Swords into Plowshares

A couple years ago I ran across a stunning work of art about peace that hit me powerfully. It was inspired from Isaiah chapter 2, verse 4, and I offer it here as a visual aid to invite you into a meditation about the incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ as Prince of Peace. The source and date of the art may also surprise and please. Here’s it is.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Rest of the Square Inch

square inch with heartMany years ago when starting out as a public Christian, I had visions of changing the world. It didn’t seem like a ridiculous hope, if only because my first book had sold well in the U.S. and the U.K. and had been translated into six languages. So I was riding high, on the road to changing the world for God.

But soon I realized I couldn’t change the world. So I took a more humble stance: I’ll just change my nation instead. But then I realized that I couldn’t change America, so, wise guy that I am, I lowered my sights further: I can change my state. But then I realized I couldn’t change Michigan. So I wised up a little more: if I can’t change my state, I’ll change my city, Detroit. After all, we’ve got a ton of problems here.

Failing to get any traction down that road, I was getting desperate. After all, I had lowered my sights considerably. Maybe God was trying to tell me something. But what that was, I didn’t know.

Then it hit me: I’ve got it! If I can’t change the city, I can change my church. On reflection, of course, that was dumb idea. It’s not my church, it’s God’s. So I said: well, at least I can change my family. Right. That didn’t work either. So I said: I can change my wife. (When you’re done laughing, read on.) After getting over that painful move, I wondered how much smaller I could shrink my vision of change. If I couldn’t change the world or the nation or the state or the city or my church or my family or my friends or my wife, what else was there? What other area was there?

I did entertain some notions of changing myself. But that, too, was ridiculous. Although there were ways in which I had changed some things about myself, and othere things I could and should still do, I knew enough about myself as a sinner and what the Bible teaches about any notion of self-redemption to know that it’s a futile project.

What, then, could I do? Apparently, I couldn’t change anything! Yet that was the disillusionment God had been driving for in my heart. I remember praying: God, I can’t change the world or the nation or even my family, friends, or wife. Or even myself. I don’t have a vision of change any more. It’s hopeless. What’s going on?

You can change your square inch. That’s the answer that immediately popped into my spirit, and with it came understanding. I saw all the varied and diverse relationships that I had, near and far, with people I knew and did not know, and I saw that if I was willing God would give me grace and wisdom to change things for the better in those “square inches,” those realms of relationships. I no longer had to fuss and moan about changing the world, or Michigan, or my city, or my church, or my family, or myself. But if I myself cooperated with God’s grace and wisdom in whatever situtation I happened to be in, at any given moment and wherever in the world it was, I would be changing something for the good in my “square inch.”

This insight about what could actually be changed changed my understanding of both pubic and private Christian life and ministry. I already knew that it was about relationships. But now I had much more clarity about what that meant.

What does this mean in practice? Here’s some thoughts. We each have our own square inches, and their size varies all the time. They may be large or small, nearby or far away, with persons we know or don’t know. It depends on what we are doing and where we are at any particular time. And those realms of relationships and what is taking place in them are not static but dynamic, changing in any number of ways. Further, God is with us in those realms with grace and wisdom, and this means that changes can be made for the good.

Your square inch at any given time may be sitting on the couch with a child, or standing in a long, slow-moving queue of irritable shoppers, or working with an ornery boss. It may be may be talking on the phone with an old friend across the country, or sitting at a table with seven others at a wedding reception dinner, or in a moment of decision about what to post on Facebook or to comment on there. In other words, the sizes and situations of your square inches will always be different, depending on what’s going. But God will be there in them with you with grace and wisdom on offer for changing something for the better, and for making the already-good ever gooder.

But there are other considerations. Typically, a Christian’s square inches include  relationships and situations like those I’ve mentioned. But besides those, the square inches of some Christian man and women are a much larger pulpit for the grace and wisdom of Jesus to make a change. Some are pastors. Some are in classrooms teaching. Some run businesses. Some direct NGOs. Some sit on library boards. Some, like yours truly, write books, or get interviewed on the radio, or work in the field of diplomacy and negotiations.

My point is that in any given situation or context, one’s square inch, or realm of relationship, might entail reaching a congregation, a classroom, a city, or even a national audience.

Faced with the frequency and extent of suffering and injustice in the world, we can get overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. It seems futile to attempt to do anything about it – even though as responsible citizens and individuals we would like to change the world. The square inch rule, however, offers us rest from trying to change the world. We can’t change it. Christ has already changed it.

We can have a hand in changing one life at a time. We all know what our square inches are. No one needs to tell us that. And we know, or at least we have a pretty good idea of, what square inches may be on the horizon, at least in the near future. So instead of feeling disillusioned by a vision that is too big for us to handle, here’s an idea. Let’s focus on bringing God’s grace and wisdom into our existing realms of relationships so that we can partner with what Jesus is already doing in those relationships to change them for the better. And let’s start with our own square inch with Jesus.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top images by istvanberta (permission via Creative Commons).

Wisdom for the Unborn

mother and babyA new law in the state of Tennessee now requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait 48 hours after receiving in-person counseling from a doctor before she can return for the procedure. With that new law, Tennessee joins more than two dozen states that require similar waiting periods, ranging from 24-72 hours. Only 28 percent of Tennesseans opposed this new law, and with more than half the country now onboard, momentum is building in several other states for similar legislation. Public pushback to these waiting periods is usually framed around “this is another encroachment on a woman’s right to abortion.”

This got me thinking about the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit murder,” in the context of abortion legislation, and I’d like to share a thought about this.

Many Evangelical and Catholic Christians rely on the Sixth Commandment as the moral base supporting their pro-life activities to protect the unborn. For these believers themselves, the connection is straightforward. Since they believe in the authority of Scripture, there is no unreasonableness to the connection. Vexed questions arise, however, when Evangelicals and Catholics take this connection out of their own circles and into the public square to argue for the protection of the unborn.

It is the age-old problem of how do Christian address issues in America, a society in which a large percentage of the population does not believe in the authority of the Bible. But they want the best for their society, and they want to find ways of convincing society about how it can be run for everyone’s best interests. So the questions is, how should they engage convincingly in legislative processes alongside people who support abortion?

Many Christians have recognized the weakness of trying to impose the Sixth Commandment on the conscience of abortion supporters as a means of protecting the unborn. So they have appealed to other arguments. But weaknesses exist there too. One of those is the appeal to the “sacredness of human life.”

Although it is not heard much these days, the appeal to the sacredness, or sanctity, of human life stems from the biblical truth about human beings as having been made in the image of God, and this gives the Sixth Commandment its reasonableness. In other words, and in the context of the present discussion, to be a human being means to have an eternal dimension in which only God may correct our failures (when and how God sees fit). So don’t take the law into your own hands and commit murder.

diplomacyAnd yet when it comes to our earthly life, there is another biblical truth. Apparently, our earthly life is only “sacred” insofar as God endorses it. So when God says a murderer should be put to death, God seems to regard the murderer’s earthly life as no longer inviolable, or sacred. Or, to put it in terms most familiar today, the person (the murderer) no longer has a right to life. It is not an individual, however, but a court of law that makes that decision, which the state then may execute, and if it does, it is not considered murder but justice.

Now this is where the appeal in public to the sanctity of human life gets complicated, and often weakened as a result. The “sanctity of life” argument in the abortion debate hasn’t gotten much traction with abortion supporters because it means talking about the murder of a baby in the womb to people, lobbies, and legislators who do not believe that’s a baby in the womb. So then you’ve got to try to overcome that obstacle. To try to do that, Christians have found themselves stuck into arguments with ethicists, philosophers, and scientists involving an elaborate casuistry about “when the fetus becomes a person,” or sufficiently human to have a “right to life.”

Must the fetus be treated as a person as early as conception, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, and as many believe? Or does personhood occur at some later stage in the womb, or even outside the womb? Long story short, there has been no agreement on this among ethicists, scientists, legislators, theologians, or philosophers, never mind among abortion activists. Nevertheless, personhood in the womb has been a key implication in drafting many abortion laws around the world.

A wiser way of arguing the case against abortion, and a biblical way at that, would, I think, be an argument from duty. This fundamentally different approach may help us to make a coherent, well-reasoned, and believable case that others can follow. The arguement, for instance, about when a fetus becomes a person has often been debated in categories of “the rights of the fetus” against “the mother’s right to choose.” The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is not the way the Bible thinks about ethics. The primary concern in the Bible is duties, not rights. Duties toward things. And rights, in so far as they are spoken of at all in Scripture (there is no special word for them), are defined by duties.

The problem with the appeal to “rights” as a core for ethical treatment of the unborn is that it makes duty a self-centered affair. So the mother’s right to choose trumps the unborn’s right to life. In fact, if the fetus isn’t a person, then the issue is moot. And when has anyone ever heard of the father of the unborn getting his say in this? But the appeal to duty, which is biblical, opens up a fundamentally new approach to the abortion debate. For one thing, it takes the pressure off relying on the “sanctity of life” argument or on having to know when a fetus becomes a “person with an inalienable right to life.” This is significant because even if we cannot know when or if the fetus becomes a person, we know that we have a duty to the fetus, whatever it is at whatever stage of its development.

And there is this benefit. If someday the ground were shot out from under the “rights” argument – if it were someday shown by biologists that the fetus was not a person (thus not having a right in terms of the Constitution) – it would not mean that we therefore could disrespect the fetus. We still could not do with it as we liked, for we would still have a duty to it, whether it is a person or not.

helping handYou see, if it isn’t a person, then we can’t argue rights. And if it is a person, we’re currently stalled by an elaborate casuistry surrounding when the fetus becomes a person. But if we start talking about duties, then the question becomes: What is the mother’s duty to the fetus? What is the father’s duty to it? What is the doctor’s duty, the community’s duty, the government’s duty? My duty? Your duty? This biblical principle can be highlighted by taking the whole business back a step; that is, every young man before he is married has a duty even regarding his sperm.

Placing stress on “duty” would give us a solid way to argue for the baby’s birth in a mixed, a pluralist, society like ours. And it would not need to bang people over the head with: “This is in the Bible,” or some such thing. Duties, or call them responsibilities, are moral obligations that everyone understands need to be fulfilled if their lives are not going to end up in disaster. No one needs the Bible to tell them that. So they can’t blow off the argument from duty, as they do overt arguments from the Bible, such as when the Sixth Commandment is brought into the debate. (They may not like being challenged by a case based on duty, but that is a different story.)

Whether a fetus is a person or not, the duty we have to it can save the life of the unborn. This may not completely by-pass questions about rights and personhood, but at least it means that we can take an ethical argument about protection for the unborn to a point where rational people will listen and cannot just disengage themselves at the get-go.

If our moral and ethical thinking works the way the Bible’s does, it never lets us off the hook in the abortion debate just because we cannot say for certain when the fetus is a person or because the mother can say “I’ve a right to an abortion.” We’re never in a place where we can say, “I can’t do anything about it.” All of us have duties to the unborn. Legislation headed in this direction would liberate the love of those already born to protect the life of those as yet unborn.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Parts of this article were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing Word, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 8 “Weaknesses in the Evangelical Attitude to Social Problems.”

Bottom image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

Better Living through Better Theories

tikun olamThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It may be, and often is, misused, but it is still as much a gift from God as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time. If we do not use godly ones, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes to mind. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a quick illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving. So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen upon the scene of an accident, afraid to help the injured person because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates medical professionals (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

Since our wisdom informs our theories, the way to better theories, and to better living as a result, is to keep acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical, which, by the way, is the hope of this blog, wagingwisdom.com. I realize that this means we must continue to change, and that that means work, and, goodness knows, we’ve all got enough work to do anyway! But this kind of work is liberating. It sets us free to participate more consistently as co-workers with God in redeeming creation.

Yet we make excuses to get out of this kind of work, never mind that we have obediences to fulfill here as part of our Christian discipleship. Let me just point out one common excuse. On becoming a Christian a radical change gets introduced into our outlook. We now say that we know God, and we are likely to take the supernatural more seriously. Personal religious experience, such as prayer, communion, and church attendance, takes on an entirely new meaning. The Bible, our moral obligations, and the religious attitudes of others also begin to have a different meaning, and we acquire sympathy with the causes that Christians identify with.

Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that our entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And let’s remember the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1–3; Colossians 2:20-3:2). Part of the difficulty, then, on the way to better theories, is that the process of acquiring a more thorough biblical wisdom stalls entirely too easily because we think we have arrived.

We fall into the trap of assuming that we are living consistent with biblical wisdom, that little, if anything, in our wisdom (the way we see life and live in it) remains unscriptural. This may be true regarding areas of religious convictions and moral decisions, but what about, as we saw in the previous post, our thinking about “secular” life?

map readingIn a recent post we considered that we get our wisdom by absorbing it from childhood. This includes absorbing assumptions and developing attitudes to life in conjunction with our families and the community and culture around us. Unfortunately, many of us have been influenced for decades by a process of wisdom formation in which life is thought to be split into the spiritual and the material, the religious (or sacred) and the secular. This has hugely influenced us to see Scripture as being only about spiritual things. So that becomes the only way we know how to think about Scripture and engage with it.

This means that those who desire to learn and develop wisdom for “secular” life will look to sources other than Scripture because the traditional, American Christian community doesn’t think Scripture has much, if anything, to say about our “secular” (our everyday) lives and work – call it life outside the church walls; Monday through Saturday life.

I’m not saying that there is no godly wisdom that can be found in sources other than the Bible. I’m saying that our assumption about the Bible is tragic because the Bible has an enormous amount to say about everyday life – the life where most of us spend most of our time, by far. And once you start seeing it, there is so much of it, you wonder how you every missed it.

Another obstacle in the process of wisdom development is our penchant to go it alone. But we cannot do this on our own. Christian life is about relationships and community in Christ, and the importance of this for the task of increasing our biblical wisdom cannot be overstated.

