Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Christian Voter and War

We’ve looked at biblical positions on helping the poor, capital punishment, and supporting abortion. There’s one other issue that people see as a moral concern when deciding how to vote – war – and it can become very complex.

To narrow the focus, I’m going to look at this issue simply from the perspective of a voter – not that of a politician or a solider. When war is an issue, who can we vote for?

Many Christians both today and throughout history have believed that Christians shouldn’t kill under any circumstances. This typically extends to rejecting military service – some reject combat roles, and some reject even support roles as still tainted by bloodshed.

Some modern Christians have extended this to the political realm saying that they cannot support a politician who supports war in any form. They honestly feel that annihilation is preferable to killing another human being.

If this describes your attitude toward war, I’m not going to argue with you here. If you’re convinced that all war is immoral and one candidate supports war (specifically or generally) and the other does not, vote for him. But if the only other candidate supports something else that is immoral – abortion rights, for example – you have no one for whom you can vote. Stay home. Maybe you can run for office next time.

Is It a Just War?
If you’re not a strict pacifist, you should subscribe to some kind of just war theory. The NT really says nothing about war, and much of what the OT says applied specifically to ancient Israel. Over the centuries Christian theologians and philosophers, taking what they could extract from the scriptures and other philosophers, have given us criteria with which to judge whether military violence is justifiable.

In brief, just war theory says that war can only be fought as a last resort and for a just cause (some saying only self-defense, some including liberation of others or pre-emptive self-defense), with reasonable hope of success and with costs proportionate to the expected gains, and declared by legitimate authorities. A just war is waged in such a way that peace is possible afterwards, that soldiers are not killed unnecessarily or with unnecessary suffering, and that harm (an intentionally broad term) to noncombatants is avoided if at all possible (Feinberg & Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, p362-7).

If the candidate in question is a pacifist, that’s not an immoral position even if it’s an imprudent one. If the candidate believes there are no rules or that any war is “just,” I think that could be called a blatantly immoral or perhaps amoral position and should preclude voting for that person. Of course, if you both agree, there’s no problem.

What if They Think It’s Just?
What if a candidate thinks a war is just and you don’t? If someone has a much broader view of which wars are justifiable than you, this might be reason to withhold your support, but the question is of the candidate’s wisdom or philosophy not morality.

A Just War Gone Wrong
What happens when a just war loses its bearings – when objectives change or methods push the envelope? Perhaps our leaders have different views of “proportional” than we do. Or good people do bad things during the stress of a war.

At that point we’re stuck. We can tell our leaders we want better, and we can vote for other people at the next election, but beyond that we can’t do much.

New Wars vs Existing Wars
The current situation isn’t the first time that the US has changed leaders during a war. This complicates things in unexpected ways.

A temptation that arises when changing administrations during war is to promise to end the war immediately and “bring our boys home.” If a prerequisite for a just war is “costs proportionate to the expected gains,” and we abandon any possible gains, the costs careen out of proportion. Another way of expressing it is that we throw away all the lives that have been lost – instead of dying for a cause, they died for nothing. Does this make that action unjust?

Another requirement for a just war is minimizing the impact on noncombatants – not only trying not to hurt or kill them but also trying not to damage crops or infrastructure. What will likely happen if troops are removed from the region? Will the situation for the locals improve or degrade? Vietnam exemplifies what can go wrong when troops suddenly withdraw – the northern troops overran the south with massive bloodshed and destruction. Is removing troops in such a situation unjust?

How about the opposite case? Can an unjust war become just when new leadership changes tactics or objectives? For that matter, can the original leadership change things so that a war becomes just?

These hypothetical examples are difficult questions; real situations are harder, especially since we don’t know for sure how thing will work out. But these are things we have to discuss, pray about, and then make decisions on.

Reckless Warmonger or Simply Wrong?
The ugliest situation is also the easiest; a reckless warmonger, someone who has no problem spending countless lives on his ideology or objectives, is easy to identify and easy to oppose. He also doesn’t exist in the west. People like that don’t rise to power in our society.

