Legalism’s Not-So-Subtle Hypocrisy

July 31, 2007

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Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

We get a glowing example of this hypocrisy in a Washington Post article that ran on Saturday regarding the growing practice of “interest free” Islamic banking around the world. Many Muslims believe that the Quran forbids the practice of charging interest on loans.

To participate in banking practices that involve interest, either as a banker or a consumer, is to sin against Allah. They are told that to go to regular banks means you will fry in hell.

But, where there’s a will there’s a way. In this case, follow the money as they stick to the letter of the law and violate the spirit of it.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say a family wants to buy a house for $100,000> The the bank buys it for that amount and sells then it back to the family for $120,000, which they can pay back over time. Family gets a house, Allah is pleased, hell is avoided, consciences are clear, banker’s pockets are lined. Everybody’s happy, no?

The gnat: don’t charge interest.

The camel: charge interest, but don’t call it interest.

It reminds me of the gnat-straining, camel-swallowing hypocrisy that saturates Christian legalism too. Here are just a few examples that come to mind from my past.

  • Caffeine is a terrible “addictive drug” in drinks like Coke or Mountain Dew (my favorite) that should be abstained from, except when you want to eat a bag of chocolate candy nearly every day.
  • Today’s movies are ungodly worldly entertainment, and movie theaters are off-limits (since you are still supporting “Hellywood”), but we can rent or buy just about anything we want to watch, as long as sufficient time has passed since its original release date and we watch it in our own homes where no one will know we watched it (and we remain hush-hush about it).
  • Almost all contemporary “secular” music is ungodly, but “secular” paintings, poems, children’s books, architecture, and songs written before the 60’s, well, they’re OK.
  • It’s unbiblical for a woman to teach to a group in the church that contains men, unless her husband and/or pastor have given her permission to do so.
  • Any use of alcohol is sinful, but no amount of gluttony is ever taken seriously (look at so many preachers!)
  • It’s wrong for a church to assume a debt to build a building, but the same protesters have mortgages on their homes.
  • It’s wrong to curse, but not to condemn and malign others who don’t measure up to your standards.
  • Emphasizing man-made rules about clothing, hair length, music, dating vs. courting, birth control, etc., while deemphasizing the commands to show love, have mercy, be strong in faith, hope deeply, and display grace. In other words, being dogmatic about things the Bible isn’t (externals), and being generally indifferent about the things it stresses most (issues of the heart).

You get the point.

(Thanks to Gene Edward Veith for the pointer to the article)

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Russian Youth: A Sign of Things to Come? – Part 2

July 30, 2007

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Is fascism just around the corner in Russia? That’s what seems to be the hope of many young people there. According to an article in the UK’s Daily Mail, there is a massive youth movement, one of which is called “Nashi” (run by Putin’s Kremlin), which is aiming at destroying any vestiges of democracy the country has remaining, and drive out those who support it – along with foreigners. And this movement is taking a central place in Russia’s political life.

What’s most bizarre about Nashi is one of it’s central tactics: promoting sex among youth! (Do adults seriously think that there is too little of this happening?) Believe it or not, Russia’s government is seeking to increase the population of Russia by staging rallies where young people are organized and moved into special tents arranged in the shape of a heart, called the Love Oasis, where they have sex in order to procreate for the motherland. In addition, mass weddings among these youth take place at the rallies.

I am not making this up. I wish I were.

The Russian government is seeking to reverse the diminishing birth rate, but that’s not all they’re aiming for. They’re aiming at destroying democracy.

Edward Lucas writes, “But the real aim of the youth camp – and the 100,000-strong movement behind it – is not to improve Russia’s demographic profile, but to attack democracy. Under Mr Putin, Russia is sliding into fascism, with state control of the economy, media, politics and society becoming increasingly heavy-handed.”

“Nashi is both a symptom of the way Russia is going – and a means of entrenching the drift to fascism .”

This is Orwellian on so many levels. Just read the article for more.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted how many of Russia’s youth had a favorable view of Stalin. This is because the Russians are rewriting their history, just like the Nazi’s did in the 1930’s. Putin and co. are singing the praises of Stalin’s accomplishments, and dismissing his horrific deeds with shameless ease, calling them “mistakes,” while at the same time decrying the democratic policies of Boris Yeltsin as “weak.”

The article continues, “if Mr Putin has his way, Russian pupils will learn nothing bad about the Soviet empire, which was far bloodier, more brutal – and more recent.”

Mr. Lucas concludes: “If tens of thousands of uniformed German youngsters were marching across Germany in support of an authoritarian Fuhrer, baiting foreigners and praising Hitler, alarm bells would be jangling all across Europe. So why aren’t they ringing about Nashi?”

Isn’t it amazing how sin unaccounted for just moves us into more, and often worse, sins? This serves as an eye-opening lesson on the power of unrepented-of sin. We blow it off at great expense – often to others as well as ourselves.

Those in authority will give the greater account to their Sovereign. Pray for Mr. Putin.


African Relief and A Western Messiah Complex?

July 30, 2007

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“Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself.”

Those are the words of author Uzodinma Iweala, in his article Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa in The Washington Post.

The salient paragraph:

“There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.”

He adds:

“Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned?”

I’ll tell you why. Westerners worship celebrities and live vicariously through them. Celebrities are magnets of attention and so celebrities sometimes seek to use their status by maximizing it as a catalyst for good. In the process, I think they become victims of their own celebrity. The cause isn’t as sexy as they are, so the cause really becomes about the celebrity’s image, not the cause’s worth. Africa just becomes a vehicle to ultimately promote oneself.

But African change-agents such as Kanu and Mutombo aren’t glitzy enough to be worshiped, they’re too busy doing the difficult front-lines work to seek out the limelight. In other words, it’s not about them.

He then concludes:

“I hope people will realize Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.”

Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us, and we need to strive to meet their needs as we have opportunity – including opportunities to speak up on their behalf. Yet we need to beware of the motives and the after-affects of our giving – including when that giving takes the form of physically serving their needs. We also need to be thoughtful about how our giving will affect them, and us.

Will it weaken them by perpetuating their dependence on aid, or enable them to get on their feet and provide productively for themselves? This is the kind of hard question that, for example, needs to be asked in regard to African aid. Nancy Birdsall argues (PDF):

“I propose that if external aid is to be helpful or institution-building in Africa’s weak and fragile states, donors need to emphasize not providing ore aid but minimizing the risks more aid poses for this group in Africa.”

Why? Well, she explains,

“Rajan and Subramanian (2005) present evidence that sectors in aid-dependent countries that are more reliant on skilled workers do less well the larger are [sic] aid inflows. They suggest that aid inflows increase demand, including by NGOs and government and donors themselves, for local talent that then has fewer incentives to engage in entrepreneurial, private sector activity more likely to be in tradable sectors, especially manufacturing.”

This is a tough situation, no doubt. Should we stop aiding Africans financially? No. Should we be pay closer attention to the impact of our aid instead of just throwing money toward them as a means of soothing our consciences that we’ve done our whole duty? Yes.

This means we have to do more than just give the needy money. It will mean giving them ourselves in ways that learn about their deeper needs and find ways to remedy the situation, and not just fund a broken pattern of living. Whether that is an African nation or our next-door neighbor.

This is harder than giving money, because it requires something we value even more: our time and attention. I’m thankful for those people and causes that seek to provide financial aid to Africa. But I’m even more thankful for those that are there in Africa giving them hands-on teaching in valuable life and trade skills, and systems of effective self-governance. Those are the kinds of organizations – the ones seeking to provide real solutions to the issues faced by those in need – that ought to be sought out in our quest to channel aid to people and places like Africa.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to service and sacrificial giving, and a call to abandon ourselves in the process. It’s a call to give ourselves away, and get muddy and bloody if need be.

As a minister of the Gospel I find that I need to beware of self-congratulation and the itch for recognition in this business of serving other’s needs, especially the immediate needs I’m faced with in the local church.

I have to remember that loving our neighbor and ministering to others is not about me. And I have to remember that it’s not enough to just give them a buck, so I can feel better about myself for “helping” them. That makes it more about me and my own feelings than it does about them and their needs.

Motives matter.


Now That’s What I’m Talking About!!!

July 28, 2007

“Armed Preacher Nabs Theft Suspect” (video)

A man after my own heart! 🙂 Gotta love it!

As the great poet Toby Keith once said,

Well a man come on the 6 o’clock news
Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused
Somebody blew up a building
Somebody stole a car
Somebody got away
Somebody didn’t get too far yeah

(Thanks to Phil Johnson for the pointer)


Are You Discerning in Your Consumption of Culture?

July 28, 2007

In less than 4 minutes, Al Mohler uses music as just one example of how Christians need to be more discerning about their consumption of the culture. I’ve been blogging about this in the last few weeks, which you can read here, here, and here.

Discernment is a mark of maturity. It is the exercise of wisdom – the wisdom that realizes that we are always trying to be seduced into blindly consuming whatever our culture is selling. And that what we’re being sold, while often appealing, isn’t always good for us.

May the Lord make us wise in all our ways. May we be more children of the Lord than children of our culture.

(HT: Paleoevangelical)


No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

July 27, 2007

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Those are Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words when he was wished many more years of creative life.

How odd – for American ears. The thought of ever getting ENOUGH of a thing. Frankly, I think that the one word that describes us best is: MORE. It drives us on incessantly.

Do you ever think we are too filled with restless ambitions and unbridled desire for more, to the degree that we would ever spontaneously say something like that? Do we ever get enough? Of anything? Do you ponder the degree to which we have been affected by our culture’s consumerism, materialism, and ambition? Have you ever attempted to bridle it in your own life?

I’ve had this talk with my 4 kids, ages 7-12. I’m trying to model and intentionally instruct them on the concept of moderation. For one thing, I know that they aren’t going to pick up on it in our culture, and for another thing, I know it’s not our natural tendency to practice moderation, but it’s something Scripture clearly teaches as a sign of wise and obedient living.

I’ve told them, the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong to drink, but that it’s a sin to get drunk. Just like it’s not wrong to eat, only to be a glutton. Clearly, it’s not wrong to sleep, but it is to be lazy. There’s a time to play, but there’s also a time to work.

All of these things are examples of the Scripture’s call to us to enjoy the good of the land, but to limit ourselves – to practice moderation. When you’ve had enough, stop. Don’t over-indulge. Teach yourself to enjoy God’s good gifts, but not abuse them, nor yourself in the use of them.

This is such an un-American concept. We have to have the biggest, latest cars, houses, clothes, toys, gadgets, whatever… We have to have the most, do the most, climb the highest, accomplish the most, etc. God has richly given us all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17), but I think we’re just plain greedy sometimes. Do we ever get enough of a thing?

Yesterday in my reading of Homer’s Iliad I ran across this notion. Menelaus says at one point in the battle against the Trojans (p. 316-362; Book 13, lines 733-38):

“One can achieve his full of all good things, even of sleep, even of making love…rapturous song and the beat and sway of dancing. A man will yearn for his fill of all these joys before his fill of war. But not these Trojans – no one can glut their lust for battle!”

Two phrases jump out at me: “achieve his full”; “glut their lust”. Outside of total abstinence, those are our two options. It’s a sign of maturity, wisdom, and grace to be able to know when you’ve “achieved your full” and then stop.

We can practice this with countless pleasures: food, drink, work, play, entertainment, possessions. When you’re full, quit eating. When it’s time to quit work, go home. When you’ve played enough, or watched enough, turn it off. When you have enough things to live comfortably, quit collecting more just because you can. And do it gladly, being thankful for having been enriched by that thing which you’ve just enjoyed!

What strikes me most about what Solzhenitsyn said is that he has actually stopped wanting more. He’s achieved his full, he’s satisfied with the life and work he’s been afforded. It is enough. Amen.


Russian Youth: A Sign of Things to Come?

July 26, 2007

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Ok, this ties in with the last post. After talking with my wife about Solzhenitsyn’s call for public repentance for past crimes of communist leaders, she told me about an article that appeared yesterday about the attitudes of Russian youth. What is notable, and even appalling, is that 46% of Russian youth ages 16 to 19 disagreed that Josef Stalin was a cruel tyrant, and 54% thought he did more good than bad. This is evidence that Russia needs to heed Solzhenitsyn’s call for public ownership of the crimes of communism and follow it with repentance.

Stalin is a man who “built a system of terror and repression in which tens millions of people died or were killed.” He imprisoned, tortured, and killed millions of innocent people. Without dispute, Stalin is on the top 10 list of the world’s worst mass-murderers. He survived in power through bloody terror!

“What we find troubling is that there is a substantial proportion of young people in Russia today who hold positive or ambivalent views on Stalin and his legacy,” Theodore Gerber, a sociologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “We think it would probably be more appropriate if there was more condemnation of the Stalin era.”

Ya think?

Again, I mention that Germany is a good example for them in this. They have owned up to Germany’s culpability for the Nazis. They recognize the evils against humanity, and particularly the Jews, that the Nazis committed and they roundly condemn those crimes and those who perpetrated them. Nazi groups are banned there. It’s against the law to deny it happened. In fact, America has more modern Nazi sympathizers than anywhere else in the world.

Again, Solzhenitsyn speaks to this:

“Every people must answer morally for all of its past — including that past which is shameful. Answer by what means? By attempting to comprehend: How could such a thing have been allowed? Where in all this is our error? And could it happen again?…we Russians must answer — for the pogroms, for those merciless arsonist peasants, for those crazed revolutionary soldiers, for those savage sailors.”

The personal lesson in this is as clear as the national one. When we ignore the sins of our past, we may very well end up defending them and justifying them and set ourselves up to repeat them.