The Ethics of Opening

There is a furor of misinformed passion about whether we must stay at home, because it will save lives, or we must return to work, because it will save the economy. I think this is a false dichotomy – those are not the only two options, nor are the reasons given for these two options the actual or complete explanation for them.

Why We Don’t Close When We Don’t Close

California Governor Gavin Newsom insists, “We will let science, not politics, must be the guide” to when we reopen the economy, businesses, and public spaces.

Look at these numbers:

Deaths in California in a year (2017, CDC)
1.  Heart Disease                               62,797
2.  Cancer                                     59,516
3. Stroke                                             16,355
4.  Alzheimer’s Disease               16,238
5.  Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 13,881
6.  Accidents                                13,840
7.  Diabetes                                9,595
8.  Influenza/Pneumonia        6,340
9.  Hypertension                                5,596
10.  Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis  5,325

Coronavirus (4/15/2020)                         790

It’s not clear to me that science is calling the shots when we shut down the world’s economy for a killer that pales in comparison to a number of others, some of which, like heart disease, would actually be affected by public policy that controls people’s behaviors in a smaller way, such as making smoking illegal. We don’t run tickers on the front page of the LA Times of how many people have died of the flu each year. It seems that, in addition to science, fear, posturing, liability, electability, mental health issues, and a host of other influences are the guides. We’re not following one alone – we’re being pulled by a team of horses, and they don’t all want to run together.

Demonizing Instead of Discussing

A current Pharisaism comes from those defending the lockdown, insisting that opening things up again is an Ebenezer Scrooge kind of move, brought on by coveting money more than caring for people. The people who try to level this charge are ignoring the fact that they take part in the same kind of cold utilitarianism every single year, when, in the US, 30,000 people on average die of the flu, and they never even raise alarms about the fact that hand-shaking is an arbitrary and unnecessary custom. We all tacitly accept the fact that there are fatal infections loose in the world, and we don’t bat an eye at the fact that we contribute to their spread.

Claiming that coronavirus is worse than the flu is a bizarre kind of hypocrisy. Why is 30,000 annual deaths acceptable, and where is the breaking point where the number of deaths becomes unacceptable? The reality is simple – we’ve accepted the fact that we can’t do much to stop the flu without crippling society, and we’re not willing to cripple society to stop those tens of thousands of deaths. So maybe let’s put an end to the self-righteousness about how advocates for staying at home are heroes, when, on this subject, everyone is in one way or another using some kind of utilitarian calculus.

The Experts Agree…virus.jpg

No they don’t. This mantra is getting tired. Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, recently said, “Per case, I don’t think it’s as deadly as people thought…The World Health Organization put an estimate out that was, I think, initially 3.4 percent. It’s very unlikely it is anywhere near that. It’s it’s much likely, much closer to the death rate that you see from the flu per case.” Dr. Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at the Rockefeller University in New York, said that we could wipe out coronavirus by going back to public life and only sheltering the vulnerable parts of the population (Rockefeller has distanced itself from his views). This flies in the face of other purported exports who warn of disaster should the world return to public traffic too soon.

More to the point, there is more speculation than data in our current climate. Because tests are not widely available, we don’t have accurate data on how many people have been infected, which means the mortality-to-infection ratio is necessarily lower than what has been reported, maybe much lower. I don’t know; I won’t speculate. I only mean, again, that the self-righteousness of the social media warriors who think they know everything is overblown.

Money or Mental Health?

The claim that people who want to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable from the public rather than the public from the vulnerable, are greedy, ignores several other factors that are affected by a long timeline to reopening. The most important

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of these is mental health. Domestic abuse has risen worldwide during the pandemic. Social isolation, stress, and depression are factors that affect suicide ideation. Estimates suggest that around 20% of the population of the US, 1 in 5, struggle with anxiety disorders, which can be aggravated and intensified during this season. Reopening is not just about money, it’s about mental health. That’s a scientific consideration about which I’m seeing far less data. No one is talking about bending curves in that field, though clearly there are some exponential increases on the relevant graphs.

What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?

For Christians, the ethics are all the more difficult here, because we follow the guy who touched lepers, was confident about his ability to heal, taught his disciples to heal, and said that his followers would do even greater things than they had done back then.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for avoiding the sick.

On money, he has unilaterally negative things to say. Apparently, the goal of amassing wealth and storing it away is foolish, according to Jesus.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for the economy.

On government, he has precious little to say. He never advocates for a fiscal policy, doesn’t seek to overthrow Caesar even when they want him to, and refuses kingship. His single clearest statement about government is the recommendation that we pay our taxes – hardly the revolutionary material most of us were hoping for. Paul’s charge in Romans 13 to obey the governing authorities is clearly just to smooth the waves so that he could go about his evangelism, not some kind of subsuming of the government’s will under God’s will. Someone who got arrested and thrown in prison more than once was clearly marching to a different drummer than the local authorities.

I don’t hear Jesus creating public policy.

If I had to extrapolate, I would guess Jesus would go about his business as usual. When he would have us do the same is less clear. But I am clear about three things Jesus wouldn’t do.

  1. Jesus wouldn’t endorse our self-righteousness. Self-righteousness about knowing the right thing to do, and the consequent finger pointing at those who disagree, is clearly wrong-headed and out of place. Science is only a decent guide when it itself is guided by humility. The illusion that science is just a collection of objective facts untainted by those who use its findings needs to be dispelled.
  2. Jesus wouldn’t be afraid, either of sickness or poverty. Fear is not from God. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. Don’t be afraid! God is with you wherever you go.
  3. Jesus wouldn’t act from any motive but love. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. We might well faithfully and lovingly seek to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable, for the sake of a greater overall utility, with deep concern for the impact of mental stress and strain on the world. That’s nothing to demonize, and the motive isn’t money.

Of Mountains and Microbes

Jesus said, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will.”

Mountains are bigger than microbes.

If Jesus intended us to have no fear of the mountains we have to climb, he certainly intends us to have no fear of the microbes we have to kill. In this season of exhausting inactivity, the kind of boredom that William Blake called “rage spread thin,” Jesus is working out a kind of exercise of faith in we who believe. Just like floor exercises in which the muscles are strained by maintaining a position and standing still, there is a kind of intense workout that Jesus is doing in our hearts right now. Stretch and hold it until your core quivers, and when you’re done, you will have muscles that weren’t there before.

In the patience of this moment, God is building:

Hearts that fear him alone

Minds that don’t worry

Lives lived on mission rather than in self-satisfaction, and

Prayers that are powerful

We are not victims in this moment any more than an athlete is a victim of the gym. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.

 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell that microbe, _Go jump in the ocean,_ and it will..png

The Viral Blessings Challenge

We’re going to change the world this week with a little challenge.

chris-de-tempe-6Tl5Kl7JEQg-unsplash.jpgUp and Down.

When I ride roller coasters with my kids, I grab hold of the handle bars, make a face like someone who is having dental surgery, and hold my breath until it’s over. My kids throw their hands up in the air, laugh, and scream about how they think my seatbelt is coming loose. We don’t ride the same way.

As our society does somersaults this season, there are two different ways to handle it.

Some are holding on tight. They’ve raided Costco and stocked up unnecessary tissue. They have dozens of water bottles, though their sinks work fine. They’ve dumped stocks and they’ve stopped spending, clinging to every dollar.

Personally, this week, if I have to go to a grocery store for essentials, I’ll try a new spiritual discipline. I won’t shop for myself. I’m going to buy the gift cards that they often sell near the registers, and fill them with small amounts of money. Then, after the employees at the registers hand them to me, I’m going to give them back to the employees as a gift and thank them for what they do. I’m going to tell them that Jesus is watching over them. These are people who are serving as modern day caregivers tending to the people who are afraid of the roller coasters. You can do the same.

It’s the “Viral Blessings Challenge.” Pay attention to public health announcements and don’t go out into public spaces when you don’t have to. It’s best to wait this thing out, but when we do encounter one another, let’s fill those encounters with grace. If you have a blessing-filled encounter with someone, send me the story at jim @ reallife.la

An Open-Handed Life

Jesus changes everything about the way you approach the season of sickness and anxiety.

With Jesus, I approach life with open hands. He will provide me whatever I need, and I don’t have to cling to anything. I can throw my hands up as we roll over these hills. It may not be filled with the same fun-filled laughter you’d hear at an amusement park, but it’s filled with freedom. I don’t have to worry about life, or what I will eat, or what I will wear, because my Father in heaven knows what I need. I’m not hoarding anything.

With Jesus, I approach death with open hands. I assure you, I’m going to die some day – there’s nothing to wonder about there. But whereas some people have to approach that reality like it’s a cliff they are jumping off blind, I approach it knowing that there is a huge party waiting for me on the other side of that door. I don’t have to cling to life, because what’s in store for me will be even better.

A Prayer

If your recent days have been filled with anxiety, here’s a simple little prayer you can pray. Say it by yourself or with your family. Say it out loud if you want.

Jesus, I’ve done life on my terms instead of yours. I’ve clung to things out of fear, and I’ve lived for myself.

I don’t want to be filled with anxiety anymore. Protect me from temptation and keep me away from evil.

I give my life to you with open hands, and I trust you to take care of me. Forgive me and start me on a new path.

Now teach me how you want me to live.

If you’d like me to pray with you and for you, or if you want to talk about Jesus, send me an email at jim @ reallife.la.

The coming days may still be a roller coaster. That’s not something you can control. But you do have complete control over how you ride.

Food

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Some of us, as of this week, now face a moral dilemma.

 

Temptation and Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The temptation that caused the fall of humanity in the Jewish narrative came in the form of unnecessary food. They already had all they needed. But this food promised to allow them to sort out right and wrong for themselves, to create their own system of weights and measures, so they no longer had to depend on God to provide for them.

Daily Bread

As the Israelites marched through the desert, away from Egyptian slave-drivers and towards a homeland, the tension between God and his people was again food.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God proved again that he could provide for them exactly what they needed, supernaturally. Bread fell from the sky. They called in “Manna,” which meant, “What is this stuff?” They were told to collect each morning only enough for the day. If the Israelites took more than what they needed for a day, it would rot. They didn’t have to store up. In this way, God called them back into dependence and rewarded them with providence.

The Bread of Life

Jesus draws on the lessons of his heritage. He says things like:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He teaches his disciples to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread.

And he says of himself:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never go hungry.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that his birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Hebrew word that means “House of Bread.”

The most natural, healthy relationship between God and humanity is when we are dependent every day for our basic needs, and we live without fear that a good Father will provide for us when we ask him.

Hoarding and Sharing

Instead, in crisis, we stockpile food that we don’t need, escalating anxiety and tension in our communities. That leads us to the moral dilemma.

If you have taken more resources than you need this last week, in fear not only of a virus which is not particularly remarkable, but also in anticipation of the fear of your neighbors, you now have a moral imperative. This is from the Lord, not me.

If you over-bought this week, take food to your neighbors. Give it to them and say, “I’m trying an experiment here. I’m giving this to you to see if Jesus will take care of me.” What will happen is that you will experience the relief of knowing that a good and powerful God watches over you. You will be set free from a spirit of fear. You’ll experience the joy of providing for others. You’ll make new friends. You’ll live a story that will be worth telling.

The other choice is to continue running with the herd, and exposing sins of which we will have to repent in the next generation.

The choices here are between faith and fear, panic and peace.

Try Jesus. He’ll give you what you need.

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.