Capacity for Evil and Good

Unbroken is a book about Louis Zamperini.  He was a track star before World War II.  Some thought that he would be the first to break the four minute mile but WWII intervened.  Instead Louis became a bombardier on a B-24.  He survived several bombing raids including one that left 594 holes in his airplane.  But while searching for another downed airplane in the Pacific Ocean, his plane was lost.  He survived over 40 days on the ocean with no food and water other than what he could gather.  Unfortunately the ocean currents took him to Japanese held territory and he was captured.  The torture he endured in various POW camps is unbelievable.

After the war Louis’ life was chaotic as he turned to alcohol because of what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome.  He was converted to Christian when his wife essentially brow beat him into attending a Billy Graham meeting.  He forgave those who abused him and turned his life around.

Any philosophy of life must take into account the experiences of the Pacific POWs of WWII.  “They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.” [1]  I would also add it must explain why some Japanese guards resisted the mistreating of the POWs often at the cost of physical harm to themselves.  The same applied to the local villagers.  Some mistreated the prisoners while other helped them. [2]  Why was there such a different response to the POWs?

The motivation of some Japanese to help the POWs but others to harm cannot be Christianity because the Japanese guards and villagers were not Christians.  So what caused them to do what is right even at a cost?  Some would say this is an example of God’s common grace.  Then why do some respond to God’s common grace and others do not?

The answer is that God has given various amount of light to different people.  God will judge us based upon how well we live up the light he has given us.  Becoming a Christian will not necessarily get us into heaven.  What is necessary is that we respond to God when he convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).

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[1]   Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, New York:  Random House, Kindle Location 5608.

[2]   Ibid., Kindle Location 3134, 3146, 3777.

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The Hard Work of Faith

Cynthia Allen, in an opinion piece “Knowledge and the hard work of faith”, states that most people in our era are not willing to pursue religious beliefs because that”requires work, commitment, and study”. [1]  The question raised by her statement is:  What is it that makes the study of religion challenging?

I have studied other religions but not enough to feel comfortable to comment on them.  However, I do know a little about Christianity.  The way Christianity is currently taught does not make it difficult.  David Wells states many Christians have taken the teaching that salvation is through belief in Jesus to heart.  The result is that:  “For a one-time admission of weakness and failure they got eternal peace with God.” [2]

However, as we have stated in this blog, the Bible teaches that the way of salvation is more demanding—“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV).  Christianity is difficult because salvation is more than a belief; it is the change of our soul so it becomes like God and that requires work.  It requires we spend a lifetime immersed the process of renovating our soul.

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[1]   Cynthia M. Allen, “Knowledge and the hard work of faith”, Tulsa World, April 19, 2014, p. A17.

[2]   Chris Stamper, “Authors by the Dozen”, World, Vol. 17, No. 23, p. 53.

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Christian Unity

Pope Francis recently sent a video to a conference of Pentecostals.  Perhaps somewhat surprising, because the Catholic Church has had a somewhat stormy relationship with the Pentecostals, his message was a plea for unity. [1]

As Pope Francis acknowledges, we Christians come from very different cultures and backgrounds.  We have very different ways of looking at the world.  We emphasize different teachings of Jesus or we interpret what Jesus said in different ways.  For some reason we Christians seem to want to emphasize our differences more than we want to acknowledge the beliefs we have in common.  Should not our faith transcend our differences?

Pope Frances is correct when he states the disunity in the Christian faith is because of sin.  That sin is primarily the sin of ego.  Every branch of Christianity thinks they possess the correct interpretation of the Bible.  How can we be this confident knowing the Bible teaches we are finite and sinful creatures?

The dictionary defines a Christian as one who believes in the teachings of Jesus.  One of Jesus’ teachings was that we Christians were to be as one just like Jesus and God are one (John 17:20-23).  When will Christians follow this teaching of Jesus?  Cannot we celebrate the fact that we all are brothers and sisters in Christ even if we disagree on some points of theology?

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[1]  Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, “Pope reaches out to Pentecostals”, Tulsa World, March 30, 2014, p. A12.

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Like Christ

ISideWith.com has a poll on whether Jesus would approve of modern Christianity if he suddenly appeared on earth today.  Overwhelmingly the poll says he would not.  The highest percentage of the various categories that said he would approve was 25% but the vast majority were in the single digits.

Now this is not a scientific poll; it is just a poll of people who visit this web site.  However, this poll is not the only source of information on how people view Christianity.  Ghandi said:   “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians — you are not like him.” [1]  Evidently Ghandi would agree with the results of this poll.

Dan Merchant’s book Lord Save Us from Your Followers asks:  “What are Christian people known for?”  The answer is generally not positive. [2]  Why is Jesus so well thought of but his followers are not?

The answer is that we have a faith that emphasizes a belief system, not a faith that is lived each day.  We are more concerned that we have the correct belief system than we are that our soul is changed so it becomes like Christ.

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[1]   Stanley E. Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, New York: The Abingdon Press,1925, p. 114.

[2]   Dan Merchant, Lord Save Us from Your Followers, Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2008.

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The Worst Hard Time

Timothy Egan’s book about the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s describes what the people of that era and location endured and it is incredible—children and old people dying of dust pneumonia, canning Russian thistles to eat, eating road kill, shoveling dirt out of their houses for years, watching their animals die because the animals’ respiratory and digestive systems were clogged with dust. [1]  These people were made of sterner stuff than we are today.

The Dust Bowl was caused by humans, specifically mistaken public policy and a lack of knowledge.  The government encouraged the settlement of this area (which they had originally promised to the Indians).  The ranchers who had lived in that area for some time knew that it was only suited for grazing.  However, some newcomers deceived by a few wetter than normal years and high grain prices, tore up millions of acres of prairie grass that held the soil in place and when the rains diminished the winds carried the dust across America to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dust Bowl is a story of two scourges of the human race:  our sinful nature and our ignorance.  We are greedy.  We do not consider the long term consequences of our actions because we are only interested in our immediate gratification.  We are ignorant.  We are so lacking in our knowledge of our world and many times we take actions that have disastrous consequences.  We have the option of addressing both of these human failings.  The question is whether we will do so.

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[1]   Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time, Boston:  A Mariner Book,
Roughton Mifflin Company, 2006.

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Ignoring Data

Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who had a rare illness.  Bacterial meningitis attacked the cortex of his brain which essentially shut down this part of his brain for seven days.  The cortex controls memory, language, emotions, visual and auditory awareness, and logic—basically all the parts of the brain that make us human.  During this time he had what many would call a near death experience which transformed him from a scientist who dismissed the idea that anything beyond the material world existed to one who now is convinced the spiritual world is an essential part of our lives.

In his book, Dr. Alexander is critical of those who refuse to look at the data that exists on spiritual matters although he admits he once did the same.  He says:  “They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.” [1]  He is right.  There are many who refuse to even look at the data which indicates that more than our material world exists.  How can one claim to be a seeker of truth if one ignores readily available data?

However, the same statement also applies to us Christians.  We believe we know the truth but if questions are raised about our faith, we need to address them and not ignore them.  In this blog, we have raised three questions about the doctrine of salvation (see My Beliefs).  Will Christians address those questions or will they ignore them?  The choice is ours.

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[1]   Eben Alexander, M.D., Proof of Heaven, New York:  Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012, p. 153.

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Semmelweis Effect

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician in the 1800’s who had the audacity to publish the idea that doctors should wash their hands before attending to a patient.  This was not just some wild idea of his; he had research to back it up.  As they say, no good deed goes unpunished and his punishment was to be ostracized by the medical community.

As a result, we have named an aspect of the human condition after Dr. Semmelweis.   “The Semmelweis reflex or ‘Semmelweis effect’ is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” [1]

Now some maintain that at least parts of the ‘Semmelweis effect’ story are a myth. [2]  However, regardless of its truth, the fact remains that we humans have a tendency to reject new information that contradicts what we already know.  This is especially true in our religious beliefs.  We are of the opinion, whether we realize it or not, that our interpretation of the Bible is infallible.  Therefore any interpretation of the Bible that is different than ours is wrong.

There is nothing wrong with being confident in our beliefs provided we have reasons for those beliefs (I Peter 3:15).  However, if we do discover problems in our belief system, we must address, not ignore, them.  In this blog we have pointed out at least three problems with the Christian doctrine of salvation.  The question is:  Will the Christian community will address those problems or continue to ignore them.

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[1]   http://semmelweis.org/about/dr-semmelweis-biography/

[2]   http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/bacteriology/expert-skeptics-suckered-again-incredibly-the-famous-semmelweis-story-is-another-supermyth

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Is Evil Superior to Good?

Machiavelli is of the opinion that a good person of necessity must come to grief among people who are not good and that a leader must do what is considered to be evil in order to keep his realm or organization intact. [1]  Is evil superior to good as a method of organizing society?

A look at our world shows that the use of force predominates.  Dictators imprison, torture, and kill their opponents.  Those in democracies who are in power use the political and legal system to suppress their opponents.  It is difficult to point to an example of someone in power who is truly good in his/her official actions.

Our experience tells us that good does work.  Jesus had only 12 disciples to carry on his work and while they were severely persecuted, they were not destroyed.  In fact they flourished.  Gandhi’s non-violent movement confronted the military might of Britain and succeeded in gaining independence for India.

If good does work, why do so many choose to do evil; why does Machiavelli recommend doing evil?  One answer is that it is quicker.  A robber in minutes takes what took you hours, days, or weeks to earn.  A ruler can throw dissidents in prison or execute them in order to remain in power rather than taking the time to develop a consensus among the people of his/her country.

Both evil and good will work.  Machiavelli recommends using both to remain in power.  Yes, at times one who is good will come to grief among people who are not good.  But likewise, some evil people come to grief as well.  We have a choice to make.  Will we do whatever it takes to remain in power or will we do what is right?

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[1]   Luigi Ricci, trans., Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, New York:  New American Library, 1952, p. 84.

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Machiavelli

In our last blog, we raised the question of whether God will judge us for the actions we take when we are in a leadership position of an organization.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is a guide on how to obtain and hold political power in government, business, academia, and any other organization.  Machiavelli asserts a leader’s primary responsibility is to ensure the survival of the organization and the leader should do whatever is necessary to ensure that survival. The principles Machiavelli advocates are not necessarily evil.  For example, he points out that cruelty to a few individuals (punishment or executions) can prevent injury to the whole community. [1]  We see this principle applied in our legal system when persons like Timothy McVeigh are tried and punished.

Now, the term Machiavelli to most people does not have good connotations because he recommends doing whatever is necessary—good or evil—to maintain power.  However, it seems that even God follows some of Machiavelli’s principles.  Machiavelli states a leader should be both feared and loved [2] and the Bible teaches that God uses both.  The fear God uses is fear of what he will do to us after this life is over.  “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  God also uses love (John 3:16).

So if, as we assert in this blog, our ultimate goal is to become like God, does that mean we are free to use Machiavelli’s principles?  The problem is that Jesus teaches a different way.  He tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus praised the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-10).  Jesus says the humble will be exalted Luke 18:9-14).  That is not very Machiavellian.

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[1]   Luigi Ricci, trans., Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, New York:  New American Library, 1952, p. 89.

[2]   Ricci, p. 90.

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Official Actions

It seems these days it is routine to hear of governmental agencies breaking the law to enforce the law.  Their justification for doing so is to make us safer but as one ATF agent stated:  Number of convictions is all that counts for some agencies.  They must justify their existence and they will employ questionable means to obtain them. [1]  I also remember listening to a C-Span segment a couple of years ago.  C-Span was interviewing two Regan appointees and they essentially admitted that having access to those in power was more important than the truth.  They admitted they would modify what they wrote or said to conform to what those in power believed.  Unfortunately this is true in more than just our political circles; it is true in business, academia, and every other organization.

Now everyone agrees that God will judge us for our personal actions.  The question is:  Will God judge us for our official actions?  Will God judge politicians for the actions they take while in office?  Will God punish them if they start an unjust war?  Will God judge a businessperson who takes advantage of his/her employees or customers or is that just business?  Will God judge the Catholic officials who ignored evidence of priests abusing children?  Will God judge a college president who does not promote someone solely because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs even if they are the most qualified?

Is there a difference between our personal actions and our official actions or do we create such artificial boundaries so we can justify doing what we want?

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[1]   Janie B. Cheaney, “Agencies gone rogue”, World, January 25, 2014, p. 18.

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