Saturday, March 18, 2017

Resistance is inevitable

I was at a Christian camp the other day, not as a Christian, it was a cross-country skiing group. I like to poke around their libraries. This one was just a bookshelf will old Bibles, old Sunday School guides, except one book from 1982 by Francis Schaeffer, The Christian Manifesto. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, so I’m not sure just what the “manifesto” was, but I’m pretty sure he was promoting violent overthrow of the US government. That might sound like something from a 60’s radical rather than a leader of evangelical conservative Christians, but it was definitely in there. His justification was that the government was allowing, and in fact supporting the killing of innocent children, via abortion.

I’m not going to dwell on the violence part too much, and he doesn’t lay out any kind of plan. What was interesting was how he made parallels to those 60’s radicals and lots of other radicals through history. He kinda of made violently overthrowing your government sound completely rational and logical. I’ve seen this sort of thing in my travels with counter cultures. When I took a paid position as a canvasser against the transportation of nuclear waste for example; it would have been right about the same time Francis was writing this book. One night, an anarchist joined us and took a few minutes to explain that she thought the only way to ultimately end the nation’s support of nuclear weapons was to violently overthrow the government, take control of said weapons, and of course, she and her minions would do the right thing and dismantle them. She didn’t say too much about killing untold numbers of people in gaining that power, but it seemed to be her plan. No one joined her army that night and I have no idea what became of her.

Schaeffer takes a longer view of history. In this book for instance, he builds his case by listing many of the wars that took place between Protestants and Catholics. When the Protestants won, he tells the story about an evil Catholic King who was deposed and the people of that kingdom were saved further oppression, because they now had a Protestant ruler and were free to be, well, Protestants. When the Protestants lost, he said they were martyred. Just as modern news of war talks of the brave soldiers defending freedom and is less generous about those who die daily from our constant shelling, these stories soften you up for the call to action.

He then further builds his case using a “just war” theory from Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince; a Dispute for the Just Prerogative of King and People, published in 1644. Apparently this is a quite famous work. As shown in the bottom paragraph here, Shaeffer, using Rutherford’s logic, believed it was the duty of the people to execute God’s will when the government body does not. On the next page, he compares this to Bob Dylan. He says the differences in language changes nothing, although I would say Rutherford is a little stronger in his suggestion of an actual uprising, and Schaeffer later minces no words at all.

There certainly were those who listened to Dylan and were inspired to shot at cops or bomb government buildings, but Dylan was not telling them to do that anymore than the Beatles were sending secret messages to Charles Manson. I couldn’t copy the whole book, but on page 110 Schaeffer says it is time to use appropriate forms of protest, and in other places, he is definitely leaning toward what Rutherford called “lawful resistance”. He was suggesting doing more than marching around with cardboard signs. On this page he is talking about how the ACLU  has taken God out of the schools. In later pages he speaks to the problem of the government supporting abortions.

To be very clear, I advocate none of this. I don’t want people to have abortions, but there are better ways to reduce the need for them than by picketing abortion clinics. Until it becomes a regular part of our government to throw people out of their homes, or force people to worship one way or the other, or to lock people up for their thoughts, I’m not ready to take up arms against them. I know those things happen, and more often than I’d like, but we still have legal means to undo them and to punish our police when they need to be policed. There was a time in my life when I broke the law on a daily basis, but I never thought that the system of law itself was unjust. It has unjust aspects, but that’s part of living in a democracy, you aren’t supposed to like everything about it. Nor are you required to. If you don’t, you can work to change it.

So, back to this book. I could be wrong about what Francis Schaeffer actually meant. A central point of it though, and I think he does a good job of making this point, is that the idea of there being a higher law, one that transcends temporary governments and power structures, has been around for a long time, perhaps for as long as there have been power structures. There has always been a resistance of some sort. Most of them we don’t hear about, because they don’t have the power and never get it.

It doesn’t matter if that resistance is fighting for “free love” or for “moral power”, the rhetoric will sound very similar in either case. They will call the law makers law breakers, or worse they will call them rapists and murderers. What Schaeffer is a little less quick to mention, is they, or someone who hears them, will then justify bending the rules just a little in the name of their higher authority. When you can convince someone that you have tapped into the transcendent reality, and that they are now privy to that special knowledge, you can get them to do just about anything.

I’m trying to present all of this without judgment. When you are unfamiliar with the background information of a culture, something like a doctor being shot in cold blood for performing abortions or a protest erupting into violence can be a shocking story with no rhyme or reason. But rarely do such things come out of nowhere. Manifestos by people living in shacks in the woods are rare, and typically less coherent. Anarchists like the one I met, show up, break a few windows and fade into the background. But organizations like the ACLU and the Evangelical Church will probably be around for a while. We’re going to need to find ways to get those two camps together.