I’m not talking only about being in a church service every week. I cannot tell you how important it has been for me, personally, to meet regularly with people to “search the Scriptures” (John 5:29), which “are able to make [us] wise” (2 Timothy 3:15). Learning together has been especially important to me during periods when I have been struggling with an important issue and haven’t had a breakthrough. Although sometimes this has simply meant finding one or two good books on the subject or arranging for a longish phone call with a knowledgeable person, meeting regularly with people has proven to be a key for me.

Having said all this, I would not be telling the whole story if I did not add that today many Christians no longer see the Bible as being about spiritual life only, and as a result they are finding it a little easier to do the kind of biblical homework being discussed here. They have been awakened to their need for a truly coherent and thoroughgoing biblical wisdom, one that will inform their theories and speak to the “secular” affairs of life in a godly manner. But this wasn’t the situation decades ago in most Christian circles.

gobsmackedNevertheless, it still can be a desperate and daunting task. In our fast-paced and changing world, in which nearly every day some unexpected cultural, economic, or political challenge gets thrust upon an unprepared church, we may have few biblical clues to  guide us. It still is, after all, a comparatively new enterprise for us, and we often lack signposts, sophistication, and expertise.

Further, ministers may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations arise to become impatient, or to fall for easy and dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But who said Christian discipleship was going to be easy?

When the Bible commands us not to be molded by the world but to have a renewed mind, surely this includes changing our thinking in secular life. This means that we have got to get on with learning the wisdom of Scripture for secular (everyday) life and work as best we can, so that through choosing better theories we can live lives increasingly for the glory of God in the world.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Parts of this post were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 7.

A related post, about the ABCs of Scripture, may help interested readers with some practical steps to take this discussion to another level.

Center image by Ed Yourdon, lower image by Magdalene Roeseler (permissions via Creative Commons).

The Play of Theories

theoriesWe once had a little fun in a seminar. What is the answer, I asked the group, to the question: “Who will be taken and who will be left, in the story that Jesus tells about “the days of Noah” in Matthew 24? “Is it the ones who are taken who are saved or the ones who are left?” Some said it was the taken, others the ones who were left.

Now I wasn’t asking that question because I wanted to correct the “wrong” answer. The point was to draw attention to the role that theories play in our lives, including in our beliefs. Two different theories were at work in that audience. A premillennial rapture theory was informing the beliefs of those who said that the taken were the saved. For the others, the story of Noah, or at least the aspects of it that Jesus details in Matthew 24:36-41, was the theory.

Bringing up the word “theory” easily puts many people off, but there’s no good reason for that, especially because no one, but no one, gets through a day without relying on theories. “Theory” is not just a word for the intellectual. Besides, who is not “intellectual”? Anyone using the mind is intellectual.

I’m not using the word, here, in the technical sense, for instance, of a scientific theory, or a political theory, or a theory of art, or of any other kind of highly abstract body of thought. I’m using it simply in the general sense of a set of beliefs, or policies, or procedures that inform our daily actions. And most of the time, for many of us, we are not conscious of this until it is pointed out to us, as I did in that seminar.

Several months ago on this blog I told a humorous story about “cannon ball races” in order to call attention to the troubling but overlooked phenomenon that is often at the heart of communication breakdowns. There, we considered the problem of conflicting theories, which in some cases (not that one) can lead to a bad argument, division, enmity, or even violence. Now the communication’s problem in that story, as we saw, easily resolved, but here I want to look briefly at another role that theories play in our lives. It affects larger and more crucial issues that are not so easily solved, such as come up in a society’s disputes about science, education, religion, or politics. Problems in such arenas will be especially difficult to resolve when the people working on them bring different theories to it.

Take an example from the White House. U.S. presidents, at least the wisest of them, will listen to different theoretical voices, so to speak, when they are analyzing international incidents. But as a rule, when it comes to interpreting those incidents and deciding on policies of response to them, presidents rely on insight from their closest advisers, who have been chosen because they hold a theory about international relations that to a large degree agrees with the presidents’ theories.

This is why, as the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering if Al Gore would have responded differently to the 9/11 terrorist attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein? The editorials recognized that Bush and Gore held two different, and conflicting, political theories.

So, most of us don’t advise presidents! But most of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves in a debate over whether home schooling or public schooling is better, or how to discipline the kids, or whether a Democrat or a Republican should be our state’s next governor. Should marijuana be legalized? Should the federal income tax laws be overhauled? Should we have invaded Iraq? What about gay marriage, or national health care, the death penalty? Is global warming occurring?

That these and dozens of other large issues are argued daily across America, and not just around waters coolers but in schools and homes as well, testifies to the different theories at play in the debates.

This post, then, has underlined the fact that different theories inform how people think about issues. In the next post, I want us to consider why we need a wisdom that makes sound theories possible for dealing with life’s pressing issues.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer