Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Supreme Court Myth

The idea is being put forward by both major parties that the future of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance because of Supreme Court nominations that will be made during the next 4-8 years.  People are urged to vote for a candidate that they might otherwise abhor, so that their side can prevail in Roe v. Wade.  Is that true? Can we solve this just by supporting the right party?

The best case study for this idea is the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey.

At the time of the decision, Republicans had been in control of the White House for 12 years. Because President Carter made no nominations to the Supreme Court, Republicans had nominated every Justice appointed since 1969.  Eight of the nine sitting Justices were appointed by Republicans.  Only Justice White, appointed by President Kennedy, was the nominee of a Democrat. This was the perfect opportunity for Republican nominees to overturn Roe v. Wade. They had an 8-1 majority over Democrat nominees.

The Justices were:

Blackmun (Nixon)
Stevens (Ford)

Souter (Bush)
O'Connor (Reagan)
Kennedy (Reagan)

Rheinquist (Reagan)
Scalia (Bush)
White (JFK)
Thomas (Bush)

The first five, all appointed by Republican Presidents, upheld Roe v. Wade. Six of the nine Justices were Reagan-Bush era nominees, and they best they could do was an even split among the six.

The last four expressed their dissent against Roe. v Wade.  The only Justice appointed by a Democrat voted pro-life.  Five Republican nominees, with no Democrat nominee among them, upheld Roe. v. Wade.

The evil of abortion will not be struck down by Presidential appointments. The people of America have to repent of the blood on our hands. We have to adopt an ethic that does not just value the lives of the unborn, but all lives -poor, old, criminal, Muslim, soldier, black -and we are not ready to do that.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Between Two Fires

Sometimes we have to make hard choices in life, and often we seem to have to choose between two bad options.  In the US, people say that we are “between a rock and a hard place.”  Here in the region of Tyre, we say that we are “between two fires.” Which one is it better to be burned by?  That’s a great analogy for tough choices.

As Christians, how do we apply a Biblical morality to making those hard choices? This is especially important when other people will also be burned by the fire we choose.

Jesus gave us some important teachings to guide us through times like these.  He was often tested by being given two bad choices.  People wanted to know which bad choice he would prefer.  In these cases he never allowed himself to be blinded by the illusion that there are only two choices.

Here’s one of the best examples of Jesus making an ethical choice when offered two unethical options:

John 8:Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. 
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?"
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 
They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. 
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Notice that the Pharisees brought “a woman” who had been caught “in the act” of adultery. Could they not catch the man?  They then lied and told Jesus that the law of Moses says “to stone her.”  It says, actually, to stone them both.  But conveniently, they only caught the woman.  Was the man one of them?

For the Pharisees, this was never about justice.  They would have brought the man along, too, if they were interested in justice.  This was about forcing Jesus to make one of two bad choices.  These were political choices, to be clear.  He could ally himself with the Pharisees by sanctioning her stoning.  This would anger the Romans, of course, who did not allow upstart locals to administer executions.  Jesus could have allied himself against the Pharisees by repudiating stoning.  He would have been portrayed as an ally of the Hellenistic, liberal left who sold out to the Romans.

Jesus was trapped between two fires.  Neither choice was just or good.  

So Jesus chose goodness and justice.  Was his choice likely to challenge either of the two predominant political parties?  No.  The Romans remained in charge of the government, and the Pharisees remained in control of religious life.  Yet Jesus remained in possession of his own personal moral and ethical values.  He chose neither fire. They both conspired later to burn him together, but he never sold out his moral and ethical beliefs to the lesser of two fires.

If you are sure that your choice of evils is the right thing to do, consider these words of Jesus:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

There’s only a small space between those two fires.  Most people won’t find it.  They’ll follow the wide and easy path laid out for them.  They’ll tell you that any path off the wide path is the wrong direction. They’ll tell you that not choosing the first fire is the same as choosing the second one.  Don’t listen to them, listen to Jesus. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Patriotism: Symbolism vs. Substance

The recent row in professional football about saluting during the national anthem or kneeling in protest has sparked a national debate about what it means to be patriotic.  What does it mean to be a patriotic, loyal, freedom-loving American?

I submit that we are talking about the wrong things.  Our national debate is focused on a symbol.  We are ignoring substance. The slogans and memes abound, and for the most part they are meaningless.

Except for this meme, which is meaningful.

When we say "Blue Lives Matter" and "We support our law enforcement officers" is that really true?  Does saying those words constitute support, or is it just an effortless way to signal our empty patriotism to everyone around?