If you click around the link to the L’Abri Institute above, it’s more than just an introduction to who Francis Schaeffer was. It tells of his work that included trying to understand just what the 60’s counter culture wanted, something I'd like to see more of from that side. If you follow the link to the ACLU, you’ll see they fight for everyone’s rights, not just against religion or for liberal causes. And as we found out last November, there is something they are not listening to either. If you are unfamiliar with one or the other of these histories, I can see how it would seem like there is some evil force in the world that needs to be countered. If you are unfamiliar with both, the world would seem chaotic indeed.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Compromise is Anathema

I'm just going to park this here, so I don't lose it. It's a story as good as Romeo and Juliet or Ruth from the Old Testament.

Ex-Westboro TED talk

Monday, March 6, 2017

Back to the Shack

There are no what I would call “spoilers” in this review. The trailer tells you that the little girl is killed in this movie. That is the central story. It is not a murder mystery, and I won’t talk about those parts anyway. It’s an unusual movie with a lot of quiet conversations, sitting around a table or a campfire. There’s plenty of story too, and no gratuitous violence. But, if you want to form your own opinions, see the movie first.

So, I went to see the movie “The Shack” this weekend. I liked it much better than the book; partly because it only lasted an hour and a half. But seriously folks, go see this movie. The book has sold over 20 million copies, so someone you know has likely read it, although they might not be talking about it.  That might be because the best parts of this story are the ones that aren’t on the surface. I see three layers.

The first one is the obvious one; man has a difficult childhood with his church-going but abusive father and never quite buys into Christianity, then comes into the fold in the end. The next layer is a little deeper, revealing a softer, modern theology, but one that still holds on to Jesus is real, prayers are answered sometimes, and there is a heaven and our lack of faith is the reason for hell. This is the layer that the author of the book talks about in interviews. It’s the theology that he wanted to describe through story, for his children, when he wrote the book. The third layer comes from his life experiences and is not expressed directly in much of the dialog. It appears in the book, sometimes seemingly by accident then disappears as he goes back to hammering you with the speeches by “Papa” the God figure, His Son, and a few words from the Spirit.

In the movie, you are spared those lengthy dialog. You still get the big questions, like “why does God let bad things happen”, and you get the same inadequate answer, that He doesn’t “purpose” them. But then, there is no adequate answer to the problem of how to be perfectly loving and perfectly merciful and all powerful. You can’t allow people to be who they are, and forgive them when they harm others, and also love everyone but not use your power to protect them. Those who try to make this system work, have to give up something or add some ad-hoc reasoning. Paul Young does it by reducing God’s powers. Also, like many theologians, amateur or otherwise, he puts some of the burden on people. When Augustine does this, you end up with “original sin”, making people responsible for their own suffering. When Young does it, it almost comes out like humanism. We can’t save the world, so we have to forgive each other when we fail.

One scene from the book I had forgotten is when Mac, the hero of the story, meets Wisdom. She sits on the throne of judgment, where Mac has been sitting all his life without realizing it. You might know someone like this. But Mac’s judgment was not tempered by wisdom. She offers, and then insists that he take that seat. She shows him many images of people deserving of retributive justice, and Mac gladly condemns them to hell. Then he is shown his own father. Then he sees that man as a boy, being abused himself. Knowing who to judge suddenly gets more complicated.

This does not cure him of being judgmental; there is no way to stop that. If we don’t judge, we don’t know good from bad. But it widens his perspective on the whole of humanity. Not long after that moment, he sees how his anger at the man who killed his child has blinded him and separated him from the love of his family. Now he has judgment tempered by wisdom, the ability to forgive, including forgiving himself.

Unfortunately, the movie, or what I remember from the book, doesn’t give you much more on this. If we all had the power of God to forgive and also the power to love people so much that they would do less of the things that needed forgiveness, the world would be a more peaceful place. But we don’t. Bad things happen. Evil exists. Forgiveness is necessary. But forgiveness is what comes after. We still need to judge good from evil, and be aware of intentions, and take actions to prevent evil when we can.

That’s the humanist message I was talking about; we can’t change what has happened, but we can look at what led to it happening, we can understand that people usually do the best they can given the circumstances they are handed. We can learn from the mistakes and work together for something better. We can hope that people eventually see the error of their ways, or that some good comes from bad. But that is not guaranteed. It may take a generation or longer to see something grow out of whatever ashes someone left behind. We may be left with nothing but a bad example to remember and to try to avoid. In the end, all we have is each other.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Milepost100?

