Mental Illness and the Medical Trap

Five years ago I received a telephone call from a friend. She told me that one of our mutual friends had taken his own life. No one knew why.

Brian was a successful health-care professional, with a wife, a family, and an apparently very bright future. Many of us had not seen any indications that something was wrong, although those in close contact with him knew there were problems. He just got up one morning and was never seen alive again. Everyone was devastated.

What do you do with such news? One of the most painful human experiences must be to say goodbye to a loved one in the morning and then never see that person alive again. I was asked to do the sermon at the celebration of Brian’s life. I preached on the psalms of lament and the unending, unfailing love of God. I tried to help people see that the joy that God promises includes suffering and that the psalms of lament offer faithful language to express our hurt, brokenness, anger, and disappointment at what my friend had done and what God had seemingly not done: save him.

Two Affirmations
Brian was a Christian; he was a lover of Jesus, as were his family and many of his friends. And yet, despite the profound consolation of the gospel, for some, the first response to his death by suicide was not comfort but fear. In spite of the apostle Paul’s firm assurance that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39), they were afraid for Brian’s eternal future. I guess that is the problem with hypercognitive theologies that assume that our eternal futures lie in our own hands rather than in the loving hands of God. If it is the case that neither death nor life can separate us from God’s love, then we need not fear death, even death by suicide. We simply need to trust in God’s grace.

There is a difficult tension between recognizing that God does not abandon those who end their own lives and the imperative that such actions are not God’s desire for human beings. As Duke Divinity School theologian Warren Kinghorn once reminded me, two affirmations are indispensable for a Christian approach to suicide:

Suicide is a tragedy and a loss, and never to be encouraged or seen by Christians as a positive good.
Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If we Christians say either of these things without the other, we fall into error. My sermon at Brian’s funeral tried to capture the complex dynamics of these two statements. The lament psalms articulate the reality of tragedy and loss alongside the reality of God’s unending love. Such an approach does not take away our pain, but it does provide us with a certain kind of consoling hope. I think people were helped by that sermon.

But then something changed.

The autopsy results came back, and it turned out that Brian had had a problem with his pituitary gland that may have contributed to his depression and ultimate demise. Some people seemed strangely relieved when they heard this. “Ah! It wasn’t really his mind. It was his body that had gone wrong.”

Now, that may have been the case, but there are two things to consider as we reflect on this reaction. First, the spiritual dualism is quite startling. If his death has something to do with Brian’s mind, then it is a spiritual problem, but if it has to do with his body, it is a medical issue. Second, and connected to the first point, it is interesting how medicine became, for some, a therapeutic theodicy, a way of explaining the presence of perceived evil and suffering. If the problem lies within the human psyche, and if the human psyche is the place where we determine our salvation, then Brian has a real problem. But if the issue is biological, then medicine can explain it without the need for awkward questions around the nature of God and the meaning of human suffering.

One of the problems for modern Western people is the tendency to equate the soul with the mind. Culturally we place inordinate social value on intellect, reason, quickness of thought, and academic ability. Certain strands of theological thinking can be sucked into this hypercognitive trap when defining emphasis is placed on intellect and verbal ability, with the verbal proclamation of the name of Jesus assumed as a central and vital aspect of our salvation. When we think like this, any damage to the mind implicitly or explicitly morphs into damage to the soul.

This can make it particularly difficult for Christians to live well with mental health challenges, brain damage, or something like dementia. The implication that the real problem is soul damage prowls around like a roaring lion. The palpable sense of relief that some of my well-meaning Christian friends expressed as they encountered a medical theodicy is but one instance of a cultural phenomenon that is, to say the least, troublesome.

A Liberating Language
Fast-forward five years to a few months ago. I had just flown from Aberdeen to London and was walking toward the airport exit when a man I had never met before stopped me. “You’re John Swinton?” he said. Now, I can never be certain whether to own up to a question like that! But on this occasion I did. He said, “You spoke at Brian’s funeral five years ago. I just want to thank you. I had never thought of suffering and joy in that way, and I had certainly never thought that it was OK to be angry with God and to speak out that anger and frustration through the psalms. I just wanted to say thank you.” With that he walked on.

I left the airport and got on a train to central London. As I thought about that brief encounter, I began to realize that the problem that many people encountered when Brian took his life was that they were speechless. His friends had no effective language to articulate the pain, lostness, and indeed anger that they felt toward the situation and in many ways toward God. They had become monolingual in their faith lives, sure and confident in the language of happiness and hope, but completely lost when it came to the language of suffering, brokenness, disappointment, and in particular, a biblical understanding of joy.

They had heard Jesus say: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20), but they had not experienced the illumination of his words. This lack of language led them to turn to medicine and biology for intellectual and spiritual relief. They turned to them as theodicies not just because they alleviated fears about Brian’s eternal destiny but because they spoke in a language with which they were familiar. Medicine and biology represented a safe place. Within their theological tradition, they couldn’t find the right kind of language to articulate their feelings and fears. The language of medicine and biology filled the gap.

What the stranger in the airport taught me was that the words of my sermon had given him a language to express his sadness, his pain, and his anger, and that this language came from within his faith tradition in a way that he had not noticed previously. My articulation of the power of the psalms had moved him from silence into speech. I had helped him to reframe both lament and joy.

By understanding the nature and purpose of joy, we can understand depression in a different way, and that will give us a way to talk about depression (and to remain silent) that is both liberating and, I hope, healing. Understanding depression through the lens of Christian joy can help us understand depression more thickly and respond more faithfully.

John Swinton

I Didn’t Want to Go There

It was Tuesday, May 12—one week after the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s death was released. I joined a WebEx meeting with a group of pastors and church planters pulled together by pastor David Gentino so that we could process everything that had happened. During the meeting, our emotions ranged from anger, to frustration, to bitterness, to despair.

