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Archive for the ‘Christianity and Public Life’ Category

Awhile back a friend brought to my attention an article by John Shore, entitled, “Taking God at His Word: The Bible and Homosexuality,[1] and asked my thoughts.  I have taken much longer than I had hoped to respond, and also rather more space than I had originally expected.  The tl;dr version of my response is this:  Mr. Shore shifts his definitions to portray any belief that homosexuality is against God’s plan for sexuality as hateful rejection of people who practice homosexuality.  Despite the emphasis in his title, he spends little time addressing what the Bible actually says, and instead seeks to explain why what God has clearly said about sexuality does not apply in our wiser, more enlightened age, and ultimately is trumped by good motives and being ourselves.  While Mr. Shore is right that Christ’s command to love God and neighbor forbids us to mock and ostracize homosexuals, love demands that we speak the truth—truth that calls each of us to walk away from much that comes naturally to us but is in opposition to the good and wise God who made us to know and love Him, to find our rest and joy in Christ rather than in temporary pleasures, and to increasingly reflect Christ’s character rather than reveling in our own personal inclinations.

Mixing Definitions

Mr. Shore says that “God does not ask us to choose between compassion and faith in the Bible”—agreed.  But notice he quickly changes the claim to, The text of the Bible on one hand, and full equality for gay and lesbian people on the other, is a false dichotomy.”  That only works if compassion=“full equality” and if “full equality” means “just keep doing what you’re doing, God’s fine with that.”  If a doctor tells me it’s okay to have sweets once in awhile, and I decide that “sweets” means “an entire sheet cake and a gallon of ice cream,” and “once in awhile” means “every night for supper,” that doesn’t mean that the doctor told me to go on a sheet cake and ice cream rampage.  It means I’m creative.

“We can trust God; we can trust that God is loving”—again, agreed, and when any of us read passages of Scripture that we find difficult, surprising, or challenging, this is exactly the right truth to remember.  He will not command us to do what will harm us, but what will bring honor to Him and bring our greatest eventual good.  We can trust Him—but we have to let Him define what is good and loving, rather than imposing our watered down definitions of good and loving on Him.

“If there is no clearly stated directive in the Bible to marginalize and ostracize gay people, then it is morally indefensible for Christians to continue to do so”—absolutely true.  There is no warrant in Scripture for hating, mocking, fearing, ridiculing, or depriving those who practice homosexuality of genuine civil rights.  But the authors then claim that anything less than agreeing that homosexuality is right and morally equivalent with sex between a man and a woman within marriage marginalizes and ostracizes homosexuals.  For an article entitled, “Taking God at His Word,” I don’t see a lot of Scripture being used to back this up.  I can, and do, love people without giving rubberstamp approval to all they do.  Loving someone doesn’t mean agreeing with them that with enough of a running start they can flap their arms and fly over the Grand Canyon.  It doesn’t mean agreeing with them that stepping in front of that semi will cause the semi to stop in the next three feet.  Some things are not true, no matter how hard we nod our heads.  There is no excuse for telling a practicing homosexual to get away from us, and “Adam and Steve” jokes will never be helpful or kind.  But the solution isn’t to put on a rainbow armband and act like we have the right to say what God does not.

Because the suffering imposed on gay persons by Christians is so severe, the directive from God to marginalize and ostracize gay people would have to be clear and explicit in the Bible.”  See above; there is a difference between a clear and explicit mandate in the Bible to marginalize and ostracize—which isn’t there—and a clear and explicit explanation of God’s purposes for sexuality, which is.

The “Clobber Passages”

And then we get to the section on “clobber passages.”  First, counting verses says nothing about the clarity of an issue; if God has spoken on an issue, He really doesn’t have to repeat Himself.  Second, we have no right to pick and choose which verses to obey; the authors are right that we dare not blast homosexuality and ignore other sins—but we also dare not ignore homosexuality on the grounds that others also sin.

Third, the claim that “Christians accept as inevitable that any given Christian will, for instance, on occasion drink too much, lust, or tell a lie…Christians don’t think that they are expected to never commit any degree of those sins” is bizarre.  Whatever some Christians may wrongly say, yes, God does expect us to run from sin.  We do in fact sin.  That isn’t the same as saying, “keep it on the bell curve and sin in moderation.”  Even if it were so, there is a vast difference between recognizing that we sin and celebrating something that Scripture calls sin as in fact a good and normal activity.  The equivalence they need would be to say, “Hey, we know that some Christians still get sinfully angry and contemplate murder.  Why don’t we just admit it and realize that some folks are born mad?”

Further, the author says, “Christians evaluate the degree of sin, or even whether or not a real sin has occurred, by looking at both the harm caused by the sin, and the intent of the sin’s perpetrator.  They do, that is, for all sins except homosexuality.”  But he is taking for granted that homosexuality does not cause harm, and that our motivations might make right what God calls wrong.  Motives matter, but not in the way Mr. Shore thinks.  A person doing all sorts of good and noble-looking things will not please God if he does it for show (Matt. 6:1-18, for example).  But it doesn’t follow that a person committing adultery is approved by God because “he means well.”  And if it is true that “from the beginning” God “made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4), and that marriage was created as a picture of both the unity and the distinctions between Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:22-33), and that every mention in the Bible of homosexuality is in the negative, then we have no reason to think that going against God will be anything other than harmful.  Again, that does not justify mistreatment of those who practice homosexuality—but it does warn us against cheering them on when what they do is at odds with what God says is good and loving.