If you want to support police officers, how about buying a life-saving first aid kit for each officer?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to save that officer's life.  When an officer is bleeding from a beating, stab, or bullet wound, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not stop the flow of blood.

Thanks for the thousands of likes,
that made it all better.

If you want to support homeless veterans, how about picking up a hammer and building a home for a needy veteran?  Nothing says "thank you for your service" like doing something to give that veteran a home.  When that paralyzed veteran can't run his wheelchair down the stairs, ten thousand "likes" on facebook will not get him to the bathroom.

On a national level, "supporting the troops" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore.  It should mean funding the VA well enough that they can all access the health care and benefits they are due.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will fund the VA.  It should mean decent pay for our troops.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises.  It should mean being extremely reluctant to send our troops on missions where they will be wounded and killed.  That means we agree to pay less taxes for wars, and vote for people who will make fewer wars.

What could explain the recent upsurge in concern
for the plight of homeless veterans?

On a national level, "supporting our law enforcement" should mean a lot of things that we often ignore. It should mean decent pay for our officers.  That means we agree to pay more taxes for that, and vote for people who will give the raises. It should mean funding academy training to provide more than a meager 8 hours of conflict resolution training, compared to the more than 100 hours of combat training. It should mean body cams for all officers, because in most cases body cams provide evidence that protects officers from wrongful accusation. It means we agree to pay more taxes for those ideas, and to vote for people who will enact them.

When people wave the flag, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be attention-starved.  When people salute for the anthem, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be jingoistic.  When people recite the pledge, don't assume they are patriotic.  They might just be conformists.

Which of these men is a patriot?
Hint: Not the one with the flag.

People are patriots when they are doing something to make the United States of America a better place for all Americans.  They are patriots when they serve, work, and sacrifice for their fellow countrymen. They are patriots when they show the best of America to the world, both in affirmation and constructive protest.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

A War to Define Islam

Islam encompasses a wide range of beliefs about how one should live and interact with the world.  It is a mistake to think that one can simply declare what Islam teaches, or what Muslims believe.  An examination of the whole spectrum of belief of those who call themselves “Muslim’ is beyond the scope of an article, or perhaps even a single book.  This article will briefly outline three major belief systems within Islam that are very relevant to the conflicts in the Middle East that are impacting the world today.

Shia Procession in Tyre

About 10-15% of Muslims worldwide identify as Shia.  They are located primarily in the region between Iran and Lebanon.  The center of Shia power is Iran, but they also are the largest religious group in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan, and close to half the population of Yemen. They have centralized structures of religious authority, and their own school (Jafari) of Islamic law. The original divide between the Shia and the Sunni majority was political, but 1300 years of division have led to some significant theological differences and religious practices. 

While extremism is not unknown among the Shia, they are not influenced by the current wave of Wahabi extremism plaguing the Muslim world. They are doing more than perhaps any other group to combat the Islamic State, since that group has declared them all apostates. My own experience living among the Shia of southern Lebanon has been very positive; they are generally a kind, tolerant, and gracious people.

Sunni Civil Observance in Sidon

About 85% of Muslims identify as Sunni, and can be found around the globe. The foremost institution of Sunni theology is Al-Azhar University in Egypt, but there is no central authority to give rulings on Islamic Law for Sunnis.  Religious rulings have no more authority than the reputation of the scholar or institution making the ruling. In some nations, there are legal codes which officially adopt or reject religious rulings and a council normally determines those codes. There are four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi, Malaki) which have their own interpretations of Islamic Law and tend to be prevalent in a different region. They differ on what rules or precedents are used to determine law.

Of particular interest is the Hanbali school, which is prevalent in the Gulf region.  This school tends to rely more on textual sources from the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, the life example of Mohammad, and well-published scholars.  Because of their reliance on fixed, immutable texts this school is the least flexible in adapting Islamic law to the modern world.  This is why Saudi Arabia still chops off heads and publicly flogs women.  It is why women cannot drive cars, or travel with permission of a male authority. My personal experience living among the Sunni of Lebanon has also been largely positive.  They are generally kind, but less tolerant than the Shia.

Who gets to define Islam?

From the Hanbali school is derived a sub-school of Islamic jurisprudence known as Wahabism.  It is historically confined to the Arabian Peninsula, but enjoys the support of perhaps 20% of the population. It is the product of an 18th century Hanbali scholar named Mohammad Abdul-Wahab. He decried the moderation of Islam found in the four prevalent Sunni schools of Islamic law, and called for a return to the early forms of Islamic thought as found in the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, and life example of Mohammad. Abdul-Wahab also argued that the early rulers of the Muslim people who had been Companions of Mohammad were also good exemplars of Muslim faith.  He formed an alliance with the house of Saud, a powerful Arabian clan, and together they conquered much of the Arabian peninsula (from the Ottomans) and established an Islamic State.  Ideologically it was much like the one being formed today in Syria and Iraq.  The Turks eventually sent Egyptian troops to crush the alliance and reclaim their lands for the Ottoman Empire.

The ideological foundations of Wahabism lay dormant in the deserts of Arabia for many decades.  In the period following World War I the discovery of oil and the colonial aspirations of Europe brought new power to the house of Saud.  As they amassed vast fortunes, the Saudi princes spent billions building Mosques around the Muslim world, and eventually in the West, where they installed Wahabi preachers to spread their belief system far and wide. It was also a convenient way to export troublesome preachers who showed increasing skepticism of the western-influenced Saudi billionaires.

It is this belief system which gave rise ideologically to Al-Qaeida, and eventually to the Islamic State.  Both groups see themselves as heirs of the banner of Mohammad, but a banner bereft of the centuries of moderation and theological scholarship.  Their Mohammad is the original tribal warlord, a conqueror unashamed to wade in the blood of his enemies.  In their online magazine “Dabiq,” the Islamic State carefully lays out a scholarly basis for their teachings and beliefs as being “authentic” Islam. 

Their Mohammad and their Islam is different than that which is taught and preached by the five schools of modern jurisprudence. The differences are so great, in fact, that the Islamic State has declared that all Muslims who do not follow their teachings and pledge allegiance to them are apostate. By declaring all other Muslims apostate (takfir), the Islamic State can then justify killing them in a war to purge Islam of the impure teachings of the modern schools.

A war that may redefine Islam

These three groups are locked in a violent regional war which is raging from Yemen to Lebanon, and spilling over into the rest of the Muslim world, and even into the West.  The Sunni-Shia divide is an ancient one, and unlikely to be settled any time soon.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for regional dominance, and using that divide as part of their struggle. The Islamic State is fighting both sides as they work to purify Islam and bring about the apocalypse which will usher in world-wide Islamic rule.

Only Sunni Muslims can eradicate the Wahabi extremism that spawned the Islamic State and is infecting Islam around the world. This is something that the US cannot change. It cannot be bombed out of existence. It must be preached out of existence, and the institutions that produce extremist preachers must be brought down. The alternative to this stifling level of control is to offer complete freedom of religion, but that concept is not to be found in any of the five modern schools of Islamic law.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why You Don't Get to Blame the Police.

It’s time to stop blaming the police for a problem that is not their fault.  It's time for the people to own the problem.

Is the problem of police involved shootings of black men real?  Yes.  Unarmed black men are killed in police involved shootings at a much higher rate than other groups.  Who is to blame for this?

We can’t blame unarmed black men for being shot. That’s the moral equivalent of blaming women for being raped.  Even if an unarmed man is not fully cooperative with the police (which he should do) that does not call for the death penalty.

If the unarmed black men are not to blame, should we blame the police?  This may come as a shock to some people, but there’s not an annual national meeting of police officers to decide how many black men they will shoot in the upcoming year. There are plenty of communities around our nation where this is not a problem.  In many cities, police are protecting and affirming the rights of Black Lives Matter and other protest groups.  In many cities the protest groups are showing respect for the police.  

In many cases, we force police officers to choose from several bad options, and then condemn them for choosing a bad option.

Let’s put the blame where it belongs -voters.  Us.  We elect the politicians who set up our city law enforcement structures and appoint leaders who determine the tone and conduct of those police.  Ferguson, Missouri is an example of this problem.  A Department of Justice investigation revealed that Ferguson generated about 20% of city revenues through a Byzantine system of traffic fines, court fees, and charges in a system rigged to prey upon the poor. In Ferguson that mostly means blacks.  At the same time Ferguson voters enjoyed some of the lowest property tax rates in the St Louis County area.  Now that the fines and fees scheme has been exposed, voters are facing unpopular tax increase proposals.

Voters ultimately determine the practices and policies of law enforcement in their cities.  There is not a better example of this than Bull Connor, the infamous former Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. This bigot led Birmingham police in some of the most brutal and repressive violations of human rights in the modern era of American law enforcement.  Beatings, shootings, and torture were all carried out in the name of preserving segregation.  Bull Connor ordered fire hoses to be used on black children.  He ordered attack dogs to be unleashed on black children.  Yet Bull Connor remained in his office, and directed Birmingham law enforcement, because voters loved his policies.  Deep down in their racist hearts, they wanted him to hurt those children, to do whatever it took to keep Birmingham “safe.”

Stop blaming the police, voters. Stop pretending that they are somehow doing this apart from the public will.  If your city is killing black men, then your city is the problem.  The problem is not police. The problem was Selma.  The problem was Birmingham.  The problem today is Baton Rogue.  The problem is Ferguson -a city that is 2/3 black but with a majority white mayor/council government paying the city expenses on the backs of poor blacks.

Vote for leaders who will respect the roles of law enforcement officers and stop using them as a source of revenue generation.  Elect people who will establish realistic guidelines for their police officers to engage the public in ways that de-escalate confrontational situations.  Start addressing the problem in your home town.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Heretics Hall of Shame III

It has been a while since I have inducted anyone into the "Heretics Hall of Shame."  It's not for lack of (un)worthy candidates (Creflo Dollar) but a lack of the required combination of sufficient moral outrage and sufficient time.  When it comes to calling for murder in the name of Jesus, though, that definitely gets an induction.

Joshua Feuerstein is a shameless heretic. The linked video provides the proof.

Do not follow this heretic and drink in his lies.

It was about people like you that Jesus said:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

You are a terrorist, and there is nothing of Jesus in your teaching.

Ted Sessoms, Heretic

"At the risk of being an outcast or considered a narrow-minded bigot,
Well, Ted, when you say stuff like "Perhaps our leaders should study the Old Testament when God gave specific instructions to destroy these people (even their women, children and animals)" that's not really a risk.  That's a guarantee that people will think you're a narrow-minded bigot.  It's not because they are uninformed about the Old Testament, it's because you are a narrow-minded bigot.

It is not a matter of loving your neighbor. My neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.

Ted, that's a much different answer than Jesus gave to the question "Who is my neighbor?"  You remember Jesus, right?  Wore sandals, died on the cross? 

"We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make good decisions for their future in America.

No, you owe it to your children and grandchildren to get your head out of politics.  You owe it to them to quit looking for Old Testament instructions to Israel to justify your fear and bigotry.  You owe it to them to teach and model obedience to Jesus Christ.  Anything less makes you what you are, a false teacher.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The truth will set you free

Truer words were never spoken than when Jesus said "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." It is important for everyone to guard the truth. As a follower of Jesus, I believe it is crucial for his followers to go the extra mile in operating in the truth.

Facebook is wasteland of lies. Somewhere out there in that wasteland is a sinister lie machine, turning out vast quantities of false memes. Why do so many of them get posted on Facebook? Intellectual laziness, partly, but also because most people don't think they need to verify the truth of something if they already think it is true.

There is no truth here, just a wasteland of lies.

We naturally believe things that agree with our views. We look for things to confirm what we believe. Confirmation bias is at the root of how Facebook works. It is designed to show you more of what you want to read.  Just as in the final days preachers will tell people "what their itching ears want to hear" now Facebook shows us what our itching eyes want to see.

So in the wasteland of lies, how do you know whether to post that awesome-looking meme?  You could do what most people do and post it without caring about the truth, or you could verify it.

Here are two good and easy methods:

1-Google Reverse Image Search.  Instead of searching for an image, you search with an image.  Click on the photo and select "search google for this image. You can see for yourself where it came from. This might require sorting through a lot of links and re-posts.

2-Consult a fact checker. and are both widely used and reputable sites. If you don't like one, then use the other.

You could also simply pull a keyword or two out and research it.

The Apostle Paul praised the Bereans because they did not just take him at his word.  They tested his words against the scriptures to see if they were true. 

Truth matters. The truth will set you free.

Below is a graveyard of false memes drawn from the wasteland of lies, along with a simple way of disproving them.

Google his name, he has a Wiki.
Nidal Hassan is actually a natural-born US citizen born in Arlington, Virginia.  This one takes ten seconds.  He is infamous, and has a Wiki.  Google his name and read the Wiki.

Google Reverse Image Search
This one has no key words, and no famous people in it.  While it might otherwise be impossible to bust this lie, Google Reverse Image Search makes this one a snap.  Liars usually steal their photos, it turns out. In this case these photos were taken years ago in Australia.

Keywords for a fact checker
This false meme has enough key words in it for an easy search on a fact checker. A quick search on with the keywords "ISIS flag Germany" reveals that the photo is from 2012, before there was an ISIS.  Black flags are common in the Muslim world, and have different messages written on them.