A couple of brothers led us in prayer, and I figured the call would probably be over shortly. After all, that is the cycle, right? You see the story in the news. You feel the multitude of emotions. Then things return to “normal” in a week or two.

Instead, David began asking questions about what our churches’ next move should be. We brainstormed for a few moments. Eventually, David presented us with an idea. “Let’s go to Brunswick,” he said.

The Decision

The proposal to go to Brunswick—the town where Ahmaud was killed––caught me by surprise. Honestly, I did not like the idea. First, I had no idea what we would do there. Prayer vigil at a courthouse? A peaceful protest? Would it be safe? There were so many things I envisioned going wrong.

What if the Lord used this moment to shed gospel light on a dark world?

Second, I did not yet know the composition of the group who would be going. If there were a range of perspectives represented, certain conversations could become awkward and unhelpful in such a heated time.

But most of all, I hesitated to go to Brunswick because I didn’t want to get too close to the issue. I wanted to spare myself the potential emotional trauma. The trip, then, was an invitation to empathize in a way I’d never done before.

Yet while this reason led to my initial hesitation, it is precisely what led me to accept the invitation. I remembered the words of the apostle Paul to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). I remembered the life of our Savior and the way he identified with us, and I began to ponder the potential witness of Christian empathy. What if the Lord used this moment to shed gospel light on a dark world?

It is so easy for us to merely argue during these moments; I figured this would be a nice change of pace for the church. Sure, it would be uncomfortable. Sure, it would be inconvenient. Yet it was an opportunity for us to show that the church truly cares about Ahmaud and his family. It was an opportunity to go and show the love of Christ to a family who’d lost a son.

The Trip

After planning for several weeks, we finally boarded the bus to Brunswick. The itinerary included a meeting with the community leaders to share our concern for justice and host a time for prayer. When we realized that Ahmaud’s dad and other family members would be there, our plans shifted slightly. Something like a worship service took place. We shared the gospel, sang songs, and fellowshiped with Ahmaud’s family, many of whom professed to be believers. Christ was exalted in the midst of tragedy.

For me, looking at Ahmaud’s father’s face, and standing on the street where his son was killed, added gravity to the moment. This wasn’t just a distant news story; ordinary people were affected and their lives changed forever.

The Takeaways

I’m glad I decided to board that bus to Brunswick, and I believe other churches would benefit from something similar if it’s possible. Obviously, there are practical matters to consider. The leadership of your church needs to be on board. It’s wise to contact the leadership of the community you’re visiting. You need to be much in prayer. It needs to be done with a mindset to glorify Christ, not ourselves or our own agendas.

We care about Ahmaud and his family in a way that goes beyond party politics. We care because Christ cares. And so we go to them in the midst of the mess, because our Savior came to us in the midst of our mess.

Spending extended time with brothers and sisters who open up about these issues, though, can be eye-opening. Visiting the affected community reminds you that these are real people experiencing a real loss—you can lose that awareness on social media. Overall, I think the experience is something God can use to further unify, in an experiential sense, the church he’s already unified in Christ (Eph. 2:11–22). In that way, such a trip is something God can use to bring glory to his name.

Actions like this provide an opportunity for the church to have a unique voice in the midst of the noise. We care about Ahmaud and his family in a way that goes beyond party politics. We care because Christ cares. And so we go to them in the midst of the mess, because our Savior came to us in the midst of our mess.

Devin Coleman

You Don’t Have to Do It All

I’m a 38-year pastoral veteran, now serving in a semi-urban, multi-ethnic congregation. I’ve never felt more overwhelmed.

Though I’m not necessarily clocking in more pastoral hours, I am investing more grief and empathy—not to mention all the hours mulling over the threat to (and opportunity for) love, justice, unity, and mission that today’s issues present. I’m not busier, but I do feel more burdened. For many reasons—including pastoral-care situations, racism, injustice, riots, COVID, political factionalism, unbiblical cultural ideologies, and a lack of in-person congregational worship—I sometimes get in bed feeling weighed down, only to awaken in the same condition.

Some days I feel paralyzed, and I’m uncertain what to do about it. Some will judge this as a lack of faith. It may be. Still, there’s no point in denying it, and I’m sure I’m not alone. 

What Did Jesus Do?

God has helped me push through this paralysis by reminding me of Jesus’s comment that the poor will always be with us (John 12:7). Jesus is teaching that disadvantage—and all that goes with it—will be an ever-present and unrelenting reality. Scripture is clear that human woes—like oppression, prejudice, partiality, classism, racial tensions, injustice, disease, loneliness, imprisonment, hunger, and unequal opportunity—will always be with us. My best efforts will never finally eradicate these woes. 

So we need divine wisdom to guide us. And to that end, we do well to look at how Jesus—God’s Wisdom incarnate—handled life’s ever-present and intransigent needs.

Jesus’s to-do list seemed never-ending. There was always another needy crowd the next morning. And he left a lot of “unfinished business” behind when he returned to heaven. 

Jesus didn’t get it all done—on any given day, or in his lifetime—even though as God, he could have. Instead, he devoted his earthly life to people-oriented and compassion-driven works of gospel-preaching, healing, justice, mercy, caring for the poor and outcast, delivering the demonized, and much more. He did all of this knowing that not everyone’s needs around him would be met. He didn’t fix every injustice in his time on earth. From this, I draw this conclusion: Jesus didn’t do these things to end their existence. He did them because he was a just and good person, and these are the things just and good people do. 

This perspective releases us from the paralysis induced by need and ministry overload. The goal of life is not for us to “get it all done.” The goal is to be faithful.

The goal of life is not for us to ‘get it all done.’ The goal is to be faithful.

Life’s aim isn’t to bring everyone in the world to faith, but to share the gospel with those around us. It’s not to eradicate poverty, but to help the poor. It’s not to fix the world so there will be no more refugees, but to be a person who welcomes and serves the foreigner. It’s not to end all injustice, but to do justice. It’s not to alleviate all misery, but to comfort the miserable and lessen their grief. We aren’t called to create a racist-free world, but to have racism-free hearts and institutions that respect, serve, and uplift those of all colors.

We aren’t called to create a utopia. That’s God’s job. 

Here is hope for those of us who sometimes stare glassy-eyed and mind-numbed at a world full of hurt. You and I will never get everything done. But we can do the next thing in front of us. There is something we can put our hands to and someone we can give our hearts to. And that is what the Lord asks of us. 

Our purpose is not to change the world in our lifetime, but to choose a few good works in the next 24 hours. 

In the Scheme of Things

You and I may not—indeed we almost certainly will not—make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. In fact, that’s the reason why Jesus will have to return to make all things new. Cosmic change is his business, not ours. Still, not long before he returned to heaven to prepare a place for us, he left this charge: “Engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). Be about the Father’s business. Be doing what you can. He doesn’t tell us to fix or finish everything. We are to simply steward what he’s given us to some worthy and holy end. 

Our purpose is not to change the world in our lifetime, but to choose a few good works in the next 24 hours.

So what might that look like when it seems that there is too much to do? How can we do something today without being overwhelmed by everything? Here are some suggestions: 

If you’re married, be a faithful husband or wife.

If you’re single, be devoted to Jesus.

If you’re a parent, cherish and disciple your child today.

If you’re entrusted with leadership responsibilities, serve humbly and well.

If a person comes suddenly to mind, pray for him or her.

Ask someone how they’re doing, and linger long enough to get an answer.

Speak the gospel to someone.

Respond gently, but courageously and correctively, when you hear a racially offensive comment.

Ask an unbeliever how you can pray for him or her.

Connect to someone who’s culturally different from you, and start listening.

Provide a meal for a single parent.

If you’re in the ethnic majority, ask an African American brother or sister how you can pray in light of current events. 

Be Christ and grace-centered in your social-media activity.

Choose not to believe every bad report—even when about your opponents or enemies.

Notice the poor and oppressed nearby and see of there is one thing you can do for (or with) them today.

Notice the loner along the way and draw him or her in.

If we try to do everything, we will soon quit doing anything. It’s wiser to learn from Jesus who wasn’t in a frenzied rush to “get it all done” while on earth. Forsaking the illusion of becoming world-changing crusaders, ambitious to multiply our accomplishments, let’s aim simply to do a few good things in our time, knowing that he will get everything done in his.

Tim Shorey

Our Personal Scars Can Help Others Heal

When asked to describe 2020 thus far, many have used the words uncertain, divisive, and disruptive. When I asked my friend this question, her response summarized it sufficiently: wounding.

Now over 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, almost 70 times more than those who died in the September 11 attacks and more than the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq wars combined. Even if we avoided the virus, we have experienced its wounding effects. In March, the Dow Jones recorded its worst point drops since the Great Depression. By July, 48 million people had filed for unemployment. Mental health professionals are seeing surges in people suffering with their mental and emotional well-being. Wildfires still rage on the West Coast. Viral videos of racial injustice prompted peaceful protests, demonstrations, riots, and looting in cities across the country. The nation is trying to reckon with something that African Americans have long realized: racism has deeply wounded our country. All of this has led to a palpable us-versus-them mentality, especially as we approach a polarized presidential election.

Pain and suffering have always been present; but this year they have intensified, accelerated, and become more deeply divisive. How can Christians lead and serve in our astoundingly complex reality?

In times of tragedy, the late children’s television personality Fred Rogers is often quoted: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” We’ve all seen and experienced scary things—and we will continue to see and experience scary things. But what if now is the time the world is looking for the healers? What if the helpers are primarily healers?

The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah by declaring, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). The late Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen focused on this in his prescient book The Wounded Healer: “We do not know where we will be two, ten or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that man suffers and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.” This sharing of suffering, which leads to healing, is our mandate in the new reality.

It is astounding that Jesus’ post-resurrection body bore scars. When Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus invited him to touch the wounds that brought healing to the world. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27). Four hundred years ago, the Italian painter Caravaggio brilliantly created this scene in his famous painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. In the piece, Jesus vulnerably opens his cloak and calmly guides Thomas’ finger into his wounded side. This is our example. We, too, can offer our wounds to a scarred and scared world for the healing of others—and ultimately ourselves.

Sociologist Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity sought in part to answer the question of how a little sect of a few followers at the time of Jesus’ death could have a worldwide following of millions of adherents within just a few centuries. One of the primary answers Stark found is that the early Christians saw themselves as agents of healing while everyone else ran and hid, even in the midst of persecution. The willingness of early Christians to run to the front lines of suffering, as well as their ability to offer radical hospitality and compassionate service in the midst of great need, was the greatest and most effective form of evangelism.

We’ve heard this pandemic described as “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times. And yet, it is far from it. Epidemics and plagues have been quite frequent throughout history—and Christians have rushed to provide healing to those who were most deeply affected.We may be wounded by all that has transpired, but this does not disqualify us. Jesus has a penchant to use people who share their wounds in order to bring healing in his name.

In A.D. 250, a plague spread from northern Africa to Europe, lasting almost 20 years and killing approximately one million people. The bishop, Cyprian, encouraged Christians to donate their resources for care for the sick. The church organized programs in several cities for systematic health care—all while Christians were experiencing massive persecution. Christians showed care not just to other Christians but also to the pagans—showing radical compassion in the midst of a pandemic to the ones who were attempting to kill them for their faith. This event in history is known today as the Plague of Cyprian not because he was to blame for spreading the plague but because he spread radical compassion during it.

Around A.D. 312, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and a prominent church historian, recorded that the region had been deeply impacted by war, famine, and a ravaging plague all at the same time. The response of the Christians was so great he recorded,

In this awful adversity they alone [Christians] gave practical proof of their sympathy and humanity. All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all, so that their deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians (emphasis mine).

In the late fourth century, hospitals were first created through the efforts of Basil the Great in Caesarea and John Chrysostom in Constantinople. Later, the medieval church established hospices.

Like the early church, we, too, can take up the mandate to be agents of healing. We may be wounded by all that has transpired, but this does not disqualify us. In fact, Jesus has a penchant to use people who share their wounds with others in order to bring healing in Jesus’ name. There are several marks of wounded healers.

Wounded healers bear scars and offer them to others as a source of identity, solidarity, and vulnerability. Our primary task is to offer healing, not to “fix” others. We own our pain, then lovingly and gently touch other people’s pain. The word compassion in the original Latin root means “co-suffering.” Wounded healers suffer alongside others. We show our wounds to others, and we earn trust for others to show us their wounds. And just as Paul heard Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9–10), we can take these words from Jesus as our own in this time of woundedness.

Wounded healers engage in lament. We embrace lament and see it as an important element of the healing process. Wounded healers don’t encourage others to simply “move along” without grieving loss because they know the acknowledgment of the pain is a crucial part of the healing process. Lament precedes celebration—and it cannot be rushed, manipulated, or forced.

Wounded healers are rooted in a robust theology of suffering and of hope. Nouwen wrote that “the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for all the wrong reasons.” Wounded healers help others see that finding hope in suffering is centered in the person of Jesus and the heart of the Christian faith. Even though we travel through death’s valley, we trust that God remains with us—Immanuel.

Wounded healers realize they play a significant role in the healing process, but they realize true healing is based on the love and the power of God. Wounded healers know the power of presence in healing, but they also know it is the presence of Christ, the Wounded Healer, who is the ultimate bringer of healing that the world needs. We join with God, but we do not play God. Susan Harper, managing director of Institutional Strategy and Partnerships at the American Bible Society, told me we see in the Gospels Jesus and his disciples healing others but not healing themselves. In our Western culture of the sovereign self, we can easily turn this into self-help therapy. But the biblical reality is not focused on self-help or looking to heal myself. Through our wounds, we offer ourselves to him. We invite people to bring their wounds to the one who can truly heal.

If we are to take seriously the fact the world is looking for healing in this global moment, where then are we to look?

First, we can look at Scripture as a book written to oppressed and traumatized people.Have you ever considered what suffering and trauma the original hearers of God’s message had experienced? When you view it through this lens, you begin to see what good news healing was—and continues to be—for people. God’s grand story recounts the shalom-creating God seeking to heal humanity through a shalom-bringing Jesus, who was wounded so we could be healed and returned to shalom (Num. 21:4–9; Isa. 53:5; John 3:14–15, 5:6). The reality of this healing, redeeming, and reconciling Jesus is in our DNA.

We can look for the healers present among us. When we identify, encourage, equip, and join the doctors, nurses, medical professionals, social workers, psychologists, therapists, school counselors—those devoted to people’s physical healing—we empower them to be bringers of healing. But we shouldn’t look only to those whose professions help people in their pain and suffering on a daily basis. The divorced young mother of four knows something about pain, as does the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. So does the widow of 17 years and the army vet who has suffered severe PTSD after his deployment. How might churches be the place that first sees the immense potential of these wounded healers and empowers them to bless and bring healing in Jesus’ name?

We can also look for the healers within our communities—yet outside the walls of our churches. We must think larger and look more purposefully in other places. Many times there are already established organizations, groups, and initiatives where partnerships can be strengthened and deepened. Where can we create good kingdom mischief by linking arms or developing or deepening partnerships with local businesses and financial institutions, with community wellness centers, mental health providers, and others? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many in your community are most likely already involved in the world. When we look, do we see those leaders and individuals whom we can support, encourage, and partner with?

The good news is that Jesus saves, but the good news is also that Jesus heals. Our mandate is to follow Jesus, our Wounded Healer, to experience healing and then, in turn, be bearers and bringers of healing to a broken and scarred world.

J.R. Briggs

Insights to the Next Supreme Court Justice

Christianity Today asked legal experts how a new Supreme Court appointment replacing Ginsburg stands to affect evangelicals outside of Roe v. Wade. Here are their responses, calling out issues such as religious freedom, racial equality, child protection, and free speech.

Barry P. McDonald, law professor at Pepperdine University:
As it stands, the Supreme Court is controlled by a majority of five solid conservative justices who either have a strong record of supporting religious freedom rights or give every indication that they will develop such a record. If President Trump succeeds in appointing Justice Ginsburg’s successor, that will likely add one more justice to this coalition. While an additional vote is not necessary to maintain this trend, it could prove important to religious freedom proponents in cases where Chief Justice John Roberts might moderate his vote in an attempt to shield the Court as an institution from charges that it has become too political and divisive (or where any conservative justice moderates his or her vote for whatever reason). This is most likely to occur in cases where religious beliefs might conflict with laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender orientation. Indeed, both Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch recently alluded to such future contests in voting to interpret federal workplace laws as barring such discrimination.

Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center of Law and Religious Freedom:
Justice Ginsburg’s replacement potentially could provide a more secure footing for our basic human right of religious freedom. In 27 years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg heard over 30 religious freedom cases. Unfortunately, her support for religious freedom was lackluster.

Justice Ginsburg previously voted in favor of religious schools’ freedom to choose their teachers but then voted against that right in a recent case. She voted once for—and three times against—robust application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Her two votes in favor of prisoners’ religious freedom, as well as a Muslim employee’s right to wear a hijab, were commendable. But four times, she voted to uphold the government’s exclusion of religious speech from the public square.

Justice Ginsburg advanced a theory of the Establishment Clause that excluded religious students from government programs funding education. Several times she voted to remove religious symbols from public property. When comparing her votes in recent cases to votes by Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the comparison suggests that someone nominated by President Trump likely will be a good steward of religious freedom.

Lynne Marie Kohm, law professor at Regent University:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement can make a dynamic difference for America’s children in three key cases—one past, one present, and one (hopefully) future.

Past: Transgender rights—Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. The Court held that firing an individual for being transgender violates Title VII. Ginsburg’s replacement could alter future transgender rulings, particularly as biological female athletes seek to protect their rights in girls’ sports.

Present: Foster care—Fulton v. Philadelphia. First Amendment rights of Christians who provide foster care are at stake as the Court soon determines whether the government can condition a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on practices that contradict its religious beliefs.

Future (hopefully): Child pornography. In 2002, Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition struck down two provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 as overbroad, giving a tremendous win to the adult-entertainment industry. Child pornography has since proliferated. Children need protections that a Ginsburg replacement could help deliver.

Beyond Roe, American evangelicals want to see all children protected, born and unborn.

Thomas Berg, law professor at the University of St. Thomas:
One obvious evangelical priority for the Court’s new justice (beyond abortion) is religious freedom, which the Court already strongly supports. Majorities of 5–7 justices have protected religious schools’ right to hire the religion teachers they choose, employers’ right to object to covering employees’ contraception, and families’ right to choose religious schools for their children and still receive government educational assistance. Justice Ginsburg dissented from all those rights; the new nominee will strengthen them.

But the nominee should also be questioned about another priority: racial equality. Christians must care about this because racism denies that some fellow humans have their full God-given dignity. And justices should care because the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment was meant to eliminate practices that had kept black people constricted even after their formal enslavement ended. Republican appointees typically commit to enforcing a provision’s “original meaning.” The next justice should apply the amendment vigorously to racially unjust practices of our day.

Carl H. Esbeck, law professor emeritus at the University of Missouri:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an effective legal activist, first for the ACLU and later as a high court justice. To admire her work depends on whether one believes the role of a judge is to align the law with one’s sense of justice or is it to subordinate the self to the nation’s organic documents and the rule of law. Unlike Justice Ginsburg, we can aspire to a successor who will interpret the US. Constitution in accord with the original meaning of the adopted text. I also hope for reconsideration of the free speech case of Hastings Chapter of the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. Authored by Justice Ginsburg, this was a 5-4 decision denying student religious organizations access to meeting space at a state university campus without first agreeing that there be no qualification that the organization’s student officers and members conform to a statement of faith.

Rena M. Lindevaldsen, law professor at Liberty University:
Conservative justices view the Constitution as a source of, and limit on, their power, recognizing that the separation of powers best protects our God-given liberties and that the Constitution contains an amendment provision to make changes when necessary. Liberal justices circumvent that amendment provision and simply change or create law to suit what they believe the culture desires. But when those justices promote the “right” of people to do whatever pleases them amidst a culture that promotes “godlessness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18), government punishes those who proclaim the unchanging truth of Scripture. That punishment takes many forms, including firing employees who will not promote a particular agenda, arresting sidewalk counselors, singling out churches for censorship, labeling the truth of Scripture as hate speech, or stripping people of the right to self-defense against a despotic government. Appointing the right justice helps us, as Justice Scalia said, guard “against the black-robed supremacy.”

Christians and Conspiracy Theories

Christianity has always been associated with conspiracy theories.

Jesus had only been out of the grave a few hours when his persecutors were paying off Roman guards to say the disciples stole his body. This was buried in the implausible lie that the guards knew the identity of the body snatchers, but had been asleep at the time (Matt. 28:11–15). The story was unlikely, but it was believed because it was convenient.

According to Tacitus, emperor Nero blamed Christians for causing a massive fire in Rome, which sparked a new outbreak of horrific persecution. As the emperor feared for his power, he had to create a common enemy that could be defeated to rally allies, diverting public focus from his atrocities.

So Christianity has been the subject of conspiracy theories since its inception. But recently some Christians have become known for spreading conspiracy theories, which may undermine the gospel witness of the church.

Nature of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories sprout up around struggles for power, whether in civil or denominational politics, and can lead to destructive responses. In his recent book, Conspiracy Theories: A Primer, political scientist Joseph Uscinski argues, “Conspiracy theories posit a powerful enemy whose goals may pose an existential threat to humanity” (5). Our polarized political climate is a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Our polarized political climate is a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Sometimes “conspiracy theory” is used as an epithet for contested interpretations of data to avoid considering opposing views fairly. In contrast, Uscinski offers a more precise definition:

Conspiracy theory is an explanation of past, present, or future events or circumstances that cites, as the primary cause, a conspiracy. . . . Conspiracy theories are inherently political. Conspiracy theories are accusatory ideas that could either be true or false, and they contradict the proclamations of epistemological authorities, assuming such proclamations exist. (23)

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but technology has introduced new challenges to culture by undermining epistemological authorities. The democratization of information made possible by the internet has empowered citizen journalists, magnified creative voices, and amplified the reach of some brilliant thinkers who might otherwise have remained unheard. The gatekeepers can no longer control the available content, and some have allowed their biases to undermine their attempts to fairly moderate content. As a result, it has become more difficult to find trustworthy sources of information.

Further, many conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable. In other words, any evidence for or against the theory is used to strengthen it, never to weaken it. Uscinski writes:

For the conspiracy theorist, the fact that we don’t have good evidence of a conspiracy only shows that the conspirators are good at covering their tracks. . . . But because of their non-falsifiability, conspiracy theories should not be thought of as true or false, but rather as more or less likely to be true. (27)

At some point, no evidence will shake confidence in a firmly held conspiracy theory, since the denial of a conspirator is only further evidence of the conspiracy.

What to Do About Conspiracy Theories?
The nature of conspiracy theories makes combatting them seem like a daunting task. Uscinski’s Conspiracy Theories is only a primer that purports to be a guide to the nature, popularity, virulence, and political implications of these theories. As a result, it does little to provide concrete solutions to the Hydra-like challenges that a culture saturated in conspiracy theories presents.

The best way to stop conspiracy theories is to cut off the flow of conspiratorial words.

Thankfully, Scripture gives us some helpful advice that will help us extinguish conspiracy theories from our midst. Just as a primary way to fight a wildfire is to remove fuel to stop the spread, the best way to stop conspiracy theories is to cut off the flow of conspiratorial words.

Here are a few ways that we can stop the spread of conspiracy theories:

Be slow to speak. James 1:19 reminds Christians, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Conspiracy theories often spread rapidly like gossip because they’re interesting and, especially in a polarized social climate, they demonize an out-group. Time to think gives time to evaluate whether the conspiracy is true. Often a conspiracy theory is debunked within days of creation. Aside from the dopamine rush of a popular social-media post, there is little lost and much to be gained by waiting a few days or weeks for an epistemological authority to weigh in on the theory.
Default to charity. Paul urges charity in dealing with controversy in Galatians 5:14–15: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Just as we’d hope others might give us the benefit of the doubt when bad news spreads about us, we should also extend that benefit until more evidence is made known from trustworthy sources.
Consider your words carefully. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 12:36, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” I believe we will also give an account for what we share on social media. This warning should cause us to vet our sources carefully and to not share when in doubt. All of our communication should glorify God, which means that there may be some things we choose not to share, even if they prove true in the end.
Consider what other perspectives might be available. As Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Unfortunately, when an untruth is broadcast on social media and later corrected, the retraction rarely gets the same attention. Thus, many people are left believing that the first, false impression is unquestioned truth. Similarly, Deuteronomy 19:15 requires multiple witnesses for a crime to be charged against someone. Most conspiracy theories don’t meet that standard.
Conspiracy Theories and the Christian Tongue
As James 3:6 reminds us, “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” We can’t effectively spread the gospel to our neighbors while demonizing them for their political views through conspiracy theories.

We can’t effectively spread the gospel to our neighbors while demonizing them for their political views through conspiracy theories.

Instead, James says, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17–18). This wisdom seems the polar opposite of conspiracy theories.

If we’re to be known for the renewing power of the gospel, we must delight in Jesus above all in our conversations. When Christians are purveyors of conspiracy theories, we undermine our ability to communicate the deeper truths with the power to bring healing to a broken world.

Andrew Spencer

The Plague We All Ignore

In all our consternation about the undeniable and often bitter challenges faced by our African-American neighbors, let’s not forget the daily suffering that goes on unnoticed in many communities—such as Chicago.

Last weekend, for example, the Windy City reveled in brilliant sunshine and a high in the low 70s. No doubt enjoying the early fall breezes, a group of residents in Englewood, on Chicago’s south side, congregated on a porch in the 6100 block of South Throop Street.

Suddenly a passing vehicle hit the brakes. Two men jumped out and opened fire. A man, 35, on the porch was hit in the head and taken to Stroger Hospital, which has gained local fame for its grim specialty of treating gunshot wounds. The man nevertheless died there. The medical examiner’s office has not identified him.

Another male victim, 17, was struck in the hip and taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center. Another man, 60, was grazed in the back and transported to Holy Cross Hospital. A woman, 26, was shot in the hand and taken to St. Bernard Hospital. They were all pronounced in good condition.

The weekend just past was another bloody one for Chicago, with 14 people killed and 44 wounded in largely African-American communities. This year there have been 272 attacks in Englewood, Chicago’s deadliest neighborhood, with 52 fatalities. Such numbers are unthinkable in most communities. But not this one. The relentless carnage is numbing to heart and soul.

According to the Chicago Police Department, the city murder rate is up 52 percent over the same period last year. Here are the totals year to date (as of Sept. 15): residents shot and killed, 512; shot and wounded, 2,491; total shot, 3,003; total homicides, 561.

Each one has a name.

To put these numbers in perspective, last year 20 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during combat operations. Each one made the news, at least somewhere. Not so with Chicago.

To put these numbers in perspective, last year 20 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during combat operations. Each one made the news, at least somewhere. Not so with Chicago.

Twenty American deaths in Afghanistan is deemed a bad year. In Chicago, it’s a bad weekend.

Yet no professional athletes kneel in solidarity or protest, no one marches or chants their names. Except for some minor exceptions, Chicago’s pandemic of violence is a plague ignored.

Chicago has seen several anti-racism, anti-police protests, which occasionally morph into organized rounds of arson, property damage, and looting. During one particularly bad night, officials hurriedly raised the drawbridges over the scenic Chicago River to keep postmodern vandals from overrunning the city. Car dealerships, Wal-marts, and swanky Michigan Avenue jewelry stores have all been trashed. As a result, many residents and businesses are fleeing, likely never to return.

And who will be most hurt by the city’s unfolding economic implosion? The poor, of course.

It’s not a question of ignoring the failings of law enforcement. It’s true that the Chicago Police Department doesn’t have a very good reputation in many African-American neighborhoods, and not without reason. The 2014 murder of Laquon McDonald, a 17-year-old African American who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke, is just one example of overzealous or jaded cops mistreating minorities. But CPD’s sins, crimes, and dysfunctions are not the only acts of chaos overtaking the city’s black neighborhoods.

There is a clear place to protest police crimes, but let’s not forget the deaths that don’t make the evening news or draw crowds, outrage, and prayer vigils.

When it comes to these less politically expedient deaths, where are the celebrities and politicians calling for practical help for hurting and under-resourced communities? Where are the advocates for people trapped in moribund urban schools, standing up for school reform and choice? Where are the defenders of the black unborn at great risk from abortion?

They are there, but the media too often looks the other way.

In our day of so much promise and peril, we must listen empathetically to the experiences of our African-American neighbors, repent of any lingering prejudice in our hearts and society, and work with them to discover enduring solutions.

Many, many African Americans have seized the opportunities afforded to them in 21st-century America, which increasingly but imperfectly judges people not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Despite the racism of too many Americans, even in positions of power, they have finished high school, gone to college, knocked down closed doors in entertainment, business, and sports, joined the middle class, taught at elite institutions of learning, and been elected President—praise God!

Tragically, racism and racial disparities are too common in this yet-imperfect union, saved through civil strife and many trials by the grace of God, where so much has changed since the evil days of slavery and Jim Crow—and where so much more still needs to change.

In our day of so much promise and peril, we must listen empathetically to the experiences of our African-American neighbors, repent of any lingering prejudice in our hearts and society, and work with them to discover enduring solutions.

So let’s build on our undeniable racial progress, fighting bigotry and other sins wherever we find them. Let’s end the plague of violence and realize Dr. King’s dream, when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

It’s a role well-suited to the Church. And a good place to begin just might be Chicago.

Stan Guthrie is a longtime resident of Chicagoland. His latest book is Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.

Goodbye to Grandma’s House

A house is an inanimate object, and as a terrifying number of people in the western United States and the Gulf Coast can now attest, houses are objects that burn or blow away. But these stacks of wood-and-nails also have a way of becoming symbolic of more important things, especially to children.

That was the case with my Grandmother’s house of almost twenty-five years, which still stands, but now belongs to a stranger. Saying goodbye to that house and moving Grandma into a smaller one feels like the close of a chapter I wasn’t finished reading. But remembering that place has renewed my resolve to give my own children a home, not just somewhere to live. It’s also reminded me to fill the walls of that home with more than just two generations.

Growing up, one of the greatest gifts I enjoyed was my extended family, and “Grandma and Grandpa’s house” was a focal point for that gift. There was a stretch of years that began before my memory sharpens and ends around 2010 during which my maternal grandparents, together with my aunts, their husbands, and my cousins, gathered for birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Memorial and Labor Days, and especially for Christmas.

Usually this happened at a two-story, tin-roofed, unmistakably southern “farmhouse” ensconced in a Floridian Eden of live oaks, orchids, and bamboo. The air there was always thick with butterflies and the rattle of Grandpa’s tractor as he dug a new pond or flower bed (he had two green thumbs and probably a couple of fingers). But if nostalgia were a sound, it might be Grandma’s festive “hello!” as grandkids burst through the back door into the kitchen (hardly anybody used the front). The chime of the grandfather clock might as well have been church bells for me.

But if nostalgia were a sound, it might be Grandma’s festive “hello!” as grandkids burst through the back door into the kitchen (hardly anybody used the front). The chime of the grandfather clock might as well have been church bells for me.

Christmas became an especially high feast day for our Baptist family. A clan-wide slumber party developed in which fifteen celebrants fresh from candle-light Christmas Eve services would descend on this home with casseroles, cheese platters, salads, desserts, and gifts to close the year as only our family knew how. A soundtrack of outdated Christian albums played as we tucked into Grandma’s pot roast soup and found ourselves breathless over jokes that probably weren’t funny outside of those walls.

After a while, we would bed down, all the cousins in sleeping bags in the “game room” and the adults eventually settling throughout the house. Someone usually ended up on the couch beside the Christmas tree. The next morning, of course, was an early and boisterous one. This is how it unfolded annually, and somehow Grandma and Grandpa never seemed to tire of it.

In the years before Grandpa died, that house took on new significance. My wife and I spent several months there as a stopover on our planned move to Northern Virginia. We had our first baby while living there, and watched more “Jeopardy” than anyone our age likely ever had. Long talks on the porch and in the living room helped me understand my grandfather as few young men understand their family’s patriarch. He and Grandma needed no lessons in hospitality; we weren’t the only family members who spent a season in the game-room-turned-guest-suite. In the final years I knew that home, it became as much a refuge for extended family as a place for us to celebrate.

Without the strength of Grandpa’s personality, that house seemed to lose an intangible quality. It took on the stillness of a memorial, and the light seemed to dim a little. The extended family gatherings became rarer and faces were missing. Of course, much of this was simply adulthood setting in for me. The torch passed hands the moment my parents became grandparents, and I acknowledged what of course I had always known: that Grandma’s house was never anything more than a house.

All of this makes me suspect that God has no qualms with heavenly treasures sanctifying the earthly arks we construct, nor does He mind if we look back sadly when they change hands. My nostalgia is not for a structure but for the love and hospitality that filled it—for the temporal glimpse I was given there of an eternal feast.

But boxing up furniture, pictures, and decorations that were fixtures of my childhood still felt sacrilegious. The conviction in every young heart that grandparents are permanent has a way of rubbing off on the boards and nails within which they live. To discover that these people are mortal—travelers near the end of a journey you yourself are on—is a jolt.

Yet as I sit with Grandma and reminisce, as I remember my Dad’s parents, who finished their race some years earlier, and as I watch my own sons and daughter walk through the heedless eternity of childhood, I realize that nothing of substance was lost behind that “Sold” sign. If you know what to look for, “Grandma and Grandpa’s house” can be any old place, game room or no—tractor or no. The music of extended kinship, sanctified by rituals that resonate with eternity, can echo from any set of walls. I know because I’ve watched my own parents’ home take on that sacral quality in my children’s eyes. I can even see the beginnings of it in our home.

All of this makes me suspect that God has no qualms with heavenly treasures sanctifying the earthly arks we construct, nor does He mind if we look back sadly when they change hands. My nostalgia is not for a structure but for the love and hospitality that filled it—for the temporal glimpse I was given there of an eternal feast. Knowing this has determined me to fill new vessels with that grace of intergenerational love, and to give my kids what was given to me. And if someday the place I live takes on the hallowed title “Grandma and Grandpa’s house”—invested with all the meaning I put into those words as a child—I will have succeeded.

Nietzsche Was Right

Tom Holland has written a book that is not so much a history of Christianity, but a history of the complex role Christianity played in the formation of modern Western culture. He rightly calls that influence “paradoxical” because, first, the Christian church has often spectacularly failed of its ideals, and other times it has been disastrously divided over what those ideals actually were. Holland—an award-winning historian of the ancient world, a translator of Greek classical texts, and a documentary writer—gives us all the gory details. He is no apologist for the church, despite his considerable respect for certain aspects of the Christian faith.

But the bottom line is this—it is hard to overstate the importance of Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The subtitle tells you the basic thesis. He makes a readable and extraordinarily well-documented case that the central values and priorities of modern, Western, secular culture have actually come from Christianity. And even now, when most of the educated classes have abandoned Christianity and when religion is in sharp decline among the populace, Christianity has such an enduring, pervasive influence that we cannot condemn the church for its failures without invoking Christian teaching and beliefs to do so.

The bottom line is this—it is hard to overstate the importance of Tom Holland’s book.

Only Way to Live
Holland offers a long but accessible exposition of a basic idea first proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Nietzsche saw the European intelligentsia rejecting Christianity and styling themselves as scientific freethinkers, supposedly living without God. But, he argued, they still believed in human rights, in the equal dignity of every person, in the value of the poor and weak, and the necessity of caring and advocating for them all. They still believed that love is the great value and that we should forgive our opponents. They still believed in moral absolutes—that some things are good and some things are evil—and particularly that oppression of the powerless was wrong.

But, Nietzsche argued, all these ideas were unique to Christianity. They did not develop in Eastern cultures, and the Greeks and the Romans found them laughable and incomprehensible when they first heard them. Holland shows that the shame-and-honor cultures of old, pagan Europe—of the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, and the Germans—thought that the Christian ethic of forgiving one’s enemies and of honoring the poor and weak to be completely unworkable as a basis for society. These ideas would’ve never occurred to anyone unless they held to a universe with a single, personal God who created all beings in his image, and with a Savior who came and died in sacrificial love. The ideas only could’ve grown from such a worldview—they don’t make sense in a different one. If, instead, we believe we’re here by accident through a process of survival of the fittest, then there can be no moral absolutes, and life must be, if anything, about power and the mastery of others, not about love. That, declared Nietzsche, is the only way to live once you are truly willing to admit that the Christian God does not exist.

When Nietzsche made this argument he was dismissed as a madman. The liberal, secular world continued to spin out the narrative that only when we moved away from the dominance of the church—and put its superstition and bigotry behind us—was the modern world able to end slavery, discover human rights, empirical science, and sexual freedom.

But over the last 50 years, slowly but surely, leading academics have been proving Nietzsche right.

Only at the very end, and then only briefly, does Holland pose a question that hangs over the entire book. If it’s true that these humanistic values originated out of Christian beliefs, will not these values make less and less sense—become less and less compelling—in a society that’s abandoning the beliefs? Holland puts it like this:

If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? (540)

Holland leaves the question hanging. This is not asking if individual secular people can be highly moral and unselfishly committed to others. Of course they can. It is asking whether, on the whole, an entire society can stay committed to values after abandoning the beliefs about the world on which the values were based.

Tim Keller

Stop Beating Each Other Up

Tim Keller has pleaded with Americans to stop demonizing each other as the fight for the White House heats up.

In just over 40 days, Americans will head to the ballot box to cast their votes for the next US President.

With fierce differences over everything from Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, to the economy and abortion, the 2020 presidential election season is proving especially rancorous.

The respected author, who is battling cancer, has waded into the public debate with a call for more grace, especially from Christians.

In a thread on Twitter, he said: “The demonization and dehumanization of the other side must stop.”

But Keller was particularly frustrated with Christians who fail to temper their speech.

“When professing Christians do it, it is triply wrong,” he said.

Keller said everyone fell short of the standards of God and that a central tenet of the Christian faith was being saved by grace.

He cited 2 Timothy 2:24-26, in which Paul writes that the servants of the Lord “must not be quarrelsome” but instead “be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful”, while “opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

Keller continued: “So Christians can never feel morally superior to any one else at all.

“That means (MAIN POINT) when we call out evildoing in others, as vital as that is, we can never imply by our attitude or language that they deserve God’s condemnation, but we do not.

“Right now our very social fabric is tearing apart because of, among other things, increasing, mutual demonizations ON BOTH SIDES. Christians must not contribute to this in any way.”

Jennifer Lee

%d bloggers like this: