Sunday, January 29, 2023

Jesus and guns

I have finished editing my notes on Christian ethics and will self-publish in the next day or so. I did add a section on gun control to the article on "There are exceptional circumstances where force is permissible."


The question of gun control has become a fairly serious discussion in recent years. The United States has in its Constitution the right “to bear arms.” This right presumably was put in the Constitution remembering that the country was founded in a rebellion against its ruling authorities, with individuals taking up arms against its government.

It seems strange that some aspects of this topic would be significant enough for Christians to merit inclusion in a book on Christian ethics, but it seems appropriate. On the one hand, the Bible has no prohibition about owning weapons. Israel went to war. Peter has a sword of some kind with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, presumably not only for utility but also for protection (John 18:10).

However, after Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus gives the more basic Christian attitude toward violence: “Put your sword back into its sheath” (John 18:11). In this article, we have argued that the use of force can be justified in some rare circumstances. But it is the exception. The fundamental bias of Jesus is toward peace, and we have no reason to think that Jesus himself carried a sword.

Jesus’ default instruction was to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). The more fundamental orientation of the New Testament is to show the power of God in your unjust suffering (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:9): “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” Paul says the same: “Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19).

This teaching is hard, and many American Christians implicitly reject it. Our culture has a cult of freedom and rights, and the church sometimes cannot tell where its faith ends and its Americanism begins. Bonhoeffer would be appalled at the way one moment of allowing for violence against Hitler under the most extreme of circumstances has now made him a hero for a fundamental attitude of violence by many in the American church. [1] The fundamental attitude of the New Testament in relation to these things is one of peace. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Paul did not mean peace at the end of a gun.

In general, it seems permissible to defend yourself, but the use of violence is not the fundamental bias of the Christian. Violence begets violence. Peace begets peace. In the light of the New Testament, which seems to fit Jesus’ bias better: let us have more and more guns or let us have fewer and fewer? If you answered “more,” you are probably not reading the New Testament with a clear head. In the decade after the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to sunset in 2004, mass shootings more than tripled. No objective reading of Jesus will likely conclude that the Christian way is “more and more guns.”

Is there not a happy medium between all or nothing? As we will continue to explore later, the Christian ideal for a country would be a place that maximally “loves its neighbor as itself.” If we were to put this idea into secular philosophical terms, “What structure of government brings about the greatest good for the greatest number without violating the fundamental health of any minority in the process?” In philosophical terms, this approach is a mixture of utilitarianism (greatest good for greatest number) and something called universal ethical egoism (maximal benefit for every individual). Because love of neighbor is one of the chief ways in which we love God, such a structure also loves God in the process.

We can thus see an intersection between Christian values and secular values in the question of what approach brings about the greatest good for the majority of people without hurting some segment of the population. Obviously less violence for more people is an easy answer. Further, an unlimited and unregulated freedom to have weapons is arguably neither in the best interests of the majority nor does it hurt the health of some minority. None of the rights in the US Bill of Rights is absolute. They all balance against each other.

As a side note, during this phase of history, God is not yet forcing the world to serve him. In other words, loving God does not mean forcing the rest of the country to follow Christian rules. God allows other religions to exist. During the days of Israel, he allowed other nations to exist, and during the days of the New Testament there was no political entity that was a theocracy, a country supposedly ruled directly by God. In practice, theocracies end up being rule by religious leaders who are the ones who relay to the people what God supposedly thinks.

What is the New Testament view of rights? We should note that Paul clearly subordinates his individual rights to the benefit of others. As someone working for the benefit of the Corinthian church, he had a biblical right to their material support. They had an obligation to support him, Paul says. Nevertheless, “we have no made use of this right… rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12).

He advises the same to the Corinthians, some of them clearly felt the freedom to eat meat that had been sacrificed to another god, perhaps even at a pagan temple. Paul urges them that the way of Christ is not a way of insisting on my freedoms. “‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial… Do not seek your own advantage but the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Even if your conscience is clear, Paul says, sacrifice your own freedom for the benefit of the person whose conscience is not clear (1 Cor. 10:28-29).

There are of course limits here. Sometimes the faith of the other person is not in danger because of my freedom. They’re just going to get ticked off. Paul does not say, “Don’t wear a wedding ring because you’re going to offend someone who doesn’t wear one.” Nevertheless, even here, the Christian does not have a bias for giving offense. The Christian bias is for peace, even when the other party seems to be acting unreasonably.

The law is complicated. Laws often have unintended consequences. Let me merely do my best to suggest what I think Jesus would do in relation to gun control. Let us assume that Jesus did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword. Let us therefore allow that there is nothing intrinsically unbiblical about a Christian owning weapons. There is nothing unbiblical about hunting. There seems to be allowance for self-defense.

