A Shared Story

As the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg captured the attention of the nation this week, accounts of her storied friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia appeared in my Facebook feed. The two were very different; one a male, Catholic, conservative the other a female, Jewish progressive. Their views on the interpretation of the Constitution were radically divergent and they tore each other apart in the opinions they wrote. Yet they remained fast friends because of common interests, chief among them a reverence for the law.

In commenting on the Ginsburg/Scalia relationship, most have pointed out how relationships can prosper even when there are disagreements. Yet the furor that has erupted in the Capitol over the appointment of a successor points to a seemingly intractable divide, based on competing views of the law, politics, and procedure.

Writing at UnHerd.com about differing views of American history and ethos, Douglas Murray says, “It is becoming harder to communicate across the [ideological] gulf, as increasingly the two Americas cannot consort or discuss with each other. And if there is one reason above all why that should be the case it is because they no longer have a shared story.” 

That sentence leaped off the page to me. “A shared story!” I thought to myself, ‘Christians have a powerful shared story that should unite us in common cause: the redemption of Jesus Christ.’

In our Salvationist tradition, the “testimony time” gave individuals the opportunity to tell their story of being saved by grace. This not only encouraged others but also reinforced the power of the salvation message to those who might not yet have responded.

Our shared story is one of personal experience – “Once I was blind, but now I see“– that has universal application. In its telling, we invite those who do not share our story to experience it for themselves.

I confess that I sometimes worry whether we Christians spend more time arguing over our differences of doctrine, ecclesiology, and worship styles than we do celebrating our shared story.

I want to loudly sing Fanny Crosby’s testimony: “This is my story, this is my song: ‘Praising my Savior all the day long!’”

Will you join me?

False Dichotomy Fallacy

My favorite college graffiti: “There are two types of people in the world. People who believe there are two types of people in this world and people who do not.” Of course, that statement is a tautology – it relies upon itself for its own proof. But an internet search for that initial statement garnered 143,000,000 hits. Apparently, there are lots of ways to divide the world into merely two types of people.

The current racial tensions in the USA have tended to divide people into two camps. E.g., building on the work of Ibram Kendi in How to be an Antiracist, many have said that if one is not antiracist, then he/she must be racist – there is no middle ground, no grey area. (This notion strikes me as ironic, given that biological sex is clearly dual, but gender is increasingly “non-binary.” One variation of the graffiti I quoted above is this: “There are 10 types of people in this world. Those who understand binary, and those who do not.”)

My fear is that much of the acrimony in our current political debate is due to this false dichotomy fallacy. One must choose between two starkly opposite extremes. No other range of options is presented. One is either racist or antiracist … period.

Examples of false dichotomy fallacy abound. Congress seems incapable of discovering a middle ground on legislation; choose the Democrats’ bill or the Republicans’ but make no effort to reconcile the differences. Antifa/BLM or Proud Boys/QAnon – one side’s good the other’s evil; what about “both are extreme and do not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans”?

It is my view that this false dichotomy fallacy threatens a proper understanding of Biblical theology. In the realm of good and evil, there is a real distinction made between the two. When choosing a path to follow, obedience to God stands in contrast to disobedience. These are real, not false, dichotomies.

Psalm 1 draws a picture comparing the godly person to the unrighteous one. Joshua (Joshua 24:15) and Elijah (I Kings 18:21) both challenge Israel to choose to follow God.  Jesus draws a contrast between those who are saved and those who will be condemned (John 3:16-17). 

Followers of Jesus face some challenges of discernment. One is identifying the difference between good and evil in an age of relativism, avoiding the beguiling appeal of evil that masquerades as good. Another challenge is confining our moral outrage to only certain kinds of evil.

Evangelical Christians have tended to focus their attention almost exclusively on abortion and LGBTQ issues in their political advocacy. Such staunch support often contrasts with ambivalence, even disdain, for addressing social ills that keep some classes of people under oppression. The Salvation Army has a rich heritage of advocacy in this arena and we are still fond of quoting William Booth’s “I’ll fight!” speech.

My appeal is to be certain that we maintain a Biblical view of good and evil, taking care to avoid the false dichotomies that the political world presents to us. Let’s preach the whole Gospel, including “good news to the poor, … freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, [and releasing] the oppressed.”

Blessings to you as you “go about doing good.”

A “love/hate” relationship?

I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a “love/hate relationship.” It’s used to describe ambivalence: sometimes I love him; sometimes I hate him. Apart from fictional relationships like Ross and Rachel on “Friends,” I don’t know that one can swing all the way to hate from real love, and then back again.

I think the phrase is more likely to be used to describe an activity that one does because of the benefits it brings but is not a source of enjoyment while doing it – running, exercise, calisthenics, etc.

The notion came to mind recently when discussing “hate speech” and its definition. It seems to me that voicing disagreement with another’s opinion is too often labeled “hate speech” even when it is nothing of the sort. Just look at the ease with which Chi-fil-A’s Cathy family have been called “haters” for vocalizing their support for traditional marriage and lamenting the way society has moved to accept gay marriage. 

One of the common phrases we have used to explain our position to unbelievers is “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” For decades, condemning sin and preaching God’s forgiveness and redemption was an effective evangelistic strategy. But for a half-century or so, evangelism has focused on God’s love and mercy, calling unbelievers into relationship with Him (think ‘Evangelism Explosion’ and ‘The Four Spiritual Laws.’). This change in strategic direction coincided with society dispensing with the notion of “sin,” as witnessed by psychologist Karl Menninger’s seminal work “Whatever Became of ‘Sin’?”

In today’s world, labeling someone’s behavior as sin is perceived as being hateful. To say we “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is dismissed as being impossible. If one hates the sin, one must also be expressing hatred of the sinner. In fact, it is considered hateful to even use the word “sinner”!

So what are we to do? If acknowledging sin and repenting of it is necessary to receive forgiveness, how do we preach the Gospel with integrity without identifying the sin? I believe it is a matter of relationship. Welcoming unbelievers into our fellowship exposes them to God’s love through us. The Holy Spirit will convict of sin; our relationship with the unbeliever then provides the opportunity to explain repentance. It is the same as a parent who has demonstrated love for the child correcting his/her behavior. Love is the platform on which the correction is based.

My wife was won to the Lord and to the Army by the warm fellowship she found at the Corps. She was not labeled a sinner (though that was her state of grace). She was wooed by the love of God as demonstrated by the officers and locals of the Corps; they welcomed her to find the same relationship with God that they enjoyed.

In a time when the Church is challenged by a variety of factors that threaten our witness, I am grateful for those on the front lines of ministry who demonstrate God’s love daily in word and deed. Blessings!

Integrity, Simplicity, Effectiveness

Here are the final three of my nine statements of organizational values which I tried to apply in my ministry as an active officer. The first two are also values that I try to maintain in my personal life.

#7. Integrity will be the hallmark of our business practices.  We will avoid deception in fund-raising, we will not exploit others for the benefit of The Army, we will be truthful and accurate in all our public communication.

“Integrity – the state of being whole and undivided.” On a personal level this meant that my wife and kids should never see a different person in the home than what they saw in the pulpit. On the organizational level, integrity means that we should always do our work consistent with the image of that work that we present to the public.

In times when resources are scarce and survival seems threatened, the temptation can arise to sacrifice integrity to the urgency of the circumstances. But the testimony of our forebears is that God honors those who maintain their covenant with him even amid trying times.

#8. Simplicity is preferred over ostentation, keeping faith with the needs of those we serve as well as those who support us.

Our culture has a fascination with the best, the fastest, the newest, the prettiest, etc., etc. It’s not enough to have a smart phone that’s great at performing multiple functions if there is a newer device that does it better or faster. A 50” HDTV isn’t good enough when you can fill the wall with an 8K LED UHDTV with maximum image refresh.

So it is counter-cultural to prefer simplicity. But it is eminently consistent with Jesus’ teachings. To illustrate this principle Tony Campolo famously asked the question whether Jesus would wear a Rolex.

It is important for us who follow Jesus to value the stewardship of the resources that He entrusts to our care. There is no subject on which Jesus had more to say than this. 

#9. We will strive for maximum effectiveness in all that we do, seeking an efficiency that turns 85% or more of our resources into direct service to those in need.

The graveyard of evangelical ministries contains the remains of organizations and their leaders who failed in their first purpose and spent their dollars recklessly. The Army has a well-earned reputation for turning the maximum of the donor’s dollar into the services they donate to provide. Let’s keep it that way.

I recognize that this four-week foray into organizational values is not particularly inspiring or uplifting. My hope is that it provides a framework for thinking through those principles that should permeate who we are and what we do.Remaining in prayer for my beloved Salvation Army and those who keep its ministry honest, vigorous and effective. Blessings!