We have the harder task of sorting through potential leaders with different views of what constitutes a just war – e.g., varying views of what is self-defense or what constitutes “proportionate” harm to civilians. We have the responsibility to hold our leaders accountable. We are also obligated to discern questions of character from questions of philosophy – and to not denigrate good people who simply take a different view.

How Should We Vote?
Let’s refocus on the question at hand. Does the candidate take a blatantly immoral view of war? We can’t vote for him. Does he have a different philosophy of just war? That does not automatically disqualify him; instead it should become a factor we weigh in choosing the best candidate to support.

Next Time
In the next installment I’m going to compare issues head to head.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Abortion and the Breath of Life

Does Genesis 2:7 mean abortion is acceptable to God?

In the comments on my post on the modified pro-choice position someone argued:
The Bible says, “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7, emphasis added).

Even after God created the cells and DNA, Adam was not a being until God breathed into him. Therefore we know there is more to being a “human” than just cells.
So God does not recognize an unborn child as fully human until it inhales, it was argued, thus abortion is not immoral.

I’d never heard this argument before, and honestly I didn’t take it very seriously. Then my brother-in-law mentioned someone trying the same argument with him. A quick web search later I realized that this line of reasoning is either growing in popularity or is more common than I’d thought, so I decided to devote a post to addressing it.

I have four major objections to this line of reasoning.

1. It assumes that Adam’s creation tells us something about everyone else’s.

Prior to receiving the breath of life, was Adam’s body recognizable as human but not yet functional, or was it a lump of inanimate earth that only roughly resembled a human body? We have no way of knowing from the text. But this argument assumes that Adam’s body was not only recognizably human but fully functional – it just lacked some special spark that we call “life.” That is more than can be drawn from the text as well.

We do know is that Adam’s origin was unique. Even Eve’s origin was not the same as Adam’s.

Most importantly, though, is that no human since then has been created like Adam. He was a special creation (whether the passage is describing his physical creation or his spiritual creation), and no descendant of Adam and Eve went through that process. Therefore you can’t ascribe everything in Adam’s creation to us.

The Bible is pretty clear that in creating “man” in God’s image, what was true of Adam was to be true of us all. We were not all fashioned out of the dust of the ground; in the same way we cannot say based on this passage that a human body can be fully formed and functional and yet waits upon a “breath of life” to make it fully human.

2. It assumes that the “breath of life” was oxygen.

On the internet this verse is used to argue that an unborn – and even born – human does not have full human rights until it breathes in air (clearly the fetus’ breathing of amniotic fluid is not considered valid), and at least one nut argued that if you can prevent a baby from breathing after birth, you can kill it with impunity.

The problem with this argument is that nothing in Gen 2 requires the “breath of life” to be oxygen. The text makes it just as likely that the “breath” was a metaphysical phenomenon.

Some point to passages like Ezekiel 37, Joshua 10:40, and 1 Kings 15:29 to show that breathing air is required to be “alive,” but I think the metaphors are getting mixed here.

Ez 37 contains the famous dry bones passage. It says, “…the bones came together… and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (37:7-8).

In this passage, as well as the ones from Joshua and 1 Kings, breathing is used as a metaphor for life. The bodies reassembled, but they weren’t alive yet; Joshua was commanded to kill everything that breathed – everything that was alive. But turning that into a rule saying that breathing is necessary to be “alive” is biblically unjustified.

Figures of speech abound in the Bible – breath is life; the heart is the seat of wisdom; the heavens sing. Figures of speech occur a lot in the Bible. Both sides can be guilty of taking figures of speech literally, but this seems almost willful.

I’m sure the pro-choice crowd is glad the Bible doesn’t use a heartbeat as a metaphor for life. It does however say that life is in the blood (Lev 17). I’ll let someone else employ that.