However, something seems a little off with a thirst for human-killing weapons. We are not talking about the military. We are talking about individuals who stockpile weapons. I cannot say it is prohibited. It simply does not obviously fit the spirit of the New Testament.

Would Jesus have supported an assault weapons ban? Would Jesus have supported some regulations on who can own a gun? Would Jesus have supported background checks to get a weapon? Perhaps Jesus would have said, “Let Caesar do what Caesar wants.” Nevertheless, it is hard to see where Jesus would not have said “yes” to the values behind these questions. This is the value of preserving life. Among his own followers, he would have surely supported limitations, with abstinence from weapons likely preferred when feasible.

When the groups we are part of get into ideological fights, it is sometimes hard to get our heads straight. We are in streams of culture, including Christian culture. We get pushed along. Sometimes we are like that frog in the kettle that does not realize he is being boiled until it is too late. In the early 2000s, I used to joke that the reason some in my family supported the NRA was because they were against abortion. In other words, because they are against abortion, they are Republican. Republicans tend to be aligned with the NRA. Therefore, by the transitive property of equality, they support the NRA because they are against abortion.

This sequence of thought is of course illogical, and it probably is not as funny today as it was twenty years ago. Many Christians have been boiled in the kettle of the pro-gun movement to where, even after so many school shootings, there is still a strong resistance to even basic regulations on weapons. You hear comments like, “Guns do not kill people. People kill people.” This is a distraction. Would you hand a young man some pornography and say, “Remember, son, it’s your choice whether you look at this or not.”

I offer these thoughts as a plea for the church to remember who it is. God has not called us to violence, but to peace. The goal of this section is to remind us of our fundamental principles and values. Legislation is almost always complicated with nuances, exceptions, and unintended consequences. But let us be confident on our fundamental values as believers. Jesus is the Prince of Peace!

[1] It seems to me that this is the fundamental (mistaken) attitude in general of Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). It seems doubtful that Bonhoeffer himself would approve of Metaxas’ general take.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The social structures of society can be more or less loving.

Filling another gap in my write-up on Christian ethics (I'm at about 225 pages). I should have it ready to publish by the end of the weekend. Feedback welcome.


Is it possible for the structures of society to be set up—formally or informally—in such a way that certain groups of people are benefited while others are disadvantaged? It is hard to see how the answer is not an unequivocal yes. When slaves were not allowed to vote or move or own property or even stay with their own families, they were clearly disadvantaged by the structures of society. The same could be said of women, who were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. In these cases, the structures of society were “less loving” toward slaves and women than they are now toward African Americans and women.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, there were initially some promising developments for former slaves. In the 1870s, more than a dozen African American men were elected to Congress. But after the debacle of the 1877 election, government soldiers left the South, and southern society quickly found ways to unofficially re-enslave the “freed” slaves. [1] In most of these states, it would be over 100 years before a black representative was elected again. 

In the aftermath of World War II, the GI bill allowed white soldiers returning to buy houses and start a profitable economic path to middle-class prosperity. However, the same black soldiers returning from war often found themselves “redlined.” Redlining was the practice of declaring areas of cities where African Americans lived as risky for banks to give loans. Meanwhile, blacks were not usually welcomed in other areas of the city. From 1945-1959, African Americans received less than 2% of all federal loans. [2]

The 1960s saw a number of landmark laws passed, attempting to change these “structural injustices.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the Jim Crow era with its segregation of blacks into different theaters, accommodations, and schools. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made illegal all the underhanded obstacles that whites had created to keep blacks from voting—things like literacy tests and poll taxes, not to mention harassment and other economic reprisals. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made practices like redlining illegal.

Although the Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded as an abolitionist movement, the Wesleyan Church largely did not participate in the civil rights movement. At best, its churches were silent. At worst, they looked down on “troublemakers” and “law-breakers” like Martin Luther King Jr. The evangelical church in the United States gets no credit for these developments that very much fit the spirit of Christ to set the captive free (cf. Luke 4:18). Indeed, the movement toward desegregation in the mid-1900s resulted in a dramatic surge in white Christians attending private Christian schools.

What are the principles on which Christians should agree, especially those in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. First, it should be clear from the previous paragraphs that the structures of society, both formal and informal, can be unjust and unloving. Christians should delight when laws are passed such as those mentioned in the 1960s. We have been focusing on issues of race, but the same kinds of issues have historically existed in relation to women and others as well. It is fallen human nature.