I've been focusing less on creating new Milepost100 sermon helpers and instead adding to my background knowledge. One big source for that has been Richard Carrier's recent work, “On the Historicity of Jesus”. In this peer reviewed scholarly book, he applies modern tools to the questions surrounding Jesus and discusses how two approaches to the New Testament have failed; the religious apologist, who attempts to find the meaning that has been handed down by the theologians for centuries, and the historian who looks for some historical truth behind the text.

“Modern apologists respond with implausible ad-hoc harmonizations, while historians attempt to isolate the historical truth behind the conflicting accounts. This method has been found invalid. If the gospels are myth, both efforts are futile. Both assume the author is recording a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead they are intending to construct myths about Jesus, we don't expect historicity, they aren't trying to distinguish fact from fiction, so the text does not give it to us. External evidence helps, and we can't use this approach to disprove historicity, but it does limit our ability to determine historicity. Instead our focus would be to extract the mytho-symbolic meaning and intent.” 

To answer that question, it is more important to look at the background information, the history of what was happening while the scripture was being written, and what earlier scripture they would have had available to them at the time. This is the opposite of how Christianity is presented to us now, beginning with the birth of Christ and following through to later letters written about him as if he existed. It is presented that way, but in actuality, those letters were written first, by someone who never claimed to have met a living Jesus. The accounts of his actions in life, came much later by different authors.

To begin before that, at the beginning, with Genesis and one family, is to ignore all the other creation stories that were being written at the time. It ignores that there were very few who could write at all. There were no fact checkers, no media watch dogs. If you wanted to write a counter narrative to someone else's myth, you wrote another myth, using the same characters, but added a new element that expressed your values and your desired outcome.

Any phrases inserted on an ad-hoc basis that claim the writing is true are there to attach the value message to the story. These were not notes to future readers in future millenia, these were devices for the illiterate, telling them to simply remember the name of John and don't be like those who are like Thomas. The listener then could express their values through that simple formula and had no need to remember a chain of logical arguments or even a list of what the values are. If anyone asked, they could refer them back to the story.

Biblical writing has special challenges because we have so many translations, so many copies and so many differences across those copies. The slight changes made back when copies were done by hand could have been mistakes, or they could have been purposeful redactions to steer the political message in a new direction. We know that this type of changing of the narrative happened in modern times and have no reason to believe it didn't happen back then.

It doesn't help that Romans were attempting near genocide of the Jews just as the gospels were being written in the late 1st century, or as the Romans would have said, “repressing a rebellion”. They lost track of who the authors actually were and they had far fewer tools than we do now for determining truth from fiction in the writings they were left with in the early 2nd century. We can't be certain what later emperors were thinking, but just as myth writers are more concerned with message over facts, the 3rd and 4th century co-opting of the message of this tiny Jewish sect  certainly helped both the emperors and the Catholics.

The rest is history, and history that we can become increasingly more confident about as we get closer to the present. We also get better at interpreting earlier history. We find more artifacts and we determine by the lack of evidence, that some things are highly improbable. We are also very far removed from any conquering Roman emperors who might not want us asking pesky questions.

So I will leave the medieval history to the historians. I may mention it occasionally, but only to point out how a particular verse led to a later belief. I may also mention an early church father who was just as sceptical as I am about the truth of a particular passage. Primarily, I want to put myself into the mind of peasants under extremely difficult living conditions, hearing a message of hope for their people.

Milepost 100. The sermon helper that doesn't tell you what to think.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Liberals aren't hearing from Conservatives, and vice versa

Half a lifetime ago, I went to a community organizing planning meeting and someone brought up the issue of providing child care. The event that was being planned was going to be out of town, with an overnight stay and families were invited. Surprisingly, the idea of child care was met with some opposition. People with children were expected to figure out how to attend and function in adult group sessions and, I don’t know, keep their children quiet or something. I was a single young man at the time, so I had no reason to care until someone pointed out that I should and I realized I was being thoughtless. I’ve brought this issue up at almost every group I’ve been part of since, and not much has changed.

To put a fine point on it, this includes my stint as a board member for a group called “Kids Against Hunger”. KAH events require children to be at least 8 years old, but the organization is geared around encouraging kids to participate. It’s in the name. It’s a family fun time, packing meals for other children who need food. It reinforces the education of what chronic hunger is by having them participate with their bodies and relate to people who look just like them. But my other board members balked at the idea of providing child care. Did they not realize that families with 8 year olds in them also often have children less than 8 years old in them? Did they not realize that they were forcing those families to send us only one adult and leave the other at home to take care of the toddlers?

This is what conservatives mean when they tell liberals that we are forgetting about families. Liberal events tend to be marches, letter writing campaigns, protests, speeches and book groups. Conservatives are generally what you think of when you say “hog roast” or “spaghetti dinner”. But there is no silver bullet I’m proposing here. The Lesbian Wiccan Bikers for Peace aren’t going to pull off a Corn Feed and expect soccer moms to show up. Even if they provide child care.

