Friday, December 19, 2008

Preaching on Controversial or Political Topics

Kerux is the student journal at Calvin Seminary. Here, Aaron Gonzalez presents his opinion that preachers should take sides on political issues.

I suspect the piece is a reaction to a discussion held at the seminary where two pastors discussed the issue. An article on that discussion is here.

So, as promised some time ago, here is a sermon I preached on the Sunday before Election Day. I was asked to preach on hunger, since it was World Hunger Sunday. I thought for quite a while about how to approach things. Some apparently thought I went too far (though no one who actually thought so ever spoke to me.) Others thanked me for preaching prophetically. One even said they were disappointed that I didn't go further and tell them who I thought they should vote for. What do you think?

The Acceptable Fast
Isaiah 58
I. Introduction

As you have probably figured out, this morning is World Hunger Sunday. Thirty years ago, our denomination declared that we have a responsibility to help alleviate hunger. We were asked to devote ourselves to gratitude, compassion, repentance, and justice as we respond to world hunger with a ministry of word and deed. And to that end, each year, between Canadian and U.S. Thanksgiving, one Sunday was be set aside as World Hunger Sunday to make us conscious of the needs of people around the world.

There is always the danger that such a Sunday simply becomes part of the ritual of the church calendar. I remember that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that there was a big push by churches to actively promote ways of alleviating hunger—there was the Peter Fish program, of course. I also remember attending world hunger dinners and being encouraged to write letters on particular bills before Congress. Now, thirty years later, the issue seems to have faded in our minds, and giving on World Hunger Sunday has become just another ritual we do without thinking much about why.

Our text this morning, Isaiah 58, speaks directly to that attitude. Turn with me to that text. Isaiah 58 speaks about fasting and the Sabbath. I know Pastor Rob preached on fasting two weeks ago. But while we will talk a little about fasting this morning, my goal here is not so much to get you to think about the spiritual discipline of fasting, but rather to see the purpose behind fasting—an active submission—and to apply that into every moment of our lives, especially as it relates to how we deal with the poor and needy in our community and around the world.

I will be reading from the English Standard Version, which is a little different from the version we have in the pews. However, I encourage you to follow along in the pew Bibles or the Bible you have with you. Hear, then, the word of the Lord from Isaiah 58:

58:1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
II. The passage and its context

Our text this morning is in the third and final section of the Book of Isaiah, a section that deals with the Jews who had returned to Israel after the exile. You would think that this would have been an exciting time in Jewish history—the Jews of that period had the opportunity to start over, to rebuild what had been broken down, to get back to worshipping God the way he desires.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. We see this right from the very first chapter of this section of Isaiah—Chapter 56. In verse 1, it says: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’” But then the last two verses of the same chapter say: “they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”

The Jews of this time had become so focused on their own needs, on their own pleasure, that they had forgotten about the poor and the oppressed. They were fulfilling the requirements and rituals of the Old Testament law, but more out of obligation or a sense of cultural identity. For many, religious rituals and observation had become nothing more than a way of providing some comfort for themselves in the belief that in doing so they would force God to bless them.

III. Fasting

A. What it isn’t: a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing

In our text, the prophet is responding to that attitude. Focusing first on fasting, he recognizes that many of the Jews thought that their fasting was somehow righteous and were confused by the fact that God did not seem to be blessing them as a result. Listen again to verses 2 and 3: “they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. 'Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

Fasting is not a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing. The Jews had succumbed to thinking that they could manipulate God into doing what they wanted. One commentator wrote that “in a formula that reduced worship of God to the level of magic, [the Jews] apparently assumed that if they fasted, God should respond and address the situation that prompted the fasting.”

This problem wasn’t new. Listen to the words of the prophet Zechariah responding to the regular fasts of the Jews in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem: “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?”

The Jews had been fasting not out of devotion to God, but for their own interests. But fasting is not a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing.

B. What it is: an active submission

Rather, fasting is an active submission. And this applies not just to fasting, but to any religious activity in which we take part. And since we declare that “all of life is religion,” every single part of our life should become active submission.

1. Be active

There are two parts to this: active submission means we need to be active, not passive. True devotion to God requires that we actively stand up for those who are oppressed, that we actively help those in need around us, that we actively loose the bonds of wickedness, share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses, and not hide ourselves from our own flesh and blood.

