Christians and self-sacrifice: do “we” have to?


Talking about ethical controversies in terms of “we” easily leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is all too common when drawing ethical guidance from the Bible. There’s a tendency to assume that a passage can be read as one-size-fits-all, such that it supplies an absolute guiding principle for all times, places, and situations. But not all prescriptions are absolute, and accordingly “we” should not blindly follow them. Rather, look at a passage’s context. Who is the message intended for, and in what circumstance? And if there is a principle to be had, take it for a “test drive” to see if any absurdities arise.
A couple of recent social controversies exemplify the problem of taking biblical prescriptions absolutely. In both cases, people are concerned about what Christians should not be doing. But in the end I don’t think these proscriptions are absolutely authoritative for anyone.
1. Christians and guns. Earlier this month, John Piper offered a charitable and scriptural corrective to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s admonition that Liberty University students should train to carry concealed weapons. In his post, Piper acknowledges that God ordains the state to wield the sword for the purpose of justice. However, he hesitates to affirm that ordinary Christians should be so armed. Drawing from Paul and especially from 1 Peter, Piper relates correctly that God “intends to reveal the supreme worth of his Son and his salvation in the special grace of a Christian people who have the miraculous power to entrust themselves to his care while suffering unjustly.” Further, the New Testament produces a heart that “trusts in the help of God in every situation.” Finally, Piper asks:
What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how powerful and preemptive we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness — that we have a gun in our back pocket and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Jason Bourne, not Jesus and the Bible. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth.

I agree that God intends to use Christian suffering to testify about Christ. But does this imply that Christians should never prepare for life-threatening events and instances of suffering? I’m not sure Piper means to say this, yet this absolute interpretation gets defended in daily conversations. Before we take this view for a test drive, let’s gain some insight from a second recent controversy.

2. “You Don’t Get to Make that Move.” This Fall, Christians voiced strong reservations about taking Syrian refugees into the United States. Not at all unlike John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell, Jr., one Christian blogger expressed dismay at the tone and impression other Christians were giving in the course of debate. The blogger rightly tilts against hysteria, fear, and bigotry, accepting that non-Christians might display these traits, but demanding more from Christians:

But if you name Jesus as king? Well, then I’m sorry, Christian, but you don’t get to make that move.

He goes on to tell us things Christians don’t get to do, including:

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

And:

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

Who can argue against this? My concern though is that such a post ends up getting used by others as a straw man in debate. If all objections to hosting refugees boil down to laziness, carelessness, fear and panic, then how can a Christian or a citizen express legitimate concerns about real dangers affecting her society, her neighbors, her family, or even herself? This absolute position needs a test drive, too.

Taking absolutes for a spin

Recall Piper’s concern that Christians should trust “in the help of God in every situation.” What about situations where Christians or those they care for fall ill? Most seek a doctor, and rightly so. Few people think this entails a lack of trust in God; such a position is absurd. It seems then that in some cases Christians are justified in actively preventing and mitigating their own and others’ suffering.

An obvious objection to this is to distinguish between resisting natural evil and resisting evil coming from the hand of others. After all, both Romans and 1 Peter say not to repay evil with evil. Then maybe “we” ordinary Christians shouldn’t defend ourselves against attack after all. I’ll complicate this objection by appealing to the imperative to protect others. Imagine a case where a Christian, by failing to resist an assailant, allows his wife to die. To extend the test drive of this absolute principle, how about if a Christian by similar inaction allows her own child to die, or her neighbor’s child? It is not at all clear that testifying about Christ requires these kinds of “sacrifices.” By the light of conscience these cases seem morally repugnant. The absolute prohibition against defense of others, and perhaps even self-defense, breaks down.

What about the controversy of being hesitant to take in refugees? Do Christians really not “get to make that move”? The same dynamics seem to be at play with Christians and guns. If following Jesus means urging law enforcement and others to forget completely about the threat of terrorism and violence, then let me suggest that is an absurd and unthinking Christianity.

Every Christian should imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice in appropriate circumstances. But carelessly disregarding one’s own life or the lives of others contradicts essential aspects of Christianity. Bearers of God’s image–including ourselves–deserve great respect and ought to be preserved as much as possible. Deuteronomy 30 exhorts us to “choose life.” Jesus in Mark 12 commands that you love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and that you love your neighbor as yourself. And in Jeremiah 29:7, God urges, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Dying a martyr’s death for the gospel is a noble aspiration and has its proper place, but we should not seek it in every situation we face, let alone enlist our neighbors. In light of scripture and reason, “we” don’t always have to roll over and die.

 

Photo credit: David Villarreal Fernández via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Queasy conquistadors

On Wednesday, news broke that a suspect was arrested for plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve in New York.  At first, some political junkies (or maybe just Brian Ross) were asking themselves, was it possibly a deranged gold standard libertarian?  It didn’t take long to learn it was a 20 year old Muslim man who had come to study from Bangladesh.  He identified himself with Al Qaeda.

The way that media and the cultural establishment treat violent Islamic jihad resembles some sort of awkward charades, or maybe musical chairs.  Let it be said here not all Muslims are violent or threatening.  Neither are all acts of jihad, if the term is to be properly understood.  But the relationship between Islam, jihad, and terrorism is another front of America’s culture war that needs work.

It would be nice if our thought leaders–media, politicians, academics–could talk openly about a very real force at war with us, without secretly fearing they’ll have caused some back woods deer hunter to go out and commit a hate crime.  Laura Logan, the CBS reporter who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square last year, and has now called attention to Al Qaeda’s significant Afghan resurgence, seems to be one exemplar uncowed by political correctness.

But for the most part, what we are getting from the influential echelons amounts to denial.  The consequence of a life trajectory totally sheltered by this denial is clear: we get a president and an administration that neglects major world threats, seeing places as friendlier than they really are.  Perhaps it’s quick to judge, but this denial seems a direct contributor to the loss of a uniquely skilled ambassador and three dedicated American personnel at Benghazi.

We don’t have to commit ourselves against a sovereign nation, or a people, but we do need to combat the idea that mobilizes terrorists.  This is something the liberal, progressive worldview–which informs so deeply the Obama administration–can’t do.  The cultural impulses of tolerance and relativism translate into a desire to not offend.  Recall the $70,000 the State Department spent in Pakistan denouncing The Innocence of Muslims, or the timely optics of authorities arresting the film’s creator for a less-than-critical parole offense.  A misdirected attitude of insecurity undermines our current efforts to confront violent Islamism.

While we have the cultural and political Left at the reigns, we have the worst of both worlds.  We’re perceived as cruel imperialists and conquerors, but in reality we lack the benefit of fire in the belly.  Rather, we’re queasy and uncertain.

As I heard the news of the man who plotted to bomb the Fed, I thought of an inverse analogy.  Five centuries ago, technologically and organizationally superior European explorers set forth, confounding and conquering populations they came across.  Now, many see much of the Islamic world as stuck in an earlier time.  But it is they who confound the advanced West today.  Effete and paralyzed by existential anxiety, the descendants of the conquistadors have become queasy, unable to seriously countenance the brutality that has reliably characterized human existence.

Folks like Mark Steyn make gobs of money selling this gloomy narrative.  Nothing wrong with that.  Yet, I can’t help but want to turn the page on this tragic story.  It happens that there is a leader who’s ready to move forward with a full-throated restoration of our moral authority.  He wrote a book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.  The timing couldn’t be better; you can vote him president on November 6.

Moral equivalence, tolerance, reciprocity

When specifics are at stake, when values are weighed, and when judgments must be passed, it seems American liberals cannot help but default to moral equivalence.

Take for example the post-9/11 semantic struggle for the word “terrorism.”  In an earlier era, terrorism clearly meant something like a plane hijacking or an embassy bombing; it was bad because it forced a government into an odious moral dilemma of either sacrificing innocents or legitimating violence as a means for change.  But with the War on Terror, many opponents were either too angry or wearied by the daily use of the “T” word to maintain the important distinctions of who, how, and why that makes terrorism so bad.  In their new parlance, “terrorist” became an epithet befitting the unrealistic black-and-white view that any exercise of force or the mere holding of power was bad.  Common was the claim that Americans were terrorists because they dropped bombs from planes or their ancestors once sniped British officers from treetops.  This dumbing down of the “T” word culminated in a bumper sticker featuring a quaint photo of four Native Americans with rifles at the ready.  Its caption: “Homeland Security–fighting terrorism since 1492.”  And so in a thumbnail sketch, the whole of our glorious and equitable American civilization was dismissed as no different from a band of murderous Islamo-supremacist thugs.

Not only can moral equivalence single-handedly dismiss a civilization’s rich heritage, its also a cover for those who don’t want to think too hard in comparing religions or considering their respective relation to truth.  In the midst of August’s “Ground Zero mosque” media madness, a telling exchange between Charlie Rose and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria demonstrated a shameful intellectual weakness that pervades mainstream journalism.  To them, the shared evil between Christendom and Islam was not violence or the threat of coercive force, but the idea of proselytization itself;  that is, the desire to share, spread, or submit for discussion that one idea or belief is possibly better than another.  It is anathema to their profession, which upholds objectivity and neutrality.  But in an existential twist, their reports in turn must be colored by a tolerance that is itself intolerant of exclusive truth claims.  All this is surely an overreaction to a past age when fears of patriarchy, conformity, and stigmatization of minorities were major concerns.  But if we can’t get beyond the hang up of stigmatization and the impulse of tolerance that begets moral equivalence, then we have no hope of solving our problems.

Oddly enough, the inability of journalists to admit their true feelings or core motivations gives them something in common with orthodox Islam.  They both are deficient in reciprocity.  While the vested partisans of Christendom have demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-criticism, reflection, dialog, and reform, no one under the sun of political correctness can bear to admit that orthodox Islam today is in want of those things.  When a religion’s unmistakable prescription for apostasy is death, and when a civilization propagates its ideas but cannot reciprocate openness to allow the honest consideration of others, there is a problem.  Any institution or social phenomena, whether it be a religion, a government, or the culture of professional journalism, cannot long survive without shedding illiberal bulwarks against the unfettered exchange of ideas.  Totalitarian states make no qualms about shutting up debate, but when American liberals run up against the hard facts of life, they all too often dull distinctions by means of moral equivalence.

To be sure, all individuals must be respected and judged on their own merits, not on their cultural background.  And while religions and cultural norms should be given due diligence, it does not hold that in the end they are all the same.

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