Mass Murder, Gun Control, and America's Toys

The recent Oregon shooting has sparked renewed cries for gun control legislation. However, while we should enact common-sense gun control laws, we also need to think long and hard about our society’s strange obsession with gore and torture. A few weeks ago, while searching for a board game in Walmart’s toy section, I was shocked by what I saw around me on the shelves. In between Barbie dolls, Star Wars figures, and Lego sets, were toys like these:
  • An action figure set suggested for kids 12 and older. The online description notes that two of the zombies “feature a torso hole for barrier spike impalement.” 
  • A zombie action figure “recommended for kids 8 and older.” The online description notes, “The mask can be removed to reveal his exposed skull.” 
  • An action figure set suggested for kids 12 and older. The online description notes that it comes with “a bucket of body parts” (see picture), presumably to feed the zombie chained in the corner.
  • A zombie action figure for kids 8 and up. The online description notes that it comes with a “knife for head-stabbing action.” (Apparently the knife can be inserted into the face when the visor is lifted.)
Something is very wrong with our society.

Should Christians be “Polarizing”?

A friend who attended a protest against Planned Parenthood recently sent me this objection he had received from a Christian family member:
The effects of events like this are more polarizing and produce enmity between the opposing sides in ways that could be easily avoided. 
My friend asked for my thoughts on the matter. This was the gist of my response:
The problem with your family member’s view is that, even though he probably acknowledges abortion is wrong, he doesn't think it's that wrong. In other words, he doesn't really think abortion is on the same level as slavery, segregation, or national socialism. He would never criticize William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., or Dietrich Bonhoeffer for being too "polarizing." This is because he recognizes that those men were fighting great evils that should polarize society. In other words, he recognizes that those men were fighting great evils that people should sharply and dogmatically oppose.
Every year in America, over 12,000 babies are literally ripped into pieces – often while they are still alive – in the sixth month of pregnancy or later. How could any Christian not consider this among the greatest human rights abuses of all time?
Part of the problem might be a subtle ethnic or chronological bias. We like to think that Americans are 'the good guys,' and modern people are humane and enlightened. It is therefore easier for us to acknowledge human rights abuses on another continent or in another century than for us to admit that an institution at the heart of our own culture is pure barbarism. 
However, I think there may be an even deeper problem. Christians need to question how much of their purported humanitarianism is motivated by self-image. On most issues, speaking out for social justice also means receiving applause as a progressive. Not so for abortion. The issue of abortion, therefore, forces us to decide whether we are really fighting for justice or simply looking for applause.

Does Overpopulation Justify Abortion?

Occasionally pro-choice advocates will suggest that overpopulation justifies abortion. Here is how I would respond:
Pro-choice advocate: If we outlaw abortion, might we not eventually reach a point where there simply aren't enough resources to go around?
Me: Overpopulation will never happen. I’ve found a solution to the problem.
Pro-choice advocate: What’s your solution?
Me: Whenever we approach the point where there isn’t enough to go around, we simply kill all of the weakest members of our society. We start at the orphanages, the shelters, the hospitals, the prisons, and the asylums, and we continue until the population has returned to a stable level. Not only does this solve the problem of overpopulation, but as an added benefit, we can harvest organs for scientific research.
Pro-choice advocate: That’s barbaric! We can’t solve overpopulation by slaughtering people!
Me: Exactly.

A Shameful Week for the Democratic Party

This week the Democratic Party demonstrated a near unanimous opposition to restrictions on both late-term abortion and infanticide. 
  • September 16: The Obama administration released a statement promising to veto H.R. 3134 and H.R. 3504. 
  • September 18: 177 Democrats voted “no” on H.R. 3504 in the House of Representatives. 
  • September 18: 187 Democrats voted “no” on H.R. 3134 in the House of Representatives. 
  • September 22: 40 Democrats voted against H.R. 36 in the Senate. 

H.R. 3504, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, stipulates that babies born alive during abortions must receive medical care.

H.R. 3134, the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, takes hundreds of millions of federal dollars currently given to Planned Parenthood each year and gives the money instead to services which provide health care for women. This bill was prompted by a series of undercover videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discussed the practice of delivering babies intact or partially intact to harvest their organs. (In one video, a Planned Parenthood affiliate described cutting a baby’s face open with scissors while the heart was still beating.)

H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would restrict abortions after the 22 week of pregnancy and protect babies born alive during abortions. 

Where is the outrage from the Christian left? 
Where is the concern for social justice?

See to Your Sympathies in this Matter!

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1853)
"She gave me the scissors and told me that I had to cut down the middle of the face [to harvest the brain]. I can’t even describe what that feels like." PP Video #7

In light of the horrific Planned Parenthood videos, consider the concluding remarks of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a novel which vividly depicted the cruelties of slavery and galvanized the American abolition movement:
 It is said, “Very likely such cases [of extreme brutality] may now and then occur, but they are no sample of general practice.” If the laws of New England were so arranged that a master could now and then torture an apprentice to death, without a possibility of being brought to justice, would it be received with equal composure? Would it be said, “These cases are rare, and no samples of general practice?” 
But, what can any individual do? Of that every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, – they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity , is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of world policy?

Embracing the Shame of the Cross

This is the text of the homily I gave this week at the daily Eucharist celebration at Asbury Theological Seminary:
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." – Mark 8:31-33 
In today’s reading from Mark chapter 8, Jesus reveals to his disciples that he is indeed the Messiah, but he is not the Messiah they were expecting. He had not come to conquer, but to suffer.

This morning I want to draw our attention to one particular aspect of that suffering. Modern descriptions of the passion often emphasize the physical pain that Jesus endured. This is not, however, what the gospels primarily emphasize. For example, consider the scourging of Jesus. This event, depicted by Mel Gibson in such excruciating detail, is not even mentioned in Luke’s passion narrative. The other three gospels, while mentioning the scourging, give no description of it. Mark summarizes the entire event in one participle. In contrast, however, the gospel writers describe in great detail the mockery which Jesus endured. Jesus is mocked by the Jewish guards, he is mocked by Pilate’s soldiers, he is mocked by Herod’s soldiers, he is mocked by the two criminals beside him, and he is mocked by the spectators below him. He is slapped; he is spit on; he is insulted. He is blindfolded and asked to prophesy. He is crowned with thorns, draped in a purple robe, and handed a reed as a scepter. In short, while modern descriptions of the passion tend to emphasize the pain, the gospels emphasize the shame.

This is an important point for us to grasp, because the experience of Jesus on the cross is the same experience to which we are called. Immediately after rebuking Peter, Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (8:34). We are called to follow Jesus down a path of scorn, ridicule, and distain. We are called to be laughed at; we are called to be made fun of; we are called to be dismissed as a sad joke.

Today I want to encourage us to embrace that calling, and not, like Peter, to recoil from it. The temptation to run away from the shame involved in following Christ takes many forms, but this morning I want to consider two specific forms this temptation may take for us seminary students.

First, as students of theology, I believe we are often tempted to use the academy as a means of escaping the shame of the cross. We know that the world views Christians as close-minded simpletons clinging to fairy-tales, but if we can learn enough Greek and Hebrew, if we can cite enough theology and philosophy, we imagine that we can escape this stigma. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe rigorous Bible study and rigorous theological reflection are essential aspects of the spiritual life. I believe we should be able to articulate a faith that is both reasonable and winsome, but no amount of nuance or sophistication can erase the offense of the cross. If we are not careful, we will begin to view our education, not as a means of serving other Christians, but as a means of distancing ourselves from other Christians. In the end, we may reach the point where we take pride, not in identifying with the church, but in participating in the world’s ridicule of the church. We may reach the point where we find pleasure, not in guiding others to a deeper understanding of the Bible, but in mocking the ignorance and na├»vety of the brothers and sisters we were sent here to serve.

Secondly, as preachers and teachers, I believe we are often tempted to use the pulpit as a means of escaping the shame of the cross. In C. S. Lewis’ famous satire, the demon Screwtape explains that Hell seeks “to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is the least in danger.” As preachers and teachers, we face the temptation to merely echo this “fashionable outcry.” For example, it is easy to condemn bigotry when everyone we know already loathes bigotry, but it is much more difficult to speak out against those vices which our society cherishes and protects. Now of course I'm not saying that we shouldn't speak out against bigotry and other unpopular vices. We certainly should, but following in the footsteps of Jesus will also require speaking out against those vices which our society embraces.

Last week I watched a viral video which some of you may have viewed as well. In this video, an abortion doctor sifts through the remains of a dismembered fetus. She was trying to determine which organs could still be salvaged and sold. As she rummaged through the pieces, she casually joked, “It’s a baby,” and after finding the leg, exclaimed, “another boy.” These videos force us to make a decision. As ministers of the gospel of Jesus, will we take a stand against the real injustices in our society, or will we simply repeat fashionable chatter, such as “reproductive justice” and “marriage equality”? It is easy for us to imagine that if we had lived in the days of Wilberforce, Bonheoffer, or Martin Luther King Jr., we would have bravely stood up against evil. However, in today’s world, denouncing the slave trade, the Holocaust, or segregation will only win us enthusiastic applause. The true test of our commitment to the cross of Christ comes when we face those evils which are still popular. As preachers and teachers, will we speak out against injustice even if it means enduring the world’s scorn and mockery, or will we only denounce those evils which have already gone out of style?

In the book of Hebrews, the author states that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame.” He then exhorts his readers with these words:
 For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. – Heb 13:11-14 
As we come to this table, we remember the shame that our Lord endured on the cross. We remember the mockery and the insults. This table, however, is more than a remembrance of what Christ endured on Calvary. It is also a reminder of what we who follow Christ are called to endure. “Let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”