2. Serve the interests of others

And beyond simply being active, we need to submit—to put ourselves lower than God and others. In other words, the sole focus of our fasting, our religious activities, our entire life, must be to serve the interests of others. Only when we are submissive, only when we put our own interests and desires lower than God’s interests and desires and the desires and interests of others—only then will our fast be an acceptable fast. Only then will our lives be lived in a day acceptable to the Lord.

True fasting is an active submission of our needs and desires to those of God and others.

IV. The Sabbath

While the prophet spends most of his time talking about fasting, he turns his attention in the last two verses of the text to the Sabbath. Unfortunately, many writers and commentators who deal with Isaiah 58 tend to split up the chapter. Most sermons I’ve seen or heard deal solely with verses 1-12, focusing on the true fast as being a life of active submission to the will of God and service to our neighbors. The rest focus only on verses 13 and 14, reminding us that to experience true joy, we need to honor the Sabbath. Few commentators note the unity of the chapter or point out that fasting and keeping the Sabbath are just two examples of ways that we actively submit ourselves to God’s will and the needs of others.

A. Again—not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires

The point of the prophet’s words in verse 13 parallel the point he made earlier with regard to fasting. First, the Sabbath is not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires. In verse 13 he says: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD.”

The prophet’s words are clear—the Sabbath is not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires.

B. Again, an active submission

In the same way, just as fasting is about an active submission, so is the Sabbath. It is only when we actively honor the Sabbath, putting our own ways and our own pursuit of pleasure below the ways of God, that we honor the Sabbath that God desires. The acceptable Sabbath is one in which we actively turn from our own pleasure and delight, actively devoting ourselves in submission to God. The acceptable Sabbath is an active submission.

So long as the Sabbath is viewed simply as a ritual, as a day where we put restrictions upon our normal business activities so that we can gain some expected blessing from God, we are no different than the merchants in the days of the prophet Amos, who wondered “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale?” Isaiah is telling us that just as fasting needs to be focused on our submission to God and others, our Sabbath observances need also to be focused on submitting ourselves to God, putting ourselves and our desires below the desires of God and the needs of others.

Ironically, the post-exile Jews, who treated the fast and the Sabbath as a ritual designed to bring themselves delight—whether by forcing God’s blessing or by giving themselves a sense of belonging within the Jewish community—could not experience true delight or a true connection with their heritage. For it is only when we actively submit ourselves, putting our needs and desires below those of others and of God that we can truly experience delight. As Isaiah says in verse 14, “Only then will you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.”

V. What does this mean for us today?

So what does Isaiah 58 mean for us today, on World Hunger Sunday 2008? What do the words an Old Testament prophet wrote about people who lived 2,500 years ago have to say to us?

A. We must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel

First, we must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel. We need to take the time to detect in ourselves when we do “good deeds” not out of a concern to serve others, but out of a desire for our own delight and pleasure.

The longest lasting scripted comedy in the history of television is “The Simpsons.” In one episode, Homer buys his wife Marge a bowling ball for her birthday. That would be all fine and good of course, except that Marge doesn’t bowl. And Homer, who does bowl, knows this. He figures Marge will just thank him and put aside the ball, never to be used again, like so many other presents he has given her. So instead of letting his gift go to waste, he’ll use it himself. In fact, planning in advance, Homer gets the holes in the ball drilled for his own fingers and has his initials engraved on the ball, even before he gives the ball to Marge.

I think “The Simpsons” has lasted so long on television partly because we can see ourselves in the lives of the characters. We may not be as blatant about it as Homer, but there is no doubt that we often give gifts hoping to get something out of it for ourselves. And this doesn’t just apply to volunteering to help someone move so we get invited to swim in their pool or giving to the church just so we can get a nice tax deduction. Rather, even in our own fasts and Sabbath celebrations, in our own works supposedly dedicated to God and others, we act out of selfishness and a desire for our own pleasure.

