Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Christmas View of Abortion

Published 12.19.08 at and

“The Bible says nothing directly about abortion.”

Have you ever heard this claim before? I know I have. And the uncomfortable truth is that, in a certain sense, it’s accurate. The deliberate termination of a pregnancy is not directly addressed anywhere in Scripture.

On the one hand, this could mean that the practice is merely a matter of personal choice, having been left alone by even God Himself. On the other hand, this could also mean that the culture for which the Bible was written was so deeply affirming of childbearing that the idea of aborting a baby would have been literally inconceivable to them. After all, there are no commands in the Bible to breathe, presumably because Jewish culture is staunchly pro-air.

But even if the Bible doesn’t quite give us a definitive proclamation on the overall question of abortion, that doesn’t mean it says nothing relevant at all. One of the key points of contention in this debate is whether the fetus is a person and, if so, when in gestation this occurs. Most pro-lifers believe it’s at conception, but those who believe abortion is morally acceptable think this happens at some later stage of pregnancy such as implantation, quickening, viability, or birth.

Until the other day, I would have said the Bible was indeterminate on this issue. But now, I would be as bold as to say that it plainly teaches us that a fetus is a person at most within the first four weeks of gestation and more likely within even the first few days after conception. If so, then Christians who haven’t previously realized this would have to acknowledge that even early term abortions end the life of a person. And this would, in turn, affect the advice they give to others who might currently be contemplating abortion, even perhaps their own daughters. So let me show you what I found for the first time the other day.

I was reading the Christmas story in Luke 1 and 2 when I noticed some things. First, I noticed that Luke (a doctor and scholar) specifically tells his audience (Theophilus) that he has thoroughly investigated everything he is about to write and that he has decided to “write it out for you in consecutive order.”(1:3) Unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke will tell us his story in the form we modern readers best comprehend: chronologically. This means we can rely heavily on the order of things in any of our conclusions. I know this may not seem very important, but stick with me for a moment and you’ll see why it matters.

Reading on, we learn that Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) has become pregnant and secluded herself for five months, hiding her very late-in-life first pregnancy from everybody, even her close family.(1:24) Then Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel makes his famous visit to the engaged virgin Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.(1:26) These time references are no coincidence.

Continuing to read, Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to give birth to the Messiah and name him Jesus.(1:31-33) In the process of answering her rather understandable question about how this may be so, Gabriel uses the not-quite-as miraculous pregnancy of her elderly cousin Elizabeth as evidence that this can really happen. And once more, as if for emphasis, we have the time reference as he declares that Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy.(1:36)

After his departure, Mary immediately went as fast as she could (1:39) to the hill country to see her cousin, presumably to both verify the news (remember Elizabeth’s seclusion) and to share her own story. When Mary comes close enough to greet her, Elizabeth feels her baby (John the Baptist) leap in her womb with joy at the presence of his Messiah and Mary.(1:41-44) By any reasonable standard, this shows that the fetus, John, is a person at this moment and nothing less.

But John is close to his third trimester by now, and even the most strident pro-choice person will usually concede that third trimester abortions are heinous for essentially this reason. Roe v Wade even affirmed this idea. So nothing observed thus far is particularly persuasive on the subject of abortion. But that’s when I saw this other thing that I hadn’t ever considered before.

Whose presence is John leaping at? Well, obviously the (much younger) fetus, Jesus. Yet Jesus must be only in his first trimester when John recognized him through the Holy Spirit.

But perhaps the trip from Nazareth to the hill country took a while. A terrain map of ancient Israel would lead us to think this journey take a few days at most, plus the text clearly says she went “with haste” (1:39) But perhaps some longer time frame is involved here that might extend the likely age of fetal Jesus. Luckily for us, we needn’t guess. The text itself answers these questions if we just keep reading.

After Mary sings the Magnificat (1:46-55), Luke tells us she stayed with Elizabeth for about three months before returning home.(1:56) Immediately after she departs, John the Baptist is born.(1:57) In the following chapter, the much more famous narrative of Jesus’s birth is told. But the key facts have already been laid out with the precision that only a medical doctor would include.

Working solely with the calendar of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Luke has told us that Jesus was a person with sufficient individual identity that His cousin could recognize him through the assistance of the Holy Spirit.(1:41-44) But Luke has also told us that when this occurred, Jesus could only have been a maximum of four weeks old and probably was much younger than that.

Gabriel announced the conception to Mary in Elizabeth’s sixth month.(1:26) Thereafter, Mary traveled to the hill country (1:39), where she stayed for about three months (1:56) before leaving prior to John the Baptist’s birth (1:57). This means that fetus Jesus must have been less than four weeks old when she arrived, a maximum given the parameters. But, given the fact that she went immediately and in haste (1:39), a much more likely reality is that He was only a few days old (perhaps not even implanted yet) when John recognizes Him. Mary certainly wouldn’t have even been able to know by ordinary means that she was pregnant yet.

So the pressing point of all this analysis is not that John in his third trimester was a person in the womb when he leapt for joy. The unavoidable and much more forceful point is that Jesus was in the very earliest portion of His first trimester when He was recognized by John as a person. And unless Jesus is not a human child, this means that all children are people at this early stage.

I realize that all of this will be of very little interest to those of you who either do not care about the Bible or else do not care whether the fetus is a person. I also know this doesn’t really do much to address the question of the legality of abortion, since the basis of my investigation is a faith text.

But for those tens of millions of Christians who every year celebrate this story and also believe that early term abortion is compatible with their faith, the point seems embarrassingly clear. It is no longer honest to say that we can’t know whether the first trimester fetus is a person.

So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of our Savior this year, I have a simple question. Since we now know that Jesus was somewhere between a few days and a few weeks gestation when He was recognized in Scripture as a person, then who or what is it in a young woman’s womb today if not a person…and somebody’s grandchild?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Do the Rich Owe Us?

Published 10.31.08 at and

Do The Rich Owe Us?

People who are otherwise quite smart become suddenly stupid when the subject is money. I don’t mean they manage their own money poorly, although that is often the case. I mean that they don’t actually understand what money is.

For instance, we are all now painfully aware that Barack Obama believes in some degree of socialism, given his predilection to favor “spreading the wealth around.” The idea is simple. Wealthy people have a lot, and poor people don’t. Money solves problems, so why not take some from the rich to give to the poor? Robin Hood was a hero, and that’s what he did, right? After all (and this is the vital part), those who are rich owe back to the society that’s given them so much.

Wait, what was that last part again?

People who make a lot of money owe a debt to society to use their money for good, and that’s why it’s okay to tax them more heavily in order to do the good things that need doing. This error is the source of the biggest errors people make in thinking about money and government.

In truth, it’s simple. The wealthy don’t owe us. Literally, we owe them. That’s what money means.

If I have $50,000 in a bank somewhere, that means that society OWES ME goods and services in the amount of $50,000. If I spend $20,000 of it on a car, society doesn’t owe me as much anymore because they’ve compensated me in the form of that car. Everyone collectively still owes me $30,000, which I can collect on in a variety of ways.

Money is an IOU from society that we give people when they give us things we desire or do things for us we want. So when a person makes a lot of money, it means that he has done beneficial things for a lot of people. If he accumulates these IOUs in a storage facility somewhere, he is amassing wealth not because he owes society, but precisely because society owes him the value of all those accumulated and uncollected debts.

To put the point a little more bluntly, people who have debt are the ones that truly owe back to society. That’s what debt means. You’ve enjoyed goods or services that you haven’t yet earned. And when you’ve created enough value in the eyes of other people, they’ll trade their stored-up credit to you and you can be debt-free, neither owing society nor being owed by society.

The thing about money is that it measures value. When I pay you $100 for an item, I am admitting that it is worth about twice as much to me in my life as something else I only pay $50 for. When people pay $12 to see a movie, they’re saying that a movie is worth four gallons of gas. And when someone sells a million people movie tickets, he makes a lot of money because he did a million favors.

In what sense, precisely, should someone who delivers the finished experience of watching a movie to a million people then be obligated to those people to give them back any portion of the money they freely paid him? In reality, because he has worked while they have leisured, they now owe him. That’s why he can go back to them and let them cut his hair, change his oil, and weed his garden in exchange for some of those dollars.

Here’s a quick test to see whether you are grasping this idea. Who contributes more value to society: a person who makes $100,000 or a person who makes $20,000? If this question is at all difficult for you, it’s because you’re secretly at war with yourself. You despise people who make a lot of money, yet you daily affirm the social value of making a lot of money when you pay more money for the things you want more.

Also, just to admit the obvious, one may also do beneficial things without receiving money. Friends, parents, and volunteers do this all the time. But when someone gives you money, you know one thing: you have benefited them.

“But what if the man who earns 100K does so through pornography and the 20K guy teaches kindergarten?” Alright. “But what if the 100K guy is a doctor and the 20K guy sells cigarettes?” Don’t cherry-pick your examples. Of course people make bad decisions about value, but other people make good decisions about value. That’s the idea of letting people make and spend their own money. The alternative is socialism.

But here’s one final error that may be plaguing some of you. When people make a lot of money, doesn’t that mean that other people become poor?



Not even a little bit.

As long as the transaction is voluntary (i.e. not taxes or theft), then both people become better off every time money changes hands. That’s because the thing being purchased means more to the person buying it than the money he spends, and the money being paid means more to the person receiving it than the thing he sells. The magic of a free market is that every single transaction (EVERY SINGLE TRANSACTION) makes the world a better place because it benefits both parties involved. (By the way, I’m sorry for screaming, but I had to overcome a Master’s Degree in grasping this elementary concept.) This means that the free market is NEVER a zero sum game where one person gains and the other person loses. It is ALWAYS a positive for both, achieving a more efficient distribution of desirable items through a totally voluntary process. The economic pie is not fixed, but can grow or shrink based on production, consumption, waste, and exchange.

When you buy a haircut, your life gets better because you prefer shorter hair to the $15 you paid. Similarly, the barber’s life gets better because he used his time and talent to help you, and now he can go out to lunch. Who is worse off because you got a haircut? Nobody. Who is worse off because a barber starts hair salons and earns $450,000? No one. That’s just 30,000 little events where both parties improve their lives. That’s the nature of a free market.

So when you imagine that the guy who made it possible for thousands of people to have haircuts suddenly owes those people for having the audacity to have already given them a benefit, you’ve inverted the very meaning of money. And when you then tax him more because he’s been so effective at helping people, you’re teaching him that helping people is a bad thing and disincentivizing good behavior. But regardless of whether he is deaf to your foolish instruction, you have still stolen from him what was rightfully his entirely on the premise that being very good at helping people somehow puts you even more in their debt, a patently absurd concept.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to repeat myself. The rich do not owe us. In reality, we owe them. That’s what money means.

The way we say, “Thank you,” in the modern world is we give you money. The more we give you, the more thankful we are for the thing we’ve received. There is no voodoo threshold at which a pile of thank yous suddenly becomes a pile of “you owe us”es. And there is, therefore, no justification for telling people who accumulate the biggest pile of thank yous every year that they are obligated to give back to all the people that have already thusly thanked them.

In as short a way as I know to explain it, this is basic economic reason why Barack Obama should not be President. He simply does not understand what money is.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Teaching a Four-Year-Old

Published November 2008 in the Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

We recently discovered just how far a little bit of child psychology could get us in our parenting. We had started to notice that our four-year-old seemed to be misbehaving more than usual and also failing to good-behave as much as he should. Since our goal for our boys is virtue rather than merely the absence of vice and since we also believe that the best way to displace bad behavior is with good substitutes, the latter deficiency concerned us far more than the former.

After a lengthy discussion, we settled on a plan to correct this: we made a behavioral report card chart for the refrigerator. We listed the ten or so bad things that we would like to see him stop doing and the ten or so good things we keep encouraging him to do. Then we started keeping score. After each day with more positives than negatives, we put a big smiley face and gave him a reward the following day. After seven days of smiley faces in a row, he got an extra special reward.

Here’s what happened. At first it was just monitoring and scoring to get a realistic picture of where he stood, which intrigued him. Then we started reminding him about marks on the chart whenever opportunities arose, which usually made him change behaviors accordingly. But in just the last few days, something extraordinary has happened: he has actually begun initiating the good behaviors himself and reminding us that he’s done something worth a good mark.

See, the one thing we knew for a fact about our oldest is that he really thrives on approval. And where corporal discipline, scolding, and time-outs had failed, a simple bit of organized incentivizing based on our knowledge of his personality has transformed him into a boy who actively tries to find opportunities to do good things.

Literally the flicking of a pen on a piece of paper has had more influence on him than anything else we’ve tried. It’s amazing what a little insight can do for cultivating such essential habits. And though we obviously want him to eventually do the behaviors for their own sake, we also understand that he has to get accustomed to the taste of virtue somehow or other before he will ever start ordering the dish for himself.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why Do They Hate Sarah Palin So?

Published 09.09.08 at and

I assume it is unnecessary to answer the logically prior question of whether they hate Sarah Palin. The level of vitriol flung at her in the past week and a half by critics in every liberal outlet ranging from the New York Times to Air America is particularly awe-inspiring given that this is all the longer they’ve even known her name. Ordinarily, such hatred takes years to cultivate. The force and acceleration of their vehemence virtually demands psychoanalysis. Since this sport is in vogue, I’ll give my diagnostic skills a shot at the trophy.

Preface: There is a pathology

The natural first reaction of a Palin-hater to this column is to deny the hatred. They will say it’s her politics, her religion, or possibly the whiff of scandal some have managed to ladle upon her. But if they’re honest with themselves, they’ll have to admit three simple facts.

First, the reasons they give aren’t the reasons they hate. If they didn’t have these, they’d manufacture others. There’s an old story about a man asking to borrow his neighbor’s lawn mower and being told, “No, I’m making potato soup.” “What does that have to do with me borrowing your lawn mower?” the incredulous man replies. “Nothing, but if I don’t want to loan you my lawn mower, one excuse is just as good as another.” Likewise, Governor Palin is not hated because of whatever reasons they offer. These are afterthoughts to an animosity which is embarrassed to admit it was born prior to reason. Hence, refuting them will prove futile.

Second, even those who persist in asserting such reasons as their motive will have to admit that all of them put together still can’t justify the disproportionate vigor of their attacks upon her. To use an aging phrase, this is the politics of personal destruction; a nuclear response to what their own arguments admit is a merely conventional threat.

Third, no one can hate this deeply this quickly. Conservatives generally despise certain political figures such as Bill Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, and John Paul Stevens. But it’s taken us years, sometimes decades to detest these people. Similarly for liberals, contempt only begins to describe their feelings toward George W. Bush, Rick Santorum, and Antonin Scalia. But, again, at least such a sentiment has developed over time. It took Sarah Palin less than a week to receive treatment these men have taken years to earn. Such an immediate mauling of someone’s character says far more about the predators than about their prey.

So, what explains this pathology? I have two mutually compatible theories.

Theory 1: The Cult of Personality.

Barack Obama is the left’s Messiah. Their hopes, their dreams, and even their patriotism are at this point invested in him. He cannot be criticized. He cannot be joked at. And he most certainly cannot be mocked. All such response to him (perfectly normal with any other politician) is viewed as blasphemy rather than politics. Not only is the left salvifically invested in him, they fear they have been too rash to the altar call. Calm reflection proves Barack Obama isn’t ready to be President yet, but who can resist the hope beyond hope that he’s more than just a golden voice reading a teleprompter?

So when little Sarah Palin comes along and castigates him with condescending satire, they react as any devastated schoolgirl with a crush would. Her speech stated every major flaw with his candidacy. Not just honestly, but with Reagenesque comedic flair. And since their deepest fear is that everything she said about him is right, the only option to reconsidering their betrothal was to destroy her.

It’s pretty simple. If we disagree, you correct me. If I am silly, you ignore me. But if I articulate your own fears in attacking something you cherish irrationally, you excoriate me…as cover. As Robert Pirsig explained in his lovely novel on motorcycle maintenance, no one jumps up and down screaming that the sun will rise tomorrow. Highly emotional responses indicate fear and uncertainty, not the opposite.

Sarah Palin’s on-target reductio of Barack Obama turned their Messiah into a joke, earning the very predictable treatment a heretic deserves. Disabusing people of a savored fantasy always does.

Theory 2: Her non-feminist feminism.

I used to marvel at the rudeness so often publicly shown to parents with many children. But then I saw how the very existence of such families exposes the guilt and self-doubt others feel about their own decisions to stop having children. The surest way to avoid dealing with these stifled concerns is to assault the character or intelligence of parents who dare to expose them with their large families.

So, too with Sarah Palin and the left. Her very life rebukes them.

She has five children, two of them after the age of forty. When her infant son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, she chose life. And when her own daughter was discovered pregnant (a hypothetical commonly urged against pro-lifers), she helped her choose life, too. Without ever saying a word about being pro-life (to say it would have been superfluous), she demolished all the common arguments used in favor of abortion and family planning, totemic doctrines of the left.

But it’s more than just doctrine. It’s that so many people on the left have condoned abortions, helped others obtain abortions, or even had abortions themselves in the very same circumstances under which Sarah Palin chose life. Honest people are an affront to liars. Law-abiders are an affront to criminals. And the woman who has made pro-life “choices” is a stinging affront to modern feminism, which has spent decades trying to convince women that pregnancy is a disease and children parasites.

They must demonize her because her choices so clearly condemn their own. Make no mistake, when your example disproves someone else’s deeply internalized rationalizations, they will try to destroy you. After all, the only other option would be to repent.


In “Beyond Good and Evil,” Nietzsche said, “Anyone who has looked deeply into the world may guess how much wisdom lies in the superficiality of men….let nobody doubt that whoever stands that much in need of the cult of surfaces must at some time have reached beneath them with disastrous results.” His critique of religion so perfectly fits probamaism that one is forced to conclude the latter is but a new flavor of the former.

There may be other pathologies at play here, but these explain both the left’s tsunamic response and why it struck last Thursday morning. It was the speech, stupid.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Perhaps Homophobia Isn't A Choice Either

Published 08.20.08 at and 08.21.08 at

As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I believe that any sexual activity other than that between a man and his wife is illicit. This includes adultery, premarital sex and, of course, homosexuality.

But I’ve also been doing what my parents always taught me to do: listen to those who disagree with me. And I think I’ve discovered something rather shocking: opposition to homosexuality must itself be genetic.

For as long as I can remember, homosexuals have been explaining why gay people have no choice about their orientation. And it finally dawned on me that their arguments explain why being anti-gay is also not a choice but an innate predisposition beyond our power to restrain. This led me to embrace my convictions and stop trying in vain to repress who I am.

Since millions suffer from this same condition, I’m hopeful that my epiphany will help others accept themselves and their convictions, too. Here are insights that helped me, in no particular order.

Insight 1: You cannot control whom you love.

Although there are different kinds of love, some of which involve choice and some of which do not, this realization about passion led me to a very liberating conclusion. If we can’t control whom we love, that's because we can't control our strong passions. But passions can be both for and against. And, just as gay love is a passion which is impossible to control, I now know that my passionate anti-gayness must also be impossible to control. I might wish I could change, but it’s hopeless. My judgmental tendency draws me as irresistibly as their same-sex affection.

Insight 2: People shouldn’t have to restrain acting on their innate desires.

I used to think that restraint was the key differentiator between animals and men. But then it was explained to me that sexual urges are such a deep element of real human nature that it’s wrong to suppress them. This led me to realize that moral urges are an equally deep aspect of human identity, and it must be unhealthy to try to suppress them, too. Just as someone may feel a deep desire to have same-gender sex, I often suffer the seemingly irresistible urge to espouse my views on sexual ethics. In fact, my desire to express my beliefs is so deeply human that even the First Amendment to our Constitution explicitly protects it. So it must be truly unhealthy to try repressing something as innate as opposition to homosexuality.

Insight 3: Identical twins are both gay about 50 percent of the time.

Although my instinctive reaction to this statistic is to note that even among genetically identical people still fully half of them manage to not be gay, I eventually figured out what this meant for people like me. While research has yet to confirm my suspicions, the likelihood of identical twins sharing a strong disposition to oppose homosexuality is probably even higher than 50 percent. Given the fact that one or both parents may be carriers of the traditional morality gene, it seems perfectly natural that children in some families might all express a strong disposition to denounce gay behavior. And if I inherited this from my parents, well, who can blame me for that?

Insight 4: No one would be foolish enough to choose being gay.

After all, who would choose to suffer discrimination, fear, alienation, and family discord? I used to worry that this argument would prevent disapproving of any behavior at all, since it seems to entail the unusual conclusion that the more despised something is the less anyone can be blamed for it. But then I realized that I have been ridiculed, called intolerant and fired from an academic post for my beliefs on this subject. In fact, I’ve often thought how much easier my life in this culture would be if only I could lay down the burden of believing in traditional morals and embrace homosexuality. Since no rational person in the United States in 2008 would choose to be anti-gay if he didn’t have to be, it must not be a choice.

Insight 5: Being gay isn’t a choice anyone ever actually makes.

The realization that no one (straight or gay) ever consciously flips a switch to set their sexual preference led me to the recognition that I never chose to be anti-gay. It’s not like I went to bed one night thinking supportive thoughts about gayness and then woke up the next morning committed to opposing it. It’s more accurate to say that one day I just sort of realized, almost to my horror, that I thought gay behavior was wrong. I felt like I had been suppressing my innate moral voice because of social pressure before finally coming to terms with it. On top of my parents both being pro-gay and having lots of gay friends, I had actually taken a seminar on gay theory from Richard Mohr, one of the county’s most prominent gay philosophers. I would gladly have been homo-endorsant if I could have been. But all to no avail. And I clearly can’t unchoose what I had never chosen in the first place.


I know this column might frustrate some people who will resist seeing how their arguments, if true, have helped me embrace my own unfashionable alternative beliefstyle. But that’s okay. I don’t blame people who criticize me. Thanks to their insights, I’ve also come to realize that their homophobophobia probably isn’t a choice either.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Five Logical Errors of Born Gay Ideology

Published 07.31.08 at and

It is core doctrine of pro-gay orthodoxy that homosexuals are born gay. Though science has yet failed to affirm or deny this, the vast majority of gays and their supporters are convinced of it. Sexual orientation is seen as something discovered, not chosen. Instead of debating the merit of this assertion, let’s grant the premise that sexual orientation is determined prior to birth by genetic, gestational, or other factors. The question is whether any valid conclusions flow from this. I don’t think so.

Error 1: If I was born gay, my sexual orientation cannot change.

If present at birth, sexual orientation could come from either biology or psychology. If biological, then a medical procedure may be discovered to alter it. Science gushes with the ability to change things we were born with, especially conditions which past generations considered permanent. We can treat genetic diseases, repair cleft palates, perform height-enhancing surgeries, and even change genders.

Similarly, if the issue is psychological, treatments may be possible. Many traits people believe to be fixed about themselves can be adjusted by good counseling or psychopharmacology. Simple induction concludes that if medicine goes looking for a treatment for homosexuality, it might find one.

Many gays will be outraged at this line of reasoning. But why? We’ve been told that homosexuality can’t be a choice because no one would be foolish enough to choose it. Clearly some gays would relish the power to turn their unwanted condition into an optional one. And why shouldn’t other gays be happy for those who would then be truly free to choose? After all, they’re happy for sex-change operations, which make it possible for transgender persons to undo the birth nature they think was mistakenly given them. How can gender be so fixably wrong but sexual orientation so unfixably right?

Error 2: If I was born gay, then I have no choice about how I behave.

There are two kinds of inborn behavioral tendencies: the resistible and the irresistible. Unless we are supposed to believe that homosexuality is so involuntary that every gay sex act is literally a matter of biological determinism, we are left with the more plausible alternative: the desire to have gay sex does not compel anyone to actually ever have gay sex. One may not be able to control who attracts him, but he can certainly control who he has sex with. Consider the non sequitur of a gay man offering to explain last night’s particular sexual encounter by saying, “Well, I was born gay, you know.”

Free will is precisely the capacity to resist a carnal urge. If a gay person can refrain from sex even once, he has shown such free will. Thus, his sexual choices devolve to him, not to his inborn disposition. Straight people deny their sexual impulses all the time. I would be shocked to discover that gay people lack such an elementary capacity for urge restraint.

Error 3: If I was born gay, then acting upon it must be good.

No one denies that gays have extremely strong desires to be sexual with like-minded, like-bodied others. But strong desires do not justify behavior. Otherwise the study of ethics would be nothing more than the articulation of our impulses.

Some men may be born promiscuous (and perhaps most are), but this doesn’t legitimize adultery (or polygamy, for that matter). Since morality involves precisely the question of which desires are good to act upon, gay behavior cannot be justified merely on the grounds of experienced gay desire.

Error 4: If I was born gay, then this is simply who I am.

In gay doctrine, being gay isn’t seen as an important part of one’s identity. It’s seen as the definitive center of it. But why should this be so?

I am a Christian, a talk-show host, a baseball fan, right-handed, a philosopher, red-headed, from St. Louis, and heterosexual. None of these is the sum or limit of my identity. However, the ones I’ve chosen or chosen to act upon define me far more than those I happened to be born with. Thus, though choosing to have gay sex is certainly a key part of one’s identity, being born with the predilection to do so is not.

Error 5: If I was born gay, God must have made me this way.

Of all the untenable conclusions drawn from the born gay premise, this is the most scandalous. Whereas claiming that God has His hand in the creation of every child is uncontroversial, alleging that every element of that child’s physical, emotional, and even sexual state at birth are all intended by God is quite another thing. If this pattern of inference were allowed, we would have to believe that God desires every birth defect, handicap, psychological disorder or behavioral tendency we can trace to early childhood. God may allow such things, but that is theological miles from saying that God wanted them.

Yet there is a much deeper blunder embedded in this particular claim. The idea that people have inappropriate inclinations from birth is not unique to the born-gay meme. In fact, it’s so far from unique that it’s actually a cornerstone premise of Christian theology. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants all agree about this one key concept: mankind suffers from original sin, a polluted condition that makes every one of us desire immorality from our birth.

Thus, in a very real sense, one might say that we’re all born gay, although the historically preferred terminology is that we’re all born sinners. We are surely born with corrupt desires, but that doesn’t mean God intended us to be this way.


Although I have serious doubts about the claim that sexual orientation is determined at birth, the issue is largely academic since nothing important hangs on it. Being born gay doesn’t prevent change, prohibit choice, justify behavior, form identity, or implicate God. It just means your moral challenges are different from mine.

Monday, July 21, 2008

To Conservatives in a Pro-Gay Culture

Published 07.24.08 at and

Two different people recently contacted me for my advice on virtually identical situations that arose in the wake of California’s decision to solemnize same-gender relationships.

One woman was concerned about her job in a pro-gay workplace because a friend and co-worker had been disappointed with her inadequately enthusiastic response to his announcement that he and his lover were driving to California to get married. She wanted help expressing her real love for this man while still standing firm in her beliefs.

Another man’s company had created a pro-gay workplace initiative and then solicited employee feedback on it. He, too, was concerned about his job, but he also felt compelled to say something consistent with his conservative Christian beliefs.

Since I expect such difficulties to become far more common, I’ll share with you the principles I advised them to use.

Principle 1: Apologize in advance.

In confrontation, people mistakenly think that playing the “big fish” role will portray strength, perhaps even intimidating the other. In reality, humility best expresses strength, whereas bluster generally indicates weakness. Insecure people always get this backwards. Only the strong can control themselves enough to take the humble approach, and there is no more humble yet powerful thing to do than apologizing at the outset.

Principle 2: Say it before they do.

Generally, we try to hide anything that makes us or our position look weak. Not only is this dishonest, but such things tend to come out anyhow, and it’s always better to control the release of information than to be caught by it. Besides, it’s very disarming to have someone plainly divulge the worst about themselves. So admit anything you’re tempted to conceal, such as your religion, your personal biases, and especially your worst fears. Admitting feared reactions can often prevent them because people dislike being predictable.

Principle 3: Get permission.

Whenever you anticipate a negative reaction, soliciting permission to proceed means the other person has agreed to share responsibility for whatever difficulties ensue. Luckily, this is the easiest one of all because almost no one declines. Curiosity virtually compels their consent.

Principle 4: Be hurt, not angry.

Our instinct for confrontation is to be angry, sarcastic, and harsh. Such tactics will usually make the situation worse. Instead, recognize our culture values not hurting people above all other values. Whoever is most hurt gets the most sympathy, regardless of the legitimacy of your pain. Just consider how much more ground homosexuals have gained by displaying hurt at things they oppose than by displaying fury at them. The paradox is that by trying to be tough (usually through anger) you suffer marginalization, whereas by allowing yourself to look weak (usually through sadness) you get influence.

To understand the just how powerful the display of pain is, consider that this is the only tactic which consistently trumps the second most dominant value of our culture: being funny. When someone makes fun of you or your beliefs, you have three options. You can reply in kind and possibly win if you’re really good at it. You can get angry and lose social credit for not being able to take a joke while probably encouraging further comic attacks. Or you can demonstrate hurt, which actually makes the comedian look bad for having crossed a line and will make him look even worse if he continues without apologizing. Sadness works against sarcastic humor because it’s both honest and reveals the subtle violence of comedic attacks. Comedy makes you look vulnerable, and displaying sadness embraces the vulnerability by asking the audience to admit that your feelings matter. That’s it’s foolish to use ridicule against any group or person in our culture who has successfully positioned themselves as victims in our culture.

That being said, the best way to show hurt in this case is by referencing a pain your audience already understands: that of being forced to be in the closet. Just as gays are coming out of the closet, moral conservatives feel like we’re being forced into it. The social consequences are exactly parallel, except that for us they are rising whereas for gays they are receding. Though some in the pro-gay culture celebrate this, most who have felt this anxiety will recoil at the idea of imposing what they have suffered on others.

Principle 5: Make relationship your main goal.

Winning is nice, but relationships matter more than winning. Fortunately, the best way to have a chance of winning is by cultivating relationships and the influence that comes with them. Real relationships require honesty, vulnerability, and the sort of respect which realizes that friendship cannot be conditional upon the universal acquiescence of the other person to my values. This principle obviously goes both ways.

Example of applying these principles.

“I have something really important I want to talk about with you, but I’m worried that it’s going to offend you. If that happens, I’m very sorry, but do you want me to be honest with you, even if you might get angry?”

“Of course, what is it?”

“First, I want you to know how much I care about you, and that’s why it makes me really uncomfortable that we have to have a discussion about gay issues at all. But here’s what you don’t realize about me. Honestly, gay sex grosses me out. But it’s more serious than just that. I am a deeply religious person, and my religious tradition strongly disapproves of this behavior. Yet recently I feel like my religious beliefs are being attacked and I’m being pressured to hide them from you.

I feel like I can’t be honest about who I am because of the hostility I feel from others for what I believe. And because I’m worried that saying all of this might jeopardize our friendship or even cost me my job, I’m very reluctant to be honest even with you about who I am. If this fear of being scared to express my real identity is what you’ve experienced for your sexual orientation, then I’m so very sorry you’ve had to suffer such an awful thing.

But I’m telling you this because I hope that you’re willing to respect my beliefs just like you want me to respect yours. The only way for us to have a meaningful relationship is if we can be truly open and honest with each other, especially when we disagree, and I want that more than anything. I hope you’re willing to accept me while knowing what I believe just like I’m willing to accept you while knowing what you do.”

Final Note

This may not always work. But using these principles puts you in the best position to succeed, with one caveat. You must be sincere in your use of them. If you exaggerate for effect, you will be a liar, and it will probably won’t work for you anyway. Remember, only the truly strong can afford to appear this weak.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Should We Invade Myanmar?

Published 05.16.08 at

On May 3, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, one of the poorest nations on the planet. With a 12-15 foot tidal wave following it and winds around 150 MPH, devastation was the only result. Current Red Cross estimates of the dead range from 68,883 to 127,999, and up to 2.5 million people have been displaced. Already skyrocketed food prices were forced even higher by the destruction of the rice crops. And, as is always the case in such scenarios, sanitation and medical concerns mean that what happens in the ensuing weeks could easily wind up making the event itself seem like only the preamble. And what is the world doing to help? Everything it can…which is to say virtually nothing at all.

Because, you see, Myanmar is ruled by a group of petty tyrants who care more about their own paranoid fears than about the lives of millions of their people. And as international aid shipments are seized or wait helplessly by because they have so far kept their borders mostly closed to outsiders, we have to ask ourselves a very serious question: Just how many lives have to be at stake before it’s no longer possible to hide behind the flimsy excuse that we are honoring the emaciated abstraction of national sovereignty?

This is more than just some theoretical question poli-sci grad students might debate over darts and micro-brews, and we enable a grave evil if we let it remain merely that. This is real people’s lives hanging in the balance in a situation where hours, let alone days, matter. And if I have one regret at this moment, it is only that I did not write this column yesterday…or the day before that.

I confess that I don’t know whether we should invade Myanmar. But that’s only because the particular facts of the military scenario, the location of the people, and the likely cost in men and materiel are well beyond the scope of my own knowledge. But I want my President to make one of two statements. I either want him to explain to the rest of America why the facts of the situation justify using military force, or else I want him to explain to me why they do not. Because when considered as a theoretical question without the input of such details, this case is beyond obvious.

When your next door neighbor swears at his children, feeds them French fries and cake, and allows them to watch Tyra on TV, you pray for him and swallow the bitter pill of parental authority. But when a tornado hits his home and you can hear his children screaming for help as he sits on his lawn telling you to mind your own business, you wouldn’t even wait for the sheriff to arrive. How else would you live with yourself at night?

Our Declaration of Independence proclaims a profound belief “that ALL people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life….” Well? Are they, or aren’t they? And if they are, why does it boggle the imagination that we would do something to save the lives of tens of thousands in a far away place just as we would to save the lives of a few or even one next door?

Unfortunately, American foreign policy hasn’t always been motivated by what it should be: our serious commitment to this simple idea that all people matter equally. And yet this is the principle which has made this country great and could serve to make our foreign policy equally great. This is a chance for us to do the right thing for no other reason than that it is the right thing, a chance to be truly proud of our ability to project force beyond our borders. Myanmar is a country with no strategic value whatsoever. It is nothing but a humanitarian opportunity, which may in fact give it the greatest strategic value of all. What will the slogan be this time: no war to deliver food in Burma?

We all know the United Nations will not act in time. Too many of the world’s governments fear putting their own oppressive sovereignty in jeopardy by setting a precedent like this. Let them rot in the guilt of their indecision. This is not tomorrow’s problem.

So what do I want? Only to force this discussion to take place and quickly. Besides, if my suspicions are correct, then real military action may be unnecessary. The mere threat of it may be sufficient to get them to relent. The Junta say they don’t want aid brought in because it will generate rebellion. Let’s change their calculus by threatening something worse than rebellion. Even paranoid fools would prefer the mere chance of insurrection over the guarantee of invasion. Thus my hope is that we’ll have to do nothing more than rattle our very loud sabers.

But if more is necessary, I submit two simple ideas. In principle, this is the rightest possible use of our military might. But in practice, I defer to the judgment of people far more informed about the particulars. Perhaps military action is impractical. Perhaps it jeopardizes the activities of NGOs already on the ground in small numbers. Perhaps the window of opportunity has already passed. Perhaps we’re just stretched too thin already. Or perhaps there’s just no good way to deliver food at gunpoint. As I say, these are questions for others to answer. But as for me, I would desperately hope that at the very least we would be willing to use our vast resources for the short time such an operation would likely last to at least have a chance at saving the lives of so many thousands of people. Lives which our most cherished documents affirm are supposed to matter as much as our own.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What Love Isn’t

Publication Forthcoming in Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

I think I’m on safe ground saying that our culture is confused about love. In fact, people’s most common mistake when it comes to love is calling things love that are actually just examples of selfishness based on attachment to a person. Though it is natural, normal, and good to be attached to people, we must never assume that this is love. And the easiest way to see this is by comparing it with our attachment to our possessions.

I am attached to my car, which is why I would suffer if it were stolen, damaged, or destroyed. But I don’t love my car because I don’t care about my car’s needs. My car is an object, not a person, and I only care about what my car means to me by virtue of what it can do for me. This is the proper relationship of humans to objects.

The problem is that what most people call love is in fact merely this sort of attachment, just directed at a person rather than an object. It’s probably not over-simplifying to say that most people would define love as attachment to other people. Of course, love often involves attachment, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being attached to people. But whereas objects have value exclusively because of their attachment to us, people have value all on their own independently from us. That is why the destruction of a person is always a tragedy (even in cases where it is necessary), regardless of whether this destruction hurts anyone else’s feelings. Humans have value regardless of their attachments. They have value in themselves.

And that’s where the possibility of love comes in. Love means serving people’s real needs, regardless of whether doing so runs contrary to our own emotional pleasure. This is why it is so inverted that people use the word love to describe so many acts which are merely emotional self-indulgence.

For instance, when you feel like you must be around another person all the time and your heart aches in their absence, this is not love. This is just being emotionally addicted to someone. Love would ask whether you are a the ideal blessing for this other person.

When you see your child suffering pain because of his own poor decisions and your agony is so great that you intervene to spare him, this is not love. This is worshipping your own empathy. Love would recognize his need to learn discipline and consequences, regardless of how much pain watching this caused you.

And when you weep because someone close to you moves away for marriage, this is not love. This is the contemplation of companionship lost to you. Love would celebrate their joy at a union which will give the gift of new life.

It’s not that feelings are bad, but all of these examples involve placing more emphasis on our emotions than on the needs of the other. And the easiest way to tell whether we are being loving or being selfish is to ask a simple question, “Am I acting to serve my own pleasure and pain, or am I acting to do what is good for them?” When we put our feelings ahead of other’s real needs, we have discovered ourselves objectifying other people and treating them as merely means to our own emotional gratification. Thus, the most common examples of what our culture calls love wind up being incredibly selfish acts instead.

Obedience is only shown when we don’t want to follow the rules but still do so. Submission is only shown when we disagree with the leaders but follow them anyway. And love is only shown when serving another person’s real needs will cause us pain and we choose to do what is best for them rather than what feels good to us…as the Cross should remind us.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 11

Published 05.09.09 at

Previously, we saw how capital punishment is compatible with love, honors God’s sovereignty over life, and encourages the condemned to repent and be saved. Now, let’s finish our discussion by looking at three Biblical counter-examples to execution.

Religious Objection 6: What about Cain?

In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s two sons bring their offerings to God. God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. In his anger, Cain strikes and kills his brother. God discovers Cain’s violence and banishes him for life while also protecting him with some sort of Divine mark. Doesn’t this show that even God does not favor executing murderers?

One way to explain Cain’s survival is that the law against murder wasn’t given by God for another 1600 years after Noah’s flood. Even the Old Testament wasn’t written by Moses for another 900 years after that. But response fails since there is the punishment of banishing. If it wasn’t a crime because the law hadn’t been given yet, there would have been no punishment at all. Also, Cain clearly expected to be punished by God and men. Thus, his severe but non-capital banishment demands explanation, and the only Biblically plausible answer is that this wasn’t murder.

Nothing in the text indicates that Cain intended Abel’s death. Not only are there are hundreds of ways to strike a man and kill him unintentionally, but it’s even possible, seeing as how this is the first homicide in history, that Cain didn’t even understand the consequences of his assault. Furthermore, even if Cain did intend to kill Abel in a moment of rage, it’s not clear this would legally qualify as pre-meditated. God’s penal system distinguishes negligent homicide from murder. Thus, one might say we know it wasn’t murder precisely because only God banished him.

Religious Objection 7: What about King David?

In 2 Samuel 11, King David sees Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop near the palace, commands her to be brought to him, commits adultery with her, discovers she is pregnant, fails to trick her husband into sleeping with her to cover the pregnancy, and then has him killed through a complex military conspiracy. How does God respond? He sends Nathan the prophet to chastise David, who repents for his crimes and goes on living, but God condemns the bastard child to death.

If God is for capital punishment, why doesn’t David get executed? Both adultery and murder were capital crimes in Israel, and this must have been the worst-kept secret in the Mediterranean. There were even witnesses for every part of the conspiracy (a necessary component of Old Testament capital law). So why the leniency?

I believe it’s because David was King of Israel, anointed by God Himself through the prophet Samuel. Though this will sound strange to our ears; which have been trained by the concepts of law as king, the rule of law, and equality before the law; David was above the law. No matter what the anointed of God does, he is still holy because of the anointing and cannot be touched. David demonstrated this by refusing to kill King Saul, who deserved it many times over. Moreover, when David learns that an aide assisted Saul’s suicide in battle, David immediately executes him for touching God’s anointed.

So David was spared a doubly-deserved death only because he was king. Nevertheless, a life penalty was still taken: the child. Thus, the Bible gives one precedent to explain why David wasn’t killed and also a reason to think that the murder still required the compensatory death of a human. It’s certainly a difficult passage, but it’s also certainly not a clear repudiation of the death penalty.

Religious Objection 8: What about the woman caught in adultery?

In John 8:1-11, the Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery to see if He will authorize her execution. After He famously says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” they all depart, and Jesus sends the woman on her way, saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more.” Of all passages in the Bible, this one most clearly shows that Jesus opposed capital punishment.

First, we should note that this passage is textually dubious. The best manuscripts don’t include it, and both its placement and style controvert its authenticity. Even so, the Christian community has long considered this an iconic story of Jesus’s mercy. So, to merely throw it out would be inappropriate. Besides, it may well be a legitimate story, just not one included in the John autoscript. Hence, an interpretation would be more helpful than a dismissal.

The trouble is that most people wildly misunderstand this story. The Pharisees’ only reason for bringing this woman to Jesus was to put Him in a dilemma. On the one hand, He couldn’t call for her execution since Roman law prohibited anyone other than a Roman court from doing this. The Pharisees proved they knew this when they later brought Jesus to Pilate rather than killing Him themselves. On the other hand, He couldn’t oppose her execution because this would have proven He was a false prophet for contradicting God’s Law. The passage even explains this in verse 6, “they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”

So, the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, two thousand years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as. If Jesus was in fact repudiating capital punishment in this story, then He was neither the Divine Son of God nor even a true prophet. As I’m apparently more reluctant than others to embrace this conclusion, I can’t interpret Jesus as rejecting the Old Testament here. Had He been, His enemies would have left jubilant rather than ashamed. There are many theories on the meaning of this story, but the one thing we must not do is use it to say Jesus overturned God’s Word as His enemies intended.


The religious and the secular arguments agree: capital punishment is purposeful, rational, and pleasing to God. If you have read all eleven of these columns, I thank you for your persistence and your patience. I trust this has been useful.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 10

Published 05.06.08 at

Previously, we saw that neither forgiveness nor mercy are compelling reasons to abandon the Biblical practice of capital punishment. Now, let’s continue with the religious objections people raise against it.

Religious Objection 3: Execution is incompatible with love.

God loves all people, and we are told to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) If we are supposed to love all people, this probably means not killing them.

But there’s an obvious problem here. God, Who loves all men, has killed many of them both directly Himself and also indirectly through His agents. He killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). He killed Uzzah the priest for mishandling the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:3-11). His servant David famously killed Goliath for taunting God’s army (1 Samuel 17). And He seemed quite pleased for Elijah to slaughter the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-40). So, here’s the quandary. Either God doesn’t actually love everyone or else it can be a very loving thing to kill someone. Either option moves execution off the list of things prohibited because we are supposed to imitate God’s love. The best solution is both simple and counterintuitive.

Is it possible to love someone and execute that person? My emphatic answer is, “Yes.” Loving someone means wanting what is best for that person. Though I obviously admit that many people advocate execution because of hatred for the criminal, it is also possible to advocate it out of love for him. Loving the murderer means honoring him as a moral agent with accountability for his actions and also allowing him to pay for them with the only payment that is proper. Failing to execute him denies him this opportunity to atone for what he has done. Loving the murderer also means preventing him from further defacing the image of God embodied in himself. Failing to execute him only enables his ability to continue his own self-destruction.

Religious Objection 4: Only God may decide who lives and dies.

Since only God can create life, only God has the prerogative to terminate life. When we execute murderers, aren’t we playing God and usurping powers reserved only to Him.

I think the best response to this challenge is a simple illustration. If a child tells the babysitter that she can’t make him go to bed at 9:30 because she’s not his mother, is he correct? No, because the babysitter has had bedtime authority delegated to her by the parent, within whose natural authority such power resides. If the babysitter walks in off the street and tries to put a child to bed, she is usurping parental authority. If she enforces the will of the parents in absentia, she is honoring that same authority. The issuance of instructions makes all the difference between improperly playing parent and properly discharging duties entrusted by the parents.

How do we know that God controls life and death? The Bible. How do we know that God assigns the authority to execute people to earthly governments? The Bible. Whatever certainty we have about the one equally enjoins us to perform the other. Executing murderers is not playing God. It is obeying Him.

Religious Objection 5: Execution prevents the possibility of repentance and being forgiven by God.

As Christians, our primary objective in life is to facilitate the reconciliation of sinners to God through repentance and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins. When we allow our government to execute people, we are deliberately cutting off all chance for those most desperately in need of salvation to receive it, which is the only thing worse than the homicide itself.

Precisely because I so strongly agree with the spirit of this objection, I am happy to report that it actually endorses just the sort of capital punishment process we currently have in place. Nothing pricks the conscience to consider matters of eternity like the impending danger of death. Foxholes, sinking boats, life-threatening illnesses, and death row all serve as excellent motivators to ponder our status with God and do whatever we can to insure the right result.

Knowing you will die on Tuesday at 8:00 AM does far more in this way than the general knowledge that you will die at some completely unknowable moment in your incarcerated future. If we really want people to come to Jesus, the best way to raise that likelihood is by telling them when it will happen. Furthermore, people on death row regularly receive visits from the clergy, who are far more motivated to evangelize them than they are the ordinary inmate. Thus both the murderer himself and those around him are uniquely motivated by capital punishment to secure his salvation. Far from preventing repentance, execution increases the likelihood of it.

Another issue connected to this objection is the idea that people who have genuinely been converted should not suffer execution. Aside from the insoluble problem of distinguishing genuine conversions from forgeries, which would be enough to respond here, there is the fact that anyone who had truly repented for his sins would also be the last one to claim that he deserved to live. If he has embraced the gravity of his corruption necessitating the substitutionary atonement of Christ, he is not going to turn around and seek clemency from the state. More likely, he will embrace the attitude of the thief on the cross, who acknowledged the justice of his own condition during crucifixion beside his Lord. And, tellingly, the reward for his repentance and faith was the gift of eternal salvation with no reprieve whatsoever for the earthly punishment of temporal death.

In the next column, we’ll look at the three commonly used Biblical counter-examples to capital punishment: Cain, King David, and the woman caught in adultery.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 9

Published 05.02.08 at

In the last two columns, I showed how the Bible consistently affirms capital punishment from Genesis to Revelation, including the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless, many sincere Christians doubt this, and it is only fitting to entertain their objections.

Religious Objection 1: We should forgive people, not execute them.

Since forgiveness is the core of Christianity, people often say we are obligated to extend forgiveness to the murderer. After all, Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and He added the emphasis in verses 14-15, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Such mandatory forgiveness hardly seems best expressed through execution.

One way to respond is by examining precisely what a justice system based on this interpretation of Jesus’s teachings would look like. If it is true that executing someone is an unchristian exercise in unforgiveness, it’s hard to see which punishment wouldn’t have to go. Though LIPWPP is more lenient than execution, life imprisonment still seems to be fairly unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine a murderer sitting in jail after 40 years pondering the awe-inspiring forgiveness of his captors. Much shorter imprisonment would be more forgiving, but no imprisonment at all would be the zenith of forgiveness. Even community service, probation, and fines are less than fully forgiving. Thus, not merely execution, but all possible expressions of a justice system are incompatible with the forgiveness people claim Jesus is advocating here. LIPWPP advocates are showing the shallowness, not the depth, of their commitment to the principle of forgiveness.

I’m sure some would object that I’m being ludicrous here, but I would remind them of the clarity of the text. Its seemingly universal scope is not limited to merely capital crimes or execution. Moreover, Christian doctrine holds that we can be forgiven for any and all sins. Therefore, if the duty of the government is to forgive as much as God forgives us individually, we must not punish even a pickpocket or parking violator lest we forfeit our own forgiveness.

Now if someone seriously advocated anarchy for this reason, I would at least applaud his consistency. But one needn’t embrace such radical stupidity to honor Jesus’s doctrines. The problem, obviously, not with what He taught, but with how His teaching gets misapplied. Jesus was not trying to establish forgiveness as the guiding principle of government. He knew this was impossible. Forgiveness is an individual matter, and doesn’t even factor into governmental matters. Likewise, punishment, which is entirely a government domain, is not something individual citizens are tasked with doing. Jesus was instructing individuals, not writing a Constitution. Judging a state’s laws by their forgivingness is like judging a fish for how well he rides the bicycle.

Religious Objection 2: We should show mercy and not execute people.

Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus in Matthew 5:7 says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Later, when challenged by the Pharisees for His associations with sinners, Jesus says in Matthew 9:12-13, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Surely we can offer enough mercy to the murderer to grant him life in prison instead of execution.

Before dealing directly with this argument, I’d like to point out what it inadvertently acknowledges: that capital punishment is perfectly just. In urging a punishment reduction, mercy advocates are conceding that execution is the appropriate starting point. Reducing an excessive penalty to something proper is only remedying an injustice, not an expression of mercy. Mercy is someone doing less than he is justified in doing. Lowering the penalty for theft from hand amputation to imprisonment is just averting an injustice. Making it merely a fine would be an act of mercy. Thus, moving a murderer from death row to LIPWPP is only an act of mercy insofar as death row was the correct place for him for his crime. I mention this because many people who urge mercy also complain that capital punishment is barbaric, unfair, excessive, or unconstitutional. Capital punishment could be inherently wrong, or it could be right but unmerciful. It cannot be both.

Still, shouldn’t we try to be more merciful? Well…more merciful than whom? I only ask because I just spent two columns establishing that God the Father and God the Son both affirm capital punishment for murder. In fact God even specifically says He is offended by people being too lenient to murderers and thus failing to expiate the bloodguilt which the murderer brought upon the land (Numbers 35:31-33, see Part 7). Are we really to put ourselves in the position of claiming that we can and should be more merciful than God Himself? The arrogance of this insult to His character is astonishing.

The truth is that we already are fairly merciful to murderers. We allow them much greater mercy than they afforded their victims in that we give them time and counseling to come to repentance. We are merciful in that we kill them in the least painful way, far less painfully than they generally kill their victims. And we are merciful in that we prevent them from polluting their own souls with subsequent evils, as both Augustine and Aquinas taught. I’m actually quite proud of how merciful we are already, much to the chagrin of certain bloodthirsty sorts who think our appeals process is too slow and say charming things like, “Hangin’s too good fer ‘em.” If our practice offends those who love justice without mercy as well as those who love mercy without justice, it’s likely we’ve found a healthy way to thread the needle through both values.

In my next column, we’ll continue our discussion of religious objections to capital punishment such as encouraging salvation, playing God by taking life, and whether execution is loving.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 8

Published 05.01.08 at

In the previous article, I showed that the Old Testament endorses capital punishment. Now, let’s see whether the New Testament maintains or contradicts this teaching.

Did Jesus support capital punishment?

Many Christians believe that faithfulness to the ministry of Jesus requires them to oppose capital punishment. Though they acknowledge that the Old Testament mandated this penalty for murder, they think Jesus changed everything. Typically, their view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it. I’m pretty sure such people don’t realize they’re denying the Trinity when they say this.

The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father’s principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son. This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He absolutely had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself not a false prophet. How truly strange, then, that those who claim to love Him assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required.

In Matthew 5:17-18, He taught, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to “the hell of fire” in verse 22, which is very strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It’s very hard to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is so often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice. If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father but even His own words.

Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’” (Matthew 15:4) Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution).

Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn’t entail the general power to execute criminals. Finally, when He is dying of crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” (Luke 23:40-41) Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction.

Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent Biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all. Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Prof. Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins….” If we didn’t deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father, Who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead.

What about the rest of the New Testament?

Since both Jesus’s teaching and His death affirm the capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view.

When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them.” He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one. Later, in the New Testament’s most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4) Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, then carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, “If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.”

Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God. If so, then why do so many people claim to oppose this practice on religious grounds? We’ll consider some of their objections in the next column.

The Danger Of Hating What You Used To Believe

Publication forthcoming.

I was raised by a mom who was very liberal, both politically and theologically. In fact, she was more distressed when I became a conservative Evangelical than she ever was when I was an atheist. As you would expect, once I outgrew liberalism, I became quite passionate about showing other people how stupid liberals were. One might well say I was on a crusade.

But was I genuinely motivated by wanting to help other people, or was I mostly intent on denying my own past errors? I realized that I was so heavily invested in hating liberalism and the people who advocated it because I hated having ever been one of them. Much like a disillusioned kid who has learned the truth about Santa Claus, I was embarrassed by having been capable of such foolishness. I finally realized that I needed to forgive myself for having been wrong in the past and embrace the fact that I had believed all those mistaken things.

Then, instead of screaming to everyone that I was right and had never been wrong, it became possible for me to calmly explain to anyone that I knew I was right precisely because I had been so wrong for so long. Once I accepted who I used to be, I also stopped hating other people for reminding me that I ever was that guy. I started being able to have conversations with them without absolutely having to win the discussion. I could even listen sincerely to their ideas because I didn’t feel threatened anymore. And a funny thing happened.

I became much more successful at persuading them to join me in my views. But I also discovered that they had many interesting and useful things to say which I would otherwise have missed out on before.

I’ve seen this pattern in many people. After leaving something they were for a long time, like Catholicism or Mormonism or atheism or even fundamentalism, they become very invested in hating the thing they used to be. Although this can be a healthy temporary phase for accomplishing separation, real health eventually comes from not feeling so threatened by the old thing that you must hate it in order to feel secure.

And there is one final, tremendous benefit from getting to that place. It allows you to minister to others who are currently in the error. It’s been very useful to me to consider that God opened my eyes so that I could help others see the light, not so that I could hate and attack them for still being blind.

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 7

Published 04.22.08 at

Following last week’s
Supreme Court ruling that lethal injections for executions are Constitutional, it’s appropriate we continue our discussion of capital punishment. The first six columns in this series approached capital punishment from a purely secular perspective. Yet, since religious values and arguments so strongly shape this debate, it would be negligent to not consider this side of the issue at some length as well. Since the primary religious framework for most Americans is the Bible and Christianity, I will discuss it within that context. Although important ideas have been voiced by the non-Christian religious, both my own knowledge and also the actual nature of this debate in America, recommend this limitation.

Does anything in the Old Testament affirm capital punishment?

This question will strike those who have actually read the Bible as a bit ludicrous, but there are many who in fact do not know what it says on this subject. The foundational passage is Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” This simple verse both explains what the punishment for murder should be and why murder merits it.

Because people are made in the image of God, their lives are precious in a way that animals and property are not. Wantonly destroying them is an insult to the God who made them, which is further emphasized by the contrasting emphasis in the next verse, indicating just how opposed the will of God is to the destruction of innocent life. Genesis 9:7 reads, “And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” In the very center of a passage which is foundational to the relationship of man to God after Noah’s flood (Genesis 8:20—9:17), God thus establishes death for those who murder and proclaims life as His ideal.

Although this clear reference is sufficient, I wouldn’t want a reader mistakenly thinking that it stands alone. In fact, one of the interesting notes about the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Pentateuch) is that every one of them specifies death as the penalty for murder. Exodus 21:12 says, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” This follows closely after Exodus 20:13, which proclaims, “You shall not murder,” in the middle of the Ten Commandments. Those who tritely claim this verse means to not kill (an inferior translation) would do well to explain how the author (traditionally Moses) so flagrantly contradicted himself in the space of just 25 verses. Better exegesis wouldn’t mangle such an important Scripture.

Leviticus 24:17 reads, “And if a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 says, “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” In fact, murder is unique in that it is the only crime with no possibility for restitution. We know this from Numbers 35:33, “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.” Thus, failing to execute a murderer brings a stain upon the land.

Completing the books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 19:11-13 explains, “But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.” This last reference is fascinating because it comes amidst the discussion of God providing “cities of refuge” for the protection of those who merely commit manslaughter. In other words, God refuses to require life for unpremeditated homicide but goes out of His way to clarify that actual murderers who appeal to such protection must be killed without pity. It’s almost as if He wants to be sure there’s no misunderstanding and that someone doesn’t come along to claim that He favors leniency for murderers.

To further punctuate the point, Deuteronomy 19:10 prefaces this very passage by explaining that the reason God wants to provide cities of refuge is to protect Israel from the bloodguilt that would come to them if they executed a mere manslaughterer. And, as if all this weren’t sufficient, the chapter finishes with the requirement that those guilty of perjury in a capital case be executed for their attempt to use the state as their murder weapon (Deuteronomy 19:21). Such distinctions and contrivances are at least moderately surprising if God’s real intent was for murderers to be left alive.

Now I know this is going to feel like overkill, but, given the number of people who claim to base their opposition to capital punishment on the Bible, I hope you can forgive me for feeling the need to be thorough. Not only did God put capital legislation in the hands of the Israelites, but He even specifically sanctioned execution in particular cases. He told Joshua to kill Achan’s family for breaking the ban on items taken from Jericho (Joshua 7). He told king Saul to kill all the Amalekites and then punished Saul by taking the kingdom away from him when he failed to do so (1 Samuel 15). And one of the most celebrated prophets in the Old Testament, Elijah, rather famously executed the 450 prophets of Baal when God proved His reality and the falseness of their religion. Whether through governmental legislation or direct command, the God of the Old Testament clearly believes in capital punishment.

In the next column, we will examine the record of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus regarding the propriety of execution.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Three Kinds of Rules

Published April, 2008 in the Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

Ethical rules fall into three fairly distinct categories. First, there are universal rules, which apply to all people in all places, such as, “Do not murder,” or, “Devote time to God in prayer.” Second, there are particular rules, which apply to all people in a group or common circumstance, such as, “Drive 65 or less on most American interstates,” or, “Obey your superiors in the military.” Finally, there are personal rules, which apply only to you, usually based on your individual purpose, character, or commitments, such as, “No alcohol because drunkenness tempts you,” or, “No motorcycle riding because your wife hates it.”

Many well-intentioned people wrongly deny one or more of these categories, and this leads them to be mistaken about how a rule applies. Out of the fear that relativism will take over, some people deny personal rules and turn everything into a universal, such as, “No one should celebrate Halloween.” Likewise, out of the fear that absolutism will turn us all into robots, others wrongly reduce universals to the merely personal, such as, “I would never have an abortion, myself.”

Yet the Bible teaches principles that fall into all three categories. Thus, knowing how to answer an ethical question often starts with properly understanding into what category the question belongs. For illustration, let’s consider three fairly simple ethical issues: murder, sex, and alcohol consumption.

First, imagine the somewhat bizarre situation that a stranger asks you whether it’s okay for him to murder another person. Without hesitation, you say it is not, and you may well seek additional information for the sake of public safety. When people are mistaken about murder, we correct them. If they say it is merely a personal choice, we explain that it is always wrong. But even if they say that it is wrong because it is illegal in America (making it a particular rule), we still correct them by emphasizing that it would be wrong anywhere, even if it weren’t illegal.

Second, imagine if some stranger came and asked you whether it’s okay for him to have sex. You would immediately seek to know what category he is in: married or unmarried. If he is married, sex is mandatory, but if he is unmarried, it is prohibited. Certainly, there can be refinements in personal situations, but that is the ordinary particular rule regarding sex. Obviously, you would also want to be sure that the woman in question is his wife. As this example shows, one interesting thing about particular rules is that they often constitute the exact boundary that distinguishes one category of people from another. Once again, we see that getting the category wrong demands correcting. If someone thinks sex is for everyone or no one, or thinks that some unmarrieds may indulge but other marrieds may abstain (for long periods), they are simply wrong, and part of educating them would involve correcting these category mistakes.

Finally, consider that a stranger wants you to tell him whether drinking alcohol is okay. You might begin by telling him that drunkenness is wrong, particularly so when it is a regular habit. Next, you might inquire as to whether he thinks he has a problem consuming it in moderation. If so, you would surely counsel him against it. Perhaps you would ask him where he intends to drink. At a wedding or at his home, fine. In a park or in front of a former alcoholic, not so much. In Saudi Arabia or in Wisconsin? The difference matters. You might inquire about his finances, his age, what his religion teaches, whether he intends to be driving afterward, and even what his family thinks about alcohol. In other words, you can’t just answer the question quickly because the proper reply depends on a hundred variables. What muddies the waters even more is that this personal rule can take on the appearance of a particular rule, for instance if the man is Muslim or Mormon. But since it is not always a category issue, we don’t start by presuming it to be.

So how does all of this help us? Simple. There is a universal rule to love others. This requires us to assist them in living well, which means we must be careful to correctly know whether, when, and how the rules apply to them. Just knowing the difference between these categories is an excellent start in practically doing this.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 6

Published 03.28.08 at

Previously, we learned that the distinction between innocence and guilt solves three of the common conceptual arguments against capital punishment. Let’s continue with the remainder of these arguments.

Conceptual Objection 4: Execution violates the Eighth Amendment by being cruel and unusual.

The wording of the Eighth Amendment is abundantly clear: only punishments which are both cruel and unusual violate it. Thus, no matter how cruel a punishment is, if it is administered with regularity, it cannot be unconstitutional. Likewise, no matter how unusual a punishment is, if it is administered humanely it is constitutional. Since the standards for execution are uniform (at least within a particular state) and the procedure used (lethal injection, most often) is humane (especially when compared to both past forms of execution and the ways murder victims suffer), this objection is a non-starter.

The most serious arguments seem to derive from (1) the method not being completely painless; or (2) similar cases do not always receive the same penalty. Ironically, the primary reason that cases are not resolved identically is because we try so hard to confirm guilt. The conviction and appeals process produces varying results. Thus the simplest way to create more uniformity would be to execute the guilty immediately after every conviction. Obviously, this would not improve our system, although it might please certain bloodthirsty advocates of execution who are convinced that such a system would do a better job of deterring murder. Doubtless it would, but not at an acceptable price.

Finally, whatever claims might be made about the 8th Amendment, the 5th Amendment specifically endorses the taking of it under the right circumstances. When it says that no person may be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” the 5th Amendment is obviously granting permission to deprive people of any of these if due process is satisfied. Any interpretation of the 8th Amendment that is used to oppose capital punishment must fail in light of what the 5th Amendment so clearly authorizes. And we know that the ratifiers were not conflicted on this point since all thirteen colonies maintained capital crime statutes. I know that some issues of Constitutional interpretation are complex, but this is not one of them.

Conceptual Objection 5: Capital punishment is barbaric and hateful.

According to opponents, there is a vast burgeoning awareness that capital punishment is wrong because it represents the most vicious and malicious elements of a human past we are evolving beyond. Enhancing their point is our current war against a political vision that thinks it appropriate to punish almost any crime with public beheading. Furthermore, the angriest, meanest, most unloving people are rarely the ones who oppose capital punishment. Which kind of people do we want to be?

Frankly, the way many people talk about executing murderers demonstrates such fury and lack of love that I cringe to find myself on their side. During my years in talk radio, I’ve often heard sentiments such as, “Those vermin deserve to suffer”; “Hangin’ would be too good for them”; “Lethal injection’s for sissies”; “Bullets cost money, but at least you can reuse a rope.” Such rage is powerful … and frightening.

Nevertheless, the fact that many of the wrong people support the right thing for the wrong reason does not require me to abandon supporting it for the right reasons. I’d like to talk such people out of their anger, but I’d also like to keep them supporting capital punishment for murderers in the process.

As for being barbaric, well, to me the barbarism is not in taking a murderer’s life, but in refusing to do so. As for the method, I’m indifferent. My sense of retribution doesn’t require suffering, and I’m unclear how gratuitous torture does a civil society much good. So, I’m basically satisfied with anything that turns a convicted murderer into a dead murderer.

Conceptual Objection 6: Execution is degrading to the executioner.

Even if capital punishment does no damage to the sanctity of life and no indignity to the murderer being killed, nonetheless, asking an otherwise decent human being to so ruthlessly take the life of another person in this way damages the soul of the executioner. Although I understand this concern and accept that many real executioners may feel this way, I think there is a basic misunderstanding here. If execution is honoring of life and justice, then it cannot be the case that doing it would be harmful to the executioner. A just action cannot pollute the soul of the doer. Only unjust acts can do this. So, once the propriety of capital punishment is established, the issue of its impact on the executioner should be settled. An execution is properly understood as the only way to honor the capacity of the murderer to pay for what he has done. Likewise, allowing another human being to make this honoring possible is itself an honor, not a pollutant.

Conceptual Objection 7: The victim’s family often doesn’t want execution.

I’ve often seen interviews with family members of the victim who encourage leniency in sentencing the murderer. On the other hand, I’ve also seen interviews where the family wants something atrocious done to the defendant verging on torture. In both cases my response is the same. We neither execute people in order to satisfy the wrath of the victim’s family, nor do we refrain from doing so if such wrath is not present. Our justice system is not based on the idea that we do whatever the particular victim or his family wants done, but on the idea that we do what is decided upon as right by the calm, rational deliberations of the entire society. We seek justice, not the satisfying of particular, emotionally-connected impulses. Thus, individuals do not get to decide the punishment. In fact, ignoring what such people want is an important element of keeping this practice from being the unpredictable barbarity it might otherwise be.

In the next column, we will begin looking at the final kind of objections made against capital punishment: religious ones.