All posts by Ross Hickling

*************OMG!**************

Having only participated in social media since I retired from law enforcement almost four years ago, it took me a while to figure out what all of the commonly used acronyms were for SM. I quickly learned that there were one or two of them that I would not use no matter how popular they were. Some of the ones that I became familiar with were TTYL (Talk To You Later), SMH (Smack My Head), IDK (I Don’t Know), and ROFL (Rolling On Floor Laughing). Every community will have its well-used acronyms of choice that are part of the corporate culture. In the early days of my law enforcement career, there was a strange name that I kept reading in reports even though I didn’t at first realize it  was not a name at all (it ended up being a law enforcement acronym). I finally worked up the courage one day to ask my older partner who this ‘Fnu Lnu’ guy was. He laughed, gave me that ‘you are kidding me’ look, and told me that it was an acronym for a person whose name was unknown (First Name Unknown- Last Name Unknown). Before receiving this embarrassing revelation, I thought perhaps it was some sort of notorious repeat offender criminal- lol (another social media acronym). There was one acronym that I often ran across that seemed pretty innocuous even though I decided not to use it. Most people who are on social media are familiar with “OMG” (Oh My God or Oh My Gosh) as it is used often to register surprise in response to something that has happened or in response to something noteworthy typed by someone else.   I have always tried to be careful with using the Lord’s name in vain but as the acronym can also stand for ‘Oh My Gosh,’ then it seems to make the acronym more harmless.

However, there are circumstances when it is wholly appropriate to utter this phrase. For instance, if you hear of a loved one dying suddenly, using the phrase “Oh My God” would be wholly appropriate and not an example of using the Lord’s name in vain as you are truly addressing God with the reception of the bad news. Learning of a natural disaster where there is a massive loss of life would be another proper use of the phrase ‘Oh my God’ as one’s thoughts are turned towards the victims of a surprising and unforeseen cataclysm. It can be a short prayer of sorts being uttered on behalf of those who are in the midst of harrowing circumstances.

Recently, a group that I have had the pleasure of sharing with was going over the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament. After spending a number of meetings going over the different forms of evidence that support the authenticity of the New Testament, to include the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the block of lessons finally ended. As I was reflecting back over this strong evidence that supports the New Testament, it hit me anew that if this collection of books and letters is really true, then there are radical consequences for us today as individuals and also as a culture. These radical consequences were realized by one of Jesus’s disciples. Thomas, one of the first skeptics to the report that Jesus had arisen, was convinced of the reality of the risen Jesus after he looked the post-resurrection Jesus in the eye, heard him speak, observed and maybe even felt the spear wound that had been inflicted on Jesus. In response to this most surprising encounter with the risen Jesus, Thomas quickly proclaimed ‘My Lord and my God’ as Thomas began to realize the implications of what he just experienced. Yes, in essence, Thomas was saying “OMG!” The life of Thomas was inalterably changed, he went to India as a witness to this risen Jesus Christ, and was eventually martyred as evidenced by what Christian tradition tells us about the end of his life. Indian Christian tradition tells us that Thomas went to India proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and eventually died as a result of this declaration.[1]

photo by Westsara 11 May 2015

Although today we cannot see the physical body of Jesus Christ today as Thomas did, we still can proclaim “OMG!” after realizing the implications that come from the fact that Jesus Christ actually arose from the dead. When we read his words in the Gospel accounts and in Acts, we are reading the very words of the risen Jesus Christ. When heeded, these words have transformed the lives of individuals and cultures. Not only do we have evidence that tells us that we are reading the very words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel accounts, but we also have the words themselves that are like no other words that have ever been spoken/written. Even though his recorded spoken words were only few in number, they are like a high candlepower spotlight that rids every shadow from its beam. These words were not only a radical departure from the prevailing pagan culture of his time, but these illuminative words still probe the souls of all men and women today. Surely these radically potent words that have transformed countless lives have to be the words of God. Even though I was not with Thomas when he made his well-known proclamation of belief, I look at the words of Jesus that we have today and say “OMG!,” these have to be the words of God.

Within our cultural milieu, there are telltale signs of a society that is in crisis. STDs are alarmingly on the rise and numbing ourselves with drugs is now more than ever an acceptable form of recreation. Emergency rooms are filling up with those who are overdosing on opioids and also addicts seeking out painkillers. Our youngest generation is awash in pornography crippling their ability to experience healthy intimacy and warping their view of the opposite sex. I look at our crumbling society and pray “OMG, we need you more than ever, please help us.”

Yet if we would pay attention to these precious few words that Jesus Christ spoke, we could transform individual lives and culture today. The irony is the way of the cross, with its emphasis on God and others, brings ultimate contentment and fulfillment in every aspect of life. Jesus Christ said that he came that we all might have life to the full. He also tells us to take up our crosses daily. How can I have a life characterized by contentment if I am not concentrating on satiating my own desires? Again, herein lies the irony that confronts those absorbed by the prurient influences of modern life in the U.S. and the West. In that they never consider the way of the cross, many will never realize a holistic contentment that emanates from a life unconcerned with the garnering of more things and sensual experiences. In the next several blog posts, let’s look at some of these profound words that still reverberate like an aftershock of an earthquake from a time period far removed; words from God to all of us. In my estimation, they have to be God’s words to all of us.

[1] McDowell, S.J. 2014. A historical evaluation of the evidence for the death of the apostles as martyrs for their faith. Louisville: SBTS. (Dissertation-PhD) pp. 268-269.

Photo by Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada

 

Sanders Comments: A Christian “Straw Man” Erected and Attacked

Bernie Sanders Public Domain

On June 7th, Bernie Sanders castigated a Trump nominee, Russell Vought, for a blog post that Vought wrote when a controversy erupted in 2016 at his alma mater, Wheaton College, a conservative Christian college. Vought had written to support the decision of the college to terminate one of its professors who was expressing that the “gods” of the Muslim faith and the Christian faith were one and the same. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, was terminated because of her divergence from the doctrinal position of this private, Christian college that supports “Christian exceptionalism” or the notion that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in relationship with God. Did Sanders’s comments accurately portray the disposition of Christians towards those who reject Jesus Christ? In this blog post, I am not writing to “slime” Sanders or to vindicate Vought for his words he typed on a blog page in 2016. Rather, I see in Sanders words, a recent media/cultural trend to misrepresent the position of Christianity on any number of issues (also known as a “straw man” fallacy). After investigating Vought’s post, Sanders comments, and relevant Biblical texts, I have come to the conclusion that Sanders does misrepresent the disposition of Christians towards those of other faiths as Christians themselves do not condemn Muslims or any other religious group. In his remarks, Sanders has erected a “straw man” and then attacked it.

In order to build a foundation for my thesis, I looked up Russell Vought’s original post. As mentioned above Vought is an alumnus of Wheaton College and posted in support of the college after Hawkins expressed a heterodox position on the unity of the Muslim and Christian gods all the while insulting the college administration. In his comments, Vought makes a good case for defending the orthodox Christian statement of faith of Wheaton College. It is cogent, well reasoned and is based upon the words of Jesus in the New Testament that testify that he is the only access point to God (John 14:6). Vought believes the words of Jesus Christ are true and so holds to “Christian exceptionalism.” Even though not a theologian, Vought, a conservative voice in the GOP, ably explained the New Testament position of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and that those who reject Jesus Christ “stand condemned.” Vought was relying on John 3:18 when using this phrase. He also explained why Hawkins’s position undermined and presented a serious challenge to proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation through the name of Jesus Christ. A link leading to Vought’s original post is included below):

Wheaton College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity

In Vought’s June 7 confirmation hearing, Sanders attacked Vought for writing that Muslims are condemned already before God. During the back and forth of the dialogue between Vought and Sanders, Sanders asks if the aforementioned view that Muslims “stand condemned” is “Islamaphobic.” After Vought denies Sanders’s accusation, Sanders went to the core of his animus towards Vought. Sanders mentioned that there are several million people who are Muslim Americans and that Vought’s condemnation of those Americans who are not Christians is disrespectful. Sanders ends his comments by, in essence, saying that Vought should be disqualified from government service because of his Christian belief that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ which puts him into conflict with those of other religions.

Parable of the Tares-Jan Luyken- Free Art License

A brief examination of Scripture is needed to see if Sanders is in fact correct about his view that Christians condemn people of other faiths. This seems to be Sanders real beef with Vought; he believes that Vought condemns Muslims. But does the Bible ever describe Christians as standing in judgment over non-Christians? In traditional Christian doctrine, who is the one who judges all people, to include all people who call themselves Christians? The New Testament affirms that Jesus Christ is the one who either will accept or reject all persons regardless of labels. Jesus Christ states that no one else comes to God the Father except through him (John 14:6). He gives this answer in response to a question from Thomas about how the disciples can follow after Him to heaven when Jesus leaves the earth.   In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also tells the parable of the wheat and the tares (13:24-30). After telling this parable, he explains that he is the one who separates the wheat from the weeds. Furthermore, he passes judgment on those who are worthy of punishment and also on those who are righteous (13:36-43). Later on in Matthew, Jesus teaches that He is the one who separates the sheep from the goats (25:31-46). In this passage, Jesus is the one who determines who is rejected and who is accepted by God. In John’s Gospel (10:9), Jesus speaks of himself as the gate to the sheepfold (heaven) and that he is the one who allows entry into it. So, Jesus states again and again that he alone is the one who condemns those who are unjust and approves those who are righteous. Moreover, in John’s apocalypse, he shares that Jesus alone is the one who grants entry into the “New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:27).

The Good Shepherd- No Restrictions

After a brief survey of the New Testament, it is observed that Jesus Christ alone is the one who selects those who are deserving of eternal punishment and also eternal reward. As God incarnate, Jesus is the only one who grants access to God the Father and also access to heaven. There is no mention in the New Testament of a follower of Jesus Christ being qualified to render eternal judgment/condemnation on any other person. So, when Vought speaks of Muslims as “standing condemned,” it is Jesus alone who renders this judgment, not Vought or any other Christian. Moreover, Paul explicitly instructs all to be wary of judging another person and that the office of Eternal Judge is reserved for God alone (Romans 2:1-10).

Balthasar van Cortbemde The Good Samaritan Public Domain

If the New Testament teaches that Jesus alone is the sole arbiter of eternal perdition/reward, then what does the New Testament teach about how a Christian should treat others who are not Christians? In short, the answer is “with love.” Jesus mentions that all should love their neighbor as themselves (Luke 10:27b). When being queried about who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan as an answer to this question (Luke 10). In giving this parable as a response, Jesus further teaches that the Samaritan is one who has been a good neighbor rendering aid to one who is suffering. The Samaritan’s love practically expressed to aid someone in distress from another faith tradition is instructive about how Christians (or for that matter anyone) should treat others different than themselves. In addition to Jesus’s words on loving your neighbor as yourself, Jesus makes another emphatic statement that this love extends to enemies as well. If someone is your foe, then you should love this person all the more than someone who is your friend (Matthew 5:44, 46). In addition to Jesus words, Paul also tells us the importance of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Without love, you might as well hang up any attempt at Christian piety (vv. 2-3).

As one who lived a perfect life, Jesus’s ministry was filled with an ethic of love that extended to others that were believed to be “less than.” Jesus made sure to visit and share with the Samaritans, a group believed by pious Jews to be “beneath them.” He also dined with tax collectors who were despised by segments of the Jewish population (Matt. 9:10-11). Along with these examples of reaching out to those of lower social status, Jesus also protected a woman who was caught in adultery that was facing sure death (John 8) and even forgave a man of his crimes/sins as he hung on the cross (Luke 23:43). Jesus Christ was continually serving humanity (showing love to others) while he ministered on earth. In his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ not only teaches us to love others, but also modeled a benevolent, selfless love.

Jacopo da Ponte – The Good Thief on the Cross, 16th Century- Public Domain

Hearkening back to Sanders’s disapproval of John 3:18 (standing condemned), I find it quite interesting that just two verses before this passage is the best known of all Bible verses that clearly proclaims the disposition of Jesus towards “the world.” God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to it that all may attain eternal life through relationship with him (v. 16). Moreover, 3:17 states that Jesus was sent not for the purpose of condemning anyone but rather to enable all to attain eternal life. It is only because of their rejection of God’s provision of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ that any are condemned (v. 18) and as stated before, only Jesus Christ is the one who pronounces judgment on any person.

After briefly examining New Testament Scripture relating to who renders final judgment upon humans and what the teaching of the New Testament is about the disposition of Christians towards all persons, it is clear that Sanders is in error when he insinuated that Vought, a Christian, condemned Muslims himself. After reading Vought’s words, it is obvious that Vought was merely referring to a New Testament passage (John 3:18) that spoke of condemnation from God for those who reject Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the clear message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ/God is the only one who judges every person regardless of his or her label. In regards to an individual Christian, the prime responsibility of any Christian towards any other person is to love them and not condemn them. Furthermore, rendering judgment against another person is expressly prohibited in the New Testament (Rom. 2).

In addition to the error found in Sanders’s denunciation of Vought, there is one more aspect of Sanders comments that are troubling to me. It is the fact that Sanders seems to miss the anti-Christian bigotry of his words. Even as Sanders unjustly accuses Vought of condemning Muslims, Sanders doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that he has not only unfairly accused Vought, but he also indirectly casts an aspersion on all Christians who believe that the New Testament is the inspired word of God. He condemns all Christians for believing that Jesus Christ alone is God Incarnate. Just because Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God exclusively, with no other rival god, does not mean that Christians will unfairly treat any other person because of their religious affiliation. So, Sanders, in effect does what he criticizes Vought for. He condemns a people group for their beliefs.

In conclusion, Sanders commits a logical fallacy (erecting a straw man) when criticizing Vought’s use of John 3:18. The only person who renders eternal judgment according to Christian doctrine is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the main disposition of a Christian (to include Vought) towards any other person regardless of their label or religious affiliation is simply to love them. This does not mean that a Christian accepts any beliefs or actions of persons opposed to the orthodox Christian perspective. Rather, in spite of the actions or beliefs that a person may hold in opposition to Christianity, Christians are charged to love others regardless of their label without accepting as legitimate any heterodox beliefs/actions.

Before launching an attack against any person, Sanders would be better served to conduct a more thorough investigation before condemning another person or group. If he were to do this, then maybe he would not rush so quickly to an unfair and harsh judgment. This sort of misrepresentation of Christian beliefs and anti-Christian bigotry is becoming more prevalent in the media today. Unfortunately, history tells us that if an untruth is repeated enough, then many will view repeated inaccuracies or misrepresentations as facts. However, I am still hopeful that in the future, instead of superficial research on important issues, politicians and journalists will conduct more thoughtful and thorough investigations instead of racing to get out a provocative sound bite or a fiery piece of rhetoric. We all owe each other the courtesy of giving any matter of import a complete go-over before making serious and public accusations.

Music: More Than Just a Pretty Tune

UNCG Ratio Christi club member Joshua Johnstone playing the piano at a RC club meeting in 2017

 

When we are relaxing or celebrating a special occasion, oftentimes, there is music playing in the background. We may play a tune we think is an oldie but goodie when at home to unwind from a hard day. At a wedding, we will hear romantic or personally meaningful songs that will evoke “that special feeling” in those who are attending. Couples listening may slow dance or just snuggle up close to each other. Often when making a long trip, many will have their favorite music blasting to whittle the time away. In the gym, most everyone has their earbuds in to “get motivated” so they can wring out that one extra rep. I remember in earlier days if I heard the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the group Survivor, I would suddenly have the urge to go push some iron or go for a run.

What is music anyways? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines music as:

a :  the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity

b :  vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony choral music piano music recorded music[1]

 It is interesting that this definition may give a short, technical explanation for what music is but what it means to us is a totally different matter. Oftentimes, we associate certain songs with something significant that happens in life such as when an important transition occurs. I remember the year I graduated from high school, the most popular song was Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” Not only does this song evoke happy memories, but it also reminds me of a significant transition in my life. In addition to bringing back the nostalgia of my youth, I have enjoyed playing and singing music as well. As I ponder the various aspects of music, it seems to me that music is much more than just a pretty tune.

When Paul Rupple attended his daughter’s piano concert, he commented about an accomplished pianist and his son who played a piano piece together:

As you can imagine, as I sat there, I could only wonder why, if we are the product of random processes and natural selection as many would have us to believe these days, would this music even exist, let alone move a person to emotion?  It really doesn’t make any sense at all as it does nothing to add to our survival as a species.  It doesn’t gather any more food for us (although we did have snacks afterward – but we, the parents even brought those), it doesn’t lead to an increase in the population, and the lessons actually cost money, as do the instruments on which the music is played.  It just seems nonsensical that people would create music that has order and does something to us that we identify as emotions, which themselves don’t make sense from an evolutionary viewpoint.[2]

Rupple observed in the expert playing something that could not have been the result of random occurrences. Playing intricate musical compositions do nothing to help a musician gain more from a Darwinian perspective.

Public Domain

In similarity to Rupple’s thoughts regarding the insufficiency of naturalistic processes alone, Boston College philosopher, Peter Kreeft, suggests a simple syllogism:

Premise: There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

Conclusion: Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.[3]

In this brief syllogism, Kreeft observes that appreciating the grandeur and beauty of a musical great’s compositions puts one into contact with God. The implication from Kreeft’s logic equation is that no random process can explain the genius and beauty of this noted composer’s work.

In addition to the perspectives of Rupple and Kreeft, Bernard Brandstater shares his perspective on music:

I am a believer out of necessity, compelled to bow before a Transcendent Being who is personal, who is intelligent beyond imagining and imponderably artistic and generous. In discussing beauty in today’s confrontation with entrenched naturalism, a bold creationist who upholds a designer/creator of beauty wins hands down. Though it is outside the laws of a naturalist worldview, his model works. The model reveals a designer, a God whom we can glimpse, though indistinctly, because the data we observe in nature require that He exist and that He be active in the cosmos. And His attributes come into clearest focus when we not only consider complexity, which is essential for life, but also see beauty, which is essential for spirit, as His gift to us. He is not only a designer and a fabricator, but also an artist who fashioned the physical vehicles that carry the colors of a rainbow and the sounds of great music.[4]

Photo of a painting of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (Public Domain).

As has been briefly demonstrated above, it is easy to note the rationale for God’s existence from experiencing the beauty of music. However, from my perspective as an investigator, I observe evidence for God’s existence in music as well. For example, we may think about the experience of driving a car and that a certain car handled well after we drove it.  However, we do not think about all that went into making the car.  Is it mere coincidence that we live on a planet that has all the materials that allow for a car to be made?  The metals are mined from the Earth, the glass is manufactured from sand, the rubber from rubber trees, the gas from oil deposits, the carpet from petroleum products, the paints from pigments in plants and other materials, gravity, etc. You get the idea.  It would be serendipitous to think that we have all of these materials and elements naturally occurring in the atmosphere/Earth that allow for a car to be made. Not only do we have the materials to make a car, we also have the intellectual ability to manufacture and operate automobiles as well.

In similarity to the above illustration of the car, it seems to me that I have taken a lot for granted when playing air guitar to my favorite rock classics. For instance, when these classic rock riffs were recorded, the guitar that was played was made out of wood and metal. Without these naturally occurring materials from the cosmos, we would not have the material to make the guitar and other instruments.  Moreover, without airwaves with which to carry vibrations, the eardrums to receive the vibrations, the aural nerves that carry the musical signal to the brain, and a brain that has been designed to receive and process the music, then music would not be appreciated as it has been for millennia. Of course, we cannot forget that musicians have bodies that allow them to play instruments.  They have lungs that they can fill up with air.  They also have mouths and noses with which they use  to push their breath through the instrument.  Moreover, musicians have hands and fingers with which to play instruments and also ears with which they use to tune their instruments. We cannot forget eyes with which they can use to craft instruments and write/read musical notes.

