsible choices of men and women to serve in government.  Trump also recently demonstrated some humility when he expressed regret that some of his words have been hurtful.  Willingness to admit error is an important trait of a leader.  I am thankful for small indications that God is at work in the life of candidate Trump.  As he receives classified briefings, I pray that Mr. Trump will sense more clearly the weight of the presidency and call upon God for wisdom and strength as other presidents have done.

I am also praying that God will use one of Trump's advisers just as He used Barnabas as recorded in Acts 11: 22-26 to encourage Saul, a former persecutor of Christians.  In spite of much fear and resistance by the first century church to the acceptance of Saul, Barnabas recommended him to the church based on his genuine profession of faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins.  Saul was eventually accepted by the church and became Paul the Apostle, one of the great early church evangelists and church planters.

Come November 8, some of us will remain in the land of #NoVote, being unable to vote in good conscience for either candidate. But, when neither candidate is deemed morally and spiritually qualified, does that justify abstaining?  Anyone may choose not to vote, but we should remember that the outcome of elections is decided by both voters and non-voters. In 2012, many, including Christians, were among residents of #NoVote because they refused support Mitt Romney. The resultant reelection of Barack Obama suggests that choosing not to vote doesn’t prevent us from leaving our fingerprints on the outcome.  Also, residents of #NoVote must consider how much they are dismissing the importance of substantial differences in the platforms of Trump and Clinton.  Careful reading and listening to the candidates reveals stark differences in their vision for America with respect to the following:

1.   Respect for “rule of law” vs. extending “compassion” arbitrarily
2.   Sanctity of human life
3.   Respect for U.S. Constitution (e.g. 1st and 2nd Amendments; “separation of powers”)
4.   Responsibility of government to protect from foreign invasion
5.   Solution to urban and rural poverty
6.   Support for marriage and family
7.   Education—school choice, improving teacher effectiveness
8.   Protection of religious freedom
9.   Rights and dignity of women
10. Fiscal responsibility of government
11. Importance of character and integrity for those in “public service”

To the shame of the Christian community in America, our nation has become more like ancient Greece and Rome. But unlike the Greeks and Romans, thanks to God’s grace working through the Founding Fathers, we have the freedom to vote.  Unfortunately, more and more we are faced with a choice between candidates with character qualities not unlike a Roman Caesar or a Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  Yet God still works through pagan authorities; and, He continues to command Christians to pray for those in authority and to be salt and light in the public arena.  By “Spirit-led, Scripture-fed prayer,” we can develop more closely the mind of Christ and we can see more clearly what God is doing in our lives and in our nation as we participate as “salt and light” (Matthew 5: 13-16) while we anticipate Christ’s return. 

I do not know yet how I will vote in November, but I’m glad there is still more time to get acquainted with the candidates and their respective platforms.  Meanwhile, we ought to pray for them and for ourselves as voters that God will spiritually revive us, and revive America as God desires.  The prayer of Daniel, in Daniel 9, is a great place to begin praying in a "Scripture-fed, Spirit-led" fashion as you enter a time of quiet prayer, and perhaps even fasting for your relationship to God, and for revival in America and the World.  For more on prayer and fasting, see "How Do You P-R-A-Y This Thanksgiving?"

[I welcome your comments. Please click on “Comment” below if you care to respond.]