[textbox: The Origins of Race

The concept of race as we understand it today was not always obvious. The slaves taken from Africa did not view themselves as “black.” They distinguished themselves by tribe: Mbundu, Yoruba, Igbo, etc. Similarly, the slave traders did not initially think of themselves as “white.” They were Portuguese, Spanish, English, and such.

The concept of “white” and “black” thus came into existence as a result of the slave trade. Even here, the precise connotations developed over time. The slaves that were first brought to America in the 1600s did not have to be lifelong slaves. Till the time of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, black slaves had much in common with white indentured servants. Thereafter, slavery almost inevitably became the life-long identity of the black person.

Similarly, not everyone with light skin was initially considered white. Irish and Italian immigrants were not immediately considered to be white when waves of them immigrated. This is why we say that race is “socially constructed.” Our skin color is simply a continuous scale of how much melanin is in our skin. Prejudice against new groups coming to the States is as old as the second group to arrive. Indeed, prejudice against “the other group” is as old as humanity.]

While the Wesleyan position on homosexual acts and LGBTQ lifestyles is clear morally, secondly, we clearly do not support the harassment or oppression of any group, especially in the name of Christ. Whether it actually happens or not, the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence is noble when it claims that “All men [and women] are created equal.” Scripture binds us to love our neighbor and our enemy. No one else is left.

Therefore, the use of Scripture or theology to harm or oppress others is fake Christianity. Any use of the gospel to hide hate or mistreatment is a false gospel. It is the Devil masquerading as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Just as we abhor the fact of pastors who belonged to the KKK, we abhor using Christ as a pretense to hate gay or transgender individuals. Just as we abhor the fact that church people might attend church and then go to enjoy a public lynching, [3] we abhor any attempt to hide behind Christ to keep LGBTQ individuals from employment or access to the normal opportunities of secular life.

Racism and prejudice are good at hiding behind impressive-sounding argument. The one giving such arguments sounds smart and likely indignant at the “real wrongs.” They think they are the ones fighting for truth and justice. We saw the same pattern after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. After an initial sense of outrage, the machine of rationalization and white supremacy took over. Indeed, in the end, the quest for racial justice probably lost ground. The real injustice, the real evil, the predictable backlash says, is “CRT,” “critical race theory.” [4] How dare someone suggest that whites are racist or that whites are somehow privileged in society? 

It is distraction. And so the initial injustice is forgotten in a sea of pretend righteousness, with the white church on the front lines. In the end, someone put it well at that time. "If you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights era, you are doing it now."

The concept of equity is a third principle. Equal opportunity is a great concept, but it is only as helpful as it is truly available. You can tell me I am free to get a job, but if I do not have a ride, I do not really have the same opportunity as someone with a car. The concept of equity is the notion that truly equal opportunity may involve more empowerment for some than for others. The application of the idea can be complicated to be sure. Sometimes we create more problems trying to fix something than were there in the first place. But the goal remains.

This was a fundamental principle of Jesus’ earthly ministry. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick” (e.g., Luke 5:31). Women in Jesus’ day were not full members of society. Jesus elevated them. The “poor” of Jesus’ day were not just those who could not feed or support themselves, they were individuals displaced from where they were supposed to be in society. Those with skin diseases were on the margins of society. Jesus gave them re-entry. And the same went for the demon-possessed—their problems went beyond the spiritual.

We cannot make everyone the same. Redistribute the wealth and, ten years later, natural giftedness will likely redistribute it again to some extent even given equal opportunity. We are talking about getting everyone to a baseline and removing obstacles left by inequitable structures.

Yes, “correlation is not causation.” Unevenness in numbers and statistics is only the beginning of the conversation. What are the actual causes? Where in the “system” is the actual injustice? Some issues may be so baked into our culture that it will take more than one generation to work them out.

Yet it is not the spirit of Christ to give up. Social inequity and injustice may seem like hopeless causes, yet God so loved the world. In the well-known story of starfish washed up on the shore after a storm, we may not be able to save all the starfish, but we can save one, then two, then three. And I do not mean to suggest that the “we” here are the whites saving the blacks, for that in itself is a racism of superiority, a condescending “helping those poor people” mentality. We are in this game together. We save each other together. We will fail often but, perhaps, we will succeed some.

We dare not wait for Jesus to come fix it. That is truly burying our talent in the sand. “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

[1] In 1933, my mother’s father spent a summer in Virginia pastoring a rural church. My mother remembered the lights of prisoners building a highway at night in the distance. A little research showed this was a “chain gang,” a group of African American prisoners. The Jim Crow south after reconstruction made it possible to arrest black men for everything from unemployment to just hanging out in the wrong place, “vagrancy laws.” Then the state rented them out to former slave owners, a clever way of re-enslaving them by other means. Over time, these practices have created a tendency for white culture to see black men as dangerous and likely criminals.