3. You’d better not stop breathing.

If breathing is necessary to be fully human, what happens if you stop breathing due to some natural circumstance? If you choke on a grape and stop breathing, are you a human in need of medical assistance or a lump of organic tissue that I should step over and ignore?

We all know that a person who stops breathing – be it due to choking or heart attack or drowning – remains a valuable human being who has a fundamental right to life until God Almighty says otherwise. If this is not intuitively obvious to you, stay out of the medical field, and by all means chew your food carefully.

4. It ignores other passages that imply God is concerned about unborn children.

I’ll admit that the biblical case against abortion isn’t as open and shut as the case, say, against adultery. It’s more like the case against slavery – if you consider A, B, and C then you should conclude D. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the usual passages raised against abortion; among them: Psalm 22:10, 51:5, 139, Jeremiah 1, Luke 1 (esp v41, cf 18:15).

The point is, there are usual passages, and your case must deal with them, especially if your argument is based on a rather unusual usage of 1 verse. Personally I refuse to hold any biblical position based on just one verse, and I refuse to be dogmatic about anything without quite a few passages supporting it.

5. While we’re on the topic, I guess I should stop and mention the other big “pro-abortion” bible passage – Numbers 5:11ff. This is the test for an unfaithful wife. If a man suspects (without proof) his wife has been unfaithful, he takes her to the priest who gives her “bitter water” to drink. If she has been faithful, no harm will come to her; if not, God will cause “her abdomen to swell and her thigh to waste away” so that she cannot have children.

Despite liberal assurances to the contrary, nothing in this passage suggests she’ll miscarry. It’s talking about future childbearing. What would happen if she was pregnant in all of this? The Bible is silent. What the Bible is clear about is that the water does not cause this punishment, and the choice is not any human’s. God is solely responsible.

5.1. Again, here’s Greg Koukl’s article on Ex 21:22.

The notion that the product of two human beings is not a human being until such time as it inhales is not justifiable biblically or logically (or biologically). What it does is demonstrate how desperately people want to find a loophole to make it ok to kill an innocent, unborn human being. And frankly that’s just a bit disturbing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Links: Bible Study Resources

Here are some interesting Bible study tools I've found online.

The Talmud -- Jewish oral tradition and commentary on the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament)

Classic Bible Commentaries -- by Calvin, Gill, Henry, Wesley, and more

Encyclopedia of NT Textual Criticism

Proverbs arranged by topic

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Olympic Straw

During the Olympics people who were great athletes in high school and college (which doesn't include me) start wondering why they didn't focus more on athletics. People with kids start hoping they'll be able to take their athletic talents to greatness. Our society stops what it's doing to sing the praises of the swiftest, strongest, most graceful people the world has ever seen.

I think we should appreciate the beauty in God's creation, and part of that is appreciating the human body pressed to its full potential.

But being an Olympic calibre athlete adds nothing of lasting value to the world.

One person I heard lamenting not seeking athletic fame is the mother of two darling children and a talented health care professional. She has the opportunity to shape the earthly and eternal destiny of at least two human beings, and she daily participates in curing desperately sick people. But she used to be fast. How does that even compare?

As much fun as the Olympics (or any other sport) can be to watch, in the end these kids are going to get old, stop being athletes, go to school, get married, have kids, and get jobs just like the rest of us. What will they have to show for their time in the sports world? A few shiny medals, a few scars, maybe a limp. What of their Olympic adventures will last through eternity?

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with temporal pleasures, but lets remember that they are temporary, and the most important things in life can't be hung on a wall.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Worshipful Lies

Recently in church we sang a song that included the line "You can have all my hands can hold."

My hands were holding my 4-year-old.

Now, I'm willing to say that to God about my kids -- in fact, I already had -- but it certainly gets your attention. Suddenly I wasn't just singing the words on the screen; I was thinking carefully about what I was saying. And some of what we were saying probably wasn't true.

