How Should We Receive Exaggerated Praise?

How Should We Receive Exaggerated Praise?

Most of my readers know that I retired at the end of spring semester. My last employment was with Whitworth University, eight plus years at their Spokane campus and over four years with programs in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico. Upon retirement, one of my colleagues gathered together “tributes” from dozens of professors and former students and made them into a video. If you are interested in seeing it, it can be viewed at https://youtu.be/k7c_RVSOoxs. You will notice that they “sang my praises” and I danced and sang “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof…in Spanish…on top of a table…in Costa Rica.

Many nice things were said, and it brought me to shed some tears. I imagined it to be somewhat similar to hearing the eulogy at your own funeral. How should we respond when we receive overstated praise?  I am vain enough to think that some of what they said was true. I am also realistic enough to know that I have not been as good, as scholarly, as exciting, as honest, as patient, as creative a professor and colleague as I could have been.

What should we take away from that kind of tribute? That people are important. Friendships that last over the years are one of the most beautiful of God’s generous gifts. So, give deeply of yourself to others and graciously receive their love.

Idolatry and Politics

The current political situation in the United States is quite troubling and sad. This can be illustrated by looking at an identifiable group on each side of the political spectrum. On the “right” are the “always Trumpers”. They repeat the White House’s talking points on every issue.  A clear example is the current spike in the Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. President Trump has downplayed the severity of the pandemic. He has repeatedly claimed that the high numbers are due to the greater number of tests the United States has administered and that the U.S. has a low Covid-19 rate. The “always Trumpers” have echoed these claims even though they are absolutely false. On a per capita basis, the U.S. has NOT administered more coronavirus tests than most European countries, and the European Covid-19 rate is much less that the rate in the US. In fact, the U.S. has the fourth worst per capita rate in the world. In their desire to support the president, the “always Trumpers” are in denial of reality.

On the other side of the political spectrum are the “never Trumpers”. For them, Trump is so detestable that everythihng he says or does is false and evil. They have such a knee jerk reaction to Trump that they must be against everything Trumpian. For example, Trump has pushed a ¨Warp Speed¨ vaccine for Covid-19 for rapid research and actual production of millions of vaccines. Although it is obvious that Trump is urging this project largely for election purposes, the ¨never Trumpers¨ are unwilling to acknowledge that moving swiftly toward the development and distribution of a safe vaccines is good and necessary.

If people are totally “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump”, they have abandoned their use of logic and reason. Their absolute political loyalty distorts the use of their minds. From a Biblical point of view, an absolute commitment to any human or institution is idolatry because we are worshiping the creation and not the Creator.

Unless people want to be classified as “pro-Trumpers” or “anti-Trumpers”, it is easy but not helpful to put our “opponents” in one of these categories. It is easy because we can then dismiss any evidence they offer without examining it.  Because too many of us categorize others in this way, we are becoming ever more polarized. When our favorite political party or politician receives a criticism, our default mode becomes a defensive posture. Instead of seeking and acknowledging the points of truth in the criticism, we grasp for any argument that helps our position, no matter how flimsy.

Since both of these extremes are dangerous for the advance of truth in our world, I suggest the following. Identify the three strongest criticisms against your favorite politician or political party. Are there any grains of truth in these criticisms? If so, do we acknowledge and act on them? If not, we are treading on dangerous ground.

Let´s keep seeking the truth and it will set us free.

Figures Never Lie… but Liars do Figure

My father would frequently repeat this quote to me, “Figures never lie… but liars do figure”. During my many decades of life, I have found that this phrase quite accurately describes human nature. In fact, it is logical. We usually try to defend our actions with reasons that we hope are persuasive (if not persuasive to others, at least to ourselves). Sometimes these arguments are valid, but at other times they are illogical rationalizations.

What we do on a personal level also occurs in the broader society. In healthy societies, opposing or alternative points of view are defended and debated in the public arena. These arguments frequently use statistics. Citizens need to think hard to evaluate the merits of the various arguments. In times of deep polarization, like our current situation, we must avoid knee/jerk reactions if we want to reach the truth. How do we evaluate these competing points of view when they involve figures, percentages, and statistics? I have found the following questions quite helpful.

  1. Are the figures accurate?
  2. What do these figures reveal (the merits and purposes of the argument)?
  3. What do these figures omit or hide (the flaws of the argument)?

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good case study, because statistics play such an important role in the national debate. For example, President Trump has often stated, “We do more Covid-19 testing than any other country.” At one level, this is a true statement. Because the United States is a large nation with a sizeable population (roughly 330 million people), the total number of tests administered here (about 40 million tests) is larger than any other country. The intention of the statement is to create confidence in the government, that our political leaders are adequately managing the pandemic, and that the large number of infections is to be expected.

At a more important level, this statement is quite false and misleading. We should compare the percentage of people who have been tested with the total population, in other words, “per capita”.[1] We could then compare “apples with apples”. At a per capita level, the United States is testing for Covid-19 at about the middle of the pack of industrialized nations. Depending on the exact date of comparison, the U.S. has tested more per capita than France, Japan and Sweden, but fewer than Australia, Russia, and Spain. The purpose of this misleading information is to paint a more positive picture of our government leadership than is warranted.

In light of this frequent misuse of numbers and statistics, what should we expect of each other? I hope that fair minded people will treat the figures accurately and not jump to inaccurate conclusions. Both those who support and those who oppose Trump (or any other leader or policy) should be honest enough to acknowledge all valid and pertinent figures and statistics, in other words, to find common ground. I also expect that people of all sides of an issue would disavow figures that are obviously wrong.[2] We must hold each other and our leaders to the high standard of truth-telling.

We are living in difficult times. The Covid pandemic is just one of our many challenges. If we want to overcome these problems, we must treat each other with serious respect, affirming what is true, rejecting what is not.


[1] Other more useful criteria would be per capita measurements of hospitalizations, ICU usage, and mortality rates.

[2] The president has made claims that are clearly false such as “We test for Covid-19 more than all other countries combined” and, more recently, “99% of Covid cases are totally harmless”. His supporters should have the courage to reject and distance themselves from these outlandish affirmations.

Truthing Along in Love

Most readers of this blog know that I am retiring at the end of this semester. I was invited to give a farewell address of encouragement to my faculty colleagues at Whitworth University which I gave on May 11. Here it is for your enjoyment.

50 years ago, this month, I was a freshman at Ohio University. The war in Viet Nam was escalating and protests were happening all over the country. Then on May 4, 1970 four middle class Kent State University students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. Violent protests erupted including at my campus. To respond to the protests, our university administration shortened the spring quarter and sent all the students home six weeks early.

For the next fifty years, I have always had at least one foot in the world of higher education. Studying, teaching, ministry and ahhh… yes, grading exams and term papers. Five decades later my formal academic career is coming to an end. This week I will probably be grading my last tests and papers. I am again experiencing several weeks of disrupted classes…this time due to the coronavirus.

My dad would frequently say, “Too old, too soon, too wise, too late!”

I have become older, but have I grown up? I have added years, but have I added wisdom? I have become more senior, but have I become more mature? In the letter to the Ephesians 4:15, Paul gives us an exhortation on how we can grow up into maturity and not just grow older. This verse is usually translated as “speaking the truth in love, we will grow up to maturity in Christ”. In order to be more faithful to the original Greek, we must take the noun “truth” and change it into a verb. Something like “truthing along in love, we will grow up to maturity in Christ.”

I would like to limit my reflections to three aspects of truthing along in love

  1. Speaking the truth
  2. Seeking the truth
  3. Living into the truth
  1. The phrase “speaking the truth in love” is an important component. We need to speak truth into each other’s lives. Why? Because we are finite and because we are fallen. We all have blind spots and we need others to enable us to see life more clearly. Because we are fallen and sin permeates all areas of our lives, speaking truth to each other brings healing to our world.

We have one of the best jobs in the world. We get paid to speak truth to our students. We do not primarily teach history, nor literature, nor science, nor Spanish, nor even our beloved Core 350. No, we teach students! History, Science, Spanish and Core 350 are tools of our trade to help shape our students into more mature men and women. To speak academic truth into our students’ lives is relatively easy but to show how this information can and should produce character, wisdom, courage, the making of good choices, a more accurate self-understanding, the building of healthy relationships is harder, but it is just as vital. Let us carefully, cautiously, and humbly speak truth into each other.

  • A second component is seeking the truth. It is equally important but much less common. We must be more than “open to the truth”. We need to actively seek it out. Many public officials and executives do not seek the truth. They surround themselves with Yes Men and Yes Women: people who will tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. How much further down the road would I be now if I had sought out truth and invited more mentors, colleagues, family members and students to pour truth (as well as they understood it) into my life? Some of us have been fortunate to have experienced a good mentor, discipler, spiritual director who poured tough love into our lives.

I am going to ask you to do something. Over the next weeks and months, I ask that you give a standing invitation to a couple of colleagues to speak tough love truth into your life. Something like ¨Friend, I invite you to speak truth into my heart. Where you see something good, reaffirm it. When you see me going astray, lead me back to the right path¨. Begin with a couple of close friends, but then extend the invitation to those who you frequently disagree with. If we actively seek out truth, we can make Whitworth better.

  • Living the truth is quite scarce today, from the White House, down through our institutions and in our homes. Why is that? From our earliest days we learn how to lie, to embellish the truth, to make our information look better and that of others to look not so good.
  • As children we learn that lying saves us from getting punished…in the short run.
  • Commercials on television tell us that product A is better than product B even when it isn’t.
  • On our curriculum vitas, we highlight what makes us look good and we omit that which does not.
  • In our promotion of Whitworth, we emphasize the positive, but do we do not usually mention our warts.
  • If we run for public office (as I did), we are encouraged to select our facts, to speak half-truths, to give misleading answers in order to get more votes.
  • Why is living the truth important? Because people´s lives are at stake. Let´s take Covid-19 as an example. Dr. Fauci has repeatedly warned that if we do not obey told us by public health experts, we will witness thousands of needless deaths.

There is a more eternal reason. During my fifty years in higher education (both secular and Christian), most of the people that I have met (faculty, staff, students, parents) have been attracted to Jesus, but very disappointed and disillusioned by Christians. Our students too quickly become jaded…not primarily by our failures, but by our failure to admit our faults. When we do not admit our mistakes, we turn our holy faith into a Pharisaical farce. We become spiritually proud…and our students learn to imitate that pride and others turn away from the faith. Therefore, let us be quick to confess our sins to each other so that we may be healed.

Sisters and brothers of Whitworth, let us speak the truth, seek the truth, and live the truth so that we may better know the One who is the Truth and who will set us free!

Cultivating Relations with Students: Lessons Learned along the Way

Most followers of my blog know that I have been a professor for most of my adult life. As I approach retirement, Whitworth University has asked me to share about cultivating relationships with students. Here are some of my reflections.

Walking alongside students as a teacher, mentor, and friend is one of the greatest privileges and professions on earth! Having enjoyed this privilege for more than four decades, here are some of the life lessons I have learned along the way.

I am frequently asked, ¨What do you teach?¨ On my better days, I strive to resist the urge to say I teach Spanish, Latin America History, or Worldview Epistemologies. These subjects are important tools of the trade, but my students are the principal object of my teaching. My main goal is to help shape and sharpen my students as they walk through life. I hope to accompany them as they aim to become mature seekers of truth.

Since each student is unique, I need to get to know them, their hopes and dreams as well as their doubts and fears. With some students we have a common faith so I can mentor them towards maturity in Christ. With others, I need to discover ¨common ground¨ so that I can encourage them to reach their highest goals. Overseas study programs are great ways to get to know students. The 24/7 activities combined with the fact that we are all out of our comfort zones lead to important shared experiences. Following the pedagogy of Jesus, we have deep reflections on these experiences and praxis.

Education is more that just information. There is a strong volitional component, of living faithfully into the truths we are discovering. How do we urge students to obey the truth in difficult times? Each major field of study (architecture, medicine, journalism, etc.) has its particular ethical challenges. I strive to help students see how those challenges have been faced in the past and how they might embrace similar touch choices in the future. I share with my students pertinent stories from my own life, my successes and failures, and my difficult decisions. Sometime my anecdotes are humorous, sometimes self-deprecating, but (hopefully) always useful.

Friendships do not end at graduation. Blessed with modern technology (email, blogs, skype, etc.) I strive to stay in touch with students after they have left Whitworth. Through my periodical newsletters, I keep former students abreast of job opportunities and my commentary on recent political events.

                Our postmodern world is characterized by an overly generous ¨tolerance¨ of each other´s shortcomings mixed with horrific abuses of power in all areas of life. Many students yearn to be like Jesus who perfectly combined truth and grace. When the trust between us has grown, students readily open up and share their dilemmas of how to react to evil in our world.

Given how fragmented modern life is, I find it important to help students connect the dots of ¨isolated¨ information. For example, the land grabbing wars in the nineteenth century against Paraguay and Bolivia by their neighbors were inspired by the war against Mexico by the expansionist president Polk twenty years earlier (that Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln protested against). Learning from the past enables us to face the present with courage and wisdom. Pursuing this theme of connecting the dots, I recognize that it takes a community to mentor our students. I ask them what they are learning in other courses. How does what we are studying in our class mesh with what they are learning in other courses?

The older I get, the more I recognize how much I have learned (and keep on learning) from my younger friends. Learning from others is a lifelong activity.

The Coronavirus and a Bad Week for “Trump’s” Stock Market

Over the past three years, President Trump has been repeatedly warned not to take too much credit for the rise in the stock market. If he claimed that he and his policies were the main reason for its gains, he would also have to ¨own¨ that same market if an unexpected plunge would bring the market down. His unmerited praise in the good times could easily be outweighed by undeserved criticism for bad conditions beyond his control.

The truth of the matter is that Trump inherited a strong economy from the Obama administration. For example, in the last 19 months of Obama’s administration, 3.9 million jobs were created in the U.S., whereas 3.6 million jobs were created in the first 19 months of Trump’s presidency. (In my next blog, I will analyze the tax cut, the national debt and other aspects of our economy, but here I want to concentrate on the Coronavirus and the stock market.)

The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all time high on Wednesday, February 19. It closed that afternoon at 29,348.03 Although there was an awareness of the negative economic effects of the Coronavirus, the White House and many economic pundits believed that the negative impact would largely be limited to China. Small drops in the Dow Jones were expected to occur and that is precisely what happened last week. Nevertheless, the harsh economic reality hit with a vengeance on Monday, February 24, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than a thousand points to a close at 27,960.80 (a decline of more than 3%).

It was widely predicted that the Dow Jones would rebound on Tuesday. That turn around did not materialize and the market continued to fall another 880 points.

The Dow Jones index dropped another 125 points on Wednesday which prompted President Trump to present a special televised message to the nation later that evening. His message was to show to a concerned citizenry and a jittery market that the administration was in control of the Coronavirus situation. In response to the criticism that the administration´s response was in shambles, Trump appointed Vice President Pence to be the ¨Czar¨ of the situation. Trump´s message was not his best. He rambled, repeated himself, and made misleading comments about the Coronavirus being similar to the flu. He claimed that it was not inevitable that the virus would extend widely throughout the U.S., thus contradicting what his own CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)  had announced that it was not a question of IF the Coronavirus would spread in the United States, but WHEN it would do so.

Far from calming his public, the Dow Jones dropped another 1190 points on Thursday to close at 25,766.64. This was the largest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones. In a strange twist on the fable about the boy who cried wolf, President Trump has a credibility problem with half of the American public. The more he affirms, ¨Everything is great¨, ¨we have it under control¨, and ¨we are totally prepared¨, the less our citizens believe him. I don’t believe him. More importantly, investors don´t believe him.

On Friday, the nose dive of the Dow Jones continued. It dropped another 357 points to close at 25,409.36. It was the worst one week decline since the economic crisis of 2008. From its high on February 19, it has fallen 15%. Most economic and political pundits believe (hope?) that the bottom has been reached and that the value of the stocks will soon rise again. Nevertheless, here is what we need to keep in mind if we want to move forward:

  1. We must not minimize the personal tragedy. Almost three thousand people have already died from the virus and over 82,000 have been infected worldwide.
  2. Vice President Mike Pence, the new ¨Czar¨ charged with heading the fight against the virus, needs to surround himself with credible medical health experts. When Pence was governor of Indiana, he made several troublesome medical health comments like ¨Cigarettes do not cause cancer¨.
  3. President Trump must be more honest and transparent with the American public. He has muzzled government scientists and health officials to get clearance with Pence´s office before they communicate with the media. This censorship does not inspire confidence.
  4. The coronavirus is not the sole reason for the Dow Jones fall. Most stock market experts agree that the market was overvalued and was in need of a ¨correction¨. Before the virus hit, many countries around the world were sliding into a recession. That is now more likely. The trade war with China had already weakened the economies of that country and the U.S. The relationship between our economic growth and our huge national debt is at a very dangerous level. As a country, our expenses are much higher than our income. We are paying for our lavish lifestyle by borrowing from future generations.
  5. The economy has a huge political impact. Remember Clinton’s political slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Trump’s political fortunes will rise or fall on how his administration handles this crisis. For better or for worse, Trump “owns” this economy.

Jesus and Economics: Radical and Refreshing

Introduction

Most of my blog readers know that I strive to follow Jesus and that I try to apply his ethical teaching to all areas of human existence. Economics is one of the more important arenas of human life where we desperately need to hear a word from the Lord. Decades ago, I wrote my Master´s thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the Bible and economics. Biblical teaching on economic issues is both radical and refreshing. I am the first one to admit that I do not live up to the standards that God desires. I also recognize that it is not easy to apply Biblical principles from thousands of years ago to our current and complex economic challenges. Nevertheless, given that the creation and distribution of wealth is going to play an important role in this year´s election campaigns, I submit for your analysis the following article in which I try to summarize the Biblical teaching.

Does God want a redistribution of resources?

In modern democracies questions frequently arise about the appropriate role of government in economic spheres, especially regarding the redistribution of wealth. Although the United States is generally considered to be capitalistic, our government intervenes in the ¨free market¨ in many different ways (Social Security, government subsidies to the oil industry, the U.S. Postal Service, huge budgetary expenditures for the military and the associated military-industrial complex, etc.) It is right to raise questions about which of these economic interventions by governments are good and useful and which are not.

In this brief article I will try to demonstrate that God, because of his immense love for humanity, is strongly in favor of resources flowing from those who have more than enough to those who have dire need. I believe that the Bible clearly indicates that this redistribution should take place at a personal level, within and between congregations, as well as implemented by governmental legislation. Here are some of the most pertinent Biblical passages to support that position.

Individual Redistribution of Wealth

God is portrayed in the Bible as a loving Father who gives good gifts to his children. He is often described as the Defender of the orphan, the widow, and foreigner because they frequently did not receive fair treatment under the law. (Psalm 68:5, Leviticus 19:10, Isaiah 41:17, James 1:27) All of humanity bears God’s image and, therefore, all people are of immense value. God does not want people to suffer from hunger or homelessness. As a consequence, God frequently uses people to accomplish his goal of everyone having enough. He urges believers to share their possessions as a demonstration of  divine love.

John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When asked by the people what they should do, he answered “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11). The dire need of people leads to a sharing of resources by true believers who see that need.  This teaching was later reaffirmed throughout the New Testament. The Apostle Paul taught about work and the goal of labor. “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28) The Apostle John is even clearer. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) The Epistle from James is just as straightforward. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  (James 2:14-17)

That believers represent God’s love is seen in the affirmation of James, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….” (James 1:27a)

The Redistribution of Resources within the Church (both locally and internationally)

The redistribution of wealth was a characteristic of the New Testament church. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, there was a sharing of possessions. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) This practice of the early church was inspired by God and had divine blessing as God added daily to the church those that were being saved.

Two chapters later there was another description of congregational life. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:32-27)It is important to recognize that meeting each other’s needs was praised as evidence of God’s great and powerful grace.

A problem arose in the in the distribution of food to meet the needs of the widows in the congregation. The “Hebrew” widows were served well, but the “Hellenistic” widows were being neglected. Instead of scrapping the whole program, the church leadership chose seven Hellenistic “deacons” to oversee the distribution. (Acts 6:1-7) The apostles “bent over backwards” to make sure the needs of the Hellenistic widows would be fully met.

This practice of koinonia or resource transfer from those with more possessions to those with great need began to extend beyond the boundaries of the local church in Jerusalem. In Acts 11 we see that a significant offering was sent from the Christians in Antioch to believers in Judea. “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11: 27-30)

At the international church “summit” in Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Holy Spirit led the apostles to a wise decision of division of responsibilities of gospel ministry to the Jews and to the Gentiles. Paul summarizes this decision in his letter to the Galatians. “James, Cephas (Peter) and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:9-10)

This inter-church economic fellowship led to Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (Most Christians today wrongly think that Paul’s journey was primarily evangelistic, when, in fact, it was a five- year project to raise a collection from among the Gentile churches to share with the persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. He mentioned this collection to the relatively affluent church in Corinth. “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (I Corinthians 16:1-3)

The Corinthian Christians responded and boasted they could contribute generously to the collection. Nevertheless, their actions did not correspond to their boasting. Paul wrote two whole chapters in his Second Letter to the Corinthians in which he laid out a strong case for why they should participate in this divine redistribution of wealth. “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So, we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative. And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you. As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. Therefore, show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.” (II Corinthians 8:1-24; we can see the importance that God gives to this collection because Paul continues urging the Corinthians to participate throughout the entire chapter 9)

Given that it is frequently said we should limit the sharing of our wealth to our closest neighbors, it is important to note that this collection was international and intercultural. It was destined for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who generally looked down upon the Gentile Christians as “second-class” believers who didn’t live up to the fullness of divine teaching (such as dietary laws and circumcision). We who are followers of Jesus have a responsibility with our neighbors…both near and far.

Governmental Legislation for the Redistribution of Resources

God was so concerned that people had sufficient food and other basic necessities that He did not leave this concern up to the “voluntary generosity” of believers. He issued legislation that would guarantee that the most vulnerable people in society (widows, orphans, foreigners, the poor) would have a dignified life with their most basic needs met.  Here is a small sample of the Old Testament legislation that God instituted to demonstrate his love. Given the fact that Israel was to be a “light unto the nations”, the principles illustrated in the Old Testament should be adapted and applied to modern societies.

The Law of Gleaning

Many Christians wrongly believe that the Bible defends private property as if it were an absolute right. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that God is the only “owner” of everything. We humans are mere “stewards” to administer God’s property according to divine priorities. A good example is the law of gleaning. God legislated that in the harvest of the crops, a portion should be left in the field so that the poor and the strangers could harvest (=glean) the crop and thereby feed their families. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10). This legislation was very important for the Jewish people and provides the necessary background for the survival of Ruth and Naomi. Possessions do not belong absolutely to their human “owners”. We are stewards of God’s possessions and should administer them accordingly.

(See an excellent recent article “The Book of Ruth Can Transform the Way We Do Business Today:What companies might learn from the Old Testament practice of gleaning” in Christianity Today that shows creative, contemporary applications of the law of gleaning at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/july-august/gleaning-business-csr-bible.html?utm_source=ctdirect-html&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=9478920&utm_content=664804534&utm_campaign=email)

The Year of Jubilee

            The Old Testament is quite radical in its understanding that God is the only true ¨owner” of the earth. Every seventh year there would be a sabbath rest. The land would lie fallow and God would provide enough food for the people.

After the 49th year (seven times seven sabbath rest years), there would be a special celebration, a Jubilee. Land that had been “sold” during those 50 years would be returned to the original “owners” and/or to their descendants. This is quite radical. What this really means is that land is not truly bought or sold. What is actually bought/sold is the use of the land until the fiftieth year.

“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan…. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 25:10, 13-17)

This is like playing Monopoly, but it is more just, because we play according to God’s rules. Usually when you play Monopoly, after an hour or so, one player has accumulated most of the properties and the others have gone bankrupt. But according to the divine mandate, every fiftieth year we start all over again. Everyone is treated equally and is given a new beginning.

The Second Tithe

Most Christians do not realize that part of the Old Testament tithe included the redistribution of resources. Moses told the Israelites “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.”  (Deut 26:12-13) It is important to note that the “sacred portion” which was destined for God, was, in fact, to be given to the most vulnerable in society.

God and “Non Jewish” Governments

The Bible gives many insights on what He expects from all governments, even “secular” ones. God raised up the prophet Amos to speak to the government of his time. God judges the religious theocracy of Israel because “they sell the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” (Amos 2:6b-7a) Nevertheless, God (through the prophet Amos) also judges the neighboring “secular” governments of Moab, Edom, Ammon, Tyre and Gaza. Their greed and desire to “extend their boundaries” led them to oppress the poor and sell them into slavery, instead of meeting their needs.

Slavery in the Bible

Many Christians (including myself) are uncomfortable with the fact that slavery seems to be authorized in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, under closer scrutiny, slavery in the Bible was more like “indentured servitude”. It was not permanent slavery. Frequently, poor people would sell themselves into this “servitude” because they owed debts. After serving six years, they would become free. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him.” (Exodus 21:2-3)

Advice for a King

There is important, but little recognized, advice given to King Lemuel by his wise mother. Much of this advice deals with the redistribution of resources to take care of those in need. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9) This legal defense of the poor and needy meant that they receive their assigned portions according to the legislation regarding gleanings, the tithe, and the jubilee.

Governments and the Fallenness of Humanity

All of life is fallen and societies need to be redeemed and changed, especially in economic areas. Those who have political power tend to use that power for their own economic benefit at the expense of the poor. Jesus said to his followers, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” (Luke 22:25) This criticism is quite relevant. Rulers call themselves “benefactors”, which means “doers of good”. In fact, they enrich themselves at the expense of their subjects, all the while claiming to be doing good. Jesus rightly denounces the hypocrisy of the politicians of his day…and of ours.

John the Baptist spoke clearly to this kind of abuse of power. He told the corrupt tax collectors who took advantage of their positions, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to”. In a similar fashion, he told soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:12-14)

            It is obvious that our government leaders and laws favor the wealthy. The IRS has so many loopholes that a lot of rich people and corporations (like Amazon) pay no taxes at all. An obvious example is illustrated by the release of President Trump´s income tax reports from 1985-1994. Although he was very rich, he paid no income tax at all for eight of those ten years.

Why do Some Christians Oppose a Redistribution of Resources?

Although most Christians in the United States do not practice a significant Biblically prescribed redistribution of resources at either the individual nor congregational level, they don’t usually oppose it in principle. They just treat it as “voluntary generosity” that does not have to be put into practice. Nevertheless, many “Bible-believing” Christians actively oppose a redistribution of resources at a governmental level as if it were anti Christian. Why is this? Here are some possible reasons.

  1. Sin is universal. Greed and selfishness are basic elements of this sin as we have put our own interests and desires as the highest priority of our lives. We are all naturally greedy and selfish, yet we are frequently blinded to this reality. The Bible is pretty clear that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), but roots are not usually visible, because they are buried underground. Greed is deceptive and we don’t always recognize it, especially when it is buried within ourselves. Paul had to highlight the fact that greed was, in effect, idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
  2. Faithful presentations of the gospel strive to remove the root of greed, as seen in John the Baptist’s tough call to repentance (mentioned above). The rich young ruler was characterized by this root of selfishness.  He was a religious man and thought that he had kept God’s commandments. Jesus told him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21b) The young man chose to keep his possessions and he rejected Jesus’ message. Jesus did not lower his standards to lure him in. He needed tough love and that is what Jesus gave him.
  3. Even after they have begun their walk with God, Christians still struggle with greed and selfishness. In fact, the first sin recorded in the early church happened when Ananias and Sapphira sold a property and offered it to the church, but lied about the amount (Acts 5:1-11). Those who lead the church should be people who are not lovers of money nor those who pursue dishonest gain (Titus 1:7; I Peter 5:2; I Timothy 3:3,8)
  4. We are deeply shaped by our culture. Although some of that shaping is fairly neutral (I speak American English with an Ohio accent), many of our cultural elements pose ethical challenges. Commercials on tv and elsewhere constantly try to convince me that my value is based on what I possess in contrast with Jesus’ warning: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)Overeating, lying, competition, addictions have ethical dimensions. The Apostle Paul urges Christians: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2).

What Happens if the Transfer of Resources Leads to Negative Results?

Is it possible that the transfer of resources produces bad results. In the early church in Thessalonika, some of the Christians expected Jesus to return within days or weeks. Such was the depth of their belief, that they stopped working and dedicated their time to waiting for Jesus´ return. The other Christians had to provide them with food. In his Second Letter to the church of the Thessalonians, Paul told the Christians not to ¨enable¨ these believers in their ¨holy laziness¨. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) This “tough love” approach is the basis for contemporary policies of unemployment compensation. When citizens are out of work, they are allowed to receive financial compensation, but they have to demonstrate that they are actively seeking employment. Tough questions arise.

  1. Should orphans and widows be supported by the state if family members or communities of faith don’t step up?
  2. Should a single mother (widowed or abandoned by her partner) be supported by the government given the fact that she is working (=parenting) or should she put her child in a day care center and look for employment outside of the home?
  3. How can communites of faith recover their previous roles of caring for the sick, taking care of the poor, showing hospitality to strangers, and serving the homeless in ways that truly minister to the vulnerable and empower them at the same time?

Lessons Learned from the Impeachment Trial

The Impeachment process is over. Although the dust has not settled, we need to ask: What have we learned?

 Lesson #1

We have a divided Congress This was clearly seen in the votes on impeachment. Back in December in the House of Representatives, 230 members voted in favor of Article 1 of impeachment (Abuse of Power) while 197 voted against (a few abstained). That is a 54/46% split in approval of impeachment. In the Senate in January, it was the mirror opposite.  48 senators voted in favor of Article 1, with 52 against.

Lesson #2

It was a strange impeachment trial. In all fifteen previous trials in the Senate (of sitting presidents or others), key witnesses had given relevant testimony. Not in this case. Government officials, like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, could have provided information that would either have shown the president to be innocent or guilty of the abuse charges. According to several reliable polls, 75% of the U.S. population wanted witnesses to testify. (In these divided times, this was overwhelming agreement.) Nevertheless, only two Republican senators voted to have witnesses. The remaining Republican senators seemed to be afraid of upsetting the president and in receiving his wrath. Senator Lamar Alexander´s response was typical. He thought the House representatives had proven their case that the president´s actions were ¨improper¨ but he did not believe those actions reached the bar of ¨high crimes and misdemeanors¨. I am disappointed in Alexander and others like him. He believed the president to be guilty but would not allow Bolton and Mulvaney to present their understanding of what really happened to the American public.

Lesson #3

Senator Susan Collins said she hoped that the president would have learned from his mistakes and would act more properly in the future. (Bill Clinton had, at least, apologized to the nation for his wrong actions). Such was not the case. Trump did not apologize. To the contrary, he has maintained that he did nothing wrong. He feels more emboldened to act as if he were ¨above the law¨. For example, his tweets have applied pressure to Attorney General Barr to reduce the sentencing recommendations on his old friend, Roger Stone, who lied to Congress. Barr proclaimed that Trump´s tweets have made it ¨impossible for me to do my job¨.  (Many feel that this was just political theater so that Barr could claim independence from Trump even though he does the president´s bidding on every single issue). The lesson we should learn is that no one is above the law.

Lesson #4

Meanwhile, the Democrats are in the midst of a messy primary tussle. The process in Iowa was a complete debacle. In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders won a close race against Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Bernie´s challenge: How does he persuade the American public that his Democratic Socialism is the good variety (like Social Security or as practiced in much of Europe)? Joe Biden has slipped and needs a victory in South Carolina to go forward.  Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is hovering over the field hoping for several wins on super Tuesday.

Hang on to your hats. The next few weeks will be a political roller coaster ride.

The Impeachment Trial and Hypocrisy

The impeachment trial of President Trump is coming to an end. It is likely today there will be a vote on the calling of witnesses. That vote will probably be about 49/51 and therefore not enough to pass. If this happens, Trump will be acquitted shortly thereafter.

There have been many irregularities that need to be clarified. Here are my reflections.

Hypocrisy is evident in both sides: Democrats and Republicans. Two decades ago, President Clinton was impeached in the Republican controlled House of Representatives but acquitted in the Democrat dominated Senate (just the opposite of the current composition in Congress). Some of the current key players on both sides were also quite involved in the Clinton trial (Lindsey Graham, Jerry Nadler, Zoe Lofgren, Mitch McConnell, and others) and they are on record arguing for ethical and procedural positions on witnesses, documents, etc., in that trial that are just the opposite of what they have affirmed in the current situation. Although it is possible for people to change their minds on ethical principles, in this case the tribalism and hypocrisy are quite evident. We the people are naïve if we don´t recognize that many politicians change their moral principles to suit their personal or political ambitions. We the people should call them out, Democrats and Republicans alike, for their hypocrisy.

Witnesses – According to U.S. history, we have had fifteen previous impeachment trials in the Senate (of Presidents and others). In every one of these trials, there have been witnesses. If no witnesses are permitted to give testimony in the Trump trial, it is a complete break with precedent.

A bogus argument – The White House lawyers have repeatedly claimed that the Democrats in the House did not do their job, because they should have called witnesses like Bolton. As a consequence, the lawyers argue that the Senate should not call witnesses just because the House Democrats failed to do their job. This is the height of hypocrisy and I hope that most citizens see through this guile. The lawyers know quite well that Trump defied every single subpoena for witnesses and documents. When subpoenas are defied, the lawyers claimed the House should have gone to court to obtain this testimony, but they know quite well that appeals to the court would take months to work through the judicial system. (the House did take their subpoena of previous White House Counsel Don McGahn to court, but nine months later, the courts have still not given their final decision) This is stalling. What makes it worse, early on the WH counsel said that taking the subpoenas to court was illegal. Arguing that the House could not go to court and then arguing that the House should have taken the extra months and/or years by going to court is a sham. Most Americans recognize this as hypocritical.

In an earlier blog weeks ago, I expressed the need for eyewitnesses to testify. Eyewitnesses like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney are the ones whose testimony under oath could confirm whether President Trump is innocent or guilty. Both of these men were appointed by Trump. Both are Republicans. Rules could be established that limit their testimony to one day or one week. To vote against calling these witnesses is an admission of not wanting to seek the truth.

Not hearing from the most relevant witnesses gives the appearance of hiding the facts and covering up misdeeds. John Bolton´s book will eventually be published, and his understanding of the truth will be made public. Let it happen during the trial and not when it is too late.

Martin Luther King, Civil Disobedience and the Bible

Today we have a federal holiday to honor the life and service of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  He became known around the world for his defense of civil rights. He was a strong example of producing social change through non-violent means. Although he had flaws like all of us, there is much too learn from his life.

In this writing I would like to comment on another aspect of his life: civil disobedience. I believe that citizens generally should obey the laws of their country. Although most laws have been established for the common good of people, on some occasions, laws or commands by authorities are so morally wrong that they need to be disobeyed. Civil disobedience is not an easy decision. It requires courage and a willingness to be arrested and to accept the punishment.

In this regard, Martin Luther King had a specific word for Christians. He said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” Christians look to Scripture for guidance whether it be the establishment of just laws or the occasional need to disobey unjust laws. It might come as a surprise to some readers, but civil disobedience appears frequently in the Bible. Three passages will suffice to illustrate the most important principles.

In the Book of Acts, the early Christians were turning the world upside down through their preaching and practice of the gospel. The religious authorities of the Sanhedrin did not like the changes that were occurring and prohibited the apostles from sharing the gospel. Nevertheless, the early followers of Jesus continued their evangelism. Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29). Here is the clear principle: When human rules violate God´s laws, believers need to obey God, the highest authority. Our allegiance to family, political party, or nation must always be limited and conditioned by our obedience to God.

A clear example of civil disobedience in the Old Testament took place when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh was oppressing the Hebrews and feared their numerical growth. He then ordered the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the baby boys immediately after they were born. This command to murder the baby boys clearly was against God´s teaching. What would these two women do? Scripture tells us that ¨the midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). The ethical principle is obvious: the taking of innocent life is wrong. Believers must obey God rather than dictatorial rulers. Shiphrah and Puah are my heroines.

Earlier this month, Christians celebrated the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. In their search for the Messiah, the Magi came across King Herod in Jerusalem. Herod was alarmed at the news of a newborn King of the Jews, and told them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” This was a lie. After they found and worshipped Jesus, the Magi were told by God to not return to Herod (Matthew 2:7-12). The lesson to be learned is that people need to exercise a healthy dose of suspicion and discernment to avoid becoming accomplices in the sins of unjust rulers.

Let us strive to contribute to the conscience of our world through our word and our actions!