[2] And it is not like these sorts of "structures" only existed in the South, even if they were much more extreme in the Deep South. After the "Great Migration" of the early-1900s, blacks were more or less "ghettoed" into certain parts of northern cities. You can still see the wall in Detroit built in 1941 to separate incoming whites from existing blacks. That the black parts of town became slums was virtually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[3] In the notorious lynching of Sam Hose in Georgia in 1899, some 2000 “Christians” went to church, then traveled to the lynching site, many by special train from Atlanta. There Hose had his ears cut off and his body mutilated by knife. His body was doused in gasoline and set on fire. Spectators took pieces of bone and flesh as souvenirs.

[4] In my mind, there are extreme elements to some critical race theory, which itself is not monolithic. That is not the point. The point is that the outrage at CRT is mostly a smoke screen, a distraction to get us off topic.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

God values the creation, and we should steward it.

1. At the end of Genesis 1, when God has set the world in order, he sees all that he has done and pronounces it "good" (Gen. 1:31). It is no longer "formless and empty" (1:2). Everything is working the way it is supposed to work. [1] 

Part of that goodness is the place of humanity in that order. Humanity is to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Humans are to "subdue" it and "rule over" it. After Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are to "serve" it and "keep" it (Gen. 2:15). [2] One gets the sense that humanity is the crown of God's creation, and with great power comes great responsibility. 

Humanity is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). That both makes humanity valuable and perhaps suggests that humanity in some respects is God's representative on earth. After the Flood, God makes a covenant with his whole creation (Gen. 9:10). He has destroyed the earth, but he will not flood the earth again. 

"The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it... he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers" (Ps. 24:1-2). "Heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God" (Deut. 10:14). "The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). Humanity may be the pinnacle of the creation, but God clearly glories in the rest of his handiwork as well.

The Law had provisions for the land. Every seventh year the land was to lay fallow to have a chance to recuperate from non-stop farming (Lev. 25:3-4). Just as humanity needs regular rest, so the land does as well. Jesus tells the crowds that God observes even the death of a sparrow (Matt. 10:29). It would appear that God not only loves humanity but the rest of his creation as well!

The holiness codes not only held that a person could become unclean and defiled. Humans could defile the land as well (Num. 35:33-34). A murderer defiled the land with the blood that was shed. The only way to purify the land was the death of the murderer.

The preceding verses give us a certain sense of God's attitude toward his creation. He likes it. He cares about it. Deuteronomy 25:4 looks out for the ox that is plowing the land. The farmer should not muzzle it but allow it to eat as payment for its labor.

A sense of respect for God's creation seems in order. We are thankful for the chickens that give us eggs. We are thankful for the cattle that give us meat.[3] Evangelicals are emphatic about the value of human life from conception. Yet the embryos of humans and those of other animals look quite similar at the earliest stages of development. If we are really pro-life, it would seem consistent to be good stewards of the other life God has created on the planet as well.

2. In the Parable of the Talents, one of the servants is chastised for not growing what the master had given him (25:14-30). The import of the parable is often taken to suggest that God expects us to use and grow the gifts he has given us. With regard to God's creation, we can bless the land and sky that God has given us. We can take care of it, and we can also curse it.

The placement of the parable in both Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27 suggests that these parables were deeply subversive. While they can easily be read in a hyper-capitalistic way, the proximity of Matthew's parable to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats and the fact that Luke's parable is next to the story of Zacchaeus suggests a subversive meaning. In such a context, "making interest" on one's money becomes a metaphor for using it to help others in need. It is thus a fitting metaphor also for stewarding the creation that God has given us as we think about the lives of our "neighbors" at home and around the world.

God gave us streams from which to drink. God gave us plants to grow for food and animals to kill for meat. Ecology speaks of ecosystems, systems of life where each component of the system works together in harmony. The plants convert sunlight into energy that herbivores eat. They take carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to oxygen. We eat the herbivores and breathe in oxygen. We exhale carbon dioxide and the system repeats itself. It is healthy. It is natural. This is the way God has created the world.

Humanity has advanced industrially and technologically more in the last two hundred years than in all of history before. As of the writing of this article, the population of the world has surpassed 8 billion, far beyond any world population in the past. We are capable of consuming more forest than ever before if we let ourselves. There is plenty of demand to remove nature to build houses, businesses, and industry. There's nothing wrong with building or selling. However, as stewards of God's planet, we should also be mindful of the potential cost to God's creation and others. 

