The Meandering Political Definition of Victimhood

“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true” – Yogi Berra

I read an article a few days back by someone calling himself “The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson” titled “Christians, You’re Not Victims.” Let me just establish at the outset that anyone who has the audacity to label themselves the Right Reverend anything, probably isn’t worth listening to. That said, Mr. Robinson very nearly stumbles onto a decent case initially that the Christian howling over “oppression” in the case of creeping gay marriage rulings is likely a bit over-wrought. His argument then goes to pieces as he makes some silly claims about what does constitute victimhood.

The major themes appear to be these (and I will give Mr. Robinson a fair bit of deference on the first one –  it is the only legitimate point and he develops it far less than he should have):

  • Many Christians view the legalization of gay marriage as the upending of reasonable moral order and are greatly disturbed by what this means for their place in our society
  • Businesses being forced to provide services they do not wish to, based on moral objections, is a small concern
  • True oppression is being a social outcast, which many in the LGBT community have suffered for much of their lives

To the first point (again, the one Mr. Robinson doesn’t explore fully enough), there is a significant bit of the Christian objection to gay marriage in America that is based in discomfort with the new political reality. That is, Christians are very used to being able to use the power of majority rule to punish behaviors they find disdainful. This includes behaviors that don’t expressly violate anybody’s rights (e.g., the immoral behaviors that occur between two consenting adults). It is very true that many Christians are still struggling with this “sea change” – but we (the Christians) cannot view “removal of the right to rule over the lives of others” as oppression.

That said, I do hold that it is oppressive for businesses, rather for individuals who operate businesses, to be forced to comply with activities that violate their conscience. If a business decides to refuse service over moral objections, or refuses to provide certain medical benefits over moral objections, then they should be free to do so. Note that I’m not saying they should deny those services – I think we are all better off when Christian business owners engage those with whom they disagree. But free people get to make free decisions about how they will interact with a free market. To force any more than this is to presume communal ownership over the life of the individual (and so doing, we open the door to all manner of oppression against all manner of classes of people – on the basis of “the greater good” as defined by the “will of the majority”).

Then there is the last flail describing the oppression of LGBT community. Obviously there are some valid claims, but there are also some silly claims. Consider [my comments inserted]:

Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity [yes violence is oppression]. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying or discrimination they face [suicide is not oppression, though it can stem from oppression]. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts [actually, it's 50 states - many Christian organizations reserve the right to fire people for violating certain moral standards - you have no right to employment]. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love [more on this in a bit]. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children [you have no right to acceptance or free room and board].

Oppression has to be cast as violation of individual liberties, of life, of freedom, of property. Bullying – oppression. Violence – oppression. Getting fired? Not oppression. For an agreement of employment to remain in effect, both parties must agree to continue. An employer cannot cry “oppression” because an employee decides they don’t want to work there anymore (they are free to go). Employers have no right to demand that employees continue to work when they don’t want to. Similarly, and employee cannot cry “oppression” because an employer terminates the employment agreement (unless the termination violates terms of the contract). Employees have no right to demand continued employment when the employer has decided he no longer wishes to continue to pay them.

Now, about gay marriage. For my part, I think that the government should stay out of the marriage definition business. To the extent that it is a private legal contract between two (or more?) parties, there are already legal frameworks under which it can be managed (and open to all who wish to enter legal contracts). To the extent that it is a religious institution, the government has no role.

Here we note that there are many on the Right that view “gay marriage” not as an appeal to freedom of contract, but an appeal to forced acceptance. If the government recognizes gay marriage, then employers, businesses … and eventually churches must. One suspects there would be less objection from the Right if gay marriage legalization were not accompanied by forced participation and acceptance on the part of those who object.

Ultimately, it seems that Mr. Robinson and I part company over a simple definition. What is oppression? Mr. Robinson appears to hold that oppression is the equivalent of hardship (and whoever has had the most difficulties is the most oppressed, and wins the victim award). But this is a poor definition. Hardship, difficulty, and suffering are regrettable, but are not necessarily the outcome of oppression; they are not necessarily the outcome of offense against the life and liberty of a person created in the image of God. We have no reasonable expectation of a trouble free life.

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I’ve Heard of Justifiable Homicide, but Justifiable Rape?

“I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy” – Random Marine, The Rock

We bounced around some when I was a child, my father was climbing the corporate ladder at IBM with impressive pace. The turnover of uprooting and moving every three years (or so) stopped when I was in 7th grade and my sister (9th grade) protested that she had finally found a place that she really liked and didn’t want to leave her friends. Dad relented and instead of heading off to Dallas (the likely next stop) we stayed put in Conover, NC. With that decision, my formative years would be spent primarily in North Carolina.

I now live in Maryland and work with folks from all over. I tend to joke with my co-workers from the midwest or northeast that, in the south, “he needed killin’” is a valid defense at a murder trial. That if the victim was in fact good-for-nothing (e.g., a wife-beater) then he, in fact, needed to be killed, and furthermore that the world was indeed a better place without him. It’s an expression of common-sense judgment that we pretend prevails in the south – that folks will wink and nod and accept that justice was done without actually pulling through the legal minutia.