Have you paid attention to some of the songs we sing in church? Some of them are ... inaccurate. Some are bold faced lies. Look at some lines from a few praise choruses:

*Jesus, I am so in love with you.

*In all I do I honor you.

*We will give ourselves no rest 'til your Kingdom comes earth.

(All songs I like, by the way.)

I think the worst example may be the song Breathe:
This is the air I breathe Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread Your very word spoken to me
And I'm desperate for you
And I'm lost without you
Wonderful sentiments all. It would be nice if they were true. But they're not.

Do you see a pattern there? Whenever our songs start talking about us, it's easy to mess up. It's easy to declare that we love more, want more, or do more than we actually do -- to say we are more than we are.

When we simply sing about how great God is, it's hard to screw it up.

Hopefully God won't treat us quite as harshly as some who lied to the Lord in the past, but do you think He is pleased by our mindlessly singing lies? Isn't it better to stick to songs we can honestly sing? Think about this in church next Sunday.

I'm not opposed to carefully written songs about our needs, feelings, or experiences, but an easy way to write a great song is to focus on who God is and what He's done.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Moral Bankruptcy of the Modified Pro-Choice Position

The Bible and the Ballot Box 3: The Bible and Abortion

If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we have to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives – not just what we do on Sunday. Nowhere is this more important than how we, as citizens of a republic, let our faith shape how we vote and otherwise influence our government.

If you had to name the one issue that dominates the culture war, it would be abortion. In this discussion, the scientific question is pretty much settled; the ethical question remains – what do we do with what we know?

I’m not going to argue here that abortion is wrong. I doubt there is anyone reading this site that doesn’t believe that abortion kills a unique human being or that doesn’t think abortion is wrong.

But many Christians, perhaps having grown weary of the fight, perhaps disinclined to “force their views” on others, have tried to opt for a middle position – the so-called “modified pro-choice” (MPC) position. This position says, “I’m personally against abortion, but I don’t think it should be illegal.”

I am going to argue here that this position is sin, that no believer should hold it, and that no believer should support it politically.

The first question we should ask anyone who says, “I’m personally against abortion,” is “Why?”

The answer is invariably, “I believe abortion takes an innocent human life.”

So the person who holds the “modified pro-choice” position says, “I think abortion takes an innocent human life, and I think mothers should be legally allowed to do that to their unborn children.”

The MPC person may balk at this description, but that is quite simply what they believe. They think it’s wrong, but, because they don’t want to “force their beliefs” on anyone else, they think it should be legal.

No Other Issue
People disagree about whether abortion takes an innocent human life (some argue about “life,” some about “human,” some, bizarrely enough, about “innocent”), so some Christians don’t want to force others to live by their moral beliefs.

But no one takes this approach on any other moral issue.

No one says, “Child abuse is wrong, but I don’t want to force my belief on others.” Have you ever heard anyone seriously say this about murder, auto theft, counterfeiting, anything? No. Of course some people say auto theft isn’t wrong – they’re the ones driving off in your car! The fact that car thieves don’t think stealing is wrong does not make it any less so.

Some will say abortion is different because they believe the people choosing this are usually poor, young women who feel they have no other option, but right and wrong apply equally to rich and poor (c.f., Lev 19:15).

“Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving. Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house” (Prov 6:30-31).

Wrong is wrong, no matter how poor the offender. Killing is killing, no matter how desperate the situation. We do have the concept of justifiable homicide in our country, but what, short of saving your own life, justifies killing another human being – especially a child?

The Bible on Overlooking Evil
If we all agree that abortion takes an innocent human life, and if we agree that it is wrong to take an innocent human life, the MPC position is sitting idly by and watching evil happen.

Hopefully none of us could stand still and watch someone kill a child. So how do we permit abortion which is the very same thing? We are choosing to ignore evil, and the scriptures have some pointed things to say about that.

In Deuteronomy 19, God told Israel to create cities of refuge to safeguard lives “so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land… and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed” (v10). They were also told to “purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you” (v13).

Proverbs advises us: “Rescue those being led away to death…. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? … Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (24:11-12) and “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (31:8).

One of the things that mystifies me about the “modified pro-life” people is that they are generally the most vocal about standing up for the poor and the helpless and anyone else they think has been wronged, yet they will silently permit the most helpless of all to be killed without due process, without hope of appeal, without mercy.

Jesus Said…?
I can't deny that Jesus and the apostles are silent on the matter of abortion other than to express a general concern for children and their welfare (e.g., Matt 18 &19).

But we're addressing people who already think abortion is wrong. So let me ask the MPC folks this: Jesus said that lust was like adultery and hate was like murder. What would He say about watching someone kill with your hands in your pockets? We do know He said "Woe" to those who lead others into sin – abortion perhaps?

The Early Church
Even though there is little in the Bible that speaks directly to abortion, the early church fathers took a very hard and clear stand against abortion and the flip side of the issue, exposure (a practice that is, thankfully, illegal in the US):

"Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born" Epistle of Barnabas chapter 19.

"Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten" Didache 2.2.

These sentiments are echoed in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles and the "Apocalypse of Peter" and by Athenagoras and Tertullian among others.

But the early Christians did not just preach against infanticide, nor did they simply refuse to practice it themselves. They rescued exposed infants. To do any less, to turn a blind eye to these killings, would have made them part of the killing.

They could do nothing about abortion, but they did what they could do. We can do something about abortion, even if it’s only a little, in our democratic system – we can refuse to support those who want to keep it legal.

Getting Our Hands Dirty
Of course, voting is not the only thing we can do. We can adopt children whose mothers can’t raise them. Or we can help those women raise their children through material and non-material support.

Even if we never succeed in ridding the world of abortion, we should work to reduce the number of abortions as we can.

We do have to be careful; that road is strewn with pitfalls, and we cannot uncritically embrace every idea suggested. Do some contraceptives cause abortions? Would more welfare help women believe they can keep and raise their babies, or would it simply create a downward spiral resulting in more abortions? Is sex education, rather than “abstinence education,” better than letting kids figure it out on their own? Is there a happy medium? We need to face these questions. We must engage these issues.

As believers we cannot just sit back and watch innocent little human beings die by the thousands. We have to get involved. We also can’t be content to simply wag holy fingers at those who seek abortions; we have to try to help.

We must be actively involved in ending the killing of unborn children. These little humans, made in the image of God, are precious to our Savior and should be precious to us as well.

To that end, we must stand against those who would protect this practice. Anything less is to be complicit in their sin.

P.S. Exodus 21:22, because of questions of translation, is often used to argue that the Bible does not regard the unborn as having full human rights. Greg Koukl has written a thoughtful article showing that this passage must be referring to premature birth, not miscarriage as some popular translations and many pro-choicers suggest.

Voting for Candidates You Disagree With
Helping the Poor Biblically
The Bible and Capital Punishment
Christianity & the Environment: 7 Principles
Immigration Reform and Christianity

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Links: Non-Standard Bible Versions

Here are some online Bible versions that are a little different from the standard. They may be useful for study or apologetics.

Cotton Patch NT: A paraphrase written using southern jargon and American names

JB Phillips NT: A popular "modern English" version from the 1960s

Septuagint (LXX) in English and Greek, includes Apocrypha

An older version (1917) of the Jewish Publication Society's (JPS) translation of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament)

The Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation (NWT)

This isn't a translation so much as a "study" Bible -- the Skeptic's Annotated Bible (KJV); they also have a Koran and Book of Mormon

Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama and Born Alive Protection

I don't normally post things quite so blatantly political here, but I really think the entire country needs to see this video on Obama and attempts to protect infants who survive abortions. Please watch this video and share it with everyone you know.

YouTube link
(HT: Southern Appeal)