This selfishness and desire expresses itself in the same way as we see it in the post-exile Israelites. Just as their fasts became meaningless rituals performed out of a belief that God would be required to bless them as a result, we also look for ways to force God to bless us. Look at the popularity a few years back of the book, “The Prayer of Jabez.” Much of the popularity of the book stemmed from the idea that through praying a prayer like that of Jabez, we too could expect a blessing from God. The prayer simply became a self-focused ritual designed to magically obtain a blessing from God.

Another way our selfish desires infect our “good works” is the way we often do things as a way of gaining approval for ourselves. I once heard someone say they preferred being involved at certain fundraisers at the Christian School because more people could see their involvement in those activities than in some of the more “behind-the-scenes” activities. This thinking is no different than that of the ostentatiously praying Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke. Yet, if we are honest, the desire to receive acclaim from others is probably one of the biggest reasons we do good things for others. The prophet warns us to look for this tendency in ourselves every time we do something.

Finally, sometimes our actions come as a result of a more subtle selfish desire—the desire to rid ourselves of guilt. Some aid agencies play heavily on that desire in their requests for help. They show videos of starving children with distended stomachs and big, sad, brown eyes. They compare the poverty of places like India and Africa with our own wealth. And they do this knowing that many of us will try to assuage our guilt and give ourselves some pleasure by sending some cash their way. Again, our giving becomes not an act of active submission, but a caving in to a selfish desire to be free from our own guilty feelings.

Like the Israelites of old, we have a tendency to turn our deeds into obligations or ways of fulfilling our own desires. When we do this, God takes no delight in them whatsoever. He says to us the same thing he had the prophet Amos tell the people of Israel: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” To avoid God’s wrath, we must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel.

B. We need to actively submit

But beyond simply looking to put away our own hypocrisy, the prophet’s words tell us that we need to actively submit. Our entire lives need to be given over to making the pleasure and delight of God and the people around us a priority. We must put ourselves last and serve our neighbors without any expectation of receiving anything in return. In doing so, we reflect the life our Savior, Jesus Christ, who submitted himself completely, giving up his very life for us sinners so that we may receive the ultimate delight of living forever in relationship with our Creator-Father. We need to actively submit.

1. Putting others first

We do this in two ways—by being active, not passive, and by putting others first.

There are any number of positive ways we can work to put others first. Let me highlight just a few.

a. Recognize the impoverished in our community

First, we need to recognize the impoverished in our community. I wish more of you could have the opportunity to serve as a deacon in this church. More than one person has commented to me that when they became a deacon they learned that there was an entire sector of our community of which they had been completely unaware.

Sometimes this lack of awareness is purposeful. Dealing with people who have been sucked into poverty is difficult—even maddening. Our assumptions about how people behave get thrown out the window. We see things and get involved in situations that make us cry or make us sick. And so we avoid getting involved.

Sometimes the lack of awareness is just because of the way we live our lives in our comfortably sheltered suburbia, looking through rose-colored stained glass windows, pretending poverty doesn’t exist, or that when it does it is someone else’s problem, someone else’s fault. We blame it on bad behavior, on a lack of willingness to learn English, a lack of desire to improve oneself. In doing so, we shift the blame away from ourselves.

But we cannot actively untie the cords of the yoke of poverty unless we recognize poverty within our community. We cannot actively loose the chains of injustice unless we know about the injustices suffered by people around the world. Unless we know where we can find the hungry, the poor, and the naked, we won’t be able to share our food, provide shelter, and clothe the naked. We need to recognize the impoverished in our community.

b. Live in a way that helps others

Another way to put others first is to live in a way that helps others. This includes giving of course—helping others a priority in our lives. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am so appreciative of the way Calvin Church does this symbolically every week by making the first offering each morning a benevolent offering—an offering destined to help those in need in some way. The active submission God desires from us means putting others first, and our offering structure is symbolic way of doing this. I hope you can find a way in your lives to also make sure that your “first offering” is for helping others, and it is only after that that you provide for your own needs and desires.

c. Spread the wealth

A third way we can put others first is to spread the wealth. Now I know that my use of those words is going to be controversial, given how those words have been used and abused in the current election campaign. As Christians, we may disagree on how we spread the wealth and the role of the state in doing so. But as Christians, whose job it is to put the welfare of others above our own, we must recognize that we have an obligation to spread the wealth.