It’s silly, of course. I’ve never heard of “he needed killin’” being used as a valid legal defense. Furthermore, we have the legal wrangling over what constitutes self-defense and justifiable action for a reason – the systems works hard to prevent “type II” errors (sending the innocent to jail) as well as “type I” errors (letting the guilty go free).

I digress. The point is that one can plausibly make an argument for justifiable homicide based on the potential harm that the “victim” may do to others down the line … sort of a pre-self-defense argument. What I cannot wrap my head around is the notion of justifiable rape.

I came across a story the other day from Brazil, where a survey purporting to claim that women in revealing clothing deserve to be raped. I have some serious disagreements with the conclusions of the study as stated in the above article (basically editorializing gone WAY wrong). The story has gotten a lot of attention internationally and I think it says perhaps not what the pool reporter writing this article claims. We’ll deal with that in a second, but first let’s deal with the obvious point.

I had a pastor once who told met that it was very important to “over-communicate”. That is, make sure your words are unambiguous and leave no wiggle room for wrong interpretation. As such, the mere thought presented in the linked article that a woman who dresses provocatively (or who dresses not at all) is responsible for her own rape is offensive, absurd, and just plain wrong-headed. Each man is responsible for his own actions, and there is no space to claim “I lost control, I couldn’t help myself” as though we were vampires smelling blood and unable to fight against our base urges. Circumstances clearly corrupt our ability to make sound judgment, but they never fundamentally remove our ability to make that judgment.

Having said that (and hopefully having been unambiguous) there are some more subtle questions to address about appealing to the male sex drive, poll methodology, and even subtle commentary by reporters.

For instance, the article linked above, which has gone far and wide, passes on claims that 65% of respondents believe that it is “justified to rape women wearing ‘clothes that show their body’.” But an article “closer to the source” from this Brazilian newspaper tells quite a different story:

Most Brazilians (65.1%) agree, as a whole or in part, that “women wearing clothes showing their body deserve harassment.” The majority (58.5%) also say they believe that “if women knew how to behave, there would be less rapes.”

Now that is a different issue altogether. I’m not here defending harassment, but to equate harassment with rape is absurd. In fact, the secondary statement shows the absurdity of the prior conclusion. How does it come to the point of 65% justify “rape” but only 58.5% say there would be fewer rapes if women “knew how to behave.” The conclusion is that at least 6.5% of respondents would think it OK to rape a woman dressed provocatively but that any decision on her part to dress more modestly would NOT reduce the number of rapes (implication: we can’t reduce the number of rapes, but it’s only “OK” if she was “asking for it”).

Perhaps there was a bit too much editorializing by the former news article. I mean, “deserve harassment” doesn’t get anywhere near the same attention as “deserve rape” – and it’s all about ad clicks these days.

Speaking of editorializing, the Yahoo version goes one farther, claiming not only the first result (rape versus harassment) but also:

The study revealed a well-known Brazilian paradox in which a cult-like obsession with the body and sensuality clashes with the society’s dominant conservative Catholicism.

Fair warning: I would have led with the yahoo version, but there is a naked Carnival dancer at the top (photo from the back side) – and I’m a bit wary of linking to such an article.

Now we have an even more absurd conclusion. First, that the study defends rape (it does not) and further that defense of rape comes from the clash between obsession with sensuality and a conservative Catholic culture. Really? Is it a tenant of conservative Catholicism that those who dress provocatively deserve rape? I know a few Catholics and I have never heard of such. (This is not Saudi Arabia, where a woman is “guilty” of her own rape if she wore a provocative full body covering but dared to leave the house without a male relative.)

OK, to recap thus far: A study in Brazil shows 65% claiming provocative dress justifies harassment and 58.5% claim that if women “knew how to behave” there would be fewer rapes. A reporter somewhere concluded that harassment is tantamount to rape and that 65% actually justify rape. Another reporter further concluded that the justification of rape stems from conservative Catholic culture.

Now let’s get to what I think is the bigger issue in the story: those 58.5%. I don’t know if anything was lost in translation, but I will certainly hold open the prospect that the phrasing of the question – “fewer rapes if women knew how to behave” – IS indeed consistent with a conservative Catholic culture. The mathematician in me would prefer a more clinical statement of “would there be fewer rapes if women dressed more modestly?” I imagine that such a question would have gotten a similar level of response.

I offer that such a statement is almost surely true, and that it is not tantamount to blaming the victim. I hopefully have addressed the “blaming the victim” charge with the over-communication bit above. A number of commenters to the story noted that a woman should be able to walk down the street naked and not suffer rape. While I’d agree, they SHOULD be able to do such a thing, we live in a fallen and broken world and walking down the street naked is a dangerous thing to do. And if a naked girl is raped then I should hope that our legal system will duly punish the offender … but that will be small consolation to the victim.

I don’t think these scantily clad Brazilian women are ignorant or stupid. They dress the way they dress to appeal to the sexual desires of men. Perhaps they need attention, perhaps it makes them feel empowered, perhaps they have low self-esteem and view themselves as objects. Regardless, I think they know full well that their mode of dress is intended to produce a response from onlooking men. It’s a dangerous appeal to make. There are plenty of decent men out there who may well notice your beauty and then suppress their base desires – but there are plenty of indecent men as well. These groups are largely indistinguishable until it’s too late.