Another story about KAH illustrates how this divide cuts both ways. I was asked to speak at the County Fair to the inter-denominational service on Sunday Morning. A sizable collection was taken and it was put in the charge of the church that organized the service, earmarked for a future KAH event. After that service, someone from that church came up to me and asked if I believed the Bible was the literal word of God. I didn’t give him a straight answer, but he knew my answer was “no”. I told him we are a 501(c)3 non-profit, not a religious organization. That event never happened. My phone calls were not returned.

If I can’t talk about family with people who want to fight conservative politics and I can’t talk about the politics of chronic hunger without passing a religious test, we’re all screwed. People who care only about themselves will use those divisions to keep us from working together and even working at direct odds against each other. They know how to speak to both sides and get what they want from either. They will profit from our pain. They will sail off in their yachts while we argue about what color and shape our bread should be and where our strawberries came from and the size of our guns and how we wear our pants and when we can kneel and when we shouldn’t and how many terrorists there are and how afraid we should be and what you can say on TV and what the President shouldn’t say and who can buy a wedding cake and where the universe came from and what we are all doing here anyway.

"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Everything old...

Before I could vote, I called older people “The Establishment”, and thought maybe Russia might have some good ideas. I thought our government was not legitimate and didn’t care too much about other people outside my little world. I thought laws were too strict and repressive. 

Then I grew up. I realized we have a pretty decent system of agreeing how to deal with our differences, and sometimes war and imprisonment are necessary. But in the last few months, it seems like those childish ideas are the ones getting voted in. So I made this comparison between now and 40 years ago.


  • Considered communism as a potentially viable government system for the USA. 
  • Supported protests against lying and war mongering government that was building toward  nuclear war.
  • Pretty much nihilist and self-centered moral compass. 
  • Called older people “the establishment” and thought they were out of touch.
  • Advocated for the reform of marijuana laws and jailing of people for minor and harmless crimes.
  • Pretty sure the lies coming out the White House were the “tip of the iceberg”.
  • Questioned the legitimacy of the President (unelected President Ford and Vice President Rockefeller).
  • Uncomfortable with patriotic celebrations like the bicentennial.
  • Wondered if there was a conspiracy in the government, a secret hidden government.

In between now and then, up to just a couple years ago, my trust in government grew, I understood the complexities of compromise and economic trade-offs and that conspiracies are usually not true, or are quite transparent and get discovered within a matter of years, not decades or centuries. Most elected officials are honest and try to do what they say. That’s still true. Much of the above seemed childish and uninformed when I looked back on it, up to just last summer. 

The difference today is half of the government officials are publicly saying they want to destroy the progress we’ve made in the name of some unclear political agenda. So that leads to the comparative list for this year:


  • Understand that socialism is what we actually have and we’re a leader among the other free countries with a mix of democracy and socialism and a republic.
  • Support protests against a Republican party that supports dictatorships currently killing children and taking over weaker countries.
  • Have an ethical system (basically “moral realism”, if you want to google it).
  • Don’t use the word “establishment” anymore. People of all ages can be corrupt and violent and self-serving and ignorant. Older people, as well as younger, are supporting foreign governments, defending their self-centered morals, and labeling others instead of getting to know them. Many of them adopted the attitudes from above, attitudes I had when I was 17 years old.
  • Drug laws have actually progressed, more people are getting high and not getting busted, but the privatized prison system has become a version of debtor’s prison out of the Dark Ages .

The rest of list from above had pretty much dropped out of memory, until this last few weeks. I hope that reverses again soon. We have made such progress toward a healthier and more inclusive world, one that works for everybody. Let’s not throw it all away.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Grain of Sand

You are as insignificant as a grain of sand. It takes so many grains of sand to make a desert, each grain is insignificant. Even if that grain is taken up by an oyster and makes a pearl, then the pearl is insignificant. It's merely a reaction to an irritation.  It doesn't matter to the desert. It doesn't matter to the ocean. It doesn't matter that the ocean gives life or that it is lined with beautiful coral reefs. Those reefs are just there to be eaten by the fish and excreted as sand to be washed up on a beach and blown back into the desert. 

All of that is part of something so large that it is beyond comprehension, rendering each part insignificant. It is a vast, incomprehensible collection of insignificant things, rendering the whole just as insignificant. It could be nothing else. There is nothing against which we can judge significance. 

Your statements, your thoughts about the "is" that it is, are meaningless to all the interactions of all the galaxies and all the waves on the all the shores. Your thoughts are just that, yours. You think them. You write them down.
You speak them. You live with them.