Called to a Different Path

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

    I am a Cleveland Indians fan.  I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years.  As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees.  This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another.  Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger.  This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well.  As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.
    Anger is not evil.  Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be.  Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan.  Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.  These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.
    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism.  I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.
    In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  Leviticus 19:18
    But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else?  Well, Jesus had something to say about that…
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    This is hard.  Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm.  Why?  Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston.  But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind.  Our calling is to a different path.  If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…
 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-28
    This is hard.  Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us?  Why should we be merciful?  Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not.  We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.
    Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
    I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.  
This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.
We are called to follow a different path.

Do Not Lose Heart

    Americans are a resilient bunch.  Throughout our history we have been known to roll with the punches.  Our fights with the British roamed halfway across the continent from 1776 until 1812.  During the American Civil War between 600,000 and 700,000 lives were lost, then more through other wars including a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor and the more recent attacks in September 11, 2001.  While we have always come back after such horror, it is difficult for us to grapple with death on our home soil.  It has been a long time since 1812, but we understood that we were at war with England and the English, generally, only fought those who chose to fight.  Pearl Harbor was hard but it was, at least, an attack on a military target.  September 11th was different.  It shook us and caused many to begin looking for revenge.   Many joined the military to be a part of finding the perpetrators or at least to do something to be a part of our national defense.  
    After September 11th most everyone expected that there would be more of the same.  We knew we were in a “War on Terror” and so we expected that there would be more frequent attacks on American citizens and on American soil.  It is a huge credit to law enforcement and military personnel across the country and around the world that nearly all of the expected attacks since 2001 were discovered and averted before they could be carried out.  Until now…
    With this latest attack during the Boston Marathon many of our feelings revert to what we felt on September 11th.  At this time we do not know anything about the attacker(s), who they are, or where they are from, or why they did what they did.  We heard that a suspect has been arrested but that too, was premature.  We want revenge, we want retribution and a few may feel that somehow we should run away, or give up fighting.  Any of these responses will cause us to lose our way.  As Christians we are called to something different, to follow a different path.  Today I specifically want to speak to those who are frightened by these events.
    In scripture our temptation to surrender because of our fear is referred to as losing heart.  It is ‘heart’ that makes us who we are and what we are, it is ‘heart’ that makes us move forward in the face of fear.  In Hebrews 12 we are encouraged, when times are hard, to consider all that Jesus endured for us, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)  The prophet Jeremiah offers similar advice, especially in times like this, saying…
 “Do not lose heart or be afraid
    when rumors are heard in the land;
one rumor comes this year, another the next,
    rumors of violence in the land
    and of ruler against ruler.”
(Jeremiah 51:46)
    Remember that we are citizens of two nations, one is an earthly kingdom ruled by men, and the other an eternal kingdom ruled by the creator of the universe.  Our King has not forgotten us.  The Savior of the world still cares for us and watches over us.  Jesus knows your limits.  He knows how much you can take.  Find comfort and reassurance in knowing that even though…
He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:19-21)
A bruised reed he will not break.  
A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  
He knows what you need… and how you feel.
He hears your prayers and he understands your fear.

September 11, 2001 – 10 years later

Help us overcome, Lord, this evil which has descended
Help us understand, Lord, why so many lives too soon have ended

Help us heal, Lord, as we recover from the pain
Help us cope, Lord, show us sunshine after the rain

We put our trust in you, Lord, as you watch us from on high
Help us grieve, Lord, and hold us while we cry

Written by Jim Lane
Fair Oaks, CA , September 2001

This morning in church we remembered.  Many in our congregation could remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked and the same applies to the days that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Ronald Reagan was shot, and Challenger exploded.  Likewise we remember where we were ten years ago today during the events of September 11, 2001.  Although  we will likely never forget, I pray that God will continue to bring healing to all those who were wounded both physically, mentally and spiritually.  Similarly, I pray that we will learn the right lessons of September 11th.  There are many messages but I pray that we hear the messages taught to us in scripture, messages of love, forgiveness, healing and hope and not the messages that we sometimes hear that play to our baser instincts to hate, destroy and seek revenge and retribution.

This morning’s worship service began by reading together from the Psalms and remembering that we find strength in God’s tower and not in towers of our own making.  The opening prayer was the one I have included above.  It was written by a fellow rocketry hobbyist and an online friend, Jim Lane in 2001 after the events of September 11th.  It sums up many of the feelings that we had then and feelings that have resurfaced this week as we remember.  I include it here with his kind permission.  Thank you Jim.

My message this morning was a story of remembrance but also a reminder that the thing that makes followers of Jesus Christ different is our calling to love and forgive our enemies.  This is not an easy thing, in fact, it may well be one of the hardest things that we can do but Jesus tells us that our own forgiveness depends upon it.

Sunday’s message, September 11, 2011 – a service of remembrance and reminder.

Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? (Part 4 of 4)

    There remains one aspect of this issue that is often passed over or ignored entirely and yet, in my mind is perhaps most important of all.  Earlier I said, “Most of our laws are prohibitions against actions or behavior that we commonly agree is not compatible with the maintenance of an orderly society or which or society generally agrees is immoral.”  Although many in our modern culture would like to forget it, our nation was founded on principles that were heavily influenced by the writings of the Bible and much of our legal system stems from the legal foundations of Christianity with notable contributions from other religions as well.
    The legal precepts of the Bible are largely prohibitions against actions and behaviors, not the ownership of things.  It is people who are immoral and not objects.  John Adams (second President of the United States) once said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  If we are to be truly effective in our efforts to reduce violence and to create a safer society we cannot ignore the contributions of culture and religion on morality.   As much handwringing as we do about violence and gun control, we ought to be equally concerned about declines in culture and morality.  My suspicion is that many of the very people who publicly rant in favor of gun control would be appalled by the idea of content controls on movies, television and musical artists.  I am not advocating censorship, but to me it seems that any perceived increase in criminal activity can be blamed on declining culture, politeness and morality just as easily as it can on guns and gun owners.
    As I said, there are no easy answers but if John Adams was right, teaching morals to our children, getting people back to church and developing a better relationship with their God will do far more than any laws that we can pass.  These are things that each of us can do and I believe that this is where we have the greatest opportunity for success. 
At the very least, that is where I intend to spend my time.   
How about you?

    (Go back to Part 3)              (Go to Part 2)             (Go back to the beginning in Part 1)

Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? (Part 3 of 4)

    In any discussion involving firearms or the 2nd Amendment we are almost certain to hear the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  This may be a true statement but it isn’t very helpful.  Yes, guns require that there be a person to pull the trigger.  The difficulty with placing the blame on the user is that, however mentally deranged or socially deviant the person at the trigger, guns make killing shockingly easy.  Every year people go to prison because the gun they were holding fired either accidentally or because it fired far more easily than they expected.  While many things can be used to harm others, few other weapons suffer from this trio of horrors, a) ease of use, b) devastating damage, and c) the potential for accidents. 

    On the other hand, there remains a human being who is in control, who makes a conscious decision to load, carry, and point a firearm.  Once that is done, the “accidental” nature of a discharge, intentional or not is practically irrelevant next to the intent already demonstrated and the chain of poor choices that has already been made.  The truth is that social misfits, deranged persons, and anyone who intends to do harm to another will not be deterred by a lack of access to a firearm.  Congresswoman Giffords was meeting people in a supermarket parking lot.  Without a gun, her assault could just as effectively been carried out in an automobile and the harm to innocent bystanders would have been equally great or worse. 
Congresswoman Giffords’ assailant was not unintelligent.  Without access to a firearm, it would not been difficult for him to construct an improvised explosive device (IED).  Fifty years ago construction of such a device might have taken a fair amount of research but today the Internet makes it all too easy.  Curiously, the man who disarmed the gunman credits his courage to the handgun he himself was carrying and wonders what might have happened had he not stopped for cigarettes and arrived a few moments earlier.

    If it seems that I am taking both sides in this discussion it is because I am.  Once again we are engaged in a public discussion where both sides have legitimate concerns.  There are no easy answers.  Every potential solution has potentially serious and harmful consequences, including that of doing nothing and allowing things to continue as they are.  As we move toward a solution, we must continue to have an open discussion that reveals all of our concerns because what we are ultimately choosing are those consequences with which we are most willing to live.

    It is difficult to say whether we are on the right road or the wrong one.  The statistics that are available present us with a mixed bag.  FBI statistics reveal that violent crime (in fact crime of all kinds) in the US has been falling steadily since  the early 1990’s and currently is about half the level it was in 1991.

    According to statistics from the United Nations, the United States ranks 24th  in murders per capita (behind Columbia, South Africa, Mexico and Russia but ahead of most other developed nations) but 8th in murders with a firearm (again behind Columbia, South Africa, and Mexico).  We are also 8th in total crimes per capita but this time behind nations like New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.  Finally, according to an EU  study cited in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper,the per capita violent crime rate in the US is less than that of ten European nations of the EU and Canada (but more than Australia).  

    What I see in this data is that while we (in the US) seem to stand out in our capacity to murder, American society is less prone to violent crime overall.  For years it was assumed that violent crime was linked to population density and this was used to explain why cities appeared to have more violent crime.  Recent studies seem to refute this and show that per capita, cities are no more violent or prone to crime than other less populated areas.  How guns play into this remains unclear, at least to me.  It would be interesting to compare the rates of violent crime, murder and gun crimes in cities where strong gun controls have been enacted with cities that have none.  I favor a ‘go slow’ approach that allows local and state governments to try a variety of solutions and see what works (and what does not) before launching a nationwide initiative based on untested theories and hunches particularly when each potential solution has a consequence of its own.

Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? (Part 2 of 4)

So what is it that bugs me about gun laws?

    As I considered my own discomfort I might have landed on an idea.  I’ve now confused several discussions in my mind, but in one such discussion, (and of course now I can’t find it) Terry (or someone) asked, “If gun laws are irrelevant because people will break the law anyway, then why bother making laws regarding murder or rape or anything else?”  Why indeed?  What is the difference between laws against murder and laws banning guns?  This is not an easy question, at least it hasn’t been for me, but as I thought about it (and I still don’t have everything figured out) a few things began to come together.
Most of our laws are prohibitions against actions or behavior that we commonly agree is not compatible with the maintenance of an orderly society or which our society generally agrees is immoral.  Murder and rape fall into these categories.  John Adams said that in the United States we are a “government of laws and not of men.”  So what are laws?  Saint Thomas Aquinas said this… “Law: An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community.”  As I see it, our laws are outlines which we use to describe for ourselves what constitutes acceptable behavior.  Laws are external, they do not (and indeed cannot) cause a change in that behavior.  Behavior is internal and is shaped by our character and morality.   I’m not the first person to feel this way. 
“You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people.”                                                                                          – Will Rogers 

 “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”            – Plato

 The difficulty is that gun laws would ban, not unacceptable behaviors or actions or even morality, but things… objects. 

    Somehow when we move from using behavior, actions and morality as defining characteristics of who we are as a society to determining what we may or may not own we are making an important shift.  I suppose in many respects we already do this.  We already restrict the ownership of high powered lasers and many explosives, but even then, if you really want them, there are local, state and federal permits for which you can apply that will allow you to own them (if you meet all of the necessary requirements).  Many drugs and poisons are also restricted.  Few, if any, of us would argue that individuals should be able to own nuclear materials or intercontinental ballistic missiles (although private individuals may launch really large rockets if they can afford it and if they meet stringent permitting requirements) but where do we draw the line?  

    In the discussion of gun ownership, I have heard others scoff at the idea of gun collecting, but why?  Frankly, the idea of gun collecting holds no interest for me, but then again, all sorts of people collect all sorts of things that I find to me far more ridiculous than guns.  People collect glassware, playing cards, stamps, beer cans, pop tabs, lunch boxes, Avon perfume bottles, decorative whiskey bottles and a million other things that others find to be useless or worse.  We all have dramatically differing tastes in what we find interesting and one of the strengths of our nation has been the freedom to pursue whatever interests us, regardless of what others think.  Just because gun collecting doesn’t interest me, in no way reflects on whether or not I think it ought to be legal.

    In a nation where the ownership of private property has always been an important value, how willing are we to criminalize the ownership of firearms or anything else?  How far are we willing to go?  More to the point, if our laws help us to define who we are as a people and as a nation, at what point would these changes fundamentally rewrite our understanding of our identity and how we understand our freedom itself?

    (Go to Part 3)                       (Back to Part 1)

Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? (Part 1 of 4)

 (Author’s Note: I started writing this two or three weeks ago, it got bigger than I expected and it just kept growing.  Because of it’s size, I am breaking this up and will post one part each day for four days.  I don’t intend for this to be a purely political forum but my hope is to discuss political events and find where they intersect biblical teaching.  That element does appear in this discussion but it doesn’t show up until Part 4 so please be patient.)

    After the horrifying shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the news was full of talking heads from every political persuasion arguing over the cause and how such a tragedy might be prevented in the future.  I have grown so tired of such talk that I mostly ignored it.  What made me stop and think was a conversation that I had on Facebook with my friend, Terry Fairfax.  Terry and I met in our high school band.  Today he is a lawyer (and remains a huge musical talent).  Terry and I are sometimes, at least politically, worlds apart but I enjoy chatting with him because we respect one another and we are both willing to consider the merits of logical arguments, even when we disagree. 

    As we often do, we came at this tragedy from different perspectives and drew from experiences of different lives.  As such tragedies often do, the discussion of Rep. Gifford’s shooting caused us to consider the need for individuals to own firearms and then, obviously, our constitutional rights to “keep and bear arms.”  Terry made me think.  His knowledge of the law and history made me dig deeper and get past a lot of the sound bites thrown out by conservatives in the media.  Eventually we agreed on some things and disagreed on others while remaining friends.  

    As I continue to reflect on our discussion, something has been bothering me.  I found myself wondering why the ideas of gun control and the passing of gun laws bothers me.  Understand that I am not (nor have I ever been) a huge proponent of gun ownership.  I have served in the military.  I have trained on and have carried an M-16 rifle for many days and for many miles.  I am comfortable around firearms but at the same time, I can see that there is a logical problem with permitting ordinary citizens to own weapons of moderate destruction.  Things like rocket launchers, tanks, hand grenades and land mines, in the interests of everyone’s safety, should belong to the military.  So what is it that bugs me about the idea of gun laws? 

Mosques in New York, Discrimination or Deliberate Manipulation?

In recent weeks there has been a controversy playing out in New York City. If you somehow managed to miss it, a group, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (a religious leader educated in Egypt, Malaysia, England and the United States) has asked for permission to build an Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan only two blocks from ground zero. Tempers have flared over whether this group, or any group, should be allowed to build a mosque so close to the site where many Americans, including Muslims, were killed by fanatics in the name of Islam. I have been thinking about this and have been following the news as well as a few of the blogs that are being written about this. It has taken me a while to get my hands around this issue simply because I have mixed feelings and I needed time to better understand how I felt before I could say anything.

Part of my problem is that we all, myself included, have strong feelings about what happened on 9/11 and many of us have strong nationalistic feelings as well. I served ten years in the Army Reserve and my unit was called to active duty (in Kentucky) for six months during the first Gulf War. I have always felt that part of what I did as a soldier was to defend the rights of people even when their actions differed from mine. I have friends who are pacifists and who, for religious reasons, refuse to serve in the military. I have been willing to serve in order to protect their right not to serve. Flag burning offends me greatly but I will fight to protect the rights of others to express themselves in this way. Likewise, those who propose to build an Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero deliberately play upon two fundamental principles of our constitution, the right to property and the freedom of religion. The American right to property allows the owners of land or other property to do whatever they desire within the limits that the law allows and so, if you own land, you should be able to do with it as you wish. Freedom of religion tells us that we cannot deny the right to build a place of worship simply because their particular religion is unpopular or even offensive to others. For these reasons, the developers of this mosque/community center/cultural center should clearly be allowed to pursue the necessary permits and contracts to begin building, but the story isn’t really that simple.

The Imam heading this project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, claims that his mission is to develop bridges of understanding between our two cultures and his background and education would seem to indicate that he is, perhaps, in a unique position to do that. He has sometimes seemed to be a moderate Muslim who condemned the 9/11 attacks, but in the same interview where he condemned the attacks, he also declared that the U.S. was at fault for those attacks and he likewise has refused to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization. We are told that this building is to be built by American Muslims and for American Muslims but the estimated cost of this project is over $100 million and there is a very real possibility that it may be funded by radical foreign Muslims who intend to use our system of constitutional law and justice against us in order to demonstrate what they perceive to be our weakness. It is disturbing, in light of our obvious concerns, that the developers have refused to reveal the actual funding sources.

In places like Jerusalem and Mecca, and throughout the Middle East there is a tradition of building mosques to commemorate great Islamic victories. Throughout the centuries, I do not doubt that many Christian cathedrals have been built with similar motives. In light of concerns about offending the families of the victims of 9/11 however, it may well be worth our time to discern whether this building is being built by American Muslims in order to facilitate understanding between out cultures or by foreign radicals who intend for its construction to stand as a testimony to the defeat of American imperialism.

A few other pieces that need to be fitted into our understanding: Two mosques already exist in Lower Manhattan (one built prior to the construction of the World Trade Center) and indeed an Islamic Cultural Center also exists not far away in Midtown Manhattan near Central Park. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadows of the World Trade Center and was destroyed when those building collapsed. St. Nicholas church is negotiating a settlement with the New York Port Authority but although there has been some difficulty in negotiations caused by demands from both sides, St. Nicholas church, nearly nine years later, has not yet received permission to rebuild. While an Islamic group should not be discriminated against simply because they are Muslims, neither should they get preferential treatment. Just days ago, it was discovered that the developers of this proposed building do not own both parcels of land needed to build. Whether this omission was accidental or deliberate raises a whole host of additional questions.

So where does all that leave us?

Constitutionally speaking, there is no reason that this group should be singled out from any other group that wants to build any legal structure in Lower Manhattan. If the construction is legal then it should be allowed to move forward. On the other hand, a center that desires to advertise itself as a bridge for “cultural understanding” could certainly do better, and should do better than to build in this particular location. Building here would be insensitive in the extreme. It would be out of place for the nation of Germany to build a cultural center within two blocks of a Nazi death camp. The desire to build in this location seems hostile, inflammatory and deliberately divisive.

It is important to remember that Islam didn’t fly two airliners into the World Trade Center. It is unfair to condemn all Muslins for such a crime, but we remember the places where people danced in the street when they heard the news. Perhaps it is unfair to paint with a broad brush and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few, but I suspect that, rightly or wrongly, this is the memory of a majority of our nation. As people of faith, Christians should be well acquainted with the false accusations that other religions have historically directed against us and so we should be sensitive to how this might be happening to Muslims in our nation today. On the other hand, we are called to be wise as foxes and to understand our world and how it works. If our nation is being deliberately manipulated in order to make us look weak, stupid and foolish then we should have every right to say no. If our constitutional system of law and justice is being used against us in order for our enemies to celebrate our defeat, then we should find a way to say no.

I believe that too many questions remain unanswered. The events surrounding 9/11 give us every right to be suspicious and careful. It seems as if the developers of their proposed building are getting a pass so that we can feel good about not discriminating against them. In order to answer the legitimate questions that have been raised, and in order to assuage the fears of the victims’ families and indeed the fears of many across our nation, more information must be revealed and more must be understood before construction should proceed. If the developers should refuse to be straightforward and reveal this information and should they refuse to answer the difficult questions, then let them build somewhere else. Without those answers, construction of this building, in this place, would be an affront to all Americans and would desecrate the memory of the victims of 9/11. If nothing else, things need to slow down while everyone takes a second and third look at the problem and as we search for answers to unresolved questions. Until then, under our system of government, if there exists a proper and legal way for this project to be stopped, then it should be.