There’s more from the study though. Consider:

On the other hand, 91.4% of the population agrees that “a man beating his wife has to go to jail” and 82.1% disagree with the statement that “a woman who gets beaten at home should be quiet not to harm the children.”

Well, at least there’s that.

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Good and Bad Reasons to Leave a Church

“Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying” – Martin Luther (of folks who left a church but not the faith, it is possible that Martin Luther went bigger than anyone else.)

[As a side note, before I get started, let me state for the reader that I recently left my church of 13 years. This is NOT a post about why I left - for that, please see "On Leaving the Cause [Church]“]

A friend recently passed along titled “5 Really Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church“. It was a decent article, but I thought some of the rationale left holes that needed to be addressed, and preferably closed. We’ll try to touch on some of those issues here.

First, a sidebar. I had a conversation with a friend a while back about the subject of tithing (this post is also NOT about tithing). In the conversation I noted that it is quite possible that standard judicial recusal rules may need to apply to discussions on tithing. If a judge or juror finds that there is a reason why their impartiality could be questioned they should recuse themselves from the case. This doesn’t mean that they would be impartial, it simply means that there was a reasonable question of impartiality and they remove themselves from the situation to remain above such accusations (above reproach, if you will). So too with tithing. If you make your living off the tithes of parishioners you must at least admit that you could have a conflict of interests in your discussion of tithing. This doesn’t at all mean that you’re wrong doctrinally, it simply means that an outside observer wouldn’t be off-base at all to at least question your motives. (Better, I think, for a lay person to discuss the notion of tithing.)

I argue that the linked article may fall under the same category as tithing in this sense. An article written by a pastor about why people shouldn’t leave a church should at least raise an eyebrow. Of course a pastor thinks people should only leave church under extreme conditions, but not the ones listed in this article (which I presume are quite common … though none of them are why I left my former church). This doesn’t mean he’s wrong, not at all. It simply means he has a prejudice (and I mean that clinically as “pre-conception”) based on his history as a pastor (which I can only imagine is a difficult job) and his general preference that people not leave (particularly if the “leaving” becomes a personal affront to the pastor himself).

Of course, I do call into question some of his arguments, not so much from the standpoint of disagreeing, but from the standpoint of feeling that his reasoning has drawn conclusions that are too strong. Let’s hit the five, shall we … but first, giving due deference, he does note at the very beginning that there are a lot of good reasons to leave a church (though he doesn’t note what they might be).

“I’m not being fed”

I’ve heard this one before, though I’ve never used it. The pastor in the article has a good point, which I’ll quote:

As a Christian, you shouldn’t require spoon-feeding for the rest of your life. Eventually you need to learn how to feed yourself so that, in time, you can actually feed others. Remember, your call is not just to be a disciple but to make disciples.

Amen. If “not being fed” means “I haven’t read my bible, studied it, or prayed one lick  in the past month – and I’m not getting anything out of your sermons” then it is indeed a cop out. Pick up a Bible man, it’s a dang good read.

Of course, upon reading the Bible we find some interesting stuff. Consider a few scriptures [emphasis added]:

  • “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” – 1 Tim 3:2
  • “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” – 2 Tim 4:2
  • “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Acts 2:42

At this point I’ll stop – you get the picture. Is it part of the pastor’s job to teach? If it is part of his job, and someone who reads and studies daily, who prays daily, who takes great pleasure in searching out scriptural truths comes to the point of “I’m not getting one blessed thing out of your sermons” … well that is something to consider. Granted, that was a long litany of conditionals. My point is simply that it cannot always be taken as a “cop out” that someone would leave a church because of “not being fed”.

Furthermore, I have seen cases where pastors change their preaching over time. For instance, by the end of his ministry D. James Kennedy hardly preached about the gospel of Christ anymore, focusing instead on the Christian history of America. I loved his discussion of history but wouldn’t at all have been offended if one of his members said “I’m not being fed here, I can get all of this out of a history book” and left.

“It’s Getting Too Big”

I have to say, I’ve heard this one too. I never quite understood it. Here the pastor, I think, hits the nail on its head by noting that taking a “we four and no more” attitude toward church is unbiblical. He further rightly notes that “growth is sometimes inevitable for faithful churches.” Of course, let us not confuse growth with faithfulness, and let us not confuse occasional downturns in attendance with faithlessness (Jesus had folks stop following Him too).

That said, the “it’s getting too big” argument may simply be an ill-formed expression of resistance to church pageantry. There was a day when the church was big, growing, and intimate. It was intimate because only so many people could fit in the caves where they met in order to escape persecution for their beliefs. Even today church is intimate in the house churches of Vietnam or China, where our brothers meet in secret to avoid prison. (No, I haven’t started a house church.)

My point here is that church in the opulent west can turn into pageantry very quickly. Flashy lights, impressive bands, rockin’ sound systems .. all of which I think are very cool, but if the purpose for the Sunday service is to put on a big show for the biggest crowd possible, then we are worse than hedonistic rock stars. (At least they know they are self-indulgent and not leading people in the way of truth.)

