20 September 2004

Sojourners ad reveals some sloppy logic, sloppy handling of facts, and sloppier exegesis.

In this blog I respond point by point to the recent full page ad published in many papers across the nation. The ad begins with the assertion--in great big letters--that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, to which one could almost respond, Yes and He doesn't fornicate either. But I digress. The ad serves to make the claim that people of faith can vote for either a Democrat or a Republican and do so for reasons that are rooted in faith, something with which I agree. But the ad poses several questions, which are thinly-disguised tacit assertions of fact. What follows is an appraisal of, and response to, those questions. As it turns out, Sojourners mis-handles the facts, logic, and Scripture.

We believe that poverty--caring for the poor and vulnerable--is religious issue. Do the candidates' budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries? (Matthew 25.35-40, Isaiah 10.1-2).

This use of Matthew 25.35-40 is mystifying. Jesus is addressing his disciples. The application which Sojourners attempts to make here would ultimately make salvation a result of works. Governments are not the ones who are supposed to be feeding hungry people, clothing naked people, and so forth. People are to be doing these things. And the people being praised here are not righteous because they have done these things; they have done these things because they are righteous. I, Philologous, feed hungry people. I clothe naked people. I extend hospitality to strangers. I cannot make sacrifices which cost me nothing (see 2 Samuel 24:24), or at least nothing more than my tax bill. Shall I tell the Lord on judgment day that I saw him hungry, and naked and a stranger, so I paid taxes that supported a bureaucracy with the efficiency of the post office and the compassion of the IRS? The government cannot do works of righteousness for me. To vote for people who promise to give us other people's money is to let our bellies be our gods.

A little further down one of the candidates will tacitly be accused of confusing--among other things--the roles of church and nation. Church is the place where religion is practiced. If caring for the poor is a religious issue--and I believe that it is--then it is a personal responsibility. If I am called to be a charitable person--and I believe that I am--my responsibility is not fulfilled by my government. It is not for the government to show my compassion for the poor. And there's no use saying that we can show our compassion for the poor through our government. By its authority to tax, the government forces people to be "charitable" who do not wish to be. Then, when individuals are called to make charitable donations, they would be justified in responding, Scrooge-like, that the taxes they pay constitute the full extent of their charitable duty. Now that's nonsense. The poor pay virtually no income taxes, so if letting people keep their money is the same as giving them that money (as some people like to argue) then the poor are the recipients of a great amount of compassion indeed. Still, our duty to be compassionate is not performed by our government; it is performed by us as individuals, and through our houses of worship and the charitable organizations we found and support with our financial gifts. It is Sojourners and others like them who confuse the role of church and nation.

Note also the choice of words here: Policies, we are supposed to believe, somehow, "reward" the rich, without (with perhaps the exception of exempting the poor from income taxes) showing compassion for the poor. What is a reward? A reward is a gift, is it not? The fallacy in the religious left's logic is that it is a bit of a strawman: they criticize a policy that supposedly "rewards" certain people (i.e., the rich) at the expense of compassion for others (i.e., the poor). And of course the tacit assertion is that allowing people to keep their money constitutes a gift, or a reward. So I suppose we are to believe that allowing people to keep more of the money they earn constitutes a reward, a gift. Imagine your employer, at the end of a pay period, presenting you with your payroll check and saying, "You've done real good work this week. I'd like to reward you for it, so here's your pay check." No one who does a week's work looks upon his paycheck as a gift, or reward, from his employer; he looks upon it as something to which he is entitled. Anyone, rich or poor, who is allowed to keep more of his income for himself is not the recipient of a gift; he is merely keeping something to which he is entitled: his income. Note also the shifty reasoning which the religious left engage in: It is right to tax the richer at a higher rate for no other reason than that the rich have the money to take in the first place. The guy who breaks into your house and steals your property feels the same way: you have plenty, so you shouldn't mind if he takes some. Of course, Sojourners may like to argue that it isn't stealing because the government is the one doing the taking. But by the same logic capital punishment isn't murder because the government is the one doing the killing; and we know how the left feel about capital punishment.