So now, halfway through an article entitled, “Taking God at His Word,” we finally get to a consideration of actual passages from Scripture.  And predictably, the opening passage is Matt. 7:1, “Do not judge.”  And oddly, given the warning immediately after about the importance of context, Mr. Shore neglects the rest of the passage, in which Jesus explains that He is speaking of judging others by our own standard of right and wrong, a standard that demands more than God demands and neglects sin in our own lives in favor of focusing on others’ sins (v. 2-5, the parallel to his quote of Luke 6).  He then goes on to tell His hearers not to waste words by giving holy things to dogs and throwing pearls to swine (v. 6).  In other words, Jesus does not see His warning against judgment to mean that we can’t recognize when someone refuses to listen to the message of Christ and stop wasting our breath—and Jesus calling such people dogs and pigs, unclean animals, is most certainly judgment.  He goes on to say that we will know whether people belong to Him by their fruits—based on what they do in response to what Jesus says (v. 15-27).  That means that obedience to what Jesus says (and He says that the Spirit who gives all of Scripture is His Spirit) is the mark of whether someone is a Christian—not perfectly, but as an increasingly consistent pattern of life—and that Jesus believes people are able to observe others’ lives and have a fairly accurate sense of who or what a person is living for.

After reminding us that honestly reading Scripture means taking statements in context, seeking to understand in light of a passage’s genre and its position within the scope of increasing biblical revelation, the author waves a dismissive hand to the Old Testament passages on homosexuality and says, these don’t count, because the New Testament supersedes the law.  As an adherent of New Covenant Theology, I agree that we are not obligated to keep the Law of Moses—Jesus has perfectly kept the Law on our behalf, has suffered its death penalty in our place, and in coming as the one greater than Moses has replaced the Law that pointed to Him with the Law of Christ, which calls us to love God as Jesus has loved His Father, and to love our neighbor the way Jesus has loved us (a love, by the way, that refuses to leave us wallowing in our self-love and rebellion, but self-sacrificially purchases and cleanses us).  While covenant theologians would want to make distinctions between certain parts of Mosaic Law being of lasting effect and others passing away, I would instead say that all of the Old Covenant was to mark Israel as distinct and holy, but that in Christ we are made fundamentally distinct and holy by the indwelling Spirit.  That unique holiness will be worked out, not by a list of dos and don’ts, but by lives that are changed at every turn—both in action and in motive—by the reality of the risen, reigning Christ, and we see that played out in the commands found in the New Testament.

Mr. Shore celebrates that Christians have “always selectively followed the dictates of the New Testament.  In a certain sense this is true; it’s why Galatians and much of 1 Corinthians exist.  But it’s also why Galatians and much of 1 Corinthians consists of urgent warnings that to decide not to obey is to walk away from Christ.  It is also true that in the past Scripture has been used to justify slavery and the mistreatment of women (and also that Scripture speaks of women and slaves in ways that led both to flock to Christ, being welcomed into the Church in ways that no other ancient system did, and that with time undercut systemic slavery and oppression that are inconsistent with the Gospel).  What has not been shown, though, is that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is more like these areas that have historically been misused than its teaching on murder or lying—areas where relatively few people claim we have misread.  Mr. Shore asserts that this is the case, claiming that the New Testament warnings (not “clobber passages,” but warnings of danger) have been misrepresented and do not speak of loving, consensual relationships.  But is it so?

The author rightly notes that the common pattern in Greek, and to a lesser extent Roman, society, involved a dominant man with a slave or young boy.  It was considered degrading to an adult citizen to be the passive partner in a homosexual relationship.  That said, Greek poetry makes approving references to such relationships as a form of loving friendship, in which both parties allegedly consented and benefitted.  Do I believe that that was universally true?  Of course not.  But the ancient descriptions we have do not differ as greatly from modern claims as Mr. Shore asserts.

More to the point, the Bible does not base its opposition on the way one party was treated.  Is the Bible against people using and harming others?  Certainly—it’s hard to make a case for how one would love one’s neighbor by abusing him or her.  But notice that Paul does not at the same time mention heterosexual assault—not because he would approve, but because violence versus consent is not the issue in these passages.  In Romans 1, Paul announces that he is not ashamed of the powerful, saving gospel that rescues both Jews and Greeks, all who believe (v. 16-17).  Why is such a gospel necessary?  Because every single human being has rebelled against what they know of God, suppressing what they know deep down to be true, willingly becoming foolish, having “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God” for idols that look like things that God made, having “exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” and true worship of the Creator for false worship of the created (v. 18-25).  And in judgment God has allowed men and women to go their way, has “given them over” to their own desires, allowing them to chase after whatever they want (v. 24, 26, 28).  And that judgment plays out in the way some have “exchanged” the male-female pattern seen from Genesis 1:27 on for homosexual desires.  The entire passage points to a change from something right and natural (in the sense of “what we ought to be”) to something that rebels against God—trading God for animals, trading truth for lies, trading male-female sexuality for homosexuality.

And as the passage goes on, as God permits people to run farther and farther from Him, the same rebellion that leads men and women to hunger for this different pattern also plays out in greed, envy, murder, fighting, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, insolence, arrogance, boasting, invention of evil things, disobedience to parents, and a lack of understanding, trustworthiness, love, and mercy—the kind of rebellion that not only sins, but cheers others on as they sin (v. 28-32), or else blasts others for their sin while conveniently ignoring our own (2:1-29).  No one is off the hook; in the end, every human who has ever lived, except for Christ, is “clobbered” by the full context here: “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:9-10).  For any of us—those who have traded God’s creation order of man with woman for any other pattern of sexuality, and those who have traded God’s creation order of knowing and loving Him as the only God for any other pattern of life that pretends we are the center of the universe, our only hope is that God has revealed a new pattern: a righteousness brought by His own Son living a life of perfect non-rebellion, a life marked by perfect understanding, love, mercy, and obedience, and then standing as a God-pleasing sacrifice to make right all those who believe His promises (Rom. 3:21-26).

