Hope in the Pharisee's Spiral

by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.

The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.

I tapped the little trashcan icon.

That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).

The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.

The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.

Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.

If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.

They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?

Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.

As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.

At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at chicogracebrethren.com.

Goodness and Wellness at the Community Action Summit

by Matthew Raley Dr. Paul Zingg opened and closed Chico's Community Action Summit with an assertion. At the start of the day, he said that the summit was about "virtues." At the end, he said that he was pleased to hear the issue of wellness receive so much attention. "But," he added, "we must add goodness to wellness."

The distinction goes to the core of the summit's focus: our city's problem with alcohol.

Wellness is good health, both physically and emotionally. As a culture, we are comfortable talking about this category. We spend vast sums of money on fitness, dieting, and medicine. We analyze many problems like alcohol abuse as public health issues. If people were educated about wellness, we think, they would make better decisions.

It's a useful model.

But wellness is not the same as goodness. Goodness is the result of the moral disciplines that Dr. Zingg called virtues. The very term goodness calls us to discriminate between actions -- that is, to discover which ones might be evil. We are less comfortable with this category.

During the summit, the need for clarity about goodness came up repeatedly.

A session on sexual assault was attended by many survivors of violent crimes, both men and women. Several young women identified themselves as survivors of rape, describing an atmosphere on campus in which men laugh about sexual assault, stalking is a constant reality, and the most dangerous spaces are not public but private. One male student described being beaten in front of cheering bystanders. A father told of an attack on his son. Alumni in the group said that the atmosphere has not changed since they were students years ago.

Survivors of actions like these do not need evil explained. They want change for the good.

Assault survivors talked about creating a culture of personal responsibility by focusing on daily actions and relationships. Associated Students president Jay Virdee also raised the issue of personal responsibility and ran a session exploring educational approaches. He is articulate and passionate about this priority, and has ideas to encourage good decision-making through student mentoring.

I attended a session in which bar owners described being swamped with fake driver's licenses, either forged or stolen. They conferred with a police officer, cordially but inconclusively. Does the city have resources to arrest and prosecute the people who make and use fake cards? Clearly not. I was struck by the diligence bar owners and managers have shown in enforcing the laws. They are the people who confiscate fake i.d. from a parent trying to pass his kid off as 21. Personal responsibility came up in this discussion as well.

Clearly we need to change individuals' decision-making. Is wellness a strong enough category to bring about that change?

The parent sneaking liquor into his daughter's dorm room has a sense of wellness. If he thought it would hurt his daughter to drink, he wouldn't get her the stuff. If anything, his sense of wellness is offended by what he sees as intrusive rules.

The 19-year-old who uses his older brother's i.d. to get into bars has a sense of wellness, too. His partying is under control. He gets good grades and holds down a job. He's not on crack. Who gets hurt?

The 26-year-old who gets a 19-year-old woman to "sext" him when she's drunk, and later posts her pictures on the web  -- even he has a sense of wellness. How could his actions possibly have hurt her? She's famous now. Guys love her.

On what basis will we argue that these three people are not well? They don't see the harm in their choices. They don't see any connection between their actions and nights of mayhem like last Saturday, when the police received 391 calls in a twelve hour period. These three will say it's other people who are "out of control."

To make the case, we will have to use the word wrong. We will have to talk about what is good. We'll have to examine beliefs -- critically evaluate the reasons we give for our actions. We'll have to speak in terms of goodness because wellness is not a self-evident concept. It is derived from ethics.

There are several things we can do to make this case. We can recover some old words that express the differences between actions: honesty and lying, wisdom and folly, lust and love. We can also restore to educators the mandate to teach these words. Even further, we can link consequences to good and bad actions. These are the things that confident communities do.

As a pastor, my job goes one step further. The gospel I teach has to go beyond wellness. Jesus is indeed a healer. But he did not die and rise again because of our poor decisions. He died and rose again because we are not good. He came to deliver us from evil. Only that message is worth calling "good news."

Religious Liberty and the Ruling on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Prop 8's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. No surprise there. The real question is what will happen at the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the implications will be for religious liberty.

Some observations:

1. It is not clear how the Roberts Court will rule on Prop 8. The outcome will likely depend on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who remains the swing vote on many issues. I will be surprised if the court renders a sweeping decision on the gay marriage question. Look for a narrow one.

This is a weak position for traditional marriage supporters. A narrow ruling against Prop 8 has the effect of institutionalizing gay marriage in the U.S., where a narrow ruling in favor of Prop 8 merely keeps the issue in play.

2. Suppose the high court upholds the 9th Circuit's decision and gay marriage becomes the nation's new legal default. A church's liberty to sanction only marriages between a man and a woman comes into question, and the legal climate for this kind of liberty is very mixed.

In 2010, the high court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school could refuse to recognize a religious group that did not abide by the school's anti-discrimination standards. The fall-out from that decision is being felt by Christians at Vanderbilt, a private university. The vice chancellor recently told Christian groups that they have to allow non-Christians to be members and even leaders of their organizations if they want official recognition. He said in a public meeting, "We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus."

A rare moment of candor from a PC mandarin, and a glimpse of what life will be like if tweed totalitarianism gains even more power. There's religious decision making, and then there's good decision making. We just want you to make good decisions. That's all.

There are examples of this pushiness elsewhere. New York City recently expelled churches from using public schools on Sundays. (The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge.) The Obama administration decided to force all organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception, even Catholic institutions. Though the administration has wavered in recent days, it has shown what it really thinks about religious liberties. Catholic adoption agencies in Illinois are closing rather than comply with the state's new non-discrimination policy. A New York Times article about the controversy makes clear that religious liberty claims are insensitive and tiresome.

Some progressives clearly have an appetite to purge religion from civic, legal, and academic life. Not all progressives. There are those who agree that churches should not be forced to allow gay marriages, or to support any of a host of other choices sanctified by the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt. Such honest progressives recognize the importance of conscience.

So there is some ballast against those who want a purge.

In addition, recent infringements on religious liberty have to be balanced against the Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month that anti-discrimination employment laws must respect a ministerial exemption. The decision is sweeping, and may be a game-changer for churches.

3. The practical threat to religious liberty will not come from the suave bigotry of vice chancellors, or from gay marriage laws like the one Governor Christine Gregoire signed in Washington State this week. The threat will not come from homosexuals as a group, or from progressives.

The most practical threat is from lawyered-up thugs. In their mania for a religion-free society, radical activists will use lawsuits as a shakedown tactic. They will not need friendly Supreme Court decisions. All they will need is money enough to sue -- and they have plenty. They will move  from suing cities over crosses and nativities and public prayers to suing churches for "discrimination."

I have spent years in ministry opposing the attempts of the religious right to turn churches into centers of political activism. Demagoguery and money do not impress me. And if I have not countenanced toxic activism from the right, even though I'm a political conservative, I certainly will not roll over for the cultural left, with which I have no sympathy whatsoever.

I fear we are headed for a new low in American discourse, in which public debate is abandoned in favor of lawsuits. If so, the civil society that has made America strong will splinter, and the conscience of every person will be at the mercy of the best financed pressure group.

The Value of Others on the Costa Concordia

by Matthew Raley The value we place on human life may be revealed in ordinary self-restraint.

While the exact causes of the Costa Concordia tragedy may not be any clearer today, the story of the evacuation unfolded all too clearly over the weekend. There seems to have been a total breakdown of order as the ship capsized.

Surviving passengers recounted how the crew gave false reassurances, then abandoned their posts. The scenes were described as "every man for himself," with no consideration for women and children, or for the elderly. Two bodies discovered inside the ship over the weekend were elderly men wearing life jackets. The captain insists that he was the last to leave the ship, but the bodies of those two men reply, "We were still here when you set foot onshore." Fifteen others are still missing.

The value of others on the Concordia was obviously lower than the value of Self.

For many decades now, Americans and Europeans have valued personal authenticity over social norms. We like to think each person is autonomous, free from artificial bonds. The Self is holy. Duties are anathema. The very word order has become almost contemptible, regarded by many as code for repression. And so the passengers of the Concordia endured not just the violence of a sinking ship but the fury of personal authenticity in a panic.

We've heard about the thin line between civilization and barbarism. We've seen that line crossed in macrocosm (Iraq after the invasion) and microcosm (Walmart mobs on Black Friday). On the Concordia, passengers were dining comfortably one moment, and in the next were crawling on their knees through broken glass, lashing themselves to railings, and passing their 2-year-olds to a stranger in the hope that she might think of a child rather than herself.

We have also seen the line maintained. New York City did not collapse into an orgy of personal authenticity on 9-11. Its citizens showed why order is noble. Our soldiers around the world don't abandon their units under fire. And there were passengers on the Concordia who remained calm, nursed the wounded, and gave leadership.

Every day, we show the value we place on human life in our small actions. Giving place to the elderly, showing self-restraint in front of children and gentleness to women -- or, to use the old-fashioned phrase for these actions, showing deference -- these are the ways we acknowledge another person's worth.

They are also society's rehearsals for emergency. What we do in danger depends on what we practice in safety.

I think our society has big reserves of civility. But we are tolerating disrespect in too many ways. People who spew foul language in front of children, who refuse to defer to flight attendants, school teachers, or police, who are incapable of respecting the elderly, and who treat women as valuable only if they are hotties -- and then only give the reward of crudity -- are rehearsing a fresh Concordia experience for the rest of us.

It's time we gave them the smack-down.