So, in contrast with the religious left, we might ask: Do the candidates' budget and tax policies punish the rich (who have not, unless proven otherwise in a court of law, broken any laws)? Does their compassion for poor families actually cost them anything? Or do they show their compassion by using other people's money? In other words: Do candidates believe that it is right to steal from the members of class C1 (for no other reason than their membership in C1) and give that stolen money to members of another class C2 (for no other reason than their member ship in C2)? Do the candidates believe that when they take someone's money and give it to you they are showing their compassion for you? Do they believe that when the government allows you to keep any portion of your income it is a gift, or a reward to you? We might also ask them: Where, in Scripture, do you find warrant for believing that God grants to governments the authority to transfer wealth from one group to another for no other reason than that one group is rich and the other group is poor?

Finally: I have nothing to say about so-called free trade because I doubt that Sojourners and I will be agreed as to what counts as fair. After all, if I pay x-percent of my income (y) in taxes and my neighbor who makes twice what I make (2y) pays 2x-percent of his income, instead of x-percent, these people think it's fair just because he makes more. (More frankly: I wonder if they understand the mathematics involved here.) And frankly, I don't think, at this point in time, that debt cancellation for the poorest countries is a bad idea. It could engender some good will, but maybe not.

We believe that the environment--caring for God's earth--is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it? (Genesis 2.15, Psalm 24.1).

Here we have a false dilemma. One is either protecting the environment or serving corporate interests. One might suppose that antagonism to corporations is equal to protecting the environment. Also, no mention is made of the length of time that any harm to the environment may last, or even the amount of harm--however it may be quantified. For example the wreck of the Exxon Valdez spilled a great deal of oil. And that oil did extensive damage, and that damage lingers. Is that damage permanent? Who knows? It depends on how one defines the word 'permanent.' If the damage is still there when the universe ends, then I guess it was permanent. If the damage is gone in a hundred years, then I guess it wasn't permanent. I am discussing the length of time involved in 'harm' because of the verb tense used in the ad. Note the clause: "...serve [present tense] corporate interests that damage [present tense]... ." Use of the present tense seems to imply continuous, cease-less, action. In others words the implication seems to be that (a) the policies always (and only) serve corporate interests and (b) the damage, whether intentional or not, of whatever kind, is permanent, as if these acts "total" the whole environment the same way a roll-over accident totals an auto.

Now, let's discuss those nasty corporations. Leftists like to talk about corporations in interesting ways. "The corporations" do this. "The corporations" do that. Corporate interests are talked about as if they have nothing to do with people, that is everyday people, not rich people. Corporations employ people; a "corporate interest" cannot be pursued without employees. When a corporation cannot pursue its interests, its employees cannot pursue their interests (i.e., because they are out of work).

Leftists like to talk of "corporate interests" as if these interests can be neatly excised from the society at large. For example, when they talk of drilling in Alaska and of the President's desire to permit the drilling, they talk of his serving the corporate interests of his rich oil friends. One would almost think that an oil company's interest is merely in drilling for oil. But oil companies do not make money drilling for oil; they make money on what happens to oil after it has been pumped out of the well.

In many ways, an oil company's corporate interests are our interests. Think about it. Whoever drafted the Sojourners ad, probably used a computer to do so. You are using a computer to read this. Look at your computer. Do you see any plastic? On my desk, as I sit writing, there is an electric pencil sharpener, a radio, this computer (tower, monitor, printer, etc) and a water bottle--all made of, or containing, a large amount of, plastic. (Most of the automobile that I drive is made out of plastic!) This may come as a shock to the left, but plastic is made from petroleum. The manufacturer of my radio (a name you would probably recognize) employs a great many people, some of whom actually make the radios that are sold, some of whom work administrative and executive jobs. All of these people have work to do because someone--an evil oil baron, specifically--drilled for oil somewhere. I suppose that much of the plastic on that radio, or computer, could be replaced by wood. But then someone would have to chop down a tree. And that, too, damages the environment. So when we talk of choosing between environmental interests and corporate interests we need to be careful not to talk as if these "corporate" interests can be neatly separated from all of our own individual interests. We all have an interest in oil. People who are bothered by that ought to try to find the energy source that will replace petroleum (by being at least as powerful and efficient, if not more) and everything (e.g., plastic) that we derive from oil.

Of course, discussion of "corporate interests" cannot be limited to oil corporations. And I certainly cannot here discuss all of the types of corporate interests that there are. But consider this. Even leftists like Ben and Jerry have interests. Ben and Jerry have a corporation that makes ice cream, a corporation which has interests, corporate interests. The people who work at and for Ben and Jerry's share that interest, so do people, like me, who enjoy Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Assuming that Ben and Jerry's does not have its own dairy farm, but buys milk from dairies, those dairies, and all of the people whose work is associated with that dairy have an interest in Ben and Jerry's corporate interests. (NB: If you are tempted to respond that Ben and Jerry are environmentally conscious or something like that, then you have missed my point.)

I believe that the left are not as bothered by the effect of "corporate interests" on the environment as they are by the fact that people who own corporations get rich. That is what the left want to stop. The religious left may be worse because they think they are serving God in keeping people from getting, and staying, rich.

One more thing. I am not rich, unless you compare me with a Sudanese refugee or something. But I do own some stocks: I am a corporate interest.

We believe that war--and our call to be peacemakers--is a religious issue. Do the candidates' policies pursue "wars of choice" or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats? (Matthew 5.9).

The problem with this part of the ad is that it limits 'peace' to something which is to be contrasted with war. On this view, Jesus, in giving us a duty to be peace-makers, is giving us a duty to do no more than to be absence-of-armed-conflict-makers. But 'peace' in Scripture is not just the absence of war. Jesus, a Jew, was talking about shalom-making. As it is used in the Tanak, or Old Testament, 'shalom' is a word that admits of a great many meanings, perhaps the least of which is merely the absence of armed conflict. When Joseph, in Egypt, saw his brothers again--but before he revealed himself to them--he inquired after "their welfare, and said, 'Is your father well, the old man of whom ye spake? Is he yet alive?'" (Genesis 42.27) In this passage both the English words 'welfare' and 'well' serve to translate the Hebrew word 'shalom'. In his commentary on this passage in Matthew, Hendricksen says that this peace is the peace of God's salvation (cf I Corinthians 1.18). Peace-makers are those "who, having themselves received reconciliation with God through the cross, now strive by their message and their conduct to be instrumental in imparting this same gift [i.e., not absence of armed conflict] to others." Look in Scripture and see who are called sons of God; it is those who have put their trust in Him and in His Anointed One. Other wise, everyone who ever signed a peace treaty ending a war, is a shalom-maker and, thus, a son of God. No only that, but on the Sojourners' view, Jesus himself is not a peace-maker, for he says he says he has not come to bring peace [i.e., now we are talking about armed conflict] but a sword. Read it for yourself:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a
sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the
daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household (Matthew 10.34-36).

Even if this much were not true, a war on terror and those who support it (e.g., Saddam Hussein) is hardly a "war of choice." War is upon us. Indeed, terrorists and those who support them have made the choice for us. And with respect to shalom-making (i.e., where 'shalom' refers to health and wlefare): A war on terrorism and those who support it, if successful, certainly ought to increase the health, well being and prosperity of just about the entire world.

Our invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an invasion pursuant to, and enforcement of, UN Resolution 1441, a resolution which, unless I thoroughly misunderstand, forms part of the body of international law that Sojourners claims to be concerned about. If other nation's have not the strength to enforce resolutions which they supported in the UN, why should that stop us from doing so? The left in general, and Sojourners in particular, seem to be in the position of asserting that the body of international is nothing more than what the UN is or is not willing to approve at any given point in time, no matter what resolutions they pass. It seems as if Res. 1441 is part of the body of international because the UN approved it, and not enforcing said resolution is also a part of the body of international law merely because the UN refuse to do so.

Let's look at Res 1441 in a different way. Say that 1441 was a resolution asserting that the refugees in the Sudan be provided with clothing, clean water, latrines and so forth. If the US were to be the only nation to begin acting on that resolution and other nations--other nations which supported 1441--were unwilling to act pursuant to that resolution, how seriously would we take criticisms that we were acting as a rogue nation? Not very, I hope. And yet that is precisely that sort of logic by which we are criticized for acting in accordance with the real-life resolution 1441, which required--among other things--that Saddam Hussein account for weapons of mass destruction which he was known to have had before he forced UN inspectors out of Iraq. If the UN had no intention of actually enforcing Resolution 1441 then they should just have spit in Saddam Hussein's general direction. It would have accomplished just as much.

If Sojourners wishes to give lectures on respect for international law, they may lecture the UN first.

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies? (John 8.32).

Even if truth-telling is a religious issue--and it is--this passage is hardly the passage to cite in support of the case. Jesus isn't speaking of truth-telling at all; much less of truth-telling as setting the truth-teller free. The truth he is talking about here is the truth that one learns by being His disciple. And the freedom that He is talking about is freedom from sin (see John 8.34). And one does not provide for oneself freedom from sin, not even by telling the truth. A more relevant passage to the issue of truth-telling as a religious obligation might have been Psalm 15.2, which in answer to the question (v.1), "Lord who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?" responds, in relevant part, "He that...speaketh the truth in his heart."

This is not a petty criticism. It matters which passage of Scripture one cites in order to claim authority for a religious obligation. Even though we have a duty to be truthful, John 8.32 cannot be cited in support because truth-telling is not the issue there. It is difficult to accept Sojourners as a credible source of information on what Scripture teaches if they will cite as authority passages of Scripture with only the most superficial relevance to the topic at hand.

But even if all of the above were not true, even Psalm 15.2 wouldn't help very much. Apparently, we are to believe that the President lied about (a) there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and (b) Saddam having ties to known terrorist organizations. With respect to (a) it seems that the failure so far to find WMDs means that Bush lied. It is interesting to note that, for their present purposes, Sojourners, and the left generally, are quick to decide that Bush lied, rather than was merely wrong about there being WMDs in Iraq. Look at where this sort of logic takes us. Your weather man tells you that it is going to rain where you live tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, but no rain. Your weatherman, by the left's shifty way of reasoning, wasn't wrong about the rain. Oh, no. He's a dirty rotten liar. When Bush, and others, were informed by various intelligence organizations (and not only the CIA) that Saddam Hussein was attempting to secure yellowcake uranium, and decided upon the basis of that (and other) information that this made him a "gathering threat" the left would have us believe that Bush was somehow to know that the CIA, and other intelligence organizations, were wrong.

One more thing. The left often talk as if the fact that WMD's have not yet been found in Iraq means (a) they were never there or (b) that they shant ever be found. Regarding (a): It is not disputed that Saddam had them. The question is their present whereabouts. He was supposed to account for them. That means that if he no longer had them he was to inform the UN what happened to them. Regarding (b): I just want to say that the left's logic is simply laughable. We have not found WMDs yet, therefore we never shall. Let's apply that logic differently: I have not died yet, therefore I am eternal.

We believe that human rights--respecting the image of God in every person--is a religious issue How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners? (Genesis 1.27)

It is difficult to understand how Christians, who supposedly believe that only God can change the human heart, can find a way to convince themselves that a President can change someone's attitude. I can't think of a single person who can change my attitude about anything. My mind can be changed by appeal to facts and logic. My behavior can be changed by someone possessed of enough authority to command that I act differently (which presupposes knowledge of my present behavior). But changing my attitude is an impossibility. (Ask my parents, or my wife.) As to the policies that supposedly "led to" the abuses of Iraqi prisoners, I do not think that there has been an adequate explanation by anyone of how a policy "leads to" abuse. The abuse in question is part of the policy, or it is not. Talk of a policy "leading to" some behavior is not the same as a demonstration of a causal connection between the policy and the behavior it supposedly "leads" to. The sort of reasoning which has some policy of this President "leading" to some behavior by soldiers overseas approaches the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc: "The policy P was in place before/when the behavior B in question occurred, therefore the policy P is the cause of, or "led to" the behavior B in question." In other words, P preceded B and therefore was the cause of B.

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies? (Matthew 6.33, Proverbs 8.12-13)

Given that the left believe that our government ought to be engaged in charitable works, I just don't believe they are qualified to pass judgment on who is or is not confusing the roles of God, church, and nation. The government of our nation has a duty to protect our lives (which includes our property, by the way) (see Romans 13.1-7). Often that means going to war--even pre-emptive war--to do so. The left are the ones who are confused if they believe that a nation has some duty to "turn the other cheek" when its citizens are either killed or threatened with being killed!

With respect to this business of seeing "evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies", one has to wonder just what that really has to do with anything presently at issue. If someone wants to kill me, I don't have to spend even a second wondering which of us is the most evil. Who is evil is no issue. I don't have to prove that one who tries to kill me is evil, or more evil than I am in order to be justified in preventing him killing me. I don't even have to see the evil in my own life in order to be justified in killing someone before he kills me. Again: war is upon us. States of being (i.e., 'evil' or 'not-evil') are irrelevant; actions are relevant. The actions of people who wish to blow people up, fly aircraft into buildings full of (innocent?) civilians, slice heads off of living, unarmed, and defenseless people, is prima facie evidence that they are evil-doers. What do the left expect? For us to allow people to kill us while we spend months or even years in introspection? What if those who wish to kill us do not give us that long? Here's a question: Should a man who regularly abuses his spouse permit someone else to rob and kill him because, after all, being a spouse-abuser makes him evil? We do not have to assert an unqualified moral superiority here; all we have to assert is our desire to live, to see our neighbors live, to see our families live--and to kill, if necessary, those who wish them harm. Most of the people that terrorists kill do not formulate or implement policy. Can the left seriously entertain the proposition that some US policy justifies the acts of 9 September 2001? If so, how do they avoid the fact that such a proposition implies that those who died that day deserved to die? (NB: This is what Pat Roberston was accused of saying when he--foolishly--stated that 9-11 happened because of our sins. Saying that it happened because of "our" policies is no different.)

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue Do the candidates' positions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV-AIDS--and other pandemics--and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life? (Deuteronomy 30.19)

The biblical injuntion here spoken of has nothing to do with abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV-AIDS--and other pandemics--and genocide around the world. The injunction here is to choose life by keeping convenant with God, or choose death by breaking covenant him. Keeping the covenant is life; breaking it is death. Had Sojourners been serious about a biblical injunction regarding life they should have pointed us all in the direction of Deuteronomy 20.13: "Thou shalt not kill" (which I think is better translated as Thou shalt not murder, since God authorizes all sorts of killing). And with respect to capital punishment, it is interesting to note that the same God who forbade murder also commanded capital punishment, and sent the Israelites into battle. Some like to believe that Jesus made some changes in the law, so now capital punishment is forbidden. But Paul said that the government "beareth not the sword in vain" (Romans 13.4). Not only so, but we need to pause and think for a moment about what Scripture says Jesus is going to do to his enemies when he returns. It is strange to think that the same Jesus who has the temerity to cast the unrighteous into the lake of fire becomes suddenly squeamish at the thought of capital punishment.

I can sympathize with some of many criticisms of the Christian right. I am not the biggest fan of James Dobson, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell precisely because of some of the sloppy reasoning and exegesis of Scripture they engage in. But frankly, my sympathies are closer to those of the Christian right than to those of the Christian left. (I believe myself to be just to the right of center, if even that far). But I believe that the Christian left is just a bit worse (note their citation of only-superficially relevant passages) than the right. And this ad is a great example. I suppose, just to be fair, I should offer an appraisal of some of the positions of the Christian right. Perhaps I'll do that my next time out.


About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
View my complete profile

Blog Archive