In addition to musical instruments, vocal music also has the same array of intricacies.  Vocal cords (or folds) make vibrations that travel through air from the lungs and are are pushed out of the nose and mouth of the vocalist by muscles in the diaphragm.    In addition to these vocal folds and supporting muscles, there are also resonance chambers that are a part of the sinus area of the face as well as the mouth itself. These chambers greatly enhance the vibrations made by the cords and aid in projecting the vibrations as they travel through the air from the nose and mouth of the vocalist en route to the ears of the listeners, etc. We also should not forget to mention the ability of numerous vocalists to be able to sing in harmony and in rhythm with each other.

In making my argument for the existence of a designer God by observing the various aspects of music, this case can be made by relying upon circumstantial evidence.  It is obvious that the human body has been designed to make musical instruments as well as instrumental and vocal music too.   We also must not lose sight that design is also apparent in our ability to appreciate/compose music with various specialized parts of the body ( ears, nerves, brains, and minds).

As noted above, there is ample evidence for design observed in the physical and mental processes that contribute to the successful making/performing of music.  All of these aspects considered together provide good circumstantial evidence to make an inference that there is a Divine designer who crafted the world and our bodies in such a way that music can be made and appreciated.  Moreover, it would be harder to explain the various aspects of music composition/appreciation randomly coming into being.   So perhaps the next time when I am “air guitar soloing” to my favorite Boston riff, I will remember that music is more than just a pretty tune.

Photo of Ross Hickling, U.S. Marshals Service, Retired

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/music

[2] Rupple, P. Evidence for the existence of God. Date of access 4 May 2017. http://veritasnetwork.blogspot.com/2009/03/evidence-for-existence-of-god-aesthetic.html

[3] Kreeft, P.J. & Tacelli, R.K. 2009. Twenty catholic capstones to Christian apologetics (In Handbook of Catholic apologetics. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, ch. 17).

[4] Brandstater, B. 2004. Intelligent design: The argument from beauty. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 15/1 (Spring 2004): 12-20.

The Shack: Bad Theology-Good Theodicy

The Shack Movie

Recently, I took in “The Shack” at a theater in my hometown of Kernersville with a group from church. It had been some years since I read the book (authored by William P. Young) after its controversial release. When reading the book back then, I noted that there was much to disagree with from a theological perspective regarding the composition of God. I also was concerned with the Universalist perspective that seemed to be nesting within Young’s text. However, I also found that there was truth in its pages regarding the benevolence of God when the characters in the cast (mainly Mac) encountered the existential problem of suffering and pain. After viewing the recent movie, I observe bad theology yet good theodicy.

In the seminary topic of theology proper, a student will study the doctrine of God. Who is he? What is he composed of (spirit or a body)? What about the Trinity? Is the Godhead composed of three parts or is it one Divine unity in three persons? What about the metaphysical composition of Jesus? Was he simply a great human prophet whose ministry God blessed or was he God himself? In treating these questions, conclusions should be drawn from what is observed in scripture about God. In arriving at who God is (understanding that we cannot have a complete understanding of this because of a limited human perspective), an orthodox Christian perspective (or that perspective which supports the traditional understanding of Christianity from its historic roots) is gleaned from the pages of the Bible itself.

From this jumping off point (an analysis of scripture), we can make observations about who God is (in a limited sense of course). In “The Shack,” the Godhead or Trinity is figured prominently. We observe that the three persons of the Trinity are presented in the movie as three different human beings. I will assume that the reader will know the general descriptions of the three people portrayed as the Trinity in the movie and also the general plot of the movie. As God the Father is portrayed as an African-American female, the main problem is that God, the Father, has a human body. In Colossians 1:15-19, it states that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Thus, we observe two persons of the Trinity in this passage with the Father being invisible and that he (the Father) could/can be observed in the person of Jesus when he ministered on the earth and also now in heaven. So, God, the Father, is immaterial yet Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, when “Papa” (the Father) is displayed in the movie with any sort of body, this would not be an accurate portrayal of God the Father from a Biblical perspective because God does not have a flesh and blood body. The same holds true for the character of Sarayu, who was portrayed by an Asian female who represented the Holy Spirit. The corporeity of Sarayu is also counter to the composition of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament as the Holy Spirit is immaterial and does not have a physical body.  Furthermore, in relation to our relationship with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 3:16 describes the empowerment from the Holy Spirit within your being. Also, New Testament testimony of the immateriality of the Holy Spirit comes from the encounter of the disciples with the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter two where the Holy Spirit filled them with the evidence of speaking in tongues.

Of course, Jesus portrayed in the movie, as a middle-eastern man would be an accurate depiction of “God in the flesh” as portrayed in the New Testament. However, three flesh and blood persons as the Trinity is not an accurate portrayal of the Godhead as inferred from the New Testament.   I was encouraged that the movie cured some of the problematic Universalist and hierarchical concepts mentioned by the members of the Trinity in the book where there was no hierarchy within the Godhead and where all persons of all faiths would eventually get to God through Jesus Christ albeit many after death. The characters in the movie just did not discuss these heterodox topics so that was a big advantage that the movie had over the book.   Turning from the negative aspects of the movie to positive ones, the love and unity observed between the members of the Trinity resonated with the audience and me. Also, the love and patience with which the various members of the Trinity related to Mac (the lead character in the movie) was an attractive portrayal of the loving disposition of God towards humanity as observed in scripture (see below).

In contrast to the “fleshly nature” of God portrayed in the movie, I believe that the handling of the issue of theodicy (or one’s theory of the problem of pain and suffering along with the belief in a good God) was a success.  Dr. Eleonore Stump, who is the Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy at Saint Louis University, states that amidst the back and forth of scholarly discussion on the problem of pain and suffering, there really should be a discussion as to the emotional trauma that one experiences. She (Stump, 1991:197-198) submits that in discussing the problem of evil, one should go beyond providing “a morally defensible reason for God to allow suffering.” [1]   Why does a good God allow us to experience pain and suffering? In this way, I think that the movie is effective. The explanations that it gives for the reason terrible things can happen to good people and why God allows them to happen are a good start to explaining the disposition of God towards humanity from our perspective. In Mac’s accusation of God allowing the cruel death of his daughter, Missy, God tells him that he has an incomplete picture of things and even when Mac doesn’t understand things, God is working out things for his good. In further interaction with the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) asks Mac about his level of confidence in knowing for sure what is good or evil. With billions of people who believe that they are right on a particular topic, how is it that you (Mac) think you are a capable judge?

The Trinity further submits to Mac that the brokenness that manifested in the murder of Mac’s daughter Missy has been percolating since the fall of Adam. But then in response, Mac is wondering how God could have allowed Missy to experience this terrible death?  In reply, the Trinity states that it can work good out of terrible tragedies. However, in no way does it mean that It (the Trinity) caused them. Furthermore, God states that there never has been any promise of a pain free life but that while she was being murdered, God was with Missy (evil is here because of the fall but also God is with each one of his children when it befalls them). In a very moving scene from the movie, God, now in the form of a Native American man, leads Mac to find the body of his daughter. In this touching scene, Mac wraps the body of his daughter, in a sheet and as he is carrying her to bury her, he is chanting, “I forgive you” (referring to the murderer) over and over even as the Trinity is comforting and assisting him in this painful task. Earlier in the movie, the Godhead tells Mac that he needs to forgive the murderer and at this juncture in the movie, Mac takes their advice to heart. Throughout the movie, Jesus is working on some sort of woodworking project as he is a carpenter and at the end of the movie it is observed that the project Jesus was working on all along was Missy’s casket. The burial scene depicted the loving care of God for both Mac and Missy. In a subsequent scene, Mac is given the opportunity to see his beloved Missy and it is obvious that she is content and happy, playing with other children, and in the presence of Jesus (she is obviously in paradise/heaven).

Another positive aspect of the movie was the love that each member of the Trinity had for the other. This was portrayed well when Mac sat down with them for dinner in the early part of the movie. It was obvious that there was great affection amongst the member of the Trinity and also for Mac. I thought that a shared meal was quite a fitting setting for the movie-makers (and Young) to place the Trinity and Mac together. This dinner gathering to me was evocative of the marriage supper of the lamb where the children of God are brought together at a meal to celebrate their newfound entrance into heaven and union with Jesus (Revelation 19:6-9).

This resonates with me. Planned, special meals are normally those occasions that functional families look forward to the most. The birthday of a loved one or a special holiday meal are always occasions where goodwill is in abundance. This goodwill is amplified by the smells and tastes of special menu items. Also, another aspect about what makes these meals special is the person making it. Oftentimes, it is either mom or grandmother who are the loving chefs who create these memorable and delectable treats. Sometimes, granddad or dad grills the meat in his own special way. In this meal portrayed in the movie, it is “Papa” who is the loving maker of the meal. In this and other scenes in the movie, the movie cast/writers do well in portraying the love and care of God for humanity in their care for Mac.

Of course, I do not have some secret conduit of knowledge from God regarding God’s disposition towards those with who he is in relationship with. Rather, I look at scripture and observe that the words of Jesus and the other Bible authors lead us to similar conclusions as to what is portrayed in “The Shack.” In several different scenes, the dialogue and action of the movie portrays a God who is so personal with Mac, that He was intimately familiar with the details of Mac’s state of mind and emotional hurt.  This is in accord with the words of Jesus in Luke 12:6-7. God is intimately familiar with our circumstances and values us greatly (God knows us so well that the hairs on our heads are numbered). Also observed in Matthew’s Gospel is the injunction of Jesus to cast your cares upon him in order to receive rest for your souls (11:28). This speaks to God’s desire to carry your burdens for you. Similarly, God also desires to help you with your anxieties because of his love for you. God wants to lighten your load if you will only give them to him (1 Peter 5:7). Another scripture reference where the compassion of God is exhibited is in Psalm 46:1 where the Psalmist proclaims that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.”  Similar themes are included in the following Psalms as well (3:3-4, 23:4-6, 55:22, 37:39, 40). In John 16:33, Jesus wants us to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world. The constant provision and protection for those who trust in God is exhibited in Deut. 31:6; Jos 1:5 where the well-known promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” is located.  Similarly, the resurrected Jesus just before his ascension, proclaimed, “I am with you always (Matt. 28:20).” Similarly, the attentive nature of God towards his children can be discerned when Jesus mentions in Matt. 6:8 that the Father knows what you need before you even ask him for something in prayer. These various scripture references highlight God’s care and provision for those who are in relationship with him.

As mature Christians and also as Christian leaders, I believe that it is important to check out books and movies that have made an impact on culture. If we do not do this, then how can we speak prophetically into the culture that we live in? Understanding the controversial nature of “The Shack” after reading it years ago, when the movie came out recently, I wanted a young adult group that I am involved with now to see the movie for themselves in order to judge the merits of it. After seeing the movie as a group, we then discussed it during our next meeting. We discussed both the negative and the positive aspects of the movie. What was really productive about viewing the movie is that we did not only discuss the negative aspects of how God was portrayed, but this portrayal of God was used to discuss who God really was from our limited perspective. So, this was a great opportunity to discuss the Trinity and the various persons within the Godhead. This made for a great transition into the topic of “Who Jesus Is” and a discussion of how the identity of Jesus impacts us today and then on to other related topics. We also discussed the problem of pain and suffering and how the explanation within the movie did well as a beginning point to discuss this issue. So, I believe that movies like “The Shack” should be seen and discussed by the church at large. Relatedly, I do not believe that these movies should be shunned and dismissed merely because there may be some error within them. Rather, we should analyze movies like “The Shack,” we should discuss the negative aspects and the positive aspects of movies and books, and we should use them (popular movies and books) as aids to reveal what scripture says on relevant cultural issues and trends.

[1] Stump, E. 1991. “The problem of evil and the desires of the heart” in The problem of evil ed Adams, Marilyn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Link to “The Shack” trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLOyUbSS5Eg

 

“Does the OT God Care About Social Justice?”

Sistine God
Photo of a depiction of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

Nobody likes a bully. We all know what bullying is from our past experiences. Someone who is small or weak is abused physically and mentally by someone more powerful or popular. Bullies often take what they want when they want it.  An example of institutionalized bullying is observed in the movie “The Help” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454029/synopsis) where white women in a certain neighborhood mistreat their African-American maids. As you watch the movie, you are waiting for justice to be dispensed. To your delight, justice is eventually delivered to the cruel high society women depicted in the movie in an unexpected fashion. There are some today who accuse “the god of the Old Testament” as being the worst kind of bully. In the opinion of some prominent skeptics today, this god is portrayed as a villainous despot who dispenses his wrath wantonly on humanity. Richard Dawkins, an Oxford scholar known for his rants against religion, explains his view:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1]

Another skeptical scholar, John Loftus, agrees with Dawkins regarding his opinion of the God of the Old Testament:

What we actually find in the Bible is an extremely not-so-good, very bad God! Yahweh, the part of the Godhead in the Old Testament is very bad…He’s a God of war, a condemning bloodthirsty God of wrath.[2]

But does Dawkins’ vociferous indictment come anywhere close to an accurate portrayal of God as observed in the Old Testament? How about the opinion of Loftus? Does it match up with what is described in the OT about God?   If God is in fact one who relishes doling out pain and suffering for the fun of it, then maybe Dawkins and Loftus are right. Most people today do not approve of “heavy handedness” when they see it displayed.  After looking at passages not normally cited by skeptics, you may agree with me that God, as observed in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, is really interested in social justice; in providing for and protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

Recently, when reading through the OT prophets, I was looking for this bully God that Dawkins and Loftus were describing. Would I observe a tyrannical oppressor? In an earlier blog (http://shieldyourfaith.org/blog/?p=435), it seemed to me that God had a deep concern for those who had sold themselves into slavery. God was so concerned about the abuse of Israeli slaves at the hands of their fellow citizens that the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for their cruel treatment of these slaves.  As observed in Jeremiah 34:8-17, the activity of Yahweh on behalf of these oppressed ones gives us a hint at the disposition of God towards those who are deemed to be weak in society. He loves and defends those who cannot defend themselves. Jeremiah is not the only prophet who pens this divine concern for the downtrodden.

Widow with children
Fernand Pelez – Illustrirter Katalog der internationalen Kunstausstellung im Königl. Glaspalaste in München 1883, 4. Auflage, München, September 1883

As I made my way through the prophets, I noted others as well. In his era, Ezekiel also lists misdeeds committed by Israelis/Jews:

  • Citizens shed blood; the rulers shed blood
  • Unjust gain by the rulers
  • Orphans/widows mistreated
  • Many lie and look for reasons to commit violent acts
  • Having sex while practicing a false religion in public areas
  • After sacrificing their children to a false god, they come to the temple and desecrate it (23:39)
  • Many men having sexual relations with their mother
  • Adultery
  • Assassinations
  • Defrauding of the poor
  • Racketeering (threatening others for money)
  • Burglary and theft
  • Religious officials involved in corruption
  • Oppressing the poor and the needy
  • Abusing foreigners

After listing this long indictment against Israel/Judah, God pronounces judgment against them. God will allow them to be conquered and carried away by a more powerful nation. However, this is not the last word from Ezekiel (ch. 34) who then proclaims the mercy of God in the future. Furthermore, he states that after Israel/Judah are punished, corporate life will be restored again (ch. 37).

In the writings of the prophet Joel, he also speaks of judgment on Israel/Judah but then also proclaims that in the future they will be restored and blessed with abundance. In his OT book another prophet, Amos, discusses social justice at length. He shares with us not only how God is disgusted with the immorality of Israel’s leaders but they have also earned God’s ire because they won’t stop abusing Israelis who are vulnerable. Amos’s list of charges includes the use of dishonest measures, sexual depravity, the sacrifice of children, and selling fellow Israelites into forced slavery. Even as these abuses continue, the social elite live comfortably. As a result of this maltreatment, Amos proclaims God’s judgment against Israel will be served up by a swarm of locusts (ch. 7).

But interestingly enough, Amos continues with a different tone after announcing God’s punishment. Characteristic of the activity of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the future for Israel is full of mercy and redemption. God says through Amos that he will restore Israel to a place of prominence and blessing after their punishment is complete.  Even after all of these transgressions, Yahweh will remain faithful to Israel and forgive them of their corporate trespasses. In the book of Jonah, the prophet gets mad at God because He spared the Assyrians when in Jonah’s estimation they are worthy of punishment (Jonah 4:1-3). What about the other prophets?

In the Book of Micah, a new offense is being committed against the innocent. In addition to the general moral malaise of the country, Micah informs us that there are Israelis who are throwing rightful owners out of their houses and off of their fields (ch. 2). Not only are they committing these crimes but they are also dispossessing their fellow countrymen of their inheritances as well. Micah also mentions the worship of false gods as another reason why God is against Israel in his era.

A pattern is emerging as our survey of each prophet continues. From the perspective of Habakkuk, this prophet simply notes that there is social injustice all around him. Because justice no longer prevails in Israel, justice is coming against the wrongdoers in Israel. Even as Habakkuk announces impending punishment against Israel, he asks God to be merciful even as he punishes them. He further proclaims that Israel will be delivered from those who will conquer and carry them away. Again, judgment rendered but then mercy following the judgment.

In the writings of Zephaniah, not only is the worship of false gods given for the reason of God’s judgment, but also because of the violence and deceit that is ongoing in these pagan temples. Furthermore, Zephaniah refers to the belief that undergirds much of the debauchery and license observed; they do not believe that God is still active in the affairs of the world. In similarity to the pattern that we have observed with the other prophets, God is going to show mercy to those who acknowledge and cease their misdeeds.

In Zechariah, the Israelites ask him (Zechariah) if they should fast in order to obtain the blessing of the Lord for themselves. Zechariah is quick to censure them for their hypocrisy. In response, Zechariah warns them that instead of earning God’s favor by performing rituals, they would be better off practicing social justice now. Stop oppressing the fatherless, widows, and those who are from other lands that reside with them. Moreover, Zechariah writes that these people ignored his counsel and because of their obstinacy, they were going to be scattered by the wind. However again, in line with the other prophets, Zechariah foretells that God will be merciful to Israel by restoring them in the future. The Prophet Malachi echoes the other prophets with a short indictment, a plea to change or face judgment, and a future where evildoers are vanquished and the righteous rewarded (4:1-3).

So, what we see in the prophets is a God who is punishing because of the continuing abuse of the poor and needy at the hands of the powerful. He isn’t just causing people to suffer for sadistic reasons. Rather, he chastises the powerful (bullies) because they refuse to discontinue their exploitation of the poor and underprivileged.

After a reading of the prophets, it is clear that God is seeking social justice for exploited victims when he brings calamity to their oppressors.  Furthermore, the very fact that God sends His prophets to different nations shows his beneficence. He would rather that cruel oppression cease voluntarily and would rather abstain from bringing destruction to a nation. It was also demonstrated in the prophets that God will not only protect the vulnerable, but he will also grant mercy to their oppressors if they would only turn from their cruel ways. God is ready and willing to show mercy to these criminals if they stop their persecution of the weak. After my reading, the words of Dawkins and Loftus don’t align with what I observe in the writings of the OT prophets. Perhaps those who rail against the “God of the Old Testament” should read the prophets and consider God’s messages of justice and mercy. They should conduct a more thorough examination before they “go off on God.” Granted, they do not believe that He exists and are pointing out what they believe as proof that the Biblical god should not be embraced by anyone.  But they should consider all of the passages of the Old Testament before they hurl verbal missiles.

In Contrast to the words of Dawkins and Loftus, this kindhearted and patient God as portrayed in the books of the Old Testament prophets sounds to me like a shepherd who continually searches for his lost sheep and rejoices when he finds it (Luke 15). He cares for his sheep.  In opposition to the claims of these prominent skeptics, God always takes up the case of the oppressed and desires that the bullies of society cease and desist from their brutish ways. The “God of the Old Testament,” as portrayed in the prophets, is not a cruel bully who tortures for the sport of it. Rather, he is a caring shepherd who cares for the needy and punishes those who ignore/abuse the downtrodden.

Shepherd
Public Domain

[1] Dawkins, R. 2008. The God delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

[2] Loftus, J. 2016. Unapologetic: Why philosophy of religion must end. Pitchstone Publishing: Durham.

If I Were God, Would I Have Come?

madonna-and-child
Giovanna Bellini- Madonna col bambino, 1470-1475- Public Domain

As Christmas day draws closer, travel plans are finalized, menus are tweaked, and some are going out foraging for last minute purchases. At the “Hickling Estate,” even though we are newly made empty nesters, the kids (and one nephew) will be coming over to share Christmas day with us. Like many of you reading this article, we will have a “spread” composed of finger foods and will have some items that we do not normally serve at home (shrimp and cocktail sauce, etc). Even though the rest of the family turns its collective nose up at fruitcake, there will be a block of it cut up for me because I learned to love it as a kid when my father would serve it (more for me). But the big “shindig” will actually be when Andrea’s side of the family shows up the day after Christmas for the family Christmas party. We’ll have about 20 or so on the 26th. We’ll provide the meat and everyone else will be bringing in their favorite dishes. My waistline will not be happy but the taste buds will be very, very happy. With all that is going on now with family plans, church events, and various parties, I still try to find little bits of time here and there where I can pull away and reflect on Jesus Christ during this season when we celebrate his coming into the world. I’ve always liked to put on Handel’s Messiah or better yet, find a place where it is being performed and watch it in person. I also like to play Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas Opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. I find that I worship anew each time I play these musical reminders of Jesus’s entrance into the world. When my mind shifts to the miracle of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, I ask the question, “If I were God, would I have come to the earth like Jesus did?”

Of course, this question may not be correct theologically as I am a fallen, lower being who is limited in his ability to make “Godlike” choices because of my metaphysical composition as a human being. Not having the qualities of God, how can I even attempt to engage in such an activity? Nonetheless, as the Christmas season rolls on, I still ponder this. When surveying other religious paradigms, it appears that there really were no other gods that came like Jesus Christ did. In Greek mythology, the gods did interact with humans and shared in some of their weaknesses even though they were immortal. For instance, these gods were known to be angry, vengeful, lustful, and have larcenous tendencies. These mythological gods would “come” and mingle with humans and were known for their superhuman powers. Sometimes the gods would help humans and at other times they would hinder them. On some occasions it was storied that they would make love to humans (such as when Mars had his way with a vestal virgin which caused the legendary conception of Romulus and Remus). Going back into ancient Egyptian religious lore, Osiris was the king of the netherworld. But did he interact with his devotees? When delving into the literature on Osiris, it is obvious that he had no relationship with those who relied upon him for their sustenance in the realm of the dead. He merely kept the disembodied spirits in the netherworld energized as he united with Ra to invigorate these departed souls. He never emerged from the netherworld to visit those who would rely upon him after their deaths.

chariot-of-zeus
The Chariot of Zeus- Project Gutenberg eText 14994- Public Domain

In examining the Muslim texts, it is known that the only time when Allah had actual contact with humanity is through Muhammad who received divine messages that were given to him by the angel Jibril. Allah is “wholly otherworldly” in these encounters. These recitations that Muhammad received from the angel Jibril supposedly formed the Quran. It is Muhammad alone who toured heaven during “Al Miraj” where he traveled atop “Al-Buraq,” a white animal with wings. But he still had no contact with Allah even when in heaven, but only angels, prophets, etc. In Buddhism, there is no personal god at all to have contact with but only the path to become one with the universe upon attaining “nirvana.” In Hinduism, striving with deeds to attain “moksa” or “being liberation” is the objective. As in Buddhism, there is no personal relationship with a god here either.

muhammad-ascent
The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq, Unknown Artist, 1514, Public Domain

In stark contrast to pagan Greek/Egyptian mythology, when Jesus Christ did come, he did not come with fiery thunderbolts (Zeus) nor did he descend into the realm of the underworld as king (Osiris). There was no worldly pomp or circumstance that accompanied the entry of Jesus Christ into the world. Rather, in contrast to the Allah of Islam, he knowingly humbled himself and took on the form of man (known as the kenosis or the emptying of himself). Jesus did not cease to be God when he came as a baby. Rather, he willingly veiled these attributes and submitted himself to life on this earth that eventually led to his death on a cross. This is plainly stated in Philippians 2:5-8 where, “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

 The contrast of Jesus Christ with pagan gods is observed in His life as he does not seek to increase his powers, to subjugate those who he comes into contact with, or to develop consorts for his bedroom. Rather, Jesus, speaking of Himself stated, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).” Jesus did not seek earthly riches, power, or sensual experiences during his ministry here on earth. Rather, he willingly lived a meager existence, as he did not even possess a home. In contrast to the Allah of Islam, Jesus Christ came to the earth and did so meekly. In his earthly ministry, he modeled modesty and compassion. In his death and resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ modeled total submission to God. Even as he was waiting to be betrayed, Jesus taught about the coming of the Holy Spirit who would indwell every believer and who would be a guide that mystically dwells within. This is in stark contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism where enlightenment comes as these adherents strive to “earn” their salvation through their “good deeds” somehow. So, after a brief survey of various religious deities/systems, it is clear that Christianity is unique as God incarnates himself in order to meet the needs of each human in a personal way.

This Christmas season, the American atheists have displayed billboards trying to convince people not to go to church on Christmas. “It’s all just a fairy tale anyways so why waste your time?” they say. However, the life of Jesus Christ is no myth and is based upon well-documented accounts by those who witnessed his ministry, death, and resurrection. Moreover, what these brand of atheists fail to realize is that sincere Christians won’t go to church on Christmas Sunday to make themselves better Christians, to fulfill some sort of required duty, or become more holy by their attendance, somehow. No I, and many like me, will go to church this Christmas because we really want to go. Yes, I enjoy hanging out with my friends at church. Yes, I enjoy singing songs, appreciate a well-decorated sanctuary, and like to listen to a special homily. But why I am really there is because I am awestruck by the fact that the maker of the universe is so virtuous and kind. He demonstrated this when he lowered himself to take on a human form and lived a life of total sacrifice to include his tortuous death on a cross. All of this with the aim of making as many people as he can his family members (Rev. 21:3-4).

Ross Bible Pond

So, back to the original question about whether I would have come if I were a god; I can say that in my present state that I would not have come because I would not want to suffer. I am too comfortable and used to catering to my own needs. This is what makes the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus all the more believable. Jesus Christ coming as a baby makes sense. If God is holy and virtuous unlike me, then he would come humbly.  He would lead by example by coming among us. God would show us a way to live even through his own life. He would demonstrate and teach us how to live now, here on earth. God would also enable us to become more like him through relationship. He would not “take advantage of” humans like the pagan gods nor would he be aloof from humanity like Osiris of Egyptian lore and the Allah of Islam. He would not send us down pathways where our own good deeds would somehow meld us into the fabric of the universe with our own identities disintegrating as in the concepts of “nirvana” and “moksa.”

 Rather, he would reveal himself and demonstrate how we can live Godly lives right now. This virtuous way of living  would not be based upon some sort of ritualistic formula or “qualifying good deeds.” Rather, he would show us how a relationship with God necessarily involves an interconnection with others in helping meet their needs (as Jesus modeled for us). So, the incarnation makes sense to me. God, if he were wholly virtuous unlike me, would come humbly as a baby, would live among us, and would give all for us so that we could have relationship with him.

 So, the American Atheists have it wrong. It is not a burden for me to go to church on Christmas Sunday; something that I have to do in order to gain the approval of an imaginary deity. No, I go out of love and devotion to worship the God who willingly emptied himself and dwelt among us. The one who revealed himself, who showed us how to live by his own example, and who leads me now through this life by his Holy Spirit. No, I would not have come, but I am so glad that the one who spun galaxies into existence came as a baby long ago on that first Christmas night.

A Remembrance of Heroes: Desmond Doss and Patrick Carothers

patrick-carothers-memorial
Photo taken by DUSM John Hardy, E/NC USMS.

What motivates those who serve our country in the military and in law enforcement to willingly face the prospect of death? Over the Thanksgiving holiday break, I took in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” for a second time. If you have not seen this movie, it is based on the true story of Desmond Doss.   Doss is a humble and simple man whose heroic exploits as a combat medic stun his comrades during some of the most intense fighting of World War II. Doss, who refused to carry a weapon during his field duties, saved the lives of 75 men during one bloody conflict against a hardened Japanese army that was burrowed into a bluff during the Battle for Okinawa. Upon conferring the Medal of Honor to Doss, President Truman recognized him for his heroism while facing extreme danger.

It was also near the Thanksgiving holiday that the nation learned of the death of Patrick Carothers of the U.S. Marshals Service, who died in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend a dangerous criminal who had holed up in a Macon, Georgia mobile home. The dangerous fugitive shot and killed Carothers while Carothers and and his fugitive task force team attempted to arrest him.  Again, why did Doss and Carothers knowingly place their lives in jeopardy?   What inspired them to put in harm’s way the thing that most people would say they value the most?

As the action of “Hacksaw Ridge” reached its climax, Doss is portrayed covered in the mire of the battlefield as he utters the prayer, “Lord, please help me get one more.” He is speaking of his comrades who lay helpless and suffering from their wounds. Even as they lay there, Japanese soldiers hunt down and kill the injured American soldiers they encounter. Even though his unit has retreated, Doss remains to face the enemy, unarmed, as he continues dragging the injured GIs to safety one after another. After each rescue he prays, “Lord, one more” and then he continues through the night until the last possible moment. One evocative scene portrays Doss underneath a cascade of water as he takes a shower after the battle. The flowing, cleansing water carries the blood of those he saved down and off his body. I have to say that as the movie ended, I was in awe of what this simple man of faith did. Not only did it leave a lasting impression on me, it also left the same impression on those who went to see the movie with me. We were left almost speechless as the movie ended. Of course, Doss is only one of thousands of “America’s best,” our veterans, who have disregarded their own safety while protecting their country in battle. It is obvious to me that Doss was motivated by his faith in God to love his fellow soldier more than himself. This love was demonstrated when Doss, while being carried off the battlefield himself badly wounded, stopped those who were carrying him and insisted that another soldier be placed on the gurney in his stead. In recounting this incident, Doss would opine that he would rather lose his life so that someone else might live.

As I learned about Pat’s death, I could not help but draw parallels between his gallantry and that of Doss. When Pat died, he was a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Marshals Service. So, over and over again, like Doss, Pat, through his 26 years of service, must have uttered similar words. “Lord, one more, help me get one more fugitive off the street.” There is no telling how many dangerous fugitives Pat put behind bars in his long career. One fugitive arrest after another, Pat and his partners made our country a safer place. I am not privy to the details of the shootout but it seems to me that Pat must have been the first one through the doorway when the murderer opened fire. Pat was in a leadership position with the task force and yet he was leading his troops into battle. He was placing more importance on the lives of his teammates than on his own life.  He willingly risked his life over and over again for 26 years and eventually gave his life so that his country would be rid of still one more dangerous fugitive. But again, what motivated Pat to do this?

I had the privilege to work with Pat for a month during the late 90s. We had flown into Chicago from our respective offices to support the Chicago USMS office during the “Gangster Disciples” high threat trial. We hit it off immediately and so we were “hang out buddies” during our month together. It did not take long for me to realize one thing about Pat. He loved his partners. He was always looking out for their best interest and always made sure to check on them. Recently, I also had the privilege of attending Pat’s graveside ceremony before the family laid him to rest. At this gathering, his good friends also made sure to point out Pat’s great love for his family, his community, and for them. Pat’s pastor also spoke of Pat’s faith in God and how this relationship impacted him as a young man. It is clear to me that what motivated Pat was his love for not only his partners but also for his country. His selfless actions throughout his career and on the day he confronted this criminal demonstrate a man who was motivated by love.

As Jesus Christ awaited his betrayal, he is praying for those he is leaving behind. As the time is counting down for his arrest, brutal torture, and death, Jesus Christ utters these words. “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” Not only is Jesus speaking to his disciples but also forward in time to those who would join in relationship with him. Jesus was motivated to undergo torture and death by love. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi tells us that Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (2:5-8).” Jesus Christ died so that all could be a part of his family (Rev. 21:3-4). It is hard to imagine how much Jesus suffered during his final hours. But Jesus led from the front and loved all completely by sacrificing his life. Jesus tells us of the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” in the Book of Matthew. This parable demonstrates that God, like a shepherd, hunts for even one lost sheep, and that he does not want even one to perish. God is saying in Matthew 18, “Can I find just one more lost person that I can save?”

This is the love that I see demonstrated by Corporal Desmond Doss and by Deputy Commander Pat Carothers. A love that is not concerned about ones own self interest. Rather, a selfless love for one’s fellow man and country. A love that is willing to sacrifice all on behalf of others. I am proud to have worn the same star as Pat (America’s Star). I am also proud to have known someone who was not only a warrior, but was also one that was motivated by divine love. So, in a season that is known for veterans and thanksgiving,  I pay tribute to my friend and colleague, Pat. Thank you for laying down your life for your country. Rest in peace, brother. I will see you again when we are both reunited in the presence of Jesus Christ.

The “Modern Hookup Culture”: What the Evidence Is Saying

sad-teen
Recently, I had the opportunity to share with the youth group at my church in Kernersville, North Carolina, regarding “God’s Way v. The Modern Hookup Culture.” I became interested in this topic after I was given a book entitled “Sex at First Sight: Understanding the Modern Hookup Culture” by Richard E. Simmons III that details the casual sex culture on college campuses across the country and the devastating consequences for those co-eds who engage in this now culturally accepted behavior. Prior to reading this book, I had a niece who informed me of some high school students who were brazen enough to engage in sexual behavior in the hallways of her public school. From every direction, teen and young adults are inundated with messages about the attractiveness of casual sex and alcohol usage. On a Sunday afternoon, you may be enjoying a football game with some family members and then it’s time for a commercial break. The screen quickly fills with images of scantily clad women dancing provocatively to a driving beat, with the most attractive of them holding a glistening bottle of beer. Before you are able to dive for the remote controller your preteens receive the message loud and clear…sex and alcohol together are glamorous and cool.

It is obvious that our media, with the proliferation of so many alcohol/sex driven commercials/programs, is portraying the use of alcohol in a positive light and that imbibing in that premium brand of beer will enhance your sex appeal. A paper published by the American Academy of Family Physicians conveys the implications of these broadcasts on the youth of America. Of this media barrage, the academy offers their opinion:

Although the alcohol industry maintains that its advertising aims only to increase market share and not to encourage underage persons to drink, research suggests otherwise. Alcohol advertisements overwhelmingly connect consumption of alcohol with attributes particularly important to youth, such as friendship, prestige, sex appeal and fun.

Another reason to share this message with teens is due to my exposure with fugitive sex offenders. In the last three plus years of my career with the U.S. Marshals Service, I had the opportunity to arrest/prosecute fugitive sex offenders who had absconded from various sex offender registries. Many of these fugitive sex offenders could not break free from their maladaptive sexual behaviors/crimes. It was obvious to me that many of these offenders no longer had real control of their lives as their particular sexual vice had a firm grip on them. They had been reduced to animals due to their sexual addiction. What I also found was that many of these fugitive sex offenders were not able to break free from a profound addiction to pornography. Oftentimes, when I caught up with them, they would have various types of pornography on their person or on their devices. In addition to my experience with sex offenders, I also found that alcohol abuse/drug abuse often played a part in the commission of crimes to include sex crimes and other crimes of violence.

So, because of these reasons, I believe that this message is an appropriate topic for the kids at church. Not to mention that everyone else is talking about sex. The students at school are talking about sex. The teachers are talking about sex. One of the main themes of television programming is sex. So, why doesn’t the church talk to our teens about sex (and alcohol abuse)? Why don’t we give them the tools they need to make good decisions?

Can a book thousands of years old be relevant today? The Bible gives advice on whether or not one should engage in multiple causal sexual encounters. In Matthew, 19:5, Jesus endorses the ancient description of monogamy mentioned in Genesis 2:24 as he mentions that “a woman and a man will become one flesh.” In addition to the words of Jesus instructing that one man and one woman should be together for life, Paul also discusses sexual morays in his first letter to the church at Corinth (7:1-3). In mentioning the problem of sexual immorality, Paul opines that a husband and a wife should fulfill each other’s sexual needs and that this should be within the bond of marriage. Further endorsing the view that a woman and a man should keep the “marriage bed undefiled” from adultery is the author of the Book of Hebrews. There is no doubt that these three texts from the New Testament are proclaiming the best way to engage in sexual relations is for one woman and one man to share it for a lifetime. However, is there any corroboration for this Biblical advice coming from scholarly research?

In Sex at First Sight, Richard Simmons III first describes the current state of sexual encounters among college aged adults and then delves into the data coming from studies regarding the mental/physical health of those who engage in the hookup culture. A “hookup” is a casual sexual encounter for the purpose of only pleasure without any sort of emotional bond developing. So, there is no intimacy involved nor any commitment to the one you have physically joined with. Furthermore, Simmons informs us of the disappearance of traditional dating across the country being replaced by this sort of “sexual freedom.” Again, the chief end of the hookup culture is to get as much pleasure as one can without regard for any other concern than what you get out of it for the moment.

What Simmons found in his research of those who were hooking up is that psychologists, who interviewed college co-eds, reported that these hookups were deeply wounding young men and women. Even though “locker room talk” and James Bond style movies would lead one to think that hookups are the way to live the “good life,” the research is telling a different story. The truth coming from numerous interviews is that men were ashamed of hooking up and that they really wanted to have dating relationships and emotional intimacy just like women do. After reviewing the research, Simmons opined that there is an emotional and chemical bond that is part of what God intended when two people physically unite. When the psychological aspects of sexual activity are ignored, there are devastating consequences. The data shared by Simmons shows that what the media suggests as living the “good life” is a mere illusion. Going from partner to partner only brings emotional turmoil to both  men and women.

Not only did Simmons share the emotional havoc wrought by the hookup culture, but he also shared about the physical consequences multiple sexual encounters can bring. Not so long ago there were only two STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) to contend with. Today, there are at least 25 forms of STDs that are being passed around today and the college campuses are seedbeds for their transmission. Simmons reported that a recent study revealed that 43% of female students on the UCLA campus are infected with an STD. Another effect of the hookup culture is that many become depressed. Simmons shares that the release of dopamine into the blood stream after having sex causes an emotional bond and deep attachment between the two partners. This is the beauty of sex within the confines of marriage. Two partners for life form a bond, both physically and emotionally, that will hopefully last a lifetime. However, when the emotional bonds that come with physical attachment are broken, then depression often sets in as a result of the shattered relationship. The hookup culture turns a thing of great joy into a chronic source of heartache and pain. Simmons ends his tome with several psychologists offering words of advice. In general, sacrificing pleasure now will mean that you are investing in your future sex life. Giving up something of lesser value now in order to obtain a greater good later is what Simmons recommends. Waiting for the love of your life and sharing physical intimacy with only that “special one” will cause your sex life to be hearty and satisfying. So teens and young adults don’t buy the lie. Following the advice of a book that has been around for millennia will result in a great sex life. Yes, that’s right, the research shows that you will have more fun and sexual satisfaction throughout your life if you invest now and do it God’s way.

And finally a message from Solomon to today’s single teens/young adults

Proverbs 5:

15 Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
16 Should your springs overflow in the streets,
your streams of water in the public squares?
17 Let them be yours alone,
never to be shared with strangers.
18 May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

happy-teens

REFLECTIONS ON 911 AND GROUND ZERO

"Old Glory" posted over Ground Zero 15 years ago
“Old Glory” posted over Ground Zero 15 years ago

When you get a little older, your nose supposedly grows larger along with your ears, you get up in the night more often, and you can’t keep up with the “young you” that could go for days and days without much sleep or other care. Some of us who get older (me) look like raisins topped by a little tuft of cotton. I recently had a little cancer removed from my face and you really can’t tell very well where the scar is because of all of the other wrinkles!

Developmental psychologists share that as you get a little older, it is natural for you to reflect on your past life. Did I live a good life? If you have lived a good life, then as you age, you are content to look back at a life well lived. No matter whether you’ve amassed a lot of wealth or have become very powerful, it is important to pass on your story to the next generation. As senior member of your tribe, you are in the stage of life when you reflect, the Lord willing, on a life well lived. Men go from warrior, to king, and then to philosopher. So, that is why I am going to write down a memory or two for you this evening. I wanted to share a couple of memories from my time surrounding 911 fifteen years ago. Hopefully some of you will enjoy sharing in my stroll down memory lane.

Foremost in my reflections I wanted to keep front and center, the gallantry of those who not only risked their lives, but also ultimately gave them willingly on behalf of their beloved brothers and sisters who were in crisis. To the men and women of the New York area fire, police, and paramedics, my utmost respect to you as we commemorate fifteen years since that fateful day that changed America. In addition to these heroes in the NY Metro area, I also wanted to pay respect to all of those who responded to the Pentagon and to the PA crash sites. God bless you all for your service and dedication. Of course, not to mention all of those innocent victims who perished and left behind so many grieving family members and friends. My thoughts and prayer go out to these who have gone yet another year missing their beloved ones.

On September 11th, I was working out in the AM at the U.S. Marshals Service gym in Norfolk, VA. The television was on and I saw the first report of the plane colliding into the first tower. Maybe it could be an accident? Then there was the report of the second attack on the remaining tower. No accident for sure as we saw the shocking video that is etched in our collective memory. The first thought that came to mind was of course the shock of so many innocent lives being senselessly snubbed out but then the reality that I just saw on television the first act of the next World War. I think that is what happened as we are still fighting the war on terrorism to this day. The reality was that the war was already being waged against us but we really didn’t become engaged in it until 911.

On 911 at the Norfolk office, we went on alert status with the federal courthouse in Norfolk. A man of Middle Eastern dissent seemed to be testing the security at our front entrance but the man quickly left after the security force at the front checkpoint picked up on his odd probing. As we increased our security around the courthouse the enormity of the event sunk in. Numerous USMS assets and personnel were being deployed to sensitive duties around the country.

One of those duties was taking over security for the major U.S. airports. The day after the attack I was ordered by then Chief J.H. to respond to the Reagan National Airport in Northern Virginia along with other DUSMs from the Eastern District of VA. President George W. Bush gave the USMS authorization to do this. It was unusual to say the least when I went with other DUSMs to the security office where we introduced and identified ourselves. After doing this, a copy of the executive order from GWB was given to them and we said in effect, “we are taking over security here.” The airport officials were very understanding and the reality was that we were merely an augmentation of what they had in place. We just beefed things up with our presence.

The next day we began high visibility patrols of the airport. However, during the day, I received a call from the USMS national peer support team leader L.K. that I was needed to assist the USMS office in Manhattan in regards to conducting critical incident stress debriefings of their personnel. Many of the peer team members could not make it there but because I was on the East Coast and relatively close to Manhattan, I was given the call to respond with other team members who were getting there however they could. So, I packed my gear up and began my drive to Manhattan in my older model Chevy Tahoe. This Tahoe had a heavy, lifted suspension so it sat higher in traffic than most vehicles as well as had a very fast idle. So, it was interesting and sometimes humorous to maneuver in stop and go city traffic because the braking was always exaggerated to get it to stop. This vehicle was a civil seizure from a criminal and the USMS drove many of these vehicles in this time frame.

As I drove the Tahoe North towards Manhattan, I began noticing the solitary pillar of smoke rising seemingly as a memorial to the tremendous loss of innocent life that had occurred only days before. I could see it from a great distance and it took hours before I finally was able to get to Manhattan. Whenever I responded to similar crises in years to come, I always used my travel time to pray for those that I was going to serve. I was doing that on this occasion. Upon finally going over the bridges and through the tunnel to Manhattan, I ended up at Ground Zero after checking in with our staff there.

It is hard to express the emotions that I felt when I arrived there. It took me back six years earlier when I had been a part of the USMS response to the domestic terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Building. Viewing the Murrah Building bomb blast site for the first time was a profound experience filled with negative awe as I observed the devastation to the Murrah Building and the other damage surrounding this site. But the swath of destruction that leveled this part of the Manhattan skyline was far greater than that of the Murrah Building site. Mangled steel, concrete, glass, extended for many blocks in every direction. It was unsafe wherever one would tread as glass and other debris were still falling from the damaged buildings. So all who worked in the site wore hard hats. Busy at work were many in “bucket brigades” trying to sift through many seemingly inestimable mountains of debris. Could this ever be cleaned up and sifted through? I ended up on several occasions in one of these “bucket brigades.” The chaotic nature of the scene was still evident in the first few days as there was still hope that survivors would be found amidst the rubble. This reminded me of the pace of the Murrah building response in OKC. There was always hope of finding yet one more survivor in those early days. But as the days went on, it became apparent that it was changing from a rescue mission to a recovery mission. I won’t say more about this aspect of things save that many of these dedicated recovery workers suffered emotional trauma from their duties in this regard.

Ross with USMS partner at Ground Zero
Ross with USMS partner at Ground Zero

Even though I spent several nights on bucket brigade duty, this was not really my mission in Manhattan as a peer support team member. The team had come to support the USMS family there in Manhattan and eventually in other areas of NY as well. We had come to aid our brothers and sisters in need. We were there to help them in any practical way that we could. A lot of what we did was to check in with everyone to let them know we cared for them. We were there to show good will and to really let them know in practical ways that we loved them. One of the ways that we did this was to conduct team debriefings of those who had similar experiences. It was healthy for them to do this in order to process and come to grips with what they had just been through. They would also gain new insights from the experiences and feelings of others that they listened to in these group settings. We also had the opportunity to check in “one-on-one” with those who might have experienced something more out of the ordinary than others.

Often, we would just hang around the office and chat with different people we encountered. All the while, the office was sending DUSMs down to Ground Zero as part of the recovery effort there. So, it was important for us to check in with the DUSMs when they came in after their shifts. After hearing of many of their experiences, it was apparent to me that many of the DUSMs that I got to know were heroes themselves. Many of them had responded on foot to the twin towers and began actively rescuing those who were injured at the scene. One of these valiant DUSMs was pictured on a national magazine cover carrying a victim in his arms. Other DUSMs told me of their response and their heroic actions. Several DUSMs described how they barely escaped with their own lives as the second tower collapsed and the debris flowed like a deadly river down various streets. One DUSM described how he had never run faster in his life than when the collapse and ensuing debris from the tower was literally chasing him down the street. Another DUSM felt fortunate to escape the debris flow by quickly ducking into the door of an area business only to observe the lethal stream of debris flow past where he had been standing only seconds before.

Many of the administrative employees told of their harrowing journeys of trying to make it home by whatever means they could. Many spent hours upon hours getting home by walking long distances and by enduring many other hardships. Many knew people who were victims and they were sharing their grief with us. So, even as I listened to their stories my respect grew for my colleagues in NY. Many were heroes in my book and it was my honor to be amongst them. In the years after 911, I would have the honor to serve there on a number of other occasions as crises would arise. Aiding my brother and sisters in NY was one of the high points of my career. They might not remember me, but they sure did leave a lasting impression on me.

I want to reflect on one aspect of being a career LEO (law enforcement officer). Other than on special ceremonial functions, it was rare that anyone was happy to see you. A notable exception to this was the “court family” whose members always were very good to work with. Not only did they appreciate us but we also appreciated the great working relationships that we had with them. This “court family” included judges, probation officers, public defenders, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, and many others. However, aside from this great working environment, whenever my partners and I hit the street, people were by and large not happy to see you and really did not appreciate what you were doing. This extended from my local position as a Portsmouth, VA police officer to my time with the U.S. Marshals Service. Oftentimes, as a local police man/detective we would find ourselves trying to make arrests while glass bottles rained down upon us or while a mob would encircle us.  At one massive riot scene in another city, we were greeted by a mob of thousands who were chanting “fight the power, f*$@ the police.” In smaller measure this would be the reception that we would get from many in the high crime communities that we worked in even though many would work with us secretly to combat crime in these areas. We were always doing the work of the citizens yet the citizens that we were encountering were the unruly and criminal element.

With the USMS, when going to talk to a person you knew was harboring your fugitive or when someone was obstructing your path to the fugitive who was hiding inside, the contempt of those we came into contact was always palpable with some form of epithet being thrown our way. However two notable exceptions to this normal contempt was my duty at the Murrah Building and my time working at 911. In Manhattan, I remember that whenever a fire truck or police car drove by, people were actually cheering. On several occasions, I actually had a citizen pick up the tab for several of my meals. I was pleasantly surprised by the shift in public sentiment that I felt there. They actually liked seeing my partners and me for once.

Another memory for me was of the sorrowful postings that were scattered along the fences and walls. In addition to these were many makeshift memorials of lost loved ones. Many of these notes were in the early days where people would post notices trying to find missing loved ones. “My loved one is missing, please help me find him/her” was the gist of most of these notes with photos of the loved one included. But as mentioned earlier, there were also touching memorials to departed loved ones that were posted as well along with flowers. In many of the squares of Manhattan, there were candle light vigils being held for the victims and their families.

In some ways, this evil attack on our people had some positive effects. It was as if we discovered anew the intrinsic value of every human being. It did not matter what community our brother and sister were from. They were of great value. As Manhattan and the rest of the country suffered through this tragedy, we realized our need for each other, we realized our need for community, and we realized anew our appreciation for God. “God bless the USA” was the refrain often heard wherever you went. In addition to rediscovering God and our brothers/sisters, there was also a renewed respect for the American flag. You would see it wherever you went. It was adorned on buildings, on fire trucks, and EMS vehicles. It was everywhere. It also covered the caskets of the many heroes that perished in the attacks as they were honored at their funerals. This reliance of our flag as a rallying point was evident as one surveyed Ground Zero and what would be posted on top of a mountain of debris where people were furiously burrowing? The Stars and Stripes were prominently displayed as a rallying point; as an inspiration to all who were working. The love for our country was evident even as the rescue workers tediously worked amidst the rubble.

One of many posted notices during the 911 time frame.
One of many posted notices during the 911 time frame.

So, even in these dark moments, “Old Glory” inspired all. My comments about the American flag are all the more poignant when in recent days, some who shall go nameless, disrespect our flag that has inspired so many selfless heroes through the years. In many crises when our country was facing down tyrants and fighting for its very existence, the flag was our rallying point. How poignant it is on 911 to honor this hallowed national symbol even as we honor those heroes who gave all to include the police officers who perished. Ironically, American heroes who died protecting the flag died so that those of lesser character have the right to disrespect it. Their freedom to disrespect the flag was bought with the blood of countless martyrs who defended it and the people it represented.

Even though these malcontents rail against our beloved flag, the vast majority of Americans who love “Old Glory” have the right to register their contempt for those who would sully our flag by their public and disgraceful conduct. Yes, our country is not perfect (not that I agree with the odd and anti-law enforcement stance of these high profile celebs). But I love this country and “Old Glory” that is its standard. So, I register contempt for you who dishonor the “Stars and Stripes,” the flag that motivated and inspired so many on 911 fifteen years ago. The flag that covered the caskets of so many fallen heroes you defile by your ill-conceived actions. The very ones that you complain about died en masse fifteen years ago for their brothers and sisters. On this day, you who will remain nameless and others like you with short memories, will not even give a second thought to the sanctity of this day and the blood that was spilled by all these heroes you defame.

Shifting gears, as I get closer to the end of my recollections, other special moments for me were taking part in a memorial service for the USMS family. I had the privilege to sing a song that I had written in memory of a USMS family member who had perished in the Murrah Bomb blast. How appropriate it was to sing this song at a memorial service held at a catholic church in Manhattan! After weeks in Manhattan, I rotated out of my duty there and drove back to Northern VA where I served as part of a protection detail for several more weeks. It was a long and monotonous detail with long hours. Of course, by this time I was really missing my family.

I remember the excitement of finally being free of the protection detail and able to head back home in October. As I drove back from Northern VA, my route took me past the pentagon for the first time. This was another profound moment as I was able to survey the devastation wrought for the first time. Heading South on 95, I was greeted by a great travel day. It was very sunny and the fall foliage was ablaze in color. This vista was in vivid contrast to the mangled steel of Ground Zero and the dim confines of the protection detail. The trip sailed by and I was reunited with my young children and wonderful wife. I was honored to have been part of the response to Manhattan. I was honored to serve amidst heroes. No, these men and women do not haul in multi-million dollar bonuses. They are real people whose characters are worth much more than any sum. Those cut out of the same cloth as the heroes of 911 still serve today in cities, counties, and towns across our great country. I am thankful to have served with them and now that I am retired, they are always in my thoughts and prayers.

On Racial Strife: New Testament Style Goodwill Needed Today

By Rufino (hermandad - friendship) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rufino (hermandad – friendship) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that the United States has been in the middle of a racial maelstrom for several years now. Most of the strife has centered on what some view as a racist police establishment that seeks to victimize young African-American men. Others, including myself, have pointed out that those holding a view that all white police officers are racist in their interactions with African-Americans are racially stereotyping white police officers. Surely not all white police officers are racists. Unfortunately, the stakes are pretty high as many police officers have been victimized themselves by what appear to be racially motivated, terrorist-style executions. The enormity of the problem facing the USA cannot be overstated as images of flaming cars and mayhem in our streets are common fare on national media outlets. Can persons who lived and wrote several thousand years ago give good advice to us today?

Samaritan Woman

In John’s Gospel, a trip through Samaria is recorded where Jesus Christ encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. During his journey, he is in need of a break and even as he does so he “breaks” down a racial wall as Jews were known to despise Samaritans. In this short interlude, he says many profound things to this woman.  After Jesus reveals that he knows of her personal affairs, the woman recognizes that he is no ordinary man, but a prophet. After stating this, she speaks to “the elephant in the room” or the racial tension between Samaritans and Jews mentioning her ancestors who worshipped on “this mountain” (4:20). In response to the woman,  Jesus stresses the obsolescence of religious ritual and a new paradigm of devotion from a sincere and earnest spirit. Jesus Christ, as God incarnate, does not esteem one region’s religious customs over another region.  As the encounter with Jesus continues, the villagers implore Jesus to stay with them two days and he does stay with them. The initiative of Jesus to bring the message of salvation to the Samaritans and then to stay with them for two days reveals that God is not concerned about one’s racial identity but rather looks at the heart of each individual person. Jesus breaks religious customs and ministers to and fellowships with a group that is considered “less than.” Jesus leads from the front in regards to displaying God’s goodwill towards a people group different than his own.

The Good Samaritan

In addition to this example of racial unity, Jesus also shows the importance of one’s heart attitude over racial identity when he commends the Good Samaritan for caring for a Jewish robbery victim expecting nothing in return (Luke 10). In this parable, the Samaritan renders care for this injured traveler while other “more righteous” ones ignore their obligation to care for him. Jesus points out that one considered “less righteous” is actually the one who does the will of God and has his approval.   In similarity to the ministry of Jesus to the Samaritans, Jesus’s parable points out that a merciful heart is more important to God than one’s racial identity. In addition to this well-known parable, God’s mercy towards all people is observed in the most well known Bible verse (John 3:16). God’s gift of salvation is not for those of a certain class, race, or sex but for “whosoever believes.”

After Jesus Christ ascends and the Holy Spirit is made manifest to the church, racial unity of the members of the early Christian church is also observed even though it is tested at several points. In the Book of Acts, God orchestrates the meeting of the Apostle Peter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion who is a righteous believer. After Peter has a dream, it is clear to him that God is breaking down a cultural barrier related to food and proclaims this new truth to those gathered at the centurion’s household. Summarizing what has happened as a result of the dream and his visit to the household of Cornelius, Peter states, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right (10:34.35).”  Peter then stays with Cornelius for several days. God again displays impartiality between those of different races and Peter models racial unity by staying with the centurion for several days.

In addition to these instances of God showing his acceptance of all races, Paul also teaches about the unity of believers in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses the body of Christ being one body composed of many members. In his teaching, Paul discusses that this unity in diversity extends to racial matters. Paul teaches that all were baptized and given the Holy Spirit upon conversion “Whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free. (12:13)” To Paul, there is no differentiation between these groups. Paul also discusses the unity of believers in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. In chapter two, Paul emphasizes the reconciliation of the Jews and Gentiles through Jesus Christ where Jesus Christ “himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. (2:14, 19)” Again, the person and work of Jesus Christ breaks down racial barriers between people groups and provides a foundation for racial unity.

Of course, these instructions from the word of God are the way things should be but when humans are involved, we are going to get it wrong because of our fallen nature. Because of our brokenness as humans, we are going to have prejudices that crop up and need to be addressed. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul shares where he noticed that Peter had begun to discriminate against the Gentile brothers and sisters when Jewish Christians were around. When these Jewish believers traveled from the church in Jerusalem to the church at Antioch, Paul noticed that Peter no longer dined with the Gentiles but began eating only with the Jewish Christians. Barnabas also joined in with this hypocrisy along with other Jewish believers. In response to this prejudicial behavior, Paul opposed Peter and rebuked him for his bigotry in front of all assembled (2:11-15). This is instructive to us today. When we see others behaving badly towards those of a different people group, we should confront those who are fomenting ill will. If there is a police officer that is victimizing someone of a different race, then he should be disciplined in measure with the severity of his offense. But this “calling out” of prejudicial or bigoted behavior need not only to apply to just police officers. If some members of the community make blanket statements that all police officers are racist or support groups that execute police officers, they should be “called out” as well for their bigotry and ill will.

It has been my experience that when I have extended goodwill to others from other ethnicities, then it is almost always reciprocated. It is my belief that when goodwill is extended, God will bless this activity. As a narcotics detective in Portsmouth, Va. and when working in high drug areas, I would try to find opportunities to share goodwill with the residents there. Sometimes it meant telling them the truth but most of the time it was just being friendly to those on the street. Doing my job but trying to be kind when I could be kind. On one occasion, our narcotics street squad decided to set up a traffic checkpoint at a high drug area in order to discourage those who were driving in to purchase drugs. We also decided to bring a football, a boom box, snacks, and some soft drinks. What we found out is that those who resided in this neighborhood really responded to the good will gesture and we ended up playing football and sharing our snacks and drinks with not only the kids but also the adults. Instead of being strangers, they became people that we got to know.

Ross in Ecuador with Kids 2

When working on mission trips in Ghana, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, the fellowship was always great because I got to know those who were totally different from myself. Yet, amidst all of the differences in culture and language we had this genuine goodwill/love that covered over these major differences. It was always the case that I had intended to give my all during these times abroad. However, I realized that by the end of my time in country, I had been “out-given” by those that I was ministering to. The goodwill evident by all was palpable and goodbyes were always tearful yet joyful (if that makes sense). Within the USA, my past experiences when visiting African-American churches were also memorable for the great fellowship experienced as well.

Ross In ecuador with kids

When on a work detail in Savannah, Georgia a number of years back, I visited one of the oldest African-American churches in the country by myself (First African Baptist Church- http://firstafricanbc.com/history.asp). Not sure of the starting time of the church service, I walked into the sanctuary. It was then that I realized that it was before the main Sunday service and there were several Sunday school classes meeting in different parts of the main sanctuary one of which was a men’s class. I sat down in the sanctuary but as I sat down, one of the African-American men in the class eagerly invited me to be a part of their group. What a joy it was to be included in their class! There was plenty of goodwill being displayed by this dear African-American brother and I thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school class and the service that followed. I could go on with other examples but this article is long enough already.

What is needed today is an injection of New Testament style goodwill as modeled by Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul. The words and actions of Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul display a disregard for race/ethnicity when it comes to acceptance before God. God is more concerned with the state of one’s heart than he is with one’s skin color.  After all, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the ultimate displays of goodwill for “whosoever believes” as proclaimed in John 3:16. Therefore, in keeping with these examples, the church should blaze the way in displaying this godly love.  We should fellowship with and minister to/with others of other ethnicities. White, Hispanic, and African-American churches should seek out opportunities to fellowship and work together.  Moreover, I have a vision where people from various races join together to speak out against prejudice, bigotry, and violence no matter where it comes from. When our communities are committed to displaying goodwill towards others and speaking out against violence/bigotry, only then can our nation make strides against hate based violence and rhetoric irrespective of its origin.