God endorses our growth and advancement. He made us to advance and excel. Otherwise, he would not have given humanity the charge to subdue the earth. On the other hand, God does not endorse selfishness or destructive hedonism. It is thus both biblical and Christ-like for us to open-mindedly consider the impact our advancement might have on others. This is part of loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

It is also a human tendency to sacrifice the benefit of our future for the needs and pleasures of the present. We eat recklessly because it tastes good even though we know we will likely pay for it in the future. We spend the money we have now rather than saving it for the future. The courses of action it takes to "look out" for the environment cut into corporate profit and personal convenience. It is no surprise that it is an uphill battle to get much done in these areas until a crisis emerges.

3. We should be wary of our own susceptibility to manipulation by those with power and resources. It took decades to pass legislation in relation to lead paint and lead gas. The book, Deceit and Denial is a meticulous presentation of how the lead industry managed to successfully oppose legislation against the use of lead, either throwing doubt on the certainty of certain harmful effects or blaming the incompetency of parents in slums for not watching their children closely enough. [4] I remember even as a boy in 1978 a tone of mocking in my family toward how the Carter administration was annoyingly ending leaded gas in lieu of the more expensive unleaded. 

The same narrative played itself out in relation to the tobacco industry. [5] The same narrative has arguably played out in relation to the gun lobby. The same narrative seems to be playing out in relation to climate change. With money or inconvenience at stake, with resistance to being told what to do, data is ignored or obfuscated. Lobbying forces manipulate the public into mocking those trying to work for the public good. "Going to try to regulate the farts coming from cows? Ha. Ha."

Small concessions are made as necessary. "Well, maybe the planet is warming, but there's no proof it is caused by human activity." Blame is diverted. "The problem is not the paint, it is the Negro and Puerto Rican parents who aren't watching what their children put in their mouths." "The problem is the lack of self-discipline on the part of the smokers." "The problem is not guns but the hearts of the people shooting them." Years, sometimes decades later, either crisis or the openness of a new generation breaks through. We wonder how it wasn't seen before because it seems so obvious now.

These sequences of events are repeated over and over again. It is amazing that we do not see the pattern... over and over again.

4. Poorer communities and countries see the impact of pollution sooner and more clearly than the comfortable. A 2016 study found that race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste. [6] Similarly, while most CO2 emissions come from the affluent global north, the regions most vulnerable to the effects of global warming are in the global south. Island states whose land is disappearing from rising water levels do not dispute the impact of climate change on the earth, nor do the African nations facing crisis levels of drought.

The love of our neighbor in the southern hemisphere puts an obligation on Christians to listen with an open mind and heart. The fact that this is God's creation calls us to listen with an open mind and heart as good stewards. It is the love of those in Flint, Michigan, whose water was allowed to become so polluted, that calls us to sacrifice a little today for the benefit to others later. We may find that we are also benefiting ourselves, like the rules that keep us from withdrawing from our retirement accounts before a certain age. We could sure use that money now, but it is even better for us to have it later.

Jesus almost scorned the "healthy" and focused instead on those on the margins--the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed. He focused on the lost sheep of Israel. Concern for God's creation translates to concern for those on the margins of the world today, for they are the ones that most suffer from the throwaway society of those of us who find everything convenient. 

5. We can debate the details. In this article, I have gone beyond principles to some specifics that seem relatively uncontested today. Except that they are contested. If we are interested in truth, we must allow for claims to be contested. Hopefully, there can be broad agreement on the principles. It is fully Christian to care for God's world. If we know our actions are harming others--or even potentially harming others--that is a concern for a Christian. 

As a Christian, people are important. The accrual of greater profit is not. Profit is not evil. The pursuit of profit to the detriment of others is. Paul indicts the Corinthians for putting the pursuit of their own freedom over concern for the faith of others (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:13). "Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." (8:9). 

The technological advances of the world are a tribute to the intellectual gifts God has given the world. We can even blow up the world with nuclear bombs. With the great power God has given us comes great responsibility as stewards. God has not called us to selfishness, but to love our neighbor.

[1] John Walton has argued that, in context, the pronouncement of the creation as good likely had more to do with how it was functioning than its moral quality. In The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 148-150.

[2] I am indebted in much of what follows to the benefit of sitting into several presentations by Brian Webb at Houghton University on Scripture and the Environment.

[3] It is interesting that the Genesis narrative gives the impression that humans did not even eat meat before the Flood (9:3).

[4] Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (Berkeley: University of California, 2003).

[5] Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (Philadelphia: Basic, 2009).