In our text this morning, God is not saying “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, fill up the SUV, build a big house out in the town, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, have your kids put some pennies in their Peter Fish to help the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry high priority on the daily agenda of God’s people, even higher than providing for our own security, whether it be job security, security in our retirement investments or our kids’ college funds, or security in our access to foreign oil.

Our only security, our only comfort, comes from the fact that we belong, body and soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. And that security is a security that cannot be taken from us. Our response to that security can be no less than doing just what Jesus did—putting our own pleasure and delight below that of others.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is that God wants us to spread the wealth by feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. That means changing our focus from “making a killing” to “making a living.” We must learn to live with less and use the excess to help others. We should support organizations worldwide that work with the needy at the local level and focus on spreading the wealth in a way that promotes justice for all—organizations like the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, the Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity. In our purchases and investments, too, we need to end our support for businesses and companies that value profit maximization more than making sure that everyone has enough.

And we should learn all we can about the structures in our society that cause poverty and hunger. For example, I highly encourage you to read the cover story in this month’s Christianity Today, entitled “Hunger Isn’t History.” It gives good information on how some of aid we give is actually doing more harm than good. We may certainly disagree on what role the government should take in spreading the wealth, but as Christians we must put our own wants and desires behind the needs of the poor in our community and around the world. We must spread the wealth.

d. Vote

One last suggestion—when you vote on Tuesday, vote in a way that puts others first. One of the most sickening things about election campaigns is how so often the focus of political ads is on getting you to believe that one candidate or the other will put your desires first, vilifying the other candidate as someone who doesn’t have your desires and interests in mind. On Tuesday, ignore all those ads. Instead, put your own interests behind the interests of the powerless, the impoverished, and the needy in our society and world. Then, vote for the person you think will best represent those interests. I’m not going to tell you who that is—we may well disagree on that. But when you vote, vote with Isaiah 58 written in your mind and engraved on your heart.

2. We need to be active, not passive

Isaiah’s call to active submission means that we must put others first and that we need to be active, not passive. This means not just setting aside a percentage of our time and money to help, but undergoing a complete change in our lifestyle and in our priorities. We need to actively examine our budgets, our vacations, our habits, our hobbies, even our rituals and religious practices, to make sure that they provide evidence that we are actively submitting ourselves to God’s will and to the needs of others. If we find areas in our lives that we hold as higher priorities than the needs of others, we need to cut them out, even if doing so causes us pain.

VI. Conclusion

Look again at verses 6 and 7 of our text. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

When I read those verses I can’t help but to think of the Old Testament requirement for the Year of Jubilee—the year in which debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and confiscated land returned to its previous owners. In Old Testament Israel, the Year of Jubilee was what one writer calls “a kind of divinely mandated ‘do-over’ for all people.” The purpose of the Year of Jubilee was to restore everyone to the right relationships, the shalom they had had before. What the prophet is doing in our text, though, is taking the radical position that God demands Year of Jubilee behavior EVERY year. The Year of Jubilee becomes a permanent state, in which God’s people devote themselves to seeking His justice by loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing their bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into your house.

There is another set of verses that I also hope you hear reflected in verse 7—these words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The words of the prophet Isaiah mesh well with the words of Jesus. And well they should, since many of Isaiah’s words foretold the coming of Jesus to earth. When Jesus came, he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, the eternal Year of Jubilee. While the final consummation of the Kingdom has not yet arrived, we still live and work in the Christ’s kingdom. One of our jobs as his Kingdom servants is to declare the permanent Year of Jubilee, the time in which, as we pour ourselves out for the hungry and satisfy the desires of the afflicted, God’s light shall rise in the darkness and all the ancient ruins are rebuilt.


Friday, December 12, 2008

American Civil Religion

Another post from First Things on Christ and Culture specifically relating to the American Civil Religion.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An interview with Frank Schaeffer

A very interesting interview on the Oldspeak blog on the Rutherford Society website. I know, this is three posts in a day, but it makes for a good read.

My kids were on TV

Click on the title to see a Fox 6 Milwaukee video about today's snow that includes a short clip of my oldest saying "Too Much Snow," preceded by my younger son's boot and snow shovel.

Supreme Court Considers