Friday, September 14, 2018

Why Religious Persecution in China concerns us all

The headlines these days read like something out of the books of the Maccabees. These books were written about 130 B.C. They recount the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Antiochus IV was a Greek king in the eighth generation after Alexander the Great. He lived from 215-164 B.C., and is infamous for his attempts to Hellenize the Jews. This was a gruesome campaign to indoctrinate them with pagan Greek religion, culture and customs.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes

Mind you, the Jews already had been under Greek rule for a century-and-a-half. They were dominated physically and politically. But that wasn’t enough for Antiochus. He wanted to control not just their bodies, but their minds. So, he made a decree that “they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances” (1 Macc. 1:49).

The enforcement of this decree involved social pressure, economic pressure and, where those failed, torture and death. These awesome powers of the Greek state were used both to forbid Jews from practicing their faith and to coerce them into doing abominable things.

Jewish mothers were forbidden to circumcise their children. Rabbis were told to hand over Bibles to be burned, and if any were later caught with one they would be executed. All Jews were forced both to eat unclean foods and to perform sacrilegious ceremonies like sacrificing pigs to the Greek gods.

Antiochus also decreed that once a month the people of each city should be gathered to violate their consciences all over again. On that day they were made to re-perform their sacrilegious ceremonies. Then, any children that had been circumcised in the previous month were gruesomely killed along with their mothers and the rabbis who performed the ceremony (Macc. 1:60-61).

All of this seems long ago and far away. But it is not. Headlines from China today indicate that eerily similar things are happening right now. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power by ramping up pressure against religious liberty across the board. In April, 2016 he declared that religious groups “must adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Christians are seeing a crackdown on the house-church movement. Muslim Uyghurs are being sent to internment camps for re-indoctrination. Tibetan Buddhists have seen their monasteries placed under state surveillance.

For Buddhists, this means that loyalty to the Dalai Lama is forbidden. To force compliance, the CCP has focused especially on the monasteries. They have set up “management committees” to control each monastery and have required them to fly the Chinese flag and display portraits of CCP leaders.
Sera Monastery (2013), monks watched by a special military
police officer (foreground). Photo by: Woeser

Surveillance cameras have also been installed inside the monasteries and regular police inspections look for any signs of loyalty to the Dalai Lama. If any are uncovered, the monks and nuns are subjected to “patriotic re-education,” arrest, torture and expulsion from the monastery.

The Muslim Uyghurs are a different matter. A recent report from Human Rights Watch suggests that as many as one million adult Uyghurs are being held in crowded detainment camps for re-indoctrination. They are detained indefinitely and promised release only on the condition that they denounce their Muslim faith. Meanwhile, their children are held in orphanages, and some are even being put up for adoption by non-Muslims.

Chinese Communist Party officials are also moving into the very homes of Uyghur Muslim families in order to keep a close watch on whether they observe the traditions of their faith. In particular, during the season of Ramadan they are expected to eat pork and violate other aspects of their Muslim faith in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the CCP.

Christian persecution focuses mainly on the house churches. Long ago, the churches registered by the CCP have been coopted into being arms of state propaganda. Since the CCP knows that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” Christians have been forbidden to bring anyone to church under the age of 18.

For reasons such as these, authentic Christians have gone underground. They gather in homes and listen to preachers who have not sworn loyalty to the CCP. These house churches are now in the crosshairs of Xi Jinping.

Last Sunday afternoon (September 9), Zion, Beijing’s largest house church, was raided by 60 CCP officials who sealed the building and confiscated pastor Jin’s personal assets and all church items that they deemed to be “propaganda.” Apparently, Bibles top of the list of propaganda materials. Only a week earlier in Henan province, numerous churches were raided, and worshippers were assaulted. At least one of these also reported that its Bibles and crosses were burned.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has confirmed that these are not just hyperbolic stories. On Tuesday, September 11, it released a statement saying, “These collective actions ... signal an alarming escalation in persecution of citizens in China under Xi Jinping. USCIRF condemns the Chinese government's ongoing brutal and systematic targeting of religious communities for their beliefs.”

The tactics of Antiochus Epiphanes are still alive and well. For the Chinese Communists, like the Soviet Communists, the Nazis, the North Koreans and others, it is not enough to control territory and bodies. Godless Materialism is threatened by anyone who believes that there is something or Someone who transcends the power of the state. For this reason, Materialists must control not only the body, but also the mind.

They still use the same barbaric methods of Antiochus. Bibles are burned. Piety is prevented. Communication is shut down. Vile acts and blasphemies are forced by fines, imprisonment, assault and death. It didn’t work for Antiochus. It won’t work for Xi. But in the meantime untold numbers of people must suffer under these inhumane attempts at mind control.

As terrible as this is for nearly half of the Chinese population that holds some transcendent faith, it is not isolated there. The Christian West, which was once the world’s last bastion of freedom, is beginning to see these barbaric ideas encroach on its humanity.

Just last week at Goldsmiths, University of London, a group calling itself “LGBTQ+ Goldsmiths” asserted that people who oppose their ideas should be sent to Soviet-style gulag camps for rehabilitation. These camps used starvation, cold, disease and execution to kill tens of millions of Soviet citizens over the course of decades.

“LGBTQ+ Goldsmiths” wanted not only to change minds, but to do so with punishing force. When called out, they doubled down, claiming that the gulags were a rehabilitory way “to correct and change the ways of ‘criminals.’” They assured us that nobody was locked away for life. The “longest sentence was 10 years” because if the reindoctrination “couldn’t be done in ten years, it couldn’t be done at all.”

One might assume that this broadside was directed at Muslims or Christians. It was not. Rather, it was directed at “Radical Feminists” who objected only to a few of their ideas. This incident is a clear reminder that once the attacks on religious freedom ensue, no one is exempt.

The USCIRF is standing with persecution-watch organizations to advocate for Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese house churches. Their advocacy benefits not only the religious, but the secular as well.

Friday, September 7, 2018

We all share in responsibility to protect from sexual abuse

Pennsylvania Attorney General Press Conference
It has been a terrible summer for my many friends in the Roman Catholic Church.

It should have been dominated by the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae (July 25, 2018). This was a signal moment for all who stand for the nobility of the human body and the holiness of marriage. Even this Lutheran took a moment to tip his hat at the moral courage and foresight of Pope Paul VI.

Sadly, only days later, a lightning bolt touched off an unrelenting firestorm of contrary revelations.
Undeniable allegations of homosexual misconduct with countless seminarians forced the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Two weeks later, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury released a report revealing the sickening details of sexual abuse involving 300 priests and well over a thousand victims over the course of three decades. Then a scant two weeks after that the former papal nuncio to America released a memo alleging that the cover-up of McCarrick involved the very highest levels of the hierarchy, even the pope himself.

Through all these terrible revelations and accusations, I watched in silence. As the only columnist in Wyoming to write about Humanae Vitae, who regularly covers matters of sexuality, I felt obligated to address the issues. But for weeks, I could not bring myself to do so.

Empty Reasons for Silence

I justified my silence, in part, by recognizing that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). There have been pastors and bishops in every church body who  were disgraced by sexual scandal. My own is no exception. Likewise, there have been plenty of cases of cover-up for sexual sins. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

Beyond this, it felt like bad form for a non-Catholic to speak on some very Catholic issues. Out of respect for my friends, I remained mostly silent, grimacing with each new revelation and hoping that their church’s hierarchy would move mountains to expunge the “velvet mafia” that perpetuated these evils. Many sincere and pious believers feel the guilt by association with the indefensible actions of others.

But the guilt by association is not confined to a single denomination. The conflagration in Rome affects all Christians. Even though Lutherans and Catholics remain divided by the most serious doctrinal differences, I am not so naïve as to think that those judging Christendom from outside will care to observe those distinctions.
But all of these concerns are empty. They are not worth the time of day because they are about institutions and reputations. They are not about people. It is when we place institutions and reputations above the care of souls that scandals like this arise in the first place. Self-defense and institutional cover-up have no place in a moment like this.

One Relevant Fact

Pope Francis and Cardinal McCarrick
The only relevant fact is this: the sins of sexual predators destroy the lives of real people. Let’s keep the proper perspective. It is not a tragedy that Cardinal McCarrick’s career came to a screeching halt. It is not a tragedy that attorney generals from New York, New Jersey and other states are using subpoenas to examine church records to follow up on abuse allegations.

The real tragedy is that even a single altar boy or seminarian has been scarred for life. The real tragedy is that even one girl or woman was propositioned by her priest.

When thinking about scars on the human soul, we cannot pretend that these were isolated moments. These hurting people grew up and carried their pain with them. Some found healing, but others didn’t.

Untold Stories of Lasting Pain

Who knows how many people were plunged into a life-long struggle with substance abuse, depression, unwanted same-sex attraction and various forms of PTSD? Who knows how many of these victims ended their struggles with suicide?

Who knows how many parents were confused and helpless to understand the sudden and drastic changes happening to their adolescent children. Many unwittingly sought help from the very priest who was the source of the problem. How could they know?

Who knows how these evils have prevented people from marrying and raising a family, or contributed to the breakup of families once formed? The tragedy of sexual abuse is not an isolated moment. Its effects are long-lasting—affecting entire families and generations in a thousand ways that we will never know.

These are the real tragedies—not the revelation of these evils and their cover-up years after the fact.

No institution, no human organization, no ideology, no personal privilege is worth protecting at the price of these precious people. So today I am writing, neither as an attacker of Rome, nor as a defender of Christendom, but as a Christian standing in defense of men, women, children together with their eventual spouses, children and extended families.

A Call to Action

I have a simple call to action for people from every church and from all walks of life. It is this: Do your job without partiality. Do not be swayed by the reputation of individuals or the power of institutions. Rather let your heart be moved by the victims alone—past and future.

If you are a law enforcement official—from the attorney general to a city cop—investigate sexual abuse with the full power of your office. It’s not just about shaming the perpetrator, it is about recognizing the human dignity of the victim.

If you are a church official call on law enforcement to help you investigate allegations. That’s why God gave us government. In doing so, you will not be destroying your institution, but cleansing it. Christ teaches that we must die in order to live. That applies here.

If you are a victim of abuse, speak up. We recognize how deeply you have been hurt. You need to recognize that too, and seek out healing. You also have an opportunity to prevent the one who hurt you from hurting still others.

If you know of the abuse of someone else, do not remain silent. Silence only abets  the perpetrator. It does not help the victim.

If you advocate for an anything-goes sexual ethic, it is time to look at where that leads. See the long-lasting damage experienced by many a man and woman who gave in and “consented.” Did that take away the damage to their psyche, or did it only add to the pain?
Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno

One of the first columns that I ever wrote for the Uinta County Herald was a response to the dismantling of the Penn State football program (“The NCAA’s Silent Sermon” July 24, 2012). Jerry Sandusky used his power to corrupt uncounted young men, while those in positions of authority knew but did nothing.
I wrote then:
“All of us should also be looking to ourselves. This lesson is not only for programs and institutions. It is a lesson for each and every one of us. You are your brother’s keeper. When your brother needs protection, no social program, no political loyalty, no peer pressure is a legitimate reason to fail him. Whatever the cost, whatever the inconvenience, whatever the sacrifice to success, reputation, friendship or social standing, every human being, no matter how small, is your brother; and you are your brother's keeper.”
Those words were never more true than true today.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Wildfires affect us all; let’s all lend a hand

So far this year 47,463 wildfires have burned 6,838,826 acres, according to a report released from the National Interagency Coordination Center on August 31. Although that’s eight percent fewer fires than average, it’s about twenty percent more acres burned.

Interesting statistics though they be, they don’t tell the human cost. We get a better sense of that when we bring it closer to home.

The Britania Mountain fire near Wheatland, Wyoming, is just one of these 47-thousand fires, and a rather modest one at that. Still, it has consumed more than 26,000 acres, 18 structures, and cost $2.6 million. As I write, it is still threatening further homes, sage grouse habitat and energy infrastructure.

And don’t forget the smoke. While the loss of property can be localized, the smoke blows where it will. It makes eyes water and throats burn far away from the fire itself. It obscures the beautiful vistas of Wyoming and is the visible residue of a massive injection of CO2 into the atmosphere. A 2007 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that one wildfire season alone produces four-to-six percent of America’s entire carbon footprint.

Everybody has a stake

Everybody has a stake in reducing wildfires--from the CEO of an oil conglomerate to the soccer mom at the pump, hunters and bird-watchers, the elderly and parents of small children, those concerned with global warming and those not. No matter how distant the fires are from us personally, they affect us all.

They waste public resources, threaten wildlife, ruin beautiful vistas and destroy the homes of people we care about and the infrastructure that we have all paid for with hard-earned money. They create an atmosphere that no one wants to breathe but that we all must.


Cultural Wildfires

As we consider the cost of wildfires on our public lands, we should notice the parallels to the wildfires in our culture. These, too, may be raging in places that seem far distant from your own home and family.

They are played out in city council meetings and in school board meetings that most people never bother to attend. They are played out in court cases and legislative committee hearings. They are played out in letters to the editor, in obscure academic journals, and in op-eds across the country.

They are played out in kindergarten classrooms, high school assemblies and university lecture halls—speeches that we will never hear unless we take the time to ask our children what they are learning. 

Burning Reichstag
In all of these places, and a thousand more, there are constant fires lit that threaten to burn down institutions of our shared culture. Institutions like marriage, family, church and a free press are all threatened by the flames. Some have already been scorched to some degree.

Fighting the Flames or Fanning Them

There are fires raging in our educational institutions, in every governmental institution from our cities on up to the federal government. Some of these were set by cultural arsonists. Others are the accidental result of cultural carelessness. After they have been burning for a while, it doesn’t really matter who started the fire, it only matters whether you are fighting or fanning the flames.

Like fires in the wilderness, we oftentimes don’t notice them until they have been burning for a while. Like wildfires there are so many of them that we can hardly keep track of them all. Like wildfires, no one is their master—not even those who originally lit them. Fires and cultural ideas have a life of their own. Once let loose, they burn whatever is in their path.

Sometimes they burn the homes of those who just happen to be nearby. Other times they turn and burn the people who set the fire. Most often they burn the people who rush in and try to fight the flames.

As with firefighters, we like to send specially trained people in to fight the fires. Some of these are paid legislators. Others are elected to volunteer positions. After electing them, we send them into the places where the cultural fires are burning and ask them to extinguish the flames for us.

Don't Fire and Forget

That’s a good start. But there are three things we must never forget.

First, not everyone is wanting to extinguish the flames. Cultural arsonists run for public office just as surely as cultural firefighters do. We must know how to tell the difference.

Second, not everyone who wants to extinguish the flames knows how to do so. Just as some cultural fires are started accidentally, so also elected officials who do not understand the nature of fire may accidentally make matters worse. Well-meaning people also need to study and train to be effective firefighters.

Third, once we send people in to fight the fires, they still need our support. It would be unconscionable to drop smoke jumpers into a wilderness area and pay no attention to them afterwards. Conditions on the ground are always changing and we must communicate with them to find out what they need from us to do their job.

In the same way, we should be in constant contact with anybody we elect to fight the cultural fires. Without our constant support and resupply, they cannot do the job. Just because you are not on the front lines does not mean you don’t have a stake in fighting the fires.

Toxic Wastelands

Cultural fires scorch the land and destroy the beauty of the land. They turn once- wholesome places into toxic wastelands. Just think about how the torching of public obscenity laws has led to an internet that places every son or daughter within a single click of soul-corrupting images. This has isolated parents from any neighborly support in protecting their kids from the noxious fumes of our culture.

We also see households burned by the raging fires. Look at the children from broken homes and you will usually find that our cultural degeneration contributed to the tragedy. The cultural fires make it more difficult for well-meaning parents to hold their own families together.

We can and should do something about this. Governments, churches and educational institutions have a direct stake in making every decision in a way that supports the home and family. At the heart of our cultural wars is a false notion that individual freedom trumps the integrity of the family.

The opposite is true. The family is the basic building block of society. Every time there is a choice between strengthening the bonds of the family and absolute individual autonomy, the family should come first.

Don't forget about the smoke

Finally, don’t forget about the smoke. Even if your own family is not burning down. Even if you are able to keep yourself and your children away from the noxious wastelands that have been created by our cultural fires. Never forget that you are still breathing the same air.

It seeps into your home unbidden. It gets into your lungs and the lungs of your children. Worse, you soon get used to it and stop noticing that you are breathing noxious fumes. The only way to clean the air that we all breath, and build a healthy environment for your family, is to lend a hand in putting out the fires.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Ideas Are Not Persons

There were six of us around the table. A wide representation of backgrounds and religions--Mormon, Episcopalian, Adventist, Catholic and this Lutheran. We were studying the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. (The first three Sundays of August it was the appointed reading for millions of Christians around the world.)

Most Wednesdays the Bible studies come off without a hitch. We simply read the appointed verses and underscore their obvious meaning. This day had gone the same until suddenly the harmony of the previous hour was shattered. I had not intended to raise a controversy. The words themselves did that.

The words were so clear that nobody argued about what they meant. The point of controversy was whether they should be understood literally or not. I said yes. Others said no. And we were off to the races.

We make it a practice not to argue at these discussions. But neither could we move on. The difference of opinion was simply too profound. There was no way of reconciling the “yes” and the “no.” Each person around the table had to choose one or the other and there was no middle ground.

Self-Censorship Is NOT the Answer

I could have avoided the whole situation by never stating my belief. Many people take that tack every day. For years we have been enculturated to keep our beliefs to ourselves, only speaking them in the presence of people who believe the same. Not only does that defeat the whole point of being a preacher, but there are at least two problems for everyone else as well.

First, nobody in his right mind will deliberately and systematically conceal the truth from friends and acquaintances. If there is anything that I am willing to conceal from people I love, it is obviously something that I really don’t think is true.

Second, as the definition of “religious beliefs” grows ever more expansive, there are fewer and fewer things that we are allowed to say in public. At the founding of our country, nobody thought that phrases like “Nature’s God” and “Creator” were establishing any religion. They are simply common sense.

But today, the idea of a creator becomes less common and is now relegated to the realm of “religious belief.” Not only that, but there are some who would have you believe that male and female are  “religious beliefs.” What next? What common ground that we hold today will become “religious,” and therefore taboo, a decade from now?

Once I uttered my belief and the disagreement was on the table, there was another way to end the argument. I could have simply lied. I could have deceitfully retracted my words and claimed that I never really believed them. What kind of a person would that make me? Would any of us want such a person for a friend, or even a fellow citizen?

We Know How To Do This

Thankfully, human beings have been disagreeing for a long time and we have ways to deal with it. We make a sharp and clear distinction between what someone thinks to be true, and who that person is. We know that no matter what someone might believe, he remains exactly who he is—a fellow human being whom I am privileged to love.

That’s how we have gotten along for millennia. It is the foundation of all civilization that we not confuse persons with ideas. You may hate my ideas and think they are ridiculous. You may even spend all your waking hours trying to change my mind. I know that whatever effort you make to change my mind is solid proof that you really care about me.

So long as you don’t hate me as a person, we can live together in peace. But if you stop caring about changing my mind and start attacking my person, civility dissolves. Attacks on a person—whether turning others against him, or taking property and life from him—are a threat to his very existence, not just his ideas. The law must get involved to protect him.

That’s how civilization and civil conversation works. But this fundamental distinction is under serious attack today.

From the Playground to the Courtroom

Of course, it has always been rejected and ignored in childish fights on the playground and by hotheads—especially after a few too many. More recently, this incivility has moved into social media where there is less face-to-face accountability. Our darker side loves to bypass civil conversation and attack people. That’s a sad reality of our world and ourselves.

But the more serious attack on civility is happening in public law itself. Whenever somebody is punished because of his or her ideas, or when those ideas are punished as though they were an attack on someone’s person, civilization is in jeopardy.

That is exactly what is happing with increasing frequency—through inept laws and malicious prosecutors who exploit them. We are seeing a good example of this in Colorado right now. Baker, Jack Phillips, only recently concluded a six-year struggle to maintain the civil distinction between person and idea.

Since 2012 he has been pleading for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC) to recognize that his unwillingness to communicate false ideas is not at all the same as a personal attack on the people who wanted him to.

A baker—who demonstrably serves all people but who has a long and noble history of declining to express ideas that he does not believe—should not be attacked in his person. Declining to celebrate a divorce, or bake obscenities, or decorate a cake enthroning Satan should be praised, not punished.

SCOTUS Nailed It

Jack’s pleas were finally heard by the United States Supreme Court. On June 4, SCOTUS recognized the distinction between a person and an idea. It stipulated that “religious and philosophical objections” to an idea are protected by law, while maintaining that attacks on persons are not.

This put an end to a six-year-long attack on Jack’s person and his business by the CCRC. But now they are at it again. Jack does not agree with the idea that maleness and femaleness are up to us. Neither do I. I sincerely doubt that you believe that either. But the CCRC wants to run Jack out of business unless he says what he does not believe.

The irony is that the CCRC actually is attacking Jack’s person while it falsely accuses Jack of the same. Two months ago we could have explained its actions as an honest mistake. But it is that no longer. What the CCRC failed to see for nearly six years was made plain to it by a 7-2 vote of the highest court in the land.

There is a big difference between an unfortunate failure to see and a deliberate denial. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission is being anything but civil. In so doing, it is contributing to the breakdown of all civility. So also does anyone who refuses to acknowledge the difference between a person and an idea. It is foundational to all civilization.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

For Better, for Worse, Till Death Us Do Part

Caleb & Bethany Stoever
Bethany Lange, one of the Uinta County Herald’s favorite reporters, is Bethany Lange no more. On Sunday, August 12, she became Bethany Stoever. This was way more than a name change. The change in name signifies the beginning of a whole new life.

The old Bethany did not cease to exist. Rather, she was permanently united to another person. In this union, she did not become less, but more.

About a hundred people were present to hear the vows spoken, but they were truly spoken before the whole community—even the whole world. They were anything but private. So, I want to take this opportunity to let you hear them as well. In doing so, I want to reflect on their meaning both for Bethany and Caleb, as well as for our whole community.

Vows Are Open-Ended

The wedding vows, from time immemorial, invite the husband and the wife to repeat these words, “I, Bethany, take you, Caleb, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part, according to God’s holy will, and I pledge you my faithfulness.”

These words are so familiar that we barely give them any notice. It’s easy to treat them like some magical incantation that you have to recite to get married. But they didn’t have to recite them. They fervently wanted to say them.

These vows that we speak at weddings are not spoken under coercion or under duress. "There is something about being in love that induces us to make promises of everlasting fidelity.” That’s what Nathaniel Blake wrote in his article, The Romance of Ordinary Marriage. It’s “as if we know that such fidelity offers a better way of life, whatever the risks may be.”

It’s part of our human instinct that love wants to say, “forever.” You have never received a Valentine’s card with an expiration date. Hallmark couldn’t sell any cards that say, “I will love you until Friday.” That’s simply not the language of love.

Vows Make You a "Hostage"

Even more so the wedding vows. Far from mumbo jumbo, they express a willing and joyful commitment to stay with one’s husband or wife, “till death us do part.” Again, Blake wrote, “Loving another person means giving oneself as a hostage both to fortune and to an alien will.”

By “alien will” he means that, from here on out, neither husband or wife can simply do whatever he or she wants. Each is bound to consider the wants and needs of the other. In fact, each is bound not only to consider the other, but to put the other’s will above his own. Marriage is not a competition to get your own way. It is a competition to give way to the other.

Blake spoke not only of someone else’s will. He also said that marriage is making yourself hostage “to fortune.” By this he is talking about whatever may happen in the future. This aspect of the vows is utterly remarkable! Vows to love, cherish and remain faithful until death, are not in any way conditioned by expectations of the future.

There is no prenuptial escape clause. We do not merely promise to keep loving a person as long as he or she doesn’t change. We promise to keep loving no matter how he or she might change in the future and no matter how any uncontrollable circumstance might change. This is such an outlandish pledge, the vows even spell it out: “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

It’s not only that we promise to love in spite of what changes might come down the pike. We should fully expect change. Your wedding day is the birth of wedded love. Just as surely as we expect an embryo to grow into a newborn, and newborn to grow into an adult, so also the irrevocable wedding vows set the stage for a lifetime of growth.

The Riskiness Is the Point!

It is this conscious and deliberate life-long commitment that allows the relationship to move on from the possibility of love to actual love. The uncertainty of the future is part of that commitment. “One can have pleasure while maintaining control and safety, but one cannot have love. And pleasure without love will grow stale,” says Blake.

The risk is real. The risk is necessary. In fact, we know going into marriage that we have a 50/50 chance of having our hearts broken. But the only way your heart can be broken at the death of your spouse, is if that heart truly loved. That’s the risk of love.

In spite of all these dangers, people still long to get married. This is more than a social custom. There are many good reasons for marriage.

Reasons to Risk It

One reason is for the sake of the children. Children have an innate need to see their father and their mother loving each other. No child ever sees this perfectly and fully, but all children feel this need in the deepest place of the soul. Governments don’t have any business caring about your hearts, but they have every business caring about your kids. That’s the reason the state is involved.

On top of this, marriage also protects spouses. Love is vulnerable enough as it is. Nobody should have to endure the additional vulnerability of a spouse that breaks the vow. Think of it this way. If someone promised only to love you for seven years, would you marry him at all?

But ultimately, it is not just for the children and for protection that people get married. It is for the sake of our own humanity. Not all people want or need to marry to fulfill their human need to love. But for those drawn to married love, there is no other way to have it.

Promises Make Us Human

In the very act of making a vow, you are asserting yourself against all the forces of the world, even all the forces of hell itself. The ultimate human freedom is not simply to do whatever you feel like doing at any given moment. That is the freedom of the animals.

No. The ultimate human freedom is the freedom to make a promise and to keep it, to do what we said we were going to do. It is the victory of your true humanity when you resist the lusts of the flesh, when you ignore the allure of worldly fortune and defy every force—internal or external—that would have you break that vow.

Blake says, “In the making and keeping of promises, we assert ourselves against the world and the future as acting agents, not mere reactive beings responding to circumstance. The power of oaths in legend, literature, and law is due to their assertion of free human choice and will within the cosmos.”

To defy our own baseness, to defy all the forces of the universe and to defy Satan himself is an impossible task, except for one thing. God Himself has made a vow as well. God has promised to keep and sustain everyone who enters into this holy estate. With God, nothing is impossible.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Religious Freedom Protects All People’s Humanity

Participants at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
“The freedom to live out one’s faith is a God-given human right that belongs to everyone. The freedom to seek the divine and act accordingly—including the right of an individual to act consistently with his or her conscience—is at the heart of the human experience. Governments cannot justly take it away. Rather, every nation shares the solemn responsibility to defend and protect religious freedom.”

These are “the views of the United States government on the importance of promoting religious freedom, a universal human right,” according to the U.S. State Department’s recently-published “Potomac Declaration.” The Declaration is accompanied by the “Potomac Plan of Action” which addresses specific foreign policy actions that the US government will be taking to address religious freedom.
Sec. State, Mike Pompeo

"Potomac" the First of Its Kind

The “Potomac Declaration” was rolled out on the final day of a recent Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by the State Department on July 24-26. This first-ever such event gathered delegations from more than 80 countries around the world, including countries that the State Department rates as least respectful of religious freedom. They heard testimony from victims of religious persecution, discussed ways of making U.S. aid more effective, and boldly confronted some of today’s most egregious offenders.

Over the past several years we have seen growing violence against minority religions around the world. Christians are being killed every day in Nigeria. The Rohingya sect in Burma is being exterminated. In Iraq, Yazidis and Christians both are being brutalized by ISIS. Turkey has never publicly acknowledged their part in the Armenian Genocide, and even today is holding an American Christian pastor under arrest for preaching the Gospel.

The Chinese communist regime sends Muslims to re-education camps, restricts the rights of Tibetan Buddhists and imprisons pastors of Christian churches that seek independence from state control of their doctrine. Many of us have watched as one of the largest Christian churches in China was demolished because its cross was higher than regulations allow.

We have watched all these atrocities across the globe and have seen very little meaningful response from our leaders. When Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, named all these countries in his opening remarks, they were put on notice that America will be silent no more.

Then Vice President, Mike Pence, came to the podium. He returned the focus to Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and threatened sanctions if he is not released to return to America. He called out the Ortega administration in Nicaragua for “waging war on the Catholic Church.” He turned up the heat on North Korea and Iran for their persecution of religious minorities.

Saving Lives Abroad While Helping At Home

All of this is a breath of fresh air from the State Department. Billions of human beings across the globe will benefit from this new initiative. A stunning 83 percent of the world’s population live in countries where religious freedom is either threatened or banned. America’s attention to their plight will save untold lives.

The State Department’s renewed focus will not only help our brothers and sisters in foreign countries. It will also help us here at home. Today we have a great opportunity to think more deeply about religious freedom and why it’s important to a thriving republic.

In America’s own public discourse, conscience rights and free speech rights are regularly dismissed as “the right to discriminate.” Such thoughtless slogans may seem like a great way to put down the religious opposition, but it is like dropping a grenade on the floor in order to win a quarrel.

It will certainly kill your opponent, but it will kill you at the same time. Make laws against someone’s religious speech and exercise today, and those same laws will be used against you tomorrow. That’s the law of the jungle.

Faith Is Way More Than Opinion

Part of the problem is that the very notion of “faith” is not very well understood. When people say things like, “I believe it’s going to rain today,” faith is cast as a personal opinion that may, or may not, be true. It is also a statement of so little concern that it doesn’t much matter whether it’s true or not.

But real faith is not like this at all. Religious faith has to do with the biggest and most important questions in life. Who am I? Why am I here? How do I relate to those around me? The way you answer such questions impacts your whole life—everything you say and do.

If I believe that I am merely a two-legged animal, differing from the ape only because my brain is bigger, I will behave like a smart ape. But if I believe that I am fundamentally different from every other animal, that I am uniquely created in the image of God, my entire understanding of self will depend upon my understanding of God. That’s a lot different than “believing it’s going to rain.”

A second thing about faith that is little understood is that it is neither an opinion nor an act of the will. I can’t decide to believe anymore than I can decide that two and two are four. Belief is conviction, it is a certainty that you cannot dismiss.

Once I see that two and two make four, I can have no opinion about it. There is no going back. No force in the universe can change that conviction. I may be tortured, like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, I may even scream out a false answer to escape the torture. But I cannot stop knowing what I know.

Conscience Is About Humanity Itself

Winston Smith being forced to say 4 is 5

That is why conscience protections are so important. They treat us as the human beings that we are. They forbid us from using coercion—financial, social or physical—to change anybody’s convictions or faith. The only power capable of changing faith is the power of the truth itself. Any other attempts to conform a person to the faith of the community is inhumane, and a form of torture.

Religious freedom does not pretend that every religion is the same, or that every religion is true. It only claims that every religious person is a human being. You didn’t choose to be a human being; you were made that way. And part of being a human being is that we have this quality in us called “faith.” It is a “conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith may be changed by a better understanding of the truth, but it cannot be coerced any more than love can be coerced. America was based on this idea. It permeates the US Constitution forbidding any religious test for public office. It is also reinforced in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” drawn up in 1948, proclaims in Article 18, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or believe in teaching, in practice, worship and observance.” 

Now the U.S. State Department has joined the Department of Justice in making this fundamental right a focus of their efforts. They were right to do so. God grant them success.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Don’t Just Vote, Make it an Informed Vote

Wyoming’s election day is only three weeks away.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “I thought election day is always on the first Tuesday in November!” That is technically true. But in Wyoming that’s mostly a formality.

Truth is, Wyoming is one of the reddest states in the union. That means the real choices are made in the party primaries, not in the general election. Chances are that whoever wins the Republican nomination on August 21 will be elected in November. There might be a few exceptions to this rule, but not enough to diminish the point.

Since the Republican Party dominates state politics, two things tend to happen. First, it suppresses the conservative vote. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it happens. Busy conservatives are so sure that a Republican will be elected, they are content to let others concern themselves with the details. That would make sense except for the second fact.

The second fact is that in Wyoming a significant number of Democrats run as Republicans. With about 93% of Wyomingites voting Republican, Democrats who want a serious chance to win will switch parties. This ought to cause busy conservatives to understand why the primaries are so important.

Know Who Rides for the Brand

Just because all the candidates are members of the same party doesn’t mean they share your personal values. It doesn’t even mean that they embrace the party platform. You would be surprised to know how many Republicans vote against the party’s platform when they get to Cheyenne. In Wyoming, it is difficult to tell the players by the color of their jerseys. Instead of a soccer game, it’s more like a rodeo. You just have to know each contestant personally.

Elections should not be mere popularity contests. Much less should be they about name-recognition and who has the most money to spend on signs and mass media. Elections are about finding the candidate who shares your vision of where we should go and knows best how to get there.

Some share your vision, but don’t have the know-how necessary to navigate the halls of government effectively. For instance, if a governor thinks he will be like a king who can just call the shots, he will get a rude awakening in Cheyenne. There are three separate-but-equal branches of government. A candidate needs to have the people-skills necessary to lead and a detailed understanding of the bureaucracy to know how to navigate the halls of power.

On the other hand, there are some candidates who have experience and knowledge of how to lead people and work with bureaucracies, but who do not share your vision of where this state should go. An effective leader who takes you in the wrong direction is twice as bad as an incompetent leader who leaves us where we are. Progress is not just movement. It is movement in the right direction.

Wyoming and the Big Five

In Wyoming, there are five state-wide offices up for election: governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction. Together, these are known as the “Big-Five” and each is for a four-year term. The current superintendent has no challengers, so that office is not in play. The same goes for the secretary of state who will be challenged by a Democrat in November, but not during the primary.

Three Republicans are running for treasurer: Curt Meier, Leland Christensen, and Ron Redo. For auditor, there are two: Nathan Winters and Kristi Racines. The governor’s race, however, is wide open. There are six Republican candidates. Listed alphabetically, they are: Bill Dahlin, Foster Friess, Sam Galeotos, Mark Gordon, Harriet Hageman, and Taylor Haynes.

In addition to these state-wide offices, we will also be electing local people to represent us in the State House and Senate. We will elect county officers and city officers as well.

A Trust from God

In the broad sweep of world history, American citizens exercise say-so in their government like almost no one on earth. The vast majority of the world never gets the chance to make governmental decisions. You get the chance every single year. That’s amazing.

Christians believe that this is not just an accident of history, this is a stewardship from God. Your vote is not just a right, it is a duty. When we look at bad rulers in the past, we judge them for either neglecting their duties, or for making ungodly decisions. Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Hitler are people that we blame for evils that happened under their watch.

When people look back on our day, whom will they blame or praise? True historians won’t be blaming the politicians. The real responsibility lies with the voters who put them in office. Knowing this, our duty is not only to cast a vote, but to cast an informed vote.

Knowing What to Know

The Uinta County Republican party will be hosting “The Greatest Show” at the Fair Grounds on Saturday, August 11. It’s huge candidate forum with every candidate on the ballot invited. I would highly recommend that you take time out of your schedule to be there.

Candidates for many offices will be there to tell you who they are and how they intend to govern. You can learn an awful lot by listening to them speak side-by-side. You can compare what things they emphasize and what they ignore. You can compare how much they know about the details of various issues and how Wyoming government works.

In addition to what they say about themselves, it is just as important that you learn what they have actually done in the past. What they have done well they, will tell you about themselves. What they have done poorly, their opponents will tell you. You will want to know about both.

Votes, donations, volunteer work, and business decisions from the past all matter. Anybody can tell you what you want to hear at the moment. Nobody can change his or her past. He can repent of it, or defend it, but he can’t change it.

If you can’t be there to hear them in person, there are great resources online. Several candidate forums around the state have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. I recommend watching “The Republican Gubernatorial Primary Debate 2018” sponsored by WyomingPBS. This July 12 debate brought together the three gubernatorial candidates who were highest in the polls. They got to respond to questions and to each other for almost two hours.

However you choose to inform yourself, it will give you confidence and peace of mind that when you go to cast your vote, you will not be voting out of thoughtless name-recognition, or party-affiliation. This could trick you into voting against your own world-view. By taking your civic duty seriously, you not only will cast a vote, but cast an informed vote.

Author’s Note: I have carefully refrained from telling you my candidate preferences in this column. If you want to know them, feel free to email me and we can talk. That being said, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been volunteering as co-chair of Harriet Hageman’s Faith and Family Committee since April.