[6] From 1996 to 2020, the CDC and NIH were stymied from using their funds to research gun violence.

[7] Paul Mohai et al. "Which came first, people or pollution? Assessing the disparate siting and post-siting demographic change hypotheses of environmental injustice," Environmental Research Letters (2015).

Monday, January 09, 2023

Sermon Starters: "Who are you, Lord?" (Acts 9)

Title: "Who are you, Lord?" 

Text: Acts 9:1-9

Location: College Wesleyan Church, January 8, 2023


Old debates over standards, growing up totally convinced, wreaking havoc in relationships, praying for the Lord to show me if I was wrong, an Easter surprise.

It's very hard for us to change our minds on fundamental paradigms, and that's probably a good thing. Sometimes only the Holy Spirit can change our minds.

So it was with Paul. He was totally convinced he had God all figured out. Imagine how disoriented he was after Jesus showed him he was fundamentally wrong about the Bible.

We are trying to emerge as a church from a period of strong disagreement. If it weren't so serious, it would be funny. Two sides totally convinced they represent God, saying some of the very same things about the other, totally convinced they represent God. Two sides, both totally convinced they are being true to the Bible.

We need the Spirit to help us because we can't help ourselves. It would be great if Jesus would tap us on the shoulder. How do we move forward as a church?

1. Start with the faith you have.

Student in philosophy who wanted to throw everything out and start over. Mistake! We will not likely figure it all out from scratch.

  • Pascal's Wager -- if we love God and love our neighbor, our lives and the world will be a better place even if we are wrong on something.
  • God's been walking with his people for a long time (Bud Bence's church history trailer). He didn't just stop after the New Testament. The faith we have inherited probably has a lot of things right!
  • Truths about God aren't just discovered. They are also revealed. Pure reason won't get you there without a lot of help from the Holy Spirit.
  • The problem is that we are finite and flawed. We don't see the whole picture, and we tend to find a way to interpret things the way we want to.

2. Submit yourself to the truth, which is what God thinks.

  • If you really believe in truth, you must be open to changing your mind.
  • My crisis in seminary -- Would God test my faith by insisting I believe something that obviously isn't true? In the end I answered no. If you could disprove God's existence to him, he'd be the first to pack it up. God aligns with the real truth, whatever it may be. "All truth is God's truth."
  • My New Testament Survey position paper assignment. My advice to pick a topic that the New Testament actually talks about. Students often submitted papers with nothing from the New Testament in them, showing that the Bible was more symbolic in their views than substantial.

3. Keep listening!

  • Listen to God.
  • Listen to your "enemy" (whom God requires you to love).
  • Don't demonize the "other side." Let God take care of them.
  • Stick to your guns. It doesn't mean we don't take a position. It just means we keep talking while we take our position, and we submit ourselves to God in case he wants to change it.
The story of Gamaliel. He was truly interested in the truth and in submitting to God. That meant he was willing to change his position if he turned out to be wrong. Others mistook their positon for a truth to defend no matter what. This is the very nature of a hardened heart.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Explanatory Notes -- Mark 6:30-56

Filling in some gaps in my written notes on Mark.


Feeding the Five Thousand

30. And the apostles are gathered together to Jesus and they told him all the things that they did and that they taught. 31. And he says to them, “Come, you yourselves privately into a deserted place and rest a little.” For those coming and going were many, and they did not even have the time to eat. 32. And they went away in a boat to a deserted place privately.

Jesus has sent out his apprentices. They have done a practicum. Now comes the report to their master. Despite their lack of understanding, despite the deficiencies in their faith, they have seen healings and exorcisms like Jesus himself did. It gives hope to us today. If the disciples could do it, so can we. It must have given hope to the audience of Mark as well, who may have faced their own faith challenges in the challenging times of the late 60s.

Contemporary readers are quick to point out the need for Sabbath and recovery. Jesus and the disciples do not take prolonged vacations, but they do try to hit the pause button and retreat. They are rarely successful because of the immensity of the need. So it is often in ministry.

Nevertheless, they at least try to retreat. They try to rest. The Sea of Galilee is often the only hope. They have not even been able to eat. They get in a boat and try to get away for a bit.

33. And they saw them departing and many recognized and on foot ran from every city there and they came before them. 34. And having gone out, he saw a great crowd and had compassion on them, because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35. And already the hour having become much, having gone to them, his disciples were saying, “This place is deserted, and already the hour much. 36. Release them so that they, having gone away into the surrounding fields and villages, might buy for themselves what they might eat.