The same understanding of homosexuality holds true in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Paul uses two words (not fully reflected in the NIV used in the article, which renders the two together as “men who have sex with men;” the ESV similarly runs them together as “men who practice homosexuality”) to describe what he’s talking about.  The first, malakoi, is typically translated something like “effeminate;” it means soft and pliable, and was widely used in extrabiblical Greek for the submissive partner in a homosexual relationship.  The second word, arsenokoitai, is “those who have sex with men,” the dominant partner.  Notice both are mentioned here alongside heterosexuality outside of marriage (fornicators and adulterers), idolaters, thieves, those who covet, those who get drunk, those who revile others, and con artists as the kind of people who will not enter God’s kingdom.  Again, the issue isn’t violence versus consent; both members of the relationship stand in judgment according to this passage.  Consent doesn’t sanctify fornication, or adultery, or drunkenness, or idolatry, either.  It’s worth noting that this isn’t about “that one time somebody got drunk or lied;” the idea is a person who is characterized by these things.  But that’s only comforting for a person whose life isn’t characterized by sin of some kind, and there aren’t any of us like that.  Our only hope is in the past tense of v. 11: “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”  The rescue from v. 9-10 isn’t finding a more loving way to pursue these characteristic sins, but in finding one who washes us, sets us apart, and fundamentally alters our character.

Interestingly (though not uniquely), Mr. Shore then moves from the claim that the New Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality is really about non-consensual sex, which we have seen isn’t so, to the claim that Paul didn’t know about people who are naturally attracted to people of the same gender, so what he wrote only applies to heterosexuals who commit homosexual acts.  Both claims have been made before, but most writers stick with one or the other; otherwise it starts sounding a little like “what I’m doing is okay, and anyway I didn’t really do it.”  Nevertheless, he says it: If Paul doesn’t share a modern worldview of homosexuality as an inborn, fixed category, then the Bible can’t possibly be speaking against homosexuality.  But the Bible simply doesn’t define sin in terms of doing what doesn’t come naturally or living counter to one’s desires.  All of us are personally, intimately familiar with entire categories of sin that we seem naturally drawn to and have been as long as we can remember.  No one this side of the Fall is born naturally loving God and looking solely to Him for life, comfort, joy, and hope; we are born idolaters.  But no one ought to be foolish enough to think this means that Scripture’s “clobber passages” about idolatry don’t apply to us—rather, it means that we dare not place our hope in our own righteousness, because we’ve proven again and again that we aren’t righteous.  The issue with homosexuality, according to the Bible, is not that some people practice homosexuality who don’t naturally lean that way, but that homosexuality does not rightly reflect what God says about Christ and His church.  It’s the same problem that leads Paul to warn the Corinthians to flee fornication (1 Cor. 6:18)—and that verse won’t disappear for someone who feels that they weren’t born craving sexual faithfulness in the context of marriage.

Sin Not Determined by Personal Preferences

Mr. Shore’s next-to-last section tells us that “[b]eing personally repelled by homosexual sex doesn’t make homosexual sex a sin.”  He’s right.  While some writers have suggested that the widespread aesthetic response to homosexuality as “icky” ought to at least give us pause, our comfort/discomfort with an activity says very little about its standing with God.  Many people are squeamish about blood; that doesn’t make being a nurse a sin.  In our culture there is a growing comfort around what an earlier generation would have called pornography; that doesn’t speak to God’s attitude toward immodesty.  Each of us have differing interests and opinions on virtually every topic, differing senses of what is interesting, beautiful, hateful, and disgusting that are shaped by family traditions, personal experiences, amount of sleep, and possibly the current state of our digestion.  Further, each of us has opinions and tastes that, according to Scripture are shaded and distorted by remaining sin in our lives—our sense of what is good and beautiful is not entirely reliable.  What matters most, then, is not a personal sense that homosexuality is distasteful—or that it is good and virtuous.  What matters is how God sees homosexuality—and as I’ve argued above, Scripture is unequivocal in seeing every form of sexuality outside of marriage as rebellion against God.  There’s no way of making rebellion beautiful.

Yes, Love Is the Final Word

As Mr. Shore closes his article, he tells us that love was at the center of Jesus’s word and ministry, and that in the end three things stand: “faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love” (citing 1 Cor. 13:13).  Every word of Scripture is true—but not every interpretation of Scripture is true.  When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He didn’t say, “All you need is love.”  He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  What was His mission?  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  That ransom does not bring about a live-and-let-live kind of “love;” Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34)—not a call to jihad, but a radical division between those who do whatever Jesus says because He is Lord and those who want to make people like that shut up and leave them alone.  Ultimately, what is at the center of Jesus’s ministry is a very specific kind of love—a love that leads us to obey His every command (John 14:21, 23-24, 31; 15:10-11, 12-17, and so on), beginning with the Father’s command to recognize Jesus as the unique Son of God and Lord of the universe.

And what does Paul mean when he talks in 1 Corinthians 13 about the lasting centrality of love?  Again, context matters.  Paul is speaking to a church that is full of pride—of people who prefer their own rights and comforts over the spiritual wellbeing of those they call brother and sister (1 Cor. 8-10), who cling to their financial and social status even as they pretend to celebrate the “love feast” of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), who parade the gifts and abilities granted by the Holy Spirit as an excuse to show how impressive they are rather than to serve those around them (12:1-14:40).  And in the middle of this, Paul shows a more excellent way: love (12:31-13:13).  This isn’t primarily marriage-love or family-love, let alone do-whatever-you-like-and-you’ll-be-fine-love.  This is a love for others within the church that accepts insults and returns kindness, that patiently, humbly does what is good for others, that “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.”  It is love that leads us to say what is true, even when that is inconvenient and unwelcome.  It is love that delights in what God loves, rather than insisting that God update His words to fit my supposedly superior understanding of the universe.

Ultimately, this lasting love sees ourselves and our sins as God does, runs to safety in the  sinless love of Christ, and invites—urges—those around us to do the same.  To take God at His Word about homosexuality will not allow us to hate those who practice homosexuality, either by casting stones or by cheering what God forbids.  Instead, it will be to run together to one who “though He knew no sin, became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 5:21), who calls us to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).

[1] John Shore, “Taking God at His Word: The Bible and Homosexuality,” an excerpt from UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question.  Accessed 18 July 2015 at <http://www.notalllikethat.org/taking-god-at-his-word-the-bible-and-homosexuality>.

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I don’t guess it’s exactly news that the world we live in tends to be hostile to Christianity.  From ridicule and condescension from those who find the gospel absurd, to bombings, burnings, kidnappings, and murders of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, we can see Jesus’ promise being fulfilled that “if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20) and “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).

But that’s not new.  From Genesis 3 on people have rebelled against the God who made them to know Him and love Him.  We have shaken our fist and declared that we will have no king but King Self, and woe to anyone who tries to get in our way (just try telling a toddler no and see what happens).  And because we aren’t the first generation to try to obey this true and living God in the face of opposition, we have a multitude of examples of what that looks like in different times and places.

By the time we reach chapter 6, Daniel has been in Babylon for 66 years.  He was likely only a teenager when he was carried off to Babylon in 605 B.C., part of one of the noble families taken from Jerusalem to ensure the kingdom of Judah’s good behavior.  In God’s providence Daniel went from being a hostage to being an advisor to kings, and when the Persians conquered Babylon they, too, relied on him, recognizing his integrity and trustworthiness.  His adversaries were primarily motivated by political and financial gain, but their use of Daniel’s consistent loyalty to YHWH as a trap gives us a glimpse of what faithfulness may look like when obedience becomes costly.

Daniel did not know Christ, except in types and shadows.  However, what he trusted as a far-off promise, we have seen: the true and living God has come in flesh, has died and risen, and has been declared King of the universe with all power and authority.  In Christ we are citizens of a new kingdom (Col 1:13), subject to the law of a new King, living out a new life and a new hope before watching world.  We honor kings and governments (Rom. 13, 1 Tim. 2:1-2, 1 Pet. 2), even as we recognize they aren’t ultimate.  Daniel did so by faith in what had been revealed; we by a more sure, fuller faith that every promise has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus.  In Daniel 6 we see what living out Christ in a hostile world looks like from three angles:

I.  Live out Christ by living blamelessly (v. 1-5).

II.  Live out Christ by living with clear loyalties (v. 6-13).

III.  Live out Christ by living with an eye to a vindication not made with hands (v. 14-28), remembering that

a.  Vindication may not mean safety (v. 14-18),

b.  Vindication will come for those who trust and obey Christ (v. 19-24), and

c. Vindication will be public in the end (v. 25-28).

This wasn’t the last time God showed His mighty power by bringing an innocent man alive out of a hole in the Middle Eastern ground.  Jesus’ vindication began even as He groaned out His last breath, as the earth trembled, the temple veil tore, and a centurion declared Him to surely be the Son of God (Mark 15:38-39).  And on the third day, as the Spirit who breathed life into Adam moved again to raise the Second Adam, Jesus left the place of the dead—and He didn’t have to wait for a sealed stone to be rolled back!

And if we are hidden in Christ, so that His life is our life, we find our vindication in the very same place.  One day every knee will bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  We will reign with Him forever, feasting at His table forever.  And the recurring conversation won’t be how we got a bad law repealed or got the right people elected.  Instead, we’ll sing the new and ancient song of a once-dead, ever-living King, the Lion of Judah, who shut lions’ mouths and killed death and hell—even if some of us got devoured for a little while.

 

Audio may be downloaded here, or it may be listened to below.

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Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t steal—the government hates competition!”  Now, even though I’m not an enormous fan of taxes (I don’t generally go looking for ways to pay more than required), we understand that it is biblically right to pay our taxes.  When Jesus commanded that we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, the image of Caesar on the coin meant that it belonged to Caesar; if he wanted his coin back, let him have it.[1]  When Paul commanded us to obey human governments—including paying taxes—recognizing that their authority is ultimately given by God, he was referring to the pagan Roman government that would eventually put him to death, not some theoretical government whose every policy was goodness and light.

Unfortunately, though, many current governments are in the habit of stealing from the citizens they are supposed to protect.  A rapidly growing number of states count on lotteries and casinos to help fund significant parts of their budgets.  And as David Blankenhorn has written in a recent report, New York’s Promise: Why Supporting Casinos Is a Regressive Policy Unworthy of a Great State, state-sponsored gambling counts on citizens (largely those of lower economic status) losing vast amounts of money in order to enrich state governments and their partners.  Blankenhorn argues specifically against the upcoming referendum that would change New York’s state constitution to legalize casino gambling, but the rest of us would do well to listen in.

Blankenhorn argues that the very idea of government being funded by gambling goes against the state’s mandate to secure its people’s wellbeing.  He also notes that in years past the state of New York has come to that same conclusion:

In 1819, a Select Committee on Lotteries established by the New York legislature issued its report.  It was scathing.  Lotteries, the committee argued, are “indefensible upon principle.”  Why?  Because lotteries “make government dependent for its support, not on the intelligence, but on the vices of the people.”  The committee concluded “that the raising of money by means of public lotteries is inefficacious, insecure, impolitic and unjust; that it is repugnant to the industrious habits and moral sentiments of the people; that it is destructive to their principles, their prosperity and their happiness, and equally injurious to the interests and reputation of the state” (p. 57).

Unlike government involvement in building infrastructure that makes travel and trade possible, state-sponsored gambling preys on people and devours resources that might otherwise be put to use in improving the state:

Building the Erie Canal meant New York borrowed money from people of modest means and paid them back with 6 percent interest.  Sponsoring casinos means the state takes money from people of modest means and never pays them back (p. 61).

Contrary to those who claim casinos will build the economy (Gov. Andrew Cuomo has bandied about the number $1 billion a great deal), Blankenhorn notes that casinos simply move money about—often from those who are poorer to those who are richer.  In the meantime, even though building casinos will create new jobs (most of them short-term construction jobs),

the larger question is whether these jobs will contribute to economic growth.  Any new economic activity—from selling drugs to loan sharking to XXX movie theaters to regional offices for the Ku Klux Klan—will create jobs.  But research shows that only some of these activities actually contribute to economic growth, and casinos (mainly because they produce nothing of value) are not among them.  Casino gambling does not create wealth; it only follows, devalues, and redirects wealth.  As Gov. Mario Cuomo [the current governor’s father] put it in an interview with the New York Times in 1994, bringing casinos into a state “doesn’t generate wealth, it just redistributes it” (p. 125).

And there is no question that wealth will be redistributed.  Modern slot machines, the core of casino gambling, are computers mathematically designed to make people lose, but with enough lights, sound effects, and hints that you almost won to convince you to try again.  That’s why casino owners and designers avoid playing:

In 2004 in Reno, Nevada, New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin asked a prominent slot machine designer at International Game Technology if he ever put any of his own money into the machines he designed: The man “acted as if I insulted him.  ‘Slots are for losers,’ he spat.’ (p. 66).

As Blankenhill puts it, each machine is designed by laws of mathematics to ensure that the house wins.

Let’s be clear: There are no exceptions to this rule.  Whether the “game” in question is being “played” by a math genius from MIT or a casually curious chimpanzee, the results do not and cannot vary.  For the steady slot player, it cannot be a question of winning or losing.  The only question—one designers care deeply about as well—is how fast you lose (p. 66-67).

So why does this rise to the level of government policy?  We allow other foolish, expensive, and finally useless pursuits, and proponents of casino building bill it as largely harmless entertainment.  We allow people to overpay for hotels and football games, so why not gambling?  A key difference is that the state officials who are responsible to oversee and regulate casinos are the same ones responsible for promoting them; the state is an active business partner:

People who build, manage, and profit from casinos often suggest that modern casinos are private businesses, no different conceptually from other private businesses.  The implication of this argument is clear.  In a free society, by what right or authority do nosy citizens—or for that matter, interfering politicians—get to tell businesses in the “private sector” what to do or how to do it?

This would be an excellent “leave us alone to run our business” argument if it were true, but it’s not.  Whatever else they may be, casinos are not private businesses.  Unless they are state-owned outright (as is the case, for example, in Kansas), casinos are fully elaborated joint ventures in which government agencies and private actors join forces to create something quite unique.”  (p. 77).

And make no mistake, gambling is big business for states.  State governments get their “take” off the top, before business expenses, and often in addition to normal business taxes and local taxes.  That “take” runs from 8 percent in Nevada to over 50 percent in Pennsylvania (p. 78).

It all adds up to a lot of money.  Have you ever wondered why politicians who like to give speeches about “jobs” and “economic growth” often seem more interested in licensing casinos than in licensing, say, tire stores or computer firms?  …The reason…has little to do with “jobs” and absolutely nothing to do with “economic growth,” since a significant body of research suggests that casinos do not contribute to economic growth.  The reason for this special focus on casinos is that Joe’s Tire Store of Tallahassee pays the state of Florida, with whom Joe has no regular contact, a relatively small fraction of its earnings via a tax on the store’s profits, while Bob’s Casino and Resort in Tallahassee pays the state of Florida, with whom Bob is in a full-fledged business partnership, a whopping proportion of the venture’s total revenues. (p. 79).

We had a former governor who spoke honestly about these matters.  His name was Mario Cuomo.  Regarding the state’s sponsorship of gambling, he said: “We do it for the money, but I don’t know anybody who’s excited about it” (p. 107).

But some are excited now.  Governor Andrew Cuomo says legalizing casinos will boost the economy of upstate New York (or possible New York City, depending on which time he speaks).  He’s excited enough that he and allies in legislature have changed the wording on the referendum ballot to read:

The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?[2]

The change was made secretly and not announced until after it would be too late to challenge the wording.[3]  As of today, the new referendum language is being challenged in court on the grounds that the rewrite was not handled in accordance with New York’s Open Meeting Law, and also because state money has been used to press for acceptance of the measure, which is also illegal.  Time will tell whether the new wording will stand.  In the meantime, the governor and others seem determined to press forward on state-sponsored gambling; perhaps the $3 million in campaign contributions since 2011 have had an effect.[4]

Those of us who do not live in New York have little say in the outcome of next month’s referendum.  However, if a government whose constitution specifically forbids the state to prey on the citizenry through gambling is able to push through such drastic changes, we should not expect any other state’s citizens to be safe from a system that intentionally encourages “gaming” at addictive levels and deprives families of their income.  David Blankenhorn has sounded the alarm in New York with a winsome, well-written essay, well worth the read; it is available in full here.

For more on the social and other costs of casinos, see here.  For the extent of their power and economic influence, see here.

 


[1] And likewise, Jesus meant that what is made in God’s image—our entire selves—belongs to Him; give yourself entirely to His service under Christ’s authority.

[2] Quoted in “Slanted Wording of the State’s Casino Amendment Is Unfair, Needs to Be Changed,” Syracuse Post-Standard, 10 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/10/new_york_casino_referendum_wording.html.

[3] Michael Gormley, “NYPIRG Joins NY Casino Referendum Opposition,” Saratogian, 10 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://saratogian.com/articles/2013/10/10/news/doc52573df66b306939369719.txt; Post Editorial Board, “Dirty Dealing on Casino Referendum,” New York Post, 11 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://nypost.com/2013/10/11/dirty-dealing-on-casino-referendum/.

[4] Gormley, “NYPIRG Joins NY Casino Referendum Opposition,” http://saratogian.com/articles/2013/10/10/news/doc52573df66b306939369719.txt?viewmode=2

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Last month Americans were horrified as word spread that a young man had murdered twenty-six people in cold blood at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Since then there have been other murders, ranging from first responders in New York on Christmas Eve to the killings of five people in Albuquerque this past Sunday.  Even as we have debated how to prevent such vile acts, the deeper question troubling many has been, “How can this happen here?”  How, in a nation that is in many ways great and good, can there be people—virtually all young men[1]—who calmly and brutally murder innocent strangers?

Some have been quick to blame violent video games, and it seems clear that such games make it more thinkable to take lives without thinking of consequences and provide marksmanship and tactical training that wouldn’t have been readily available in earlier generations.  At the same time, it strikes me that video games are as much a symptom of a deeper problem as they are an aggravating factor in the rise of violent crimes.  Companies do not create products without an expectation that there is a demand for them.  No one is making video games about staring out a window at an empty street or about washing dishes, because no one would buy them.  Games like Doom, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty (in all of their incarnations) exist precisely because there is a market.  Why is that?

Forty years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that declared an entire group of people to have no recognizable rights.  Those who have not yet begun living outside of their mothers’ wombs may be killed at will; to date, somewhere around 55 million unborn children have been killed in the United States.  Three states allow terminally ill adults to choose death by intentionally fatal prescriptions—an approach that in the Netherlands has been followed by applying similar measures even to infants with serious, but not life-threatening, illnesses and disabilities.[2]  Even in the United States, concerns have been raised that a “right to die” will necessarily shift to a “duty to die,” as those who bear the costs of expensive medical treatments push for the elderly and disabled to make life and finances easier on their families.  Children with Down syndrome have nearly ceased to exist, not because a cure has been found, but because around 90 percent are aborted upon advice—and even urging—of doctors.[3]  After Washington state legalized doctor-assisted suicide in 2008, there was a question of whether doctors could conscientiously refuse to take part.[4]  Yet some of the strongest opponents of such laws are groups fighting for the rights of disabled persons, who fear that the next logical step is to move from helping willing people to die to causing unwilling people to die.[5]  In a society that sees death as a legitimate solution to the difficulties and hardships of both parenthood and illness, is it surprising to find that young men are acting as if the lives of those around them are of trivial value?

Yesterday we rightly honored the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We remember him as a man who passionately championed the rights of those who were economically and legally oppressed.  We remember him not only calling for equality in civil rights, but also as one who envisioned and worked toward a day when poverty, hatred, and ignorance would be eradicated: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”[6]  This was a man who spent his life—gave his life—to opposing the injustice of a group of humans, made in the image of God, being treated as if they had fewer rights or lesser value because of the ways in which they were different from the ruling majority.

Today we commemorate a decision that made just that sort of discrimination the law of the land.  The Roe v. Wade decision declared unborn human beings to have rights only to the degree that their mothers chose to allow them rights.  This is no longer discrimination according to race,[7] but discrimination according to chronology—you must have drawn breath on your own in order to have any standing, unless we choose for our own purposes to care for you.  In the end, the parents’ economic interests, career goals, relational fears, or societal pressures determine whether a helpless child will live or die. [8]

As he called for justice to be done, Dr. King repeatedly turned to the prophet Amos.  Amos had come to the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of political and economic prosperity.  Under King Jeroboam II the nation had recovered lost territory, its neighboring enemies were busy trying to protect themselves from a recently growing Assyria that was still too far away to threaten Israel, and the leading families were sitting pretty.  But the Lord God sent Amos to warn of impending judgment; after promising the destruction of surrounding nations for that lack of mercy, God turned to Israel and identified them as next in line, not only for idolatry, but for their oppression of the poor and weak (Amos 2:6-8).  Israel had forgotten how God had given them everything they now had, and God was ready to take all of it back (2:9-3:15).  They had acted piously on one hand while crushing the poor with the other (4:1-5); they had ignored all of God’s warnings, and now they would be destroyed (4:6-13).  In Amos 5, God announces a funeral dirge over Israel: because they had buried righteousness and justice, God would bury them (5:1-8, 16-17)!

When Amos said, as Dr. King so often quoted, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), it is in the context of what God demands, when all He has been getting are technically correct sacrifices and pious words.  In the face of injustice, God says, “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies” (v. 21).  The only hope was for Israel to turn away from their trust in their own righteousness, to turn away from relying on strong leaders (6:1-2) and leading economic indicators (6:3-11).  If we continue valuing peace and prosperity to a degree that leads us to sacrifice the weakest among us, will God overlook that?  Our only hope is to

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; so the LORD God of hosts will be with you, as you have spoken.  Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate.  It may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14-15).

 

How do we do that?

For those who, by policy making or by voting for policy makers, have supported the oppression and killing of the weak, that means confessing sin, turning back by seeking to reverse those policies, and looking to Jesus for the mercy and forgiveness He has promised.

For those who have valued our own comfort and financial security at the cost of caring for the poor and weak, that means confessing sin, turning back by seeking to do good to those who have less than we do, and looking to Jesus for the mercy and forgiveness He has promised.

For those who have delighted in entertainment that trivializes life, that means confessing sin, turning back by remembering how precious and short this gift of life is, and looking to Jesus for the mercy and forgiveness He has promised.

For those who have made it harder for those who find themselves carrying a child and aren’t sure what to do to seek help, for those whose words and demeanor have made it seem that the last safe place to turn would be the church of Jesus Christ, that means confessing sin, turning back by reflecting the love and mercy of Jesus, and looking to Jesus for the mercy and forgiveness He has promised.

We need not pretend that God has whispered in our ear about why tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting happened (He hasn’t) to understand that actions have consequences.  The most certain way to prevent such atrocities in the long run is to cultivate a healthy understanding of the preciousness of life—all life—as the good gift of God, a gift that only He is permitted to bestow and take.  Until Jesus returns to put all in order, let’s seek to do Him honor as wise caretakers of what He has given, including each other.


[1] See the USA Today column by Warren Farrell, “Guns Don’t Kill People—Our Sons Do,” available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/01/06/guns-newtown-sandy-hook-adam-lanza-boys/1566084/. Accessed 22 January 2013.

[3] See, for example, Patricia Bauer’s article at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/17/AR2005101701311.html. Accessed 22 January 2013.

[6] From King’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize; available at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html. Accessed 22 January 2013.

[7] Although the fact that 60% of African-American pregnancies in New York City end in abortion, compared with 40% of all pregnancies in the city, raises the question.

[8] Please note that this isn’t a discussion on the difficult decisions that come when the mother’s physical life is endangered by pregnancy; when both lives hang in the balance, the mother needs wise counsel from people who love her and will seek what is good. In by far the majority of abortions, however, that is not the case, but rather economic or relational considerations drive the decision; hard cases make bad law.

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Regardless of who is declared the winner of today’s presidential election, our hope remains and must remain in God.  We trust that He is the one who gives authority to rulers, and that no amount of campaign momentum (or lack thereof) and no amount of technical issues can take away His wise and sovereign control over the universe; no one gains a crown or an Oval Office apart from His express permission.  We also remember—or ought to remember—that no President, however wise and good, will fix all of our ills and right all of our wrongs.  Our desire is much more limited: someone who will seek to reward good and resist and punish evildoing (Rom. 13:1-4), someone who will work to do what is right rather than what is merely politically expedient.

That said, roughly half the country will be disappointed tomorrow morning.  It will be tempting to bemoan the dark days we live in; whichever side we’re on, we’ll find plenty of evidence of darkness to point to.  We may be inclined to despair, figuring that with the “wrong person” in office, all is lost.  Samuel Rutherford, a 17th century Scottish pastor who endured civil war, official government persecution, sicknesses, and forced detainment far from the congregations he served, reminds us that ultimately our complaints about the world around us reflect a distrust of God’s wisdom.  If only God were wiser, surely He’d do things our way!  Pastor Rutherford assures us that even when times are hard and few seem interested in loving God, we can rest sure that God is faithful:

The times would make any that love the Lord sick and faint, to consider how iniquity aboundeth, and how dull we are in observing sins in ourselves, and how quick-sighted to find them out in others. …And yet very often, when we complain of times, we are secretly slandering the Lord’s work and wise government of the world, and raising a hard report of Him.  “He is good, and doeth good”, and all His ways are equal.

— Scottish pastor Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), in Extracts from the Letters of Samuel Rutherford, ed. Hamilton Smith (Crew, Cheshire: Scripture Truth, 2008), p. 39.

However disappointing the election results, however wicked the society around us, however many professing brothers and sisters walk in disobedience, do not fear.  God has not forgotten to do right, nor has He forgotten what is right.  “‘He is good, and doeth good’, and all His ways are equal.”

Grace and peace, Mike Yates

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As Tuesday’s election approaches, many people who care deeply about our country’s future are debating whether they should even bother to vote.  They see (rightly) two flawed candidates, and they feel (I think rightly) that we as Americans ought to have better options than what we’ve seen in the last few elections.  Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, whom I greatly respect, has been saying for well over a month that he is unconvinced that there is enough significant difference between the parties to permit him in good conscience to vote for either presidential candidate,[1] and he’s not alone.

To be honest, I think there are differences in the policies and goals of the two candidates; I wish the policies and goals were held more as matters of principle and less as pragmatic means to get elected by tickling voters’ ears.  Most of what has been said in the last month centers on money—jobs, foreign trade, debts and deficits, spending cuts, and the like.  But as a follower of Jesus, I must seek to think of party platforms and campaign promises in light of what Jesus has said in His Word, not just what affects my wallet.

A fair bit has been said about helping the poor.  God does speak often about caring for the weak and vulnerable.  That said, neither party is looking to harm the poor; the question is how we can best serve those who need help.  One party says we ought to do so by enforced giving by taxes and redistributing through federal programs; the other says that by lowering taxes, Americans will have more to give personally to those whom they know are in need.  There are fascinating studies that track actual giving according to voting records and income brackets; for me the notion that a department in Washington will know better about who needs help than the person in the same county will is hard to swallow.  Nevertheless, this is an area where Christians can and do disagree; how we care for the poor is a matter of wisdom rather than command.

Other issues may similarly be seen as questions of what will be most wise.  When and how to return troops from Afghanistan, whether and how to intervene in Syria, how to respond to Iran’s nuclear program, even the much-debated health care system are issues that need more careful thought than they are likely to receive in a half-hour debate, and both sides of each question have points to commend them.

But on at least one issue where the two candidates are clearly divided, and God has spoken.  God has declared that people are made in His image, created to know and love Him.  God has said that it is He who has the power to give life and take it.  When He spoke of Canaanites sacrificing the lives of their children for the sake of prosperity (children weren’t offered to Molech because they liked Molech; it was a means of getting his attention and trading one valued commodity for other valued commodities, like protection or good crops), God didn’t say, “They’re yours; it’s up to you.”  Instead, He said that it was an abomination (Jeremiah 32:35, for example) and promised to drive the offenders out of His land.  Even as I would like to avoid the irritations and distance myself from so much of the foolishness of this campaign, the possibility of preserving the lives of unborn children is what will take me to the polls tomorrow.

Occasionally, despite the clear scientific evidence that from conception on there is a unique DNA structure, a new human life that is growing and developing, one still hears questions about when life begins.  Those who are more careful with their wording turn to questions of personhood; when does a mere human fetus become a thinking, feeling, person with rights?[2]  Nearly seventy years ago German pastor and ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, soon to be executed for his role in opposing Hitler, rightly noted that even this distinction about the status of the unborn cannot justify abortion:

Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life.  To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue.  The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life.  And that is nothing but murder.[3]

President Obama has been openly and unapologetically pro-abortion for years.  He is the first president to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with a speech celebrating the decision as protecting “women’s health and reproductive freedom.”[4]  He opposed Illinois legislation that would ensure that newborns would be cared for even if they were born alive during an abortion and were not expected to live; his argument was that this could be a back door to other limitations on abortions.[5]  He has insisted that businesses and organizations—excluding (under duress) churches and a few tightly defined church-based groups, but not businesses and organizations with consciences restrained by the same Scriptures as the churches in question—provide insurance that will cover contraception and certain abortifacients or face severe financial penalties.  A second term will do nothing but head us further down this same road.

Governor Romney has said that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest, as well as in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.  I find this position to be insufficient.  Rape and incest are horrible crimes that victimize women, and should be prosecuted to the fullest.  However, abortion will not do away with the sense of shame, the fears, the physical and emotional pain that come with rape and incest.  Instead, another innocent is harmed, another layer of guilt added; this is not compassion.  It is this very point of disagreement that has led some Christians to withhold support from Governor Romney, arguing that “the lesser of two evils” is not good enough.

However, in this election we are faced with a clear choice.  As Professor Denny Burk of Boyce College has pointed out,

The current law of our land excludes from the human community a whole class of human beings — the unborn. Right now, under the regime of Roe v. Wade, it is legal in our country to kill unborn human beings at any stage of development from zero to nine months’ gestation — for any reason. In other words, our nation’s laws do not recognize an intrinsic right to life for the unborn. In some cases, animals have more protection under the law than do unborn people.

The Roe v. Wade decision has presided over the deaths of more than 50 million innocent human babies since 1973, and it stands as the singular legal obstacle to passing laws restricting abortion in our country. The only way for the unborn to be protected in law is for Roe to be overturned. It will take a five-person majority on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Absent such a majority, it will continue to be legal for unborn babies to be killed.

As of now, it appears there is a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court in favor of Roe. The candidate who wins the presidency will appoint justices who will either bolster the current majority in favor of Roe or will make a new majority against Roe. In effect, this election is a referendum on the legality of abortion.[6]

One candidate has promised to further the normalization and federal support of abortion in as many ways as possible.  He has demonstrated a principled commitment to abortion, even at the cost of political capital that could have made his reelection easier.  The other candidate, while wavering and inconsistent in his commitment to protecting the smallest and weakest among us, is at least likely to limit the harm done, rather than encouraging the destruction of still more lives.

Tomorrow, if God gives me life and mobility, I will cast my vote for Governor Romney.  I do so with an eye open to his faults and the faults of his party’s platform, but I do so with a conscience bound by a Christ who welcomed and loved little children (Matthew 19:13-15), and who warned that for those who harmed the little ones, “it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).  That’s a far bigger issue than who gets tax breaks.

Grace and peace, Mike Yates


[1] I agree with Bro. Anyabwile that we need either a new kind of candidate in the current parties, or else a new political party made up of people of ideals and character (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2012/10/23/are-christian-voters-soldiers-entangled-in-civilian-affairs/, accessed 11-5-2012). My desire would be that the widespread distaste many have indicated for how both parties are handling matters would give rise to exactly that sort of change.

[2] Peter Singer, DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, goes so far as to claim that full personhood—and the full right to life—comes only with the awareness of surroundings and the future; that means that newborns have a greater claim on life than a child not yet born, but still less than an adult.  For a brief explanation, see Dr. Singer’s comments at http://www.princeton.edu/~psinger/faq.html, accessed 11-5-2012.

[3] Quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p. 472.

[5] http://www.factcheck.org/2008/08/obama-and-infanticide/  Then State Senator Obama’s remarks on the bill, found about three-fourths of the way down the page, are worth the read.

[6] Denny Burk, “Why Abortion Is the Most Important Issue This Election,” Baptist Press, Oct. 12, 2012.  Available online at http://www.bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=38920. Accessed 11-5-2012.

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Will men never be free!  They will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous.

—Samuel Adams, 1780; quoted in Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), p. 98.

In the middle of the American Revolution, with British troops marching through the southern colonies and unrest plaguing the northern ones, Samuel Adams argued that the fight for American liberty would stand or fall on the virtue of her people.  Elsewhere he wrote, much as his contemporary and fellow rebel George Washington, that this virtue was rooted in the widespread belief in God.

Fifty-one years later, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States.  As the French historian and political thinker observed American culture and pondered why the results of our revolution were so different from that of France, he concluded that the difference was the broad commitment to religious belief found in the U.S.  As historian Thomas Kidd summarizes,

In his brilliant Democracy in America, published in two parts in 1835 and 1840, Tocqueville explained why American democracy did not degenerate into a vicious tyranny of the majority.  Among the most critical reasons, he believed, was the public role of religion of American society.  “The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States,” he wrote.  In profound contrast to the French experience of revolution, American Patriot leaders had not attacked religious institutions, and traditional Christians had widely supported the Revolution.  The partnership of religion and liberty lay at the heart of America’s political success.  To Tocqueville, the Americans’ Christian ethos kept democracy’s worst features in check.  Their faith sustained their conviction about the equality of all people. The religious aspect of civil society was essential to the survival of the Republic, Tocqueville believed.  “Despotism may be able to do without faith,” he concluded, “but freedom cannot.”[1]

Will a nation increasingly open in its discomfort with anything resembling theistic belief—or at least anything going beyond a vague supernaturalism—continue to display the sort of character Tocqueville described?  Or does our nation’s increasing appetite for backbiting and verbal brawling, the willingness to justify any policy or moral stance that can gain popularity, the eagerness of some to demonize those who don’t keep up with the times and to suggest that those who are so backward as to oppose new visions of sexuality and marriage ought to be silenced as bigots, point to a future that proves his point?  “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot.”
Grace and peace, Mike Yates

[1] Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty, p. 245-246.

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