Why I’m Not Worried About Donald Trump

Super Tuesday

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and as an unenrolled (i.e. independent) registered voter in Massachusetts, I intend to vote in the Republican primary. This year, in particular, my public duty feels invested with particular urgency, as I, like many others in the U.S., feel threatened by Donald Trump’s political ascendancy.

Donald Trump

Not only do many of his policies strike me as unconstitutional and unfeasible, he seems to say and do unconscionable things. Since, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), we are rightly alarmed by the outrageous things he says. Even though he claims to be a Christian, his brash and boastful leadership style is hardly reminiscent of Christ, who taught, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

Kingdom of God

Though many Christians have disavowed him, I have been baffled by some believers who support him, and I think this exchange between Jesus and his disciples sheds light on the whole situation:

In Acts 1:6, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Jews who are marginalized under Roman subjugation, they are looking for political vindication and empowerment, but Jesus speaks of a different power, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection.” @shawnswoo http://ctt.ec/DlnQd+

Jesus does not promise a kingdom of political power, but a kingdom of spiritual power. Jesus does not promise to make us #winners, but #witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.

Sovereignty of God

So regardless of the outcome of Super Tuesday, or even of the general election in November, I remind myself that I don’t have to worry about Trump, or anyone for that matter. Instead, I say, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20-21). God is, and will remain, sovereign.

Ultimately, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). We need no other Savior.

Tweet: “Jesus does not promise to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but to make his name great among the nations.” @shawnswoo http://ctt.ec/V17bK+

A Theology of Sports

Most of my friends know that, I’m an ardent Patriots fan. However, I was happy that Peyton Maning won his second Super Bowl before his retirement. I respect Peyton Manning because he is a consummate sportsman, and I believe those two things are related. Let me use him as an example to illustrate my theology of sports.

In his book, Manning, he writes (pp. 362-364):

Like my dad, I make it a point when I speak to groups to talk about priorities, and when it’s schoolkids, I rank those priorities as: faith, family, and education, then football. For me generally it had always been the big four: faith, family, friends, and football. And I tell all of them that as important as football is to me, it can never be higher than fourth. …

I committed my life to Christ [when I was thirteen], and that faith has been most important to me ever since. Some players get more vocal about it—the Reggie Whites, for example—and some point to Heaven after scoring a touchdown and praise God after games. I have no problem with that. But I don’t do it, and don’t think it makes me any less a Christian. I just want my actions to speak louder, and I don’t want to be more of a target for criticism than I already am. Somebody sees you drinking a beer, which I do, and they think, “Hmmmm, Peyton says he’s this, that, or the other, and there he is drinking alcohol. What’s that all about?” Christians drink beer. So do non-Christians. Christians also make mistakes, just as non-Christians do. My faith doesn’t make me perfect, it just makes me forgiven, and provides me the assurance I looked for half my life ago. …

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

Ah, but do I “pray for victory?” No, except as a generic thing. I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability. But I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games, except as winning might influence the character of some person or group. Besides. If the Colts were playing the Cowboys and I prayed for the Colts and Troy Aikman prayed for the Cowboys, wouldn’t that make it a standoff?

Why He Plays

First, Peyton confesses his childlike love for football, admitting that he’d “play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when [he’s] no longer a child.” In other words, he doesn’t play football for the sake of something else, e.g. money, fame, or even a platform with which he could praise God and point people to him; he plays for the joy of football in and of itself. For him, football has intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value.

This is in contrast to many Christians who defend sports saying that it’s a great way to promote health through exercise, as well as cultivate self-control, discipline, respect for authorities, teamwork, etc. Yes, sports is useful for those things, but it is also good in and of itself.

That’s because our recreation is rooted in God’s good creation. Man is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and that means he is to rule over creation as God’s representative. This is seen in the order of creation. In the first three days of creation, God creates kingdoms: light and darkness (Gen. 1:3-5), sky (Gen. 1:6-8), and the land and seas (Gen. 1:9-13), respectively. Then, during the next three days, he creates kings to occupy the corresponding kingdoms: sun, moon and the stars (Gen. 1:14-19), the birds and fish (Gen. 1:20-23), and land creatures (Gen. 1:24-25), respectively.

At the end of it all, as the pinnacle of his creation, God creates man as his royal representative (Gen. 1:26-28). And as such, man is blessed and commanded by God to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). As God creates man in his “likeness,” man begets man in his “likeness” (Gen. 5:1-3). As God “rules,” so man is commanded to “rule” and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2 Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16).

This divinely-instituted human subjection of nature is “culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr defines as “the artificial, secondary environment which man superimposes on the natural.” Rocks are nature; walls are culture. River is nature; canal is culture. Noise is nature; music is culture. And man is charged with the royal responsibility of creating culture from God-given nature.

This, likewise, applies to the nature of man. If running is nature, racing is culture. If play is nature, sport is culture. Sports, therefore, is a fulfillment of the cultural mandate and has intrinsic value. It glorifies the Creator when we enjoy his good creation.

Creation is not utilitarian. God created not only trees that are “good for food,” but also those that are “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9) for our enjoyment. One fruit tree would have sufficed to satisfy our hunger, but God gave us hundreds to delight our senses (Gen. 2:15-16). Everyone could have been given an equal, basic athletic ability necessary for survival, but God created some men like Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist who claimed, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure” (Chariots of Fire). He created men like Peyton Manning, who can throw a football 80 yards down the field with greater accuracy than I can manage within 10 yards. Manning uses his extraordinary talent to play the game for the sheer enjoyment of it, and there is something profoundly right and good about that.

How He Plays

Of course, not all human culture is good in and of itself. The gladiatorial games were also a sport, but certainly not a good one. As Jeremy Treat writes in his helpful article, “More Than A Game,” sports can go wrong in two ways. It can be “[twisted] into a bad thing (sin as immorality) or … [made into] an ultimate thing (sin as idolatry).”

In a sinful world, sports can degenerate into an arena for violence, cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, spygate, deflategate, etc.), greed, selfishness, and vanity. Manning appears to be aware of this, and reasons that there are “rules to prevent [violence]” in football. He steers clear of twisting football into an immoral sport, recognizing that he “[doesn]’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as [he] can within the rules.”

Sports can also become an idol when it is received, not as God’s good gift, but as his replacement or rival. So athletes as well as fans can find their identity and meaning in sports rather than in God. In the current “malaise of immanence,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes our secular age, sports offers a religious experience—a glimpse of “transcendence.”

So Harold Abrahams, the foil to Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, describes his reason for running, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” The answer, of course, is that he will not. Though he wins the race, he loses his soul, because he has turned a good thing into an ultimate thing. He has replaced the Creator with the creature, the Giver with the gift.

Manning well understands this when he writes that football can never be higher than his fourth priority, after faith, family, and friends. He lives by this when he refuses to pray for victory, but rather prays “to keep both teams injury free,” and admits, “I don’t think God really cares about who wins football games.”

Peyton Manning was a superb quarterback, but he was an even better sportsman, and the latter is unquestionably the greater accomplishment. Even in the way we watch and play our sports, let us be constrained by our love for God.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

A Controversy In Wheaton

This week, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for claiming on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration explained that professors must “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” Hawkins also wore a hijab through the entire season of Advent to express her solidarity with innocent muslims being victimized by retaliations against Islamic terrorists.

Of course, expressing solidarity with innocent muslims is to be commended. There have been over 40 documented cases of anti-muslim threats, shootings, and vandalisms in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th. These hate crimes should be condemned, and Christians, as always, must promote justice for all.

Miroslav Volf’s Allah

However, human solidarity is one thing, theological clarity is another. Hawkins’s assertion was partly based on Miroslav Volf’s arguments in Allah: A Christian Response. Not surprisingly, Volf came to Hawkins’s defense, insisting that “her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

Volf contends that saying that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” is not the same thing as saying “that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God” or “that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity.” In other words, describing an object differently is not the same thing as describing a different object. Worshiping the right God is not the same thing as worshiping the right God rightly. Since Christians concede that Jews worship the same God as they, even though Jews reject the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, Volf maintains that Christians cannot, for selfsame reasons, deny that Muslims worship the same God.

“Allah = God” Is an Unhelpful Equivocation

As Volf’s attempt to clarify proves, for most people, the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” implies a certain parity that is theologically compromising. In its bald formulation, the statement requires too many qualifications to be helpful, especially in the abbreviated context of social media. It is an equivocation that attempts to build solidarity at the expense of clarity.

Orthodoxy entails right worship. Aaron fashions a golden calf to represent YHWH, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt (Exod. 32: 1-6), yet this is still condemned as idolatry. There is no neat distinction between right belief and right worship.

Strictly speaking, even the Jews do not worship the same God that we do. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three. Our God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jews reject these foundational doctrines.

God’s redemptive plan unfolded progressively throughout history, and this progressive nature of God’s revelation demands greater accountability from the later generations. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

“Whoever believes in [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” obfuscates this reality and hinders mission.

How to Engage Muslims

How, then, should we engage Muslims, Jews, and other unbelievers? Scripture teaches that faithful witness simultaneously corroborates what is right and critiques what is wrong in other religions.

When John declares that Jesus is the “Word” λόγος (logos), he is contextualizing the gospel by co-opting the Greek philosophical notion of “animating reason.”However, he qualifies his use of the term by adding that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). In its philosophical usage, the logos could not have become flesh. So John’s use of the word is uniquely Christian.

Similarly, Paul’s sermons use the cultural framework of his audience, but also disabuse his audience of false ideas. Preaching to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), Paul begins by affirming Israel’s salvation history from the election of the patriarchs, to the time of judges, and later, kings (vv. 16b-25). Then, he cites extensively from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus, whom the Jews had rejected, lived, died, and resurrected to fulfill the Davidic promise (vv. 26-37), and calls them to repentance (vv. 38-41).

When addressing a pagan audience, however, Paul takes a decidedly different course. In Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), recognizing that his audience are polytheists who believed that gods and humans intermingled to produce demigods, Paul begins by delineating the differences between divinity and humanity (v. 15a-c), then proclaims that there is only one true God “who does what is good” ἀγαθουργῶν (agathourgōn). This rare word occurs only twice in the entire New Testament (cf. 1 Tim. 6:18), and invites comparison to καλοκάγαθος (kalokagathos), the title given to Zeus, “the one who does what is good and faithful.” In using the term, Paul simultaneously contextualizes the idea of the one true God and confronts the idolatry of his hearers, insisting that God, not Zeus, is the one who providentially cares for them with “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (v. 17).

Still more striking is Paul’s speech in Athens. He quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cicilian poet Aratos, and incorporates various Stoic and Epicurean beliefs (Acts 17:22-31). However, Paul issues an unflinching challenge to their worldview when he asserts that the Creator God is the Lord of heaven and earth who will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has raised from the dead.

Volf proffers Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) as an example of “a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat” who “affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” but this is patently false.

In his book, Cribratio Alkorani (A Scrutiny of the Koran), Nicholas of Cusa writes unambiguously that “the God of the Koran is not the Great God in whom, because He is the Creator of all things, every rational creature ought to believe” (Kindle Location 2027) and “that the Muhammadan sect … is in error and is to be repudiated” (KL 29). The stated goal of his writing is to prove “even from the Koran, that the Gospel is true” (KL 61), and the way he labors painstakingly to sift truth from the lies is consistent with Scriptural precedent.

Islam, like any other religion that sets itself up against the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a complex mixture of truth, half-truths, and lies. The simplistic statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” does not do justice to this complexity.

What’s at Stake?

What exactly is at stake in this debate? Why is Volf, Hawkins, and others so eager to affirm that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” For Volf, the answer, ostensibly, is to preserve future peace, for “two supreme divine beings always means war.” In other words, how you answer the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” will determine whether we have “a justification for cultural and military wars” or “a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.”

This is essentially what Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (trans. H J. Tozer, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998, 137-138):

Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance are, in my opinion mistaken. The two kinds of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people whom we believe to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to reclaim them or to punish them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it cannot, but have some effect on civil life, and as soon as it has any effect on civil life, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular affairs. From that time, the priests are the real masters. The kings are their officers.

But Jesus never forced belief on anyone, and he even rebukes his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume those who had rejected their message (Luke 9:52-56).

Moreover, Volf himself challenges Rousseau and contradicts the claim of his article in his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World:

[T]hough it is true that Christian religious exclusivists make a clear distinction between the saved and the damned, the consistent among them also—and without contradiction—reject the distinction between moral insiders and moral outsiders. The Golden Rule, a succinct summary of all Christian moral obligations, commands: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’—do to all others, not just to a select few (Matthew 7:12). As the story of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrates, the command to love one’s neighbors is universal (Luke 10:25-37); it applies to friend and foe, good and evil, saved and damned. To love the damned is not to hate God but to obey and emulate God, who makes the sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45) and who loves those who have made themselves God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-7).

It is this radical love for neighbor demonstrated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ensures human solidarity and future peace. No facile agreement or superficial identification will do.

Islam and Christianity, = or ≠?

At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama denounced the barbaric acts of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In this context, he warned against blaming Islam and Muslims in general:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

This statement ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian leaders and conservative politicians. In hindsight, it was probably unwise to use a complex and divisive example like the Crusade in a short speech that precludes historical and theological nuance.

I agree with Ross Douthat, “The deep problem with [President Obama’s] Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” For this reason, his exhortation “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought, but rather [to] think of [ourselves] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3), instead comes across as a self-righteous criticism of the “rest” of America.

This fact does not, however, justify the harsh reactions of many conservative Christians. President Obama’s illustration was infelicitous, but what he said was, nonetheless, true. Christianity is not immune to radicalization, nor is Islam incapable of civility.

Admitting this is not the same thing as conceding that Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent or equally valid. I believe wholeheartedly that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. Nevertheless, I recognize, as Obama said, that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Sin is the real issue here.

The fact that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does not endorse violence is not the point. It does not matter whether the Qur’an, rightly interpreted, promotes violence or not (I address this issue in another post). We know from the very beginning of human history that Satan is capable of distorting even God’s Word for his depraved purposes (Genesis 3:1-5). He can incite Muslims to violence even if the word “jihad” never appears in the Qur’an.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Islam is not the enemy, sin is, Satan is, and he is an equal opportunity offender.

If we single out and categorically denounce Muslims as our adversaries, we will be fundamentally impaired from loving them. We will become fearful of Muslims and feel threatened by them. We will harden ourselves against them and relinquish our ability to love and bless them.

We must not let that happen. Muslims are the Samaritans of our generation (Luke 10:25-37). We must love them, pray for them, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Precisely because the real battle is spiritual, precisely because the real battle ground is the sinful human heart, Christ crucified for our redemption is the only ultimate solution to our universal, human problem.

Islamic Terror and Islamophobia

As the atrocities perpetrated by radical Islamists mount, we see two extreme reactions. Those numbed by political correctness insist that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam; those blinded by Islamophobia insist that Islamic terrorism has everything to do with Islam. Neither is right.

Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS are products of Wahhabism and Salafism, which belong to the literalist school of Islamic legal thought called Hanbali. This is a legitimate and influential school that emphasizes a strict adherence to the Qur’an and the Hadiths (the deeds and sayings of Muhammad). The terrorists find in these texts both a theological warrant and historical precedent for violent jihad. It is misleading, therefore, to maintain that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

However, there are three other schools of law for Sunni muslims (as well as two others for Shia muslims and one for Khawarij muslims), which are more progressive than Hanbali and give weight not only to the Qur’an and the Hadiths, but also to scholarly consensus (ijma), analogical reasoning (qiyas), and local Muslim customs (urf) that exercise a moderating influence. Moreover, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS do not heed the conditions necessary for violent jihad or observe the proper conduct for violent jihad delineated by their own school. It is unfair, therefore, to assert that Islamic terrorism is the quintessence of Islam.

It is incumbent upon Christians to engage muslims in critical dialogue without blaming and alienating them wholesale. Neither indiscriminate “inclusion” nor discriminatory “exclusion” will work. We must appeal to their religious consciences and question their allegiance to pernicious schools of thought.

Above all, we must tell them that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins—a truth that Muslims explicitly deny (Qur’an 9:30).

The System and the Human Heart

I have written previously about How to Eradicate Racism and Racial Profiling, but recent events call for further reflection.

This week, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used an illegal chokehold to restrain Eric Garner and inadvertently killed him. Pantaleo was white; Garner was black.

This ruling comes on the heels of the Ferguson ruling last month, when the grand jury voted not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in a confused altercation. Wilson was white; Brown was black.

These are tragic deaths that call for mourning. These are also polarizing deaths that call for charitable listening and thoughtful response from both sides of the racial divide.

A Black Perspective
It was only 59 years ago this week that Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger. The specter of systemic racism stills hangs over our nation, even though much of it is now perpetuated in our subconscious. Those on the receiving end of injustice are naturally more keenly aware of it.

This is why, in the poll preceding the Ferguson decision, 59% of blacks said that Officer Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 15% of whites concurred. Similarly, only 13% of blacks thought that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense, while 43% of whites thought so.

A White Perspective
Our justice system, however, is not entirely broken. In January, a grand jury indicted Officer Randall Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick was white; Ferrell was black.

Nor are all white police officers out there to lock up or kill black people. Most of them are risking their lives to serve the public good, and some are oblivious to their subconscious racial profiling. In many cases, they are protecting black people from black violence, since 93% of black homicide victims are murdered by blacks.

The System
The mutual mistrust between blacks and law enforcement must be healed. (1) Police officers must be made aware of their racial biases and trained to de-escalate confrontations in order to curtail the use of deadly force. (2) Social ills such as poverty and fatherless must be ameliorated to reduce black criminality.

The Human Heart
But we would be deluded to think that we can change our society by merely changing institutions. Undoubtedly, our human condition is a broken one that must be fixed, but we must not ignore the human nature that drives it. Changing the system is an expedient solution, but changing the human heart is more exigent. Systemic reforms must be driven by those whose hearts have been reformed by Jesus Christ.

Enlightened principles will not fix our world. A system of redemption is not enough. We need a Redeemer who can change the human heart, and His name is Jesus Christ. We must repent of our selfish agendas and submit to Him. Then, God will give us a new heart and fill us with the Holy Spirit. And “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and Stereotypes

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”-John 7:24

Jesus said the above words to the Pharisees, who stereotyped Jesus as an irreverent lawbreaker by the appearance of things, when, in reality, Jesus kept the heart of the laws better than any of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:23-28; Mt. 23).

Trayvon Martin and Stereotyping
This is especially relevant in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. The prosecution claimed that Zimmerman provoked Martin to the fight that led to his death by racially-profiling the hoodie-wearing, black teenager as a criminal and then pursuing him. The jury, however, acquitted Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s self-defense laws.

In response, President Obama gave a very personal speech where he said, “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me, 35 years ago.” He recalled various instances in which he, like other African-American men in the country, was racially stereotyped, such as when he was “followed [while] shopping in a department store” by those who suspected that he might shoplift, and the time when he “[walked] across the street and [heard] the locks click on car doors.”

Given this “lens” of African-American experience, it is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans see this tragedy as an instance of racial profiling and stereotyping. And regardless of whether you believe Zimmerman is innocent or not, we must seek to listen to and empathize with the African-American community. As Christians, who are commanded to judge not by appearances, but with right judgment, we must speak out against racial injustices facing African-American men throughout the country.

Some Generalizations Are Necessary
This is not to say that all generalizations are morally wrong. It is impossible to live without inferring general concepts and propositions from specific cases.

For example, people try to avoid honeybees while walking through and/or admiring flowers. This is a learned behavior in response to the fact that honeybees sting. However, this is also a generalization, because it’s only the female honeybees that sting. While only partially true, the generalization that “honeybees sting” helps people avoid getting stung by honeybees.

Similarly, people often assume that homeless people are addicted to substances such as alcohol and drugs. While not always true, it is statistically accurate that a higher proportion of the homeless are addicts compared to other populations. This generalization dissuades many generous people from giving money, which can be used to acquire drugs and alcohol, and spurs them instead to help the homeless by buying food for them or directing them to local homeless shelters.

In other words, some generalizations help people take appropriate precautions and act wisely. Despite the obvious limitations of generalizations, we cannot live without them. This is why even Jesus makes generalizations about the Pharisees and Scribes of his day in his scathing critique of their hypocrisy (Mt. 23:1-36; cf. Tit. 1:12-14).

But Stereotypes Are Sinful
But wait, aren’t young African-American men disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? Isn’t this sufficient warrant for Zimmerman to suspect and pursue Martin? When do we cross over from fair-minded generalizing to sinful stereotyping?

“stereotype” is an uncritical, oversimplified, and prejudiced conception of someone or something held in common by a group of people. We stop generalizing and start stereotyping when we fail humbly to acknowledge the limitations of, and exceptions to, our generalizations, and proudly assume that they are true for every member of a particular group and apply them to specific individuals in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Even though Jesus did criticize the hypocrisy of Pharisees and the Scribes collectively (Mt. 23:1-36), he never pressed individuals who did not fit the generalization into stereotypes. In fact, in Mark 12:34, Jesus commends a sincere Scribe by saying that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Romans 12:3-5 is illuminating:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

All stereotypes are rooted in unwarranted pride and confidence in one’s own judgments. To stereotype is not “to think with sober judgment,” but “to think of [one]self more highly than [one] ought to think.” To stereotype is not to “judge with right judgment,” but to “judge by appearances.”

As the above passage shows, God doesn’t expect us to fit a uniform, procrustean “Christian” mold, but recognizes our individuality and calls us to use our diverse gifts to perform different tasks within the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31). God forms each of us uniquely in the womb and knows us personally (Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:13).

This is why there’s no such thing as “good” stereotypes. All stereotypes are an affront to God’s design for humanity to reflect his Triune being through individuality in solidarity and diversity in unity. They demean men and women created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) by circumscribing them with caricatures of themselves.

The Trayvon Martin case is tragic, because the bottom line is that an unarmed teenager was shot and killed, and we have no evidence that he was “up to no good,” except for the fact that he was “just walking around” in the rain after purchasing Skittles and iced tea from Seven-Eleven. The fatal confrontation would have been averted if Zimmerman had not relied on his hunch and instead heeded the recommendation of the police dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin.

Was his hunch motivated by racial stereotypes? Only God and Zimmerman himself know for sure. But may this tragedy remind us to be sober-minded, lest we judge by appearances and not with right judgment. As this case has clearly exposed, racial fault lines still divide our nation, and we still have some way to go in building “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Patriots’ Day Bombing and the City of Boston

Patriots’ Day 

Patriots’ Day is a widely-observed Massachusetts holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord (the first battles of the American Revolutionary War) on April 19, 1775. It is observed on the third Monday in April. The Boston Marathon, one of the best-known races in the world and the oldest annual marathon in the world, takes place on Patriots’ Day.

This past Monday, during the 117th Boston Marathon, two bombs were detonated by terrorists near the finish line, leading to 3 deaths and over 180 injuries. The home games of the Red Sox, Celtics, and the Bruins, all part of the Patriots’ Day festivities, were cancelled. Hanna and I were not in the city at the time, but we had over a dozen friends running the Boston Marathon (thankfully, all of them are safe).

This tragedy inspired many people to heroic acts. The police, firefighters, and EMT’s of Boston saved many through their prompt response. Some of the marathoners ran straight past the finish line toward Massachusetts General hospital to donate blood for the victims of the bombings. Many ordinary citizens were seen assisting the injured, and many more opened up their homes and offered rides to those who were stranded in Boston due to the incident.

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City of God & City of Man
As Christians in the Greater Boston area, how should we relate to and care for our city? Is it appropriate for Christians to be patriotic?

It is true that we belong to the City of God and not to the City of Man. We are exiles here on earth (Jas. 1:1; 1 Pt. 2:11). We lead lives that are, in many ways, countercultural. Our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, not to the Kingdom of Man.

Resident Aliens
Nevertheless, we do not, as some extreme fundamentalists are wont to do, separate ourselves and label this tragedy as a just punishment for the moral decay of the city. Instead, as the Jewish exiles in Babylon were commanded, we are to “seek the welfare of the city where [God has] sent [us] into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [we] will find [our] welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).

We do not belong to this world, yet we have been sent into this world (Jn. 17:15-18). Serving our city is not only the loving, and therefore the right, thing to do; it’s also the strategic thing to do because it bolsters the credibility of our gospel witness in the city. In Boston’s welfare, we will find our welfare.

The short answer, then, is this: We should be the very best citizens of the city of Boston and do everything in our power to ensure the healing and flourishing of our city.

In addition to praying for our city, here’s a list of things that you can do to help.

Can Christians Be Depressed or Suicidal?

Depression and Suicide

Depression and suicide are taboo topics among Christians, because they are often perceived as signs of spiritual weakness. “Good Christians are never depressed,” and “True Christians never commit suicide” are common sentiments among Evangelicals. But are these even true?

This week, the suicide of the 27-year-old Matthew Warren, the son of the renowned pastor Rick Warren, rocked the Evangelical world and began a national conversation about mental illness.

It is impossible to speak with certainty on this issue since the Scriptures do not directly address it. However, I do think that Christians can be susceptible to depression, and I do not think that suicide is an unpardonable sin.

What the Bible Says…
The Biblical narratives that mention suicide (Abimelech, Jdgs. 9:52-54; Samson, Jdgs. 16:30; Saul, 1 Sm. 31:4; Saul’s armor-bearer, 1 Sm. 31:5; Ahithophel, 2 Sm. 17:23; Zimri, 1 Kings 16:15-20; Judas, Mt. 27:3-5) pass no judgment on the morality of suicide itself. They merely comment on the reason why these men took their own lives.

Furthermore, men chosen by God such as Job (7:15-16), David (Ps. 13:2-4), Jeremiah (20:14-18), and Jonah (4:9) all despaired of their lives at some point, and Samson, who kills himself along with the Philistines, is hailed as a hero of the faith in Heb. 11:32. These examples alone should dispel the idealistic notion that Christians are immune to depression and suicidal tendencies.

Mental illnesses can have complex physiological, as well as psychological, causes. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression persist in this fallen world because our bodies are still groaning for the full redemption of God (Rom. 8:22-23).

On this side of eternity, sincere Christians still struggle with serious sins (Rom. 7:7-25). Thus, a volatile Christian can succumb to suicidal temptations in the throes of severe depression. Suicide is a tragedy in which the victim often has little control.

The good news is that there is no condemnation for those who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (Rom. 8:31-34), and nothing can separate us from the love of God–not life, not death, not even death by suicide (Rom. 8:35-39). We are saved, not by living up to certain behavioral standards, but through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the gospel.

The fact that one cannot repent of suicide after death does not preclude God’s forgiveness. We all have unconfessed sins that are unknown even to ourselves (Ps. 19:12; cf. 1 Cor. 4:4), and confession of every sin has never been the criterion for salvation.

Some cite 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 as proof that suicide leads to eternal damnation:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

However, this is a misinterpretation because the referent of “God’s temple” in this context is not an individual’s body (as it is in 1 Cor. 6:19-20) but the local church. We know this because (1)Paul is addressing the problem of division within the local church (1 Cor. 3:3-9), and because (2)the personal pronoun “you” in the original Greek is plural, though this is lost in translation.

The verses that immediately precede vv. 16-17 talk about how Christ will judge each one’s work in the upbuilding of the church. The enduring value of one’s labor will be tested by fire, and “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:12-15). This “loss” speaks not of individual damnation but of the damage done to the church. His work will be lost and he will lose his reward, but “he himself wil be saved.”

Please Don’t Take Your Own Life!
Of course, God’s mercy is by no means an excuse for suicide. Suicide is never a viable option (Acts 16:25-34). It is presumptuous to take God-given life into our own hands, and selfish to spurn the care of our loved ones.

We have been bought with a price by Christ’s blood, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that belong to God. (In the context of 1 Cor. 6:19-20, the “temple” does refer to the individual body, because it is dealing with sexual immorality rather than with division in the church as before). Like any sin, suicide results in a relative, albeit not necessarily absolute, rift in one’s fellowship with God.

If you struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, please remember that God is sovereign and that there is always hope. Please seek help, both spiritual and medical. Please hang on, so that you can “teach the world to sing [your] song”…

For a more detailed treatment on this issue, please see my friend Al’s article on Christianity Today.

Well, I don’t want to die anymore
Don’t want the Lord to call me home
I’ve got this feeling he ain’t done with me yet
So, I’ll sit right right here and place my bet

So, I don’t want to die, not just yet…

Well, it’s a hard road
To get back to my home
I don’t know how much farther I can go
But if I hang on,
Though I know the road is long,
I could teach the world to sing my song.

-Excerpt from “Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” by Ivan & Alyosha

Download the song Don’t Wanna Die Anymore.

Download the full album All The Times We Had.

The New Pope and Christian Hope

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was declared the new pope today. He has chosen to take on the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who abandoned the vast wealth he inherited from his merchant father to take the vow of poverty and identify with the poor.

This name choice has been described as “precedent shattering” not only because it’s the first time a pope has taken the name “Francis,” but also because the choice signifies “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding [of] the Catholic Church” and suggests a departure from business as usual (Michael Martinez, CNN).

This is an auspicious development because Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has historically straddled theological conservatism and social liberalism. He is a staunch advocate for the unborn, the poor and the marginalized. In 2009, he went on the record saying that “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities” violate fundamental human rights (Catholic News Agency).

Yet he also firmly resisted his fellow Latin American Jesuits’ growing penchant for liberation theology–a liberal theology that equates Christian salvation to liberation from social, economic, political injustice (John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter).

The “good news,” or the gospel, offers real hope for our present world because it affects all creation and calls for the transformation of our economic, political, social, and cultural structures. Jesus declared that he came “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19). The gospel is certainly no less than social justice. However, it is also much more than that.

Sin is the cause of our psychological alienation within ourselves (Gen. 3:10), our social alienation from each other (Gen. 3:7, 16), and our physical alienation from the rest of creation (Gen. 3:16-19), and the root of all these is our spiritual alienation from God. Vertical reconciliation with God through Christ precedes our horizontal reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

Therefore, we must not merely promote justice but also proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Lk. 2:10-11), who inaugurated the Kingdom of God (Mk. 1:14-15), lived to fulfill all righteousness (Mt. 3:15; 5:17-20), died as the substitutionary atonement for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-3), and rose again to usher in the New Creation (1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5:17). In so far as it is news, the gospel requires verbal communication (Rom. 10:14).

Wait, but don’t actions speak louder than words? What about the famous saying, which, incidentally, is attributed to St. Francis?

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

This saying is often quoted by Christians who declaim the importance of social justice and relegate the proclamation of the gospel as secondary. However, St. Francis never said such a thing. What he did say was:

“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulation of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister. The minister should take care not to grant this permission to anyone indiscriminately. All the Friars, however, should preach by their deeds.” (The Rule of 1221, Chapter XII)

Far from diminishing the importance of preaching, St. Francis wanted to ensure the faithful proclamation of the gospel by restricting preaching privileges. On the other hand, all were permitted to “preach by their deeds.”

In other words, we must preach by both word and deed. The mark of a true disciple is both a creed (2 Cor. 11:4; 1 Tim. 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:1-11) and a “love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). The two cannot be separated.

I pray that the new Pope Francis, like his namesake, will uphold both orthopraxy (right living) and orthodoxy (right belief). I pray that the new pope will uphold the old Christian hope–hope for the world here and now and hope for the world to come (1 Cor. 15:19; Rom. 8:18-25).

What are your impressions of the appointment of the new pope?