“I don’t agree with everything that is being preached”

Again, we agree, I think. Just as one will never vote for a politician with whom they agree on everything, one will never find a pastor with whom they agree on everything. It’s not just pastors either, but entire denominations. For instance, I’ve read quite a few of the position papers put out by the Assemblies of God (my denomination) and can say that I love how thoroughly and humbly they are written – but I don’t agree with them on everything. I certainly agree when they take on Word-of-Faith preachers and “Latter Rain” movements. But, I will disagree from time to time. (Though, usually I disagree because their expressions aren’t mathematically satisfying, which is not exactly a doctrinal dissent. For instance, I have mild issues with the AG’s paper on gambling, not because I promote gambling, but rather because a sufficiently vague definition of it could include all investment in stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., and a sufficiently narrow definition could exclude taking a “sure bet” if one existed., which would be better than investing.)

Then the pastor makes an interesting (and spot-on) statement: “As long as your pastor isn’t preaching outright heresy, you can afford to disagree on secondary issues.” Agreed. But what if disagreement on secondary issue leads to passive-aggressive retribution of some sort? What if heart-felt disagreement over secondary issues gets you labeled “not a team player” and pushed aside? It’s fair enough to say that “little things shouldn’t separate us” but that has to be a two-way street. Pastors and church leadership are people too, and once you’re labeled, you’re labeled. Yes, leadership should be adults who don’t deal in passive-aggression; but I’ve been a Christian for 25 years and have had five pastors … and have seen some unsavory things go down in the local church. We are all flawed people, including leadership.

Furthermore, what about that note on heresy? And how does one decide when a doctrinal disagreement gets all the way to heresy? May I direct us all to Philippians 2:12 – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Ultimately, every believer in Christ has to follow the leading of the Spirit, has to work out his own salvation, has to search out those issues of doctrine.

I contend that if someone comes to the point of “I don’t trust what you’re preaching, I’m not sure it’s legitimate, I’m on guard in every sermon looking for where you’re running into error, rather than listening with an open heart” … then perhaps it is best for both parties that a split be made.

“My needs aren’t being met”

Here again, we agree – though with a possible slight disagreement over word usage. He says:

“the Church actually isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. It’s his Church. He came for it. He died for it. He redeemed it. He continues to build it. And one day, he’ll come back for it. It’s his.”

Agreed, and yet we are conflating Church and church. One can easily leave a church and not leave the Church. But yes, if one is leaving a church because selfish needs are going unfulfilled, rather than becoming a servant of others, well that’s a bit silly.

“Unresolved conflict”

Here again I think the pastor has a point and makes an argument beyond what is viable.

“The Church is one big family full of characters and misfits. Sometimes sisters argue. Sometimes brothers fight. Sometimes you want to bury your weird uncle in the backyard. But despite it all, family is supposed to be the place where you stick together. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.”

Fair enough. And yet the Bible also gives us examples of people leaving and going their separate ways. Abraham and Lot parted ways because their herdsmen were fighting – and they parted so there wouldn’t be any quarrel between them. Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways after they had a sharp disagreement over whether to take John Mark with them (hardly a doctrinal issue).

I have four sons and I can attest that sometimes brothers fight. Sometimes, when Daddy (that’s me) comes into the room, he lays down justice and punishes the guilty. But sometimes, when Daddy comes in the room he has no time (or need) to bring justice – instead he simply tells his quarreling children “go be in different rooms, you need to spend some time apart.”

And so too with us. We can still be brothers and be in different rooms. We can still follow Christ and not hang out with one another. I’m not saying that we bail at the first sign of conflict or that we refuse to extend grace to one another, but there comes a point when attempting to resolve a conflict is less productive in the kingdom that simply parting company to go follow the Lord apart from one another.

So, are there good reasons?

What are some good reasons to leave a church? I submit that there are. We’ve already discussed a few, but here are some other obvious ones.

In my 25 years as a Christian I have been a member of three different churches and have now left all three. The first two times I left because I was moving a great distance away; once to go to college (from Conover, NC to Chapel Hill, NC) and once to start a new job (from Raleigh, NC to Columbia, MD). In both cases I didn’t flinch at the prospect of leaving a church. I was moving down a path in life (a path on which I feel the Lord was leading me) and it necessitated departure from the local assembly. I point this out because I have heard preachers lament that people’s migrations as they walk through life were resulting in lost members – as though the purpose of man is to build the local church and movement is prohibited.

There is also the case of abuse. I have seen on more than one occasion people being abused in a church setting. I’m not just talking here about catholic priests abusing choir boys (which I have never observed). There are emotional and psychological abuses that occur when we begin to worship church instead of God, and when the leadership becomes interested in maintaining their role in the hierarchy with good little followers rather than serving others. In such instances we should get out, and fast.

And what if God told you to go? He told Abram to leave everything and go to a different place. What if the Lord God simply pulled his follower aside and said “follow Me, it’s time to go”? The argument is unassailable. If God told you to do something you really had better do it. “But how do you know?” Good question. Work out your own salvation. Search the scriptures. Pray, pray, pray. Repent. Be honest with yourself and with God. Root out any vestiges of pride and self-centeredness. Pour your heart out before God. Seek and you shall find.

We serve a God that is bigger than church. Sometimes He moves people in and out of local assemblies for His purposes. Yes, sometimes those moves strain relationships, and sometimes feelings even get hurt. But, we have to trust the Lord and follow His leading. Further, we have to recognize that His plan for one may not be His plan for another (John 21:21-22). Leaving church shouldn’t be met by leadership with “nobody should ever leave” (because that places the local assembly at the center of worship) – nor should it be met by the departing  with “everybody should leave” (because that places me at the center of worship). But let us rather worship God, and follow Him.

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The Will of God and Clobber Verses

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread,  and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” – Matt 6:7-13

There was a day and age in Christendom when the Bible was only written in Latin, and the only people who could read it were the priests. We called those the Dark Ages for good reason. Then Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for mass production (though his Bible was still in Latin), and Luther translated the Bible into German (or one of its dialects at the time) – times were changing dramatically. Today we all have Bibles, which is a beautiful thing. We can all access the Word of God.

This radical change in free access to the Bible introduced something that we had (by comparison) less of in the Dark Ages – disagreement over interpretation. If folks get to read and think for themselves, they sometimes find that they disagree on what the Bible means. There is no Pope to settle the disagreements (not for protestants, anyway) so we just have to debate and wrangle and grapple with what is true and right. This, I argue, is not a bad thing. Organic things (like people) grow through trial and difficulty, and doing the “mental gymnastics” of understanding the Bible is a helpful thing.

As disagreements have cropped up time and again we have seen the introduction of the concept of the “clobber verse” – a verse that so obviously and vehemently contradicts a theological construct that it leaves no room for debate.

By way of example, I remember having several debates in college with students who wanted to justify their continued practice of having pre-marital sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They would say things like “well, I’m a christian, and she’s a christian, and we love each other, and the Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins … so it’s OK.” To this we would respond simply with 1 Cor 6:9-10:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” [ESV]

Clobber verse. Christians take it very seriously when you tell them they will not inherit the kingdom of God. Of course the message has to be delivered with mercy. Note that it does not say “anyone who has ever committed these sins” – it is all given in a present tense, implying that it is those who live in a continual practice of fornication who are in trouble. It doesn’t stop there though, here in one fell swoop Paul deals with idolatry, adultery, homosexual acts, theft, greed, drunkenness (which is not the same as drinking), reviling (abusive language), and swindling (e.g., selling used cars … OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair).

I was sitting in church this Sunday and the preacher came across another such clobber verse, though this one is not in relation to fornication but rather Word-of-Faith theology (WoF).

Recall that WoF is not simply the fraudulent “prosperity gospel” – there are plenty of WoF types who have rejected the obvious errors of prosperity doctrine. Ultimately WoF is about self-worship. It replaces God’s sovereignty with man’s (usually referring to “dominion” instead of sovereignty … because that would be a tough sell). It replaces God’s will with man’s will. It ultimately puts man at the center of the equation, with God responding as an automaton to words spoken in faith.

In various times and places this has led WoF preachers to eschew the will of God. They will say silly things like “don’t pray for God’s will to be done” but instead “declare what you want” and “pray it in faith” and “pray the promises of scripture over your life” (they always try to tie their New Age thought back to the Bible somehow).

This type of silliness is subject to so many refutations from scripture that it boggles the mind, and yet they persist. For instance, consider the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, who said “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39) and again “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt 26:42). He was submitted to the will of God even though He clearly preferred to not go through the crucifixion.

On Sunday we found ourselves in another clobber verse – James 4:13-16:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

It’s a simple message. It doesn’t leave wiggle room for “faith in my faith” and declaring the promises you want to be true. He says quite clearly if the Lord wills – everything we hope or dream or desire in this life is subject to the Lord’s will. It is how Jesus taught us to pray. It is how Jesus prayed in the garden.

For a preacher to say “don’t pray for the will of God to be done” represents a clear departure from a very straight forward message of scripture. And yet they will (not all preachers, of course, but WoFers). If you ever find yourself sitting in a service where a preacher launches into such a diatribe against praying for God’s will to be done, that’s a good time to leave.

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Crimea Votes for “Independence” – What’s Next?

“It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything” – Joseph Stalin

As expected, Crimea voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from Ukraine and join with Russia. It’s not clear what happens next. Does Ukraine invade to prevent the departure? Doubtful. Do they simply stand down and let Crimea go? Also doubtful.

In an attempt to justify the Russian invasion and “vote” for independence, the Russian Times produced a piece yesterday noting “5 Referendums that the West has not taken issue with.” The point of the article seems to be to claim that US foreign policy is arbitrary and capricious. Hmmm. Perhaps they should have just stated that outright and left it as a tweet.

There is a mild “apples-to-oranges” feel to their complaint. The examples that were given are these: Kosovo, South Sudan, the Falklands, Scotland, and Catalonia (Spain). None of these really fits the Crimea situation. First, Crimea is not voting on independence per se, but switching from one country to another. (Perhaps the Russian Times should have pointed to the origins of Texas. While not exactly a referendum on switching countries, the outcome was eventually just that.)

Second, Crimea is currently occupied by a nation-state that has vested interest in maintaining control over Crimean ports. Perhaps only the Falklands even come close; though the British were actually trying to give the Falklands back to Argentina in order to improve relations with South Africa until the plan became public and Falklander backlash convinced the U.K. to allow self-determination.

Kosovo and South Sudan sought independence after suffering a great deal of blood loss at the hands of former oppressors (not so in Crimea). As for Catalonia and Scotland, those votes have yet to happen. Spain is sounding a rather loud protest (which we will discuss shortly), but the UK has merely threatened to not allow Scotland to use the Pound as its currency. Not exactly a gun to the head.

Interestingly, the Catalonia situation does bear some resemblance to current secessionist movements here in the US. There are a number of groups that have looked at either (a) taking over a small state by population influx and voting for independence (typically New  Hampshire or South Carolina) or (b) cobbling out land from an existing state to form a new state (Northern California, Northern Colorado, and Western Maryland). In all of these cases the complaint is the same – the government we have does not represent our interests and we want to make a change. (Exactly the same complaint as Catalonia, which feels they are simply a tax cash-cow for the rest of Spain.)

All of these secession movements highlight several interesting concepts regarding statehood. First, there is a typical cost/benefit tradeoff for independence. Moving to smaller states doesn’t generally improve security (from an international level) as there are economies of scale to national defense. Thus, the independence movements have concluded that the cost (high taxes, oppressive legislation) of staying a part of the larger state outweighs the benefit of greater national security. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to Crimea, which is actually trading up as far as state security goes.)

Next, we see quite clearly that there isn’t some court-of-higher-power where these issues can be resolved. The U.S. and E.U. can protest the Crimea vote, but they can’t appeal to Caesar to stop it. Here in America we fought a nasty Civil War over the right to secede. The debate continues today as to whether the Constitution permitted secession. Ultimately the question of “legality” is irrelevant – we fought a war and the outcome decided things.

Finally, the powers that stand to lose something from a localized independence movement are not likely to let things go on quietly. Governments lose power and revenue when net-productive regions want to be free … and governments hate losing power and revenue.

As for the Russian Times, it’s hard to argue with the general premise that US foreign policy can be arbitrary and capricious. But the RT could make a better argument than this.

I’m reminded of the Reagan/Gorbachev discussion about freedom of movement for citizens. Reagan wanted Gorbachev to allow emigration from Soviet-controlled states (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”). Gorbachev responded by noting that there is a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico, attempting to label the US as hypocritical. To this Reagan responded “Mike, there’s a big difference between trying to get out and trying to get in.” There are meaningful differences between the situation in Crimea and the situations noted by the RT.

As for what comes next in Crimea, I’m not sure. In the short-term, Putin holds all the important cards. Nobody can stop him from annexing Crimea. In the long term, we may see economic and currency war as western powers try to punish Russia (in whatever limited way) for this step.

There is also a not-insignificant possibility of retaliation by the Ukrainian protest movements. In the aftermath of the Yanukovych ouster, the protestor-controlled parliament passed legislation outlawing Russian as a second national language. This was clearly designed to be antagonistic toward Russia and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The point here is that there are elements within Ukraine, elements that have some sway, which may be looking for a dust-up. And these elements are apparently difficult to control. They are the same elements that stormed the parliament building the day after they had signed a truce with the Yanukovych government. (Though, it is plausible that there goal was to push Crimea out, making for a more west-leaning Ukraine. If so, then they have succeeded.)

So. the ball is in our court. The US and EU will have to respond – as will Ukraine.

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Russians in the Crimea, Ukraine on the Brink

“Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore” – Billy Joel, We Didn’t Start the Fire

I wasn’t alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, so my memories of it have come from history books, movies (like Thirteen Days), and the occasional chat with someone who does remember it. In the chess match of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was attempting to get a toe-hold in the western hemisphere, hoping to put short range nuclear missiles on the newly minted communist nation of Cuba. From the Soviet point of view, they were merely looking to counter U.S. expansionism (we had recently put our own missiles in Turkey, on Russia’s doorstep) and to protect an ally from invasion (we had already launched one failed attempt to overthrow the Castro regime – the Bay of Pigs invasion). Regardless of the justifications, President John F. Kennedy had no intention of letting the Soviets put missiles within 90 miles of Florida, so we put up a naval blockade around the island. Things got very tense, to say the least, and the Cold War very nearly went hot.

In the end, we struck a deal with the Soviets, the Kennedy-Khruschev pact. They agreed not to put nukes in Cuba; we agreed to dismantle our nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy; and we agreed not to overthrow Castro.

It’s been a shade over 51 years since the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. Historians will debate whether they collapsed under the economic strain of the need to counter Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) or the economic strain of a global collapse in oil prices in the mid 80s (perhaps we engineered this too, with capital flow reversal in the aftermath of Paul Volcker’s war on inflation). Regardless, the Soviet economic model was doomed to failure. They either had to take over the world and eliminate all economic competition, or collapse and disappear. As Reagan was not about to allow the former, the latter was the only option.

And yet, 51 years on, no Soviet Union to tussle with, we have still, to this day, honored our commitment not to overthrow the Castro regime. There are 11 million people living under an oppressive communist regime just off our coast – a regime that we could overthrow in about an hour and a half – and yet in the age of nation building and throwing around U.S. military prowess to expand democracy, we do not touch Cuba. We made a deal.

The Budapest Memorandum

After the late, great Ronald Reagan finally put his boot on the Soviet Bear’s neck, freeing a world from potential tyranny, it was left to presidents Bush (41) and Clinton to clean up the mess and put the world back together. The Soviet Union had splintered, and every state wanted its own autonomy from Moscow. Not just former Soviet Bloc nations like Poland and Hungary, but former Soviet States like Ukraine and Georgia wanted to be free.

Of course, it was trick to engineer such a breakup. The Soviets had quite a few nuclear weapons deployed in Warsaw Pact nations as well as Soviet states. Would all of those nations become nuclear powers – possibly turning weapons against each other to settle decades-old scores? Realizing this would be disastrous, we had to find a way to keep only one nuclear power – Russia – while the others surrendered their weapons. But, if I were Ukraine I would not want to surrender such power easily – it can be quite useful in defending oneself against a nuclear power on the doorstep (one with years of bad-blood, more on that in a moment). The solution? The Budapest Memorandum.

The Russians made a deal in 1994. They made a deal just like we did in 1962. They would stay out of Ukraine, and Ukraine would surrender all nuclear weapons back to Russia. This is a deal that Vladimir Putin has now broken by sending Russian troops into Crimea. I have no idea what manner of legal enforcement we even think possible in such a situation. I merely bring it up to point out that they made a deal.

The Bible says in Psalm 15:4 that a righteous man is a man “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” It is a measure of character to abide by your commitments, especially when they become unprofitable for you and there is nobody who could enforce the oath.

Years of Bad Blood

There are a lot of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and with good reason. Russians have been fighting to control Ukraine for centuries (and they weren’t alone). This culminated with the subjugation of Ukraine in the 1920s by the new Soviet Union. In 1932 and 1933, up to 7.5 million Ukrainians starved to death in the “Holodomor” – forced starvation. While Ukraine is often called “the breadbasket of Europe” with rich, dark soil, it did not get to keep its production from the Soviet collective farms.

Millions of Ukrainians starved to death to feed their Russian masters. Bad blood? Yep. In 1953 Khruschev tried to sooth some of the hurts and bequeathed Crimea to the Ukraine (which is part and parcel of the current conflagration).

While it’s hard to lay this next one at the feet of Russian oppression, Ukraine is also home to the Chernyobl nuclear plant and the devastation that it unleashed in 1986. (The radioactive damage was far and wide, with Belarus and Russia also taking some serious pain.) The end of the Soviet Union was coming soon enough, but the “tough luck” for Ukraine was still rolling.

Over the past decade or so the big issue has been the price of natural gas imported to Ukraine from Russia. Natural gas isn’t fungible like oil as transport is difficult. Europeans, who get their natural gas largely from Russia, pay much higher prices than we do in America (about 2.5 times). And Ukraine pays the highest price of any of the Europeans. I have a friend who was a missionary in Ukraine for some time and she said the story was always the same. They pay, and pay, and pay and Russia would demand they pay more or the gas would be cut off. It turns out that it gets cold in Ukraine, and one can hardly afford to let the heat get turned off.

Letting Go is Hard

In the antebellum American South, the slave owners had a low impression of their slaves. Perhaps needing to (a) still attend church on Sundays while (b) justifying their enslavement of human beings created in God’s image, they developed some deep-seated hatred for those they oppressed. This came out in full force after the slaves were freed. There was this inability to “let it go” and let the black Americans be Americans too.

This phenomenon isn’t just seen with slave-masters and their slaves, of course. I suppose we’ve all seen it in some aspect of our lives. A person comes into power (whether good or bad), misuses that power for their own aggrandizement, and then has no idea how to behave when the formerly subjugated people walk free. We are human after all.

There were quite a few former Soviet states to go free. And while Russian clearly wants to exert influence over all of them, it just seems that they are the most put-off by the notion of not having Ukraine under thumb anymore. (“How dare those uppity Ukrainians thumb their noses at us!”)

Economic Alignment, Natural Gas, and Repercussions

The current dust-up has to do with Ukraine’s move toward Europe with a potential trade deal with the EU. Putin was not happy about this, so he pressed president Yanukovich to scuttle the EU  deal and sign a deal with Russia instead. Protests erupted from the pro-Europe citizenry (there are also quite a few pro-Russian citizenry) and mayhem followed. Snipers shot rioters, rioters executed policemen – it was ugly.

Eventually the protestors took over the parliament building as Yanukovich fled. With the proverbial gun to the head, parliament impeached Yanukovich and set up a new leader. For the record, this doesn’t count. There’s a reason you cannot “confess” to a crime while being tortured. If Putin protests that the current Ukraine government is illegitimate, then he has a leg to stand on. (He still broke the 1994 deal though.)

Shortly thereafter, the largely pro-Russian Crimea stormed its own regional parliament building, ousting the leader, and instantiating a new leader under much the same circumstances as Ukraine proper. The new leader called for Russia to come restore order. This too is an illegitimate move by an illegitimate leader.

As it stands now, Russia is occupying Crimea and has scheduled a vote for 16 March on succession from Ukraine to join Russia. Budapest echoes in the background.

Turning the Tide

The U.S. political theater has been in high gear since the Ukraine crisis started. The old Cold Warriors are demanding that we “take action” – while at least acknowledging that we cannot take military action against Russia. Regardless, they have found plenty to beat up on president Obama about.

No military action? No worries – we’ll just call for economic sanctions. Easy for us to say. The tit-for-tat response from Russia will fall hard on the Europeans, not us. We won’t see our natural gas prices rise one bit, while Europe could be cut off (good thing spring is coming).

We also hear calls for ramping up our Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) technology and shipping gas to Europe. I fully support such a move, as it would be an economic windfall for America and possibly bring more freedom to folks in Ukraine. Even still, the LNG shipments won’t get going for years now; hardly sufficient to help in the current crisis.

I actually think there is a simpler solution – King Dollar.

Marc Faber noted years ago that central bankers can only control the amount of liquidity in the market, they cannot control where it goes. Over the past few years the central banks, led by the Fed, have printed money like crazy. Much of this has flowed into “emerging markets” like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey … and even Russia. As the Fed started talking about “tapering” its massive bond purchasing program, the flow of capital started to reverse, fleeing those emerging markets and coming back to America.

Since the start of the year the Russian Ruble has fallen about 15% versus the dollar. In the day after the Russians first invaded Crimea, the Ruble collapsed and the Russian central bank was forced to intervene, raising rates and selling dollars to try and stabilize the currency. This corresponds to the one time in the crisis when Putin actually started to pull back from his aggression. I suggest that this holds the key.

What to throw out the Russians from Crimea? Janet Yellen should hold a press conference today indicating that the Fed will suspend the bond buying program and raise short term interest rates to 0.5%. The following dollar shock would send capital screaming out of Russia and their currency and banking sector would collapse. Forget about Putin getting out of Crimea – at that point he’d be fighting for his own political life at home.

It won’t happen, of course. A surge in the value of the dollar would place far too much strain on the wealthy banking sector that thrives on transfer of money from poor to rich that is facilitated by a steadily weakening dollar. That, and the U.S. housing market would get clobbered by the sudden increase of interest rates.

Still, I say “no guts no glory” – we hold all the leverage we need to push Putin to the brink and beyond. We simply have to endure a little pain ourselves. (Of course, when I say “we” I don’t really mean the common man – he’d be happy to have his paycheck go farther at the grocery store.)

Getting Close to Go Time

The Time is getting short in Ukraine. From the beginning this crisis has seemed to be more than a game of brinksmanship. Crimea is set to vote for succession in four days, and Putin can hardly climb down from that post while still saving face. Succession may well spark a revolt in Ukraine, either invading Crimea (and getting whacked by Russian forces there) or blowing up Russian pipelines that pass through Ukraine (and risking full-on invasion from Russia).

One hopes that cooler heads will prevail. One hopes that political leaders across the world are better at realpolitik that we simple bloggers, and that we can find a way to avoid a hot war. One hopes that the people of Ukraine could find peace, neither oppressed by the Russians nor their own political leaders. One hopes many things …

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Obama Stumps against Unions and the Minimum Wage … OK, Not Really

“for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” – Matt 12:37

President Obama has been out and about pressing the common liberal message of “equal work means equal pay.” (Most  notably in the state of the union speech, but also in press events since then.) We’ve touched on the subject before. Liberals don’t mean what they say with this catchy slogan.

Mathematically, the notion that “equal work means equal pay” simply means that “work” is  the only factor that can be considered in remuneration. And, of course, by “work” we don’t mean the physical definition of “force times displacement” – rather we mean something like productivity. Thus, equal productivity for equal pay means only that productivity is the only factor that can be considered in remuneration.

If you use a person’s gender in determining pay, then you have violated the construct. Of course, if you use something like “years of service” in determining pay, you have also violated the construct. Can we assume then that the president has come out in opposition to standard union practice of pay-scale that is based on tenure, not on productivity? One suspects he would balk at this notion. By your own words you will be justified …

Beyond this, the notion of equal work means equal pay logically implies that pay should be proportional to productivity. If you build twice as many widgets as I do in the course of a day, then you ought to expect to be paid twice as much. But, if this holds, then we must conclude that the president is also opposed to the minimum wage. After all, the minimum wage demands that a person be paid a certain amount irrespective of productivity. Of course, it is possible that the president would protest, demanding that he also supports the notion of a minimum required productivity before one can be employed. I’m not saying he has said this, or that it makes any logical sense at all – I’m simply offering the president every plausible defense of his illogical positions.

In the end, I very much support “equal pay for equal work” and I also support “payment proportional to productivity” (and I am more than willing to allow payment based on expected future productivity). But this is a notion despised by liberals and progressives; the notion that people are paid in proportion to what they produce, and only what they produce – not based on race, gender, or years of service. Furthermore, a strict proportionality between pay and productivity (or expected aggregate productivity) leads us to a difficult question (for liberals at least): who gets to determine the value of your productivity?

Who gets to determine whether the seven widgets you produced today are worth an equal amount to twelve bookcases produced by another person? Is there a table somewhere? Is there a universal constant relationship between widgets and bookcases? Between cars and houses? Between algorithms and book chapters?

I offer that the best solution is to let every man decide for himself. Let every man (or woman) decide if he would like to buy or sell widgets at $22 a piece, or $23. Let every man decide if he is willing to make a bookcase in exchange for $15 or $16. Let every man decide if he is willing to exchange the week of his life it took to write a chapter in a book for the week of another man’s life that it took to build a shed.

Equal work means equal pay, and the value of work is determined by each man. Ah yes, this means only one thing: the free market. Perhaps the president is coming around to the cause of freedom. Or, perhaps, he’s just using a catchy slogan.

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