Even though Jesus is the Son of God, the crowds win. They find them. It is worth pausing to notice the extent to which Jesus' omnipotence--his all-powerfulness as the second person of the Trinity--is not manifested in the Gospel of Mark. He is unable to get people to stop telling about his healings. He is unable to heal in Nazareth. He is unable to get away from the crowds. We can suppose that he could have done these things, but he chooses to play by the fully human rules.

He has great compassion for them. They are like sheep without a shepherd. They have no sense of meaning or purpose. How many people are like that in the world today! God wants to give meaning and purpose to their lives, just as Jesus did to these seemingly powerless crowds.

He begins in this case by teaching them about the kingdom of God. We think of what Jesus taught in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and Luke 6. "Blessed are the poor." So were these crowds. "Blessed are they that mourn." There was no doubt much sadness in the lives of these crowds.

"Blessed are those who are hungry." They were hungry. They had followed Jesus to a remote place without food. The disciples want Jesus to send them away. It made me think of the legendary words of Marie Antoinette in France when the people were starving: "Let them eat cake." The disciples suggest Jesus send them away to buy food somewhere.

37. And he, answering, said to them, “You give them to eat.” And they say to him, “Having gone away, are we to buy breads for two hundred denarii, and will we give to them to eat?” 38. And he says to them, “How much bread do you have? Go see.” And having known, they say, “Five, and two fish.”

Jesus tells the disciples to feed them. They are of course flabbergasted. How on earth could they do such a thing? Where would they get two hundred denarii to buy bread for such a crowd. That's the equivalent of two hundred days' wages! The theme of the disciples' lack of understanding continues. There is no way on earth to do such a thing. But there is a way in heaven.

Jesus again gives them some experiential learning. How much bread can they find? They find five loaves and two fish. John tells us a boy had them (6:9).

39. And he ordered them [to cause] everyone to sit group by group on the green grass. 40. And they sat group by group by hundred and five hundred. 41. And having taken the five bread [loaves] and the two fish, having looked up into the sky, he blessed [them] and broke the bread [loaves] and was giving to the disciples that they might distribute to them, and he divided the two fish for all. 42. And all ate and were full, 43. and they took twelve baskets full of [bread] pieces and from the fish. 44. And those who were eating were five thousand men.

This is the only one of the miracles that Jesus performed that is mentioned in all four of the Gospels. We are told there are some five thousand men there, which might imply an even larger number if there were women and children also in the crowd. They are instructed to sit in orderly groups on the grass. The organization sounds a little like a military arrangement by hundred and five hundred.

Jesus blesses the bread. It is not surprising that many Christians have heard an overtone of the Last Supper and the Lord's supper here. Is the bread meant to be heard as an anticipation of the broken body of Christ? Certainly the Gospel of John will take it in that way.

The bread and fish multiply. The disciples distribute. Everyone is full. There are twelve baskets of leftover fragments. The number twelve was a special number for Jews. It was the number of the tribes of Israel. That number of disciple likely symbolized the restoration of Israel, and the twelve baskets of fragments may as well.

Walking on Water

45. And immediately he compelled his disciples to embark into the boat and to go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, until he himself releases the crowd. 46. And having said farewell to them, he went away into the mountain to pray. 47. And it having become late, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he himself [was] alone on the land.

Note that the two miracles at the end of Mark 6 are truly what we would categorize today as "supernatural" miracles. An exorcism is a spiritual act. It is a miracle for sure--the transformation of the individual would be impossible from a human standpoint. A healing is a miracle as well, although healing can involve matters of the mind as well.

But the miracles at the end of Mark 6 more blatantly defy the laws of physics. "Matter can be neither created nor destroyed." When Jesus feeds the five thousand, he breaks this law. When Jesus walks on water, he defies the law of gravity.

Jesus has sent the crowd away. He has even sent his disciples away. He needs time to pray. He needs time alone. This is instructive for the Type A minister. Even Jesus tried to take time for Sabbath and retreat. He prays on a mountain, which would have been more like a foothill for those of us who have seen the Rockies or Appalachian mountains. 

48. And having seen them struggling in the rowing (for the wind was against them), around the fourth watch of the night, he goes to them, walking on the sea and he was wanting to come alongside them. 49. And they, having seen him on the sea walking, thought that he was a ghost. 50. For they all saw him and were terrified. And he immediately spoke with them, “Be encouraged! It is I. Do not fear!” 51. And he came up to them in the boat and the wind ceased. And immediately they were extremely amazed among themselves, 52. For they did not understand about the bread [loaves], but their heart was hardened.

He can see them struggling from the land. Again, if we are used to lakes like Lake Michigan or Lake Okeechobee, the Sea of Galilee does not impress, It is only twelve miles across. Jesus can see them struggling against the wind to go north toward Bethsaida. 

The fourth watch of the night was between three and six. [Incidentally, I wrote this paragraph during the fourth watch of the night.] These watches had to do with the times during which a guard or soldier might keep watch. Jesus has apparently been praying for many hours, almost to morning.

When they see Jesus on the sea, he appears something like a ghost. Presumably, it is a clear night with the stars providing an eerie light. He speaks comfort to them so that their terror level will go down. I left the word ghost here for tone. The word is phantasma. They might think of a phantasm as a disembodied spirit of someone who was dead. "Do not fear" is a common initial comment by angels to the humans to which they visit in Scripture. Here, Jesus uses the phrase to calm them in the face of the supernatural as well.

Jesus again causes the winds to cease. The theme of the disciples not understanding appears again. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand had not sunk in. They are amazed because they do not understand the power of God that is working in Jesus. 6:52 goes so far as to say that their hearts were hardened--a startling indictment of their spiritual state.  


53. And having crossed, they came to the land, to Gennesaret and they came to shore. 54. And they, having gone out of the boat, immediately recognizing him, 55. they [the people on the land] ran around all that country and began to bring around those who were ill on mats [to] where they were hearing that he was. 56. And wherever he is entering into villages or into cities or into fields, they put in the marketplaces those who were sick and they were urging him that even they might touch the edge of his garment. And as many as touched him were healed.

The Sea of Galilee was also called the Sea of Gennesaret, and there was a village on the east side of the lake called Gennesaret. It is here that the disciples and Jesus come ashore, shy of their goal of getting to Bethsaida. The lake and wind had just not cooperated. Jesus is "immediately" mobbed again. Remember that this word is one of Mark's favorites.

We get a nice summary statement of Jesus' activities here. He heals the sick and physically challenged. Those who cannot walk are brought on mats. They bring the sick to the marketplaces, a location they knew Jesus would likely visit while going through their village or city. They meet him in the fields too.

Like the woman with a hemorrhage, they have faith that if they might even touch a piece of his clothing, they will be healed. Contrast this large amount of faith that these anonymous individuals had with the difficulty his disciples seem to have in regard to faith. As many as touch Jesus are healed.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

New Year's Goals (2023)

And now for the yearly reset:


  • When I was a teen, I read a chapter of the Bible a day. I'm always in the Bible, but I want to do this formally again for the next three years. I plan to take reading notes.
  • I want to run the equivalent of a mile a day or 365 miles this year. My daughter Sophie has started jogging. Maybe I will run a race of some sort with her this year.
  • I'll be working from home again this year. Same goal of treating each morning like I was going to the office. 
  • I have a daily project schedule I don't always keep. But I will continue with it.


  • Finish in January, "The Bible as History and Sacrament," an inductive Bible study textbook.
  • Finish in January, Christian Ethics: Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections and then publish the whole theology project I've been publishing.
  • Self-publish Explanatory Notes on Jesus' Death and Resurrection.
  • Begin writing a manuscript for Science and Scripture.
  • I am in the middle of other long-term writing projects: Philosophy for Wesleyan-Arminians, Faith Notes Along the Way, A Schenck History of the United States, and more. Hopefully, before I die.


  • Back to a page a day of STEM, publishing one STEM-related video a week.
  • I'd like to read a book a month. I've done horribly with reading this year. First up is R. B. Jamieson's Jesus' Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews.
  • I'd like to aim at 5 pages of coding reading a day. I haven't done a good job at keeping up with this. I've now taken SNHU courses in Java, C++, C#, and Python. I studied JavaScript at Houghton. Throw in HTML and CSS at Houghton and SNHU (although they aren't languages). I have a book on making apps for Android that I hope to continue with.


  • The big launch this week is a biblical Hebrew course I have put together on Udemy, using Jonah to learn Hebrew inductively. Expect a post early this week with the launch. I hope to create more of these. Requests?
  • I plan to continue "Through the Bible in Ten Years" each Sunday. I'd like to publish some of the past material from this project. Possibilities include Explanatory Notes on Revelation, Stuff You Didn't Know about Acts, Explanatory Notes on Mark, etc. I am in the middle of Luke and Acts in the series. Would be nice to get to 1 Corinthians this year.
  • I put Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State on hold. It would be nice to take one course with each this year. I'm currently scheduled to take Linear Algebra with SNHU in May, if finances permit. Would be nice to do Physics: Mechanics with ASU, although I hate that their courses are 7-weeks long. Calculus II was a bear in fall 2021.