When the Watchman Fails: Why Being Truly Good Requires Ferocity

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“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”- C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

On February 14, a young man murdered 17 people and wounded several more in Parkland Florida. In the wake of this event people have divided their energies over various tasks, particularly discussing, debating, and more often than is proper, browbeating, over the question of gun control. I think that such conversations can, usually, be profitable and interesting, though they usually devolve into overgeneralization and hysteria if they go on long enough. However, as tragic as this situation is, there is a more disturbing event that happened right alongside it: one school safety officer and three sheriff’s deputies waited for 4–6 minutes before attempting to enter the building.

Four people, each armed and trained, each having sworn to uphold the law, decided, for whatever reason, to not confront the killer while he murdered others in cold blood. On top of that, when Scott Israel, Broward County Sheriff, was confronted by his own department’s failures in recognizing a clear threat and acting on it before hand, he decided that rather than accepting responsibly, the proper course of action was to try to swat accusations away and insist an NRA spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, was wrong about various details of the situation, despite overwhelming evidence of his office’s negligence both before and during the incident.

Say what you will about Mrs. Loesch or the NRA, or even about gun ownership in the United States. I have no particular affection for the NRA and its representatives, and even if I disagree with you about gun ownership, I believe that arguments can be made in good faith on either side. We should also try to be fair and accurate in discussing what Israel and his subordinates did and did not do or know. In the final analysis, however, whatever one may feel about the state of gun ownership in the United States, what should be a common ground here is that the shooting in Parkland reflects a series of abject failures on the part of law enforcement in Parkland and Broward County, and apparently even the FBI.

Whatever consequences you think should or should not be levied against Israel and his subordinates, anyone can recognize that there is a serious problem here. There is a serious deficit in the capacity of those appointed as watchmen to act as such. We expect LEO’s and similar personnel to respond to dangerous situations and persons on behalf of the general public: “To protect and serve,” for example, is the motto of the LAPD and has been adopted by various departments nationwide. This is not, however, intended to be a smear against the police, because the police are not the problem. The failures of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department are symptomatic of something far more important and that is the decay of our collective grasp on what it is to be truly good.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth. The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. Then I said: Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.” Is 6:1–5, CSB.

A voice came from above the expanse over their heads; when they stopped, they lowered their wings. Something like a throne with the appearance of lapis lazuli was above the expanse over their heads. On the throne, high above, was someone who looked like a human. From what seemed to be his waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be his waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the likeness of the Lord’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking.” Eze 1:25–28.

I adore the prophets for several reasons, but chief among them is the fact that a prophet is one who sees the world as it truly is, that is, as God sees it. In the Bible, the prophets had insight that was otherwise unavailable and their words reverberate through history not just as beautiful poetry or prose, but as stark messages that resound with the clarion call, “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts.” Common to the prophets, regardless of their personal flourishes, is the presentation of a God too great for words and I love Ezekiel and Isaiah’s descriptions especially because of how they respond. Ezekiel falls to the ground and Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me!” Far from a self-piteous cry of sadness, Isaiah’s cry is one of fear for what could, and as he sees it, should, happen to him. Both see God as he revealed himself to them, and their response is fear! Despite both knowing that God loves Israel and had been so good to them in the past, delivering them time and time again, they were both desperately afraid until God assuaged their fears and commissioned them. It brings to mind, as quoted earlier, Susan’s fear at the prospect of meeting Aslan. The answer to the question of whether he is safe may trouble some people. “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

God is not safe, by any means. He can call universes into existence, alter the course of nature as he pleases, take lives with the barest of effort, and rend the earth open to swallow his enemies. He answers to no one and no force in the universe holds him accountable. Such a being is terrifying to think of and yet, the first place my parents took me when I was born was a church so I could be around people who worship this unimaginably dangerous being! Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The answer is simple: God isn’t safe, not in the least. He is, however, infinitely good. God is no butcher, carving and cutting as one does. He is, as Lewis described him in A Grief Observed a surgeon; he is skilled, precise, knowledgable. He wounds, sometimes incredibly deeply, but his wounds are not without purpose.

Before we get lost in some generic notion of goodness, perhaps even one conflated with niceness, let’s get to the chase: there is nothing inherently good about being “safe.” Safe and good often sleep in the same room, but they are not the same. The aforementioned officers were safe as they delayed confronting a shooter, but they could not claim to be good. Too often today, we assume that because someone has generally good manners or is “nice,” that they are good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Notice the words of Jesus in Mark 10:18: “No one is good except God alone.” While he is obviously trying to make a point, what he said is true on its own. No one is good but God, so it stands to reason that he is who we should look to form our opinions on what is good.

When we look to God as our standard of goodness, surprises follow. Sometimes, good looks like killing 185,000 Assyrians in a single night to save people that you love. (2 Kings 19) Sometimes, good looks like walking into a storm and rescuing your companions. (Matt. 14:22–27) Good even looks like incinerating an altar, stone, wood, and all, when the occasion calls for it. (1 Kings 18:30) Perhaps most surprisingly of all, good sometimes looks like walking a crowded road, a cross on your shoulders, to a hill nicknamed “the Skull,” and letting some of the people you created nail you to that same cross so they can mock you as you die an excruciating death, all the while knowing that at any moment, you could summons legions of angels to set you free. In a word, good is intense, severe, or better still, ferocious.

This concept is uncomfortable to some, and understandably so. You might hear ferocious and think of savagery or violence, but think back to the one that is truly good. Everything that God does has an air of intensity to it. Even when he makes his presence known at Sinai to speak to Moses, he comes with fire, smoke, and thunder. (Exod 19) Nothing God does is lacking in intensity. Linguistic debates aside, I would argue that this is the essence of ferocity and, most truly, the essence of good. Good, in its clearest forms, is not mild. A mother gently coaxing her baby to sleep is good and it is far from mild in the intensity of affection on display. A father rolling around in the floor and playing with his kids, though he does not overpower them or hurt them, is not behaving mildly, and what he is doing is truly good. A couple, their marriage freshly consecrated, upon hearing, “You may kiss the bride,” do so in a way that is scarcely mild and yet, it is good. A doctor applying their knowledge and resources to seek out a cure for a patient’s obscure disease is no doubt intense in their endeavor and they are certainly good as they do so. So it is clear that good is ferocious and being truly good requires a ferocity that many of us may struggle to rise to.

This ferocity, however difficult, is what we are called to. We are not called to generic niceness or mild-manneredness, though these are not bad things in and of themselves. We are called, for instance, to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” (Matthew 22:39) and to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” (Matthew 5:44) These are intense words that demand an intense response. The call of the Christian life, to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23), is a ferocious call, one that requires everything that a person has. So, dear reader, I urge you today, to live ferociously and to be ferocious in your being and doing good. Reject weak displays of “good” that barely rise above saying “Yes ma’am” or “No sir.” Christians serve a ferociously good God who conforms us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29) who himself is the clearest and purest display of who God is (14:9) in all his divine ferocity. We were made to be ferociously good, so let us go forth and live with an unmatched ferocity for the good of all and the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Update: The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has released a statement, viewable on Twitter, regarding their interactions with the shooter. For reference, see https://twitter.com/browardsheriff/status/967593892492271617

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Saying “Keep Your Religion Out of Politics!” Tells Me You Haven’t Seriously Thought About Either Religion or Politics

I never thought I’d share a screenshot from Tumblr on this blog if we’re being honest. Then again, I also never thought I’d like church history and now I want a Ph.D. in the field, so I guess I’m something of an anti-prophet; I think/say something won’t happen and it does. My budding career in prediction by negation aside, this gem from Tumblr was shared by a Facebook friend and instead of moving on with my life as normal people do, I began to really think about this dialogue and everything it represents. Now, don’t get me wrong, Tumblr is a time-sink filled to bursting with inane garbage, much like Reddit (my preferred site for wasting time). Rarely does anything of value happen there and it’s definitely a poor candidate for a place to seriously think about anything. With all that said, however, this screenshot presents some interesting food for thought and as such, I derived three observations from it:

1. Some people don’t clearly understand what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says, nor can they articulate why it says what it says with respect to history.

2. A general disdain for religion and an assumption that religious people are less intelligent or in some way less able to argue their beliefs is still fashionable. Christians aren’t persecuted in the United States, for example, but some people like to snicker at us and wonder how we get through the day with our puny brains and hatred for common sense. I blame this on the fact that many would rather read a book by Richard Dawkins than one by David Bentley Hart.

3. Some people don’t think about the implications of what they say and sacrifice careful thought for the sake of semi-popular hot takes for fake internet points.

Some of that’s harsh, I know, but it’s true and I’m going to try to unpack that. This is going to be long for a blog post, so strap yourself in and make sure you brought your overnight bag.

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The notion of “separation of church and state” is typically attributed to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, but the notion as such can be reasonably drawn from the text of the First Amendment itself. The issue is not whether such a thing as a “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s words) should exist; the issue is why such a wall should exist in the first place. While I readily concede that I’m no Constitution scholar, I would suggest that every right enumerated in the Constitution was enumerated in response to issues that the framers of the Constitution recognized both historically and in other nations they observed in their own day. A ready parallel, for instance, can be drawn between the Fifth Amendment and the numerous instances of the abuse of court systems across history. In the same way, I would suggest that the First Amendment’s clause on religion has a similar thrust, grounded particularly in the religious controversy that plagued England following the Protestant Reformation. Insisting that no religion or another be favored by a nation’s government is a reasonable thing to do in light of the fact there were times in history where a person could be killed simply for being Catholic, or for not being Catholic as the case has been.

Therefore, it seems to me a bridge too far to say that separation church and state means that religion has no place whatsoever in politics, and I’ll unpack why that’s nonsense anyway later in this piece. Rather, the separation of church and state is intended to ensure that no one religion can bring the arm of the government down on another. A Jewish president, for instance, could not pen an executive order requiring citizens of the United States to convert to Judaism, nor could Congress pass a law dictating that Muslims cannot do business in the country. In essence, the First Amendment clause concerning religion is intended to keep leaders from acting as theocrats. So no, separation of church and state doesn’t mean what some random Tumblerina thinks it means, and that is good news for the rest of us.

Religion and Politics are Inseparable

This won’t surprise anyone but religion impacts politics and vice versa. What might be surprising is the fact that this is a good thing and a necessary reality. The major question of politics, arguably, is how people and governing bodies interact with one another. Beyond questions of modes of government and market theory are numerous questions that directly impact people. “What is the role of government?” “How should governments be organized?” “Is an authoritarian or libertarian approach to governance better?” These questions are more big picture sorts of things, but the big picture breaks down into smaller vignettes. “Should government spending focus on infrastructure or the military?” “Should marijuana be legal?” “Should the government take down statues of Confederate leaders?” These kinds of questions are not only questions of more immediate interest but they are also political questions.

The major question of religion is how the divine and the mundane interact. “Does a god exist?” “Is there a standard by which all people will be divinely judged?” “Is there a god out there who cares about what we do?” “Do people have to believe in Jesus to be saved?” These are the kinds of questions that often come up in religious discussions. However, religion, particularly Christianity, is not merely concerned with death, judgment, and salvation. Religion historically shares many impulses with philosophy, so much so in fact that I’d contend that some religions (including Christianity) can and should also be considered philosophies, but that’s beside the point. Any religion worth following will have a philosophical framework of some kind. Beyond asking questions about what happens when we die or the nature of the supernatural, religion also asks questions about how we interact with one another. “Are all people truly equal?” “Should I treat others with dignity and respect?” “What does it mean to be a good person?” These are religious questions, ones that various figures have attempted to answer throughout history. They are also questions that radically change the way you view the world and how you interact with those around you.

The way that you answer religious questions invariably affects the way you answer political questions. If you believe that all humans are equal because they are declared so by a supreme being and made in that being’s image, for example, then you will rightly reject the notion that discriminating against others is acceptable, as Americans did in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery only survived as long as it did in the western world, to name another case, because so many people believed that owning other human beings was consistent with their religious principles. It was only when people began to reject that belief, alongside other factors, that abolition movements began to gain traction. Briefly stated, major political change is often preceded by changes in religious sentiment.

You cannot separate the influence of religious thought from political inclination. Reasonable people hold the political positions they do precisely because they are consistent with their religious and philosophical convictions and that is a good thing. No good thing ensues from people not thinking through what they believe and why, and politics is no exception. So no, you should not keep your religion out of politics, quite the opposite in fact. If you don’t bring your religion (or your philosophy if you are irreligious) to politics, then how can you make an informed decision? You can’t, and that’s why I titled this essay as I did. Saying “keep your religion out of politics” only makes sense if you haven’t really thought about what politics and religion are and how they overlap.

Addressing a Challenge

If you read the screenshot above, you’ll notice a challenge was issued therein: give one “non-religious” reason for being against same-sex marriage, stem cell research, or safe abortions. A part of me is tempted to say, “Well, that’s impossible,” with a snark grin, but I won’t, because I know what this person actually meant. He or she isn’t asking you to abandon rationality, though that’s what would be required if one were to act in a way consistent with the word choice here. Really, he or she is asking for a reason that doesn’t involve quoting a Bible passage. The expectation, of course, is that no one can accomplish such a Herculean task. The problem is that it’s actually pretty easy to do. So here they are: 3 “non-religious” arguments. Bear in mind these aren’t necessarily my positions, these are just arguments that are out there. I’ll state them briefly so you can finish reading this before you die of old age.

1. Same-sex marriage: Same-sex marriage should not be legalized because it is not the role of government to validate or regulate sexual preference or choice of domestic partnership between able-bodied/minded and consenting adults. Such decisions should be at the sole discretion of the individuals involved and governments should abandon any attempts to involve themselves in who people choose to live and conduct their lives with. Alternatively: The heteronormative nuclear family is the basis for all of civilization and provides the most basic and elementary environment for interacting with other human beings, as well as being the foundation for functioning communities, historically speaking. Legalizing same-sex marriage offers no such benefit to society, as it only validates a sexual preference and affords same-sex couples the same privileges heteronormative couples have, which are, legally speaking, only cordoned off from same-sex couples as a result of government interference with the concept of marriage. As such, nothing would be accomplished by legalizing same-sex marriage that could not be accomplished by removing governmental underpinnings from marriage.

2. Stem cell research: Most opposition to stem-cell research is not actually opposition to the research itself but to the methods used to acquire stem-cells to work with. Usually, embryos are destroyed in order to gather stem cells. The issue here is twofold. Firstly, some hold the conviction, apart from religious dogma, that embryos should be considered living things and as such, their destruction constitutes killing a living thing. Secondly, it is unnecessary to destroy embryos to gather stem cells. Normal cells can be reverted back to stem cells and stem cells can be gathered from the umbilical cords of recently delivered infants. The issue then is one of why embryos must be destroyed if they don’t have to be.

3. Safe abortions: Even the safest abortions result in the destruction of a zygote, embryo, or fetus. While belief that life begins at conception is predominantly held by religious persons, a non-religious argument can be made as well, hinged mainly on one scientific fact and a series of logical inferences and deductions. The fact is that regardless of the stage of development, the entity in a woman’s uterus is a Homo sapiens by sheer virtue of the fact that it can’t be any other species in a female Homo sapiens’ womb: we as a species aren’t sexually compatible with any other extant species and two members of a species cannot reproduce and create a member of another species. The inference then is that because the zygote/embryo/fetus is Homo sapiens, then it ought to be considered a human being with the right to life. This is because it is the most consistent position to assume that human status begins at conception and because, obviously, all humans have the right to life.

At Long Last, a Conclusion

Whether you agree or disagree with any of these arguments is not the point here. The point is that you can make an argument against any of these things without an overt religious reference. That does not matter, however, because it is foolish of anyone to demand a separation between politics and religion. The two are in constant dialogue and indeed must be so for the sake of rational discourse. With that said, the attentive reader will notice that there’s one point I didn’t discuss and that would be the general disdain many people have for religion, as well as the assumption that religious people are less intelligent. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, this is already a novel and secondly, I’d like to tackle that point by itself in the future. In the meantime, dear reader, don’t separate your religion from your politics. Instead, saturate your political beliefs with thinking based on your deeply held convictions. Let your beliefs about the way the world works and the way things are supposed to work inform how you navigate the political sphere. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why believe something if that belief doesn’t affect you in any way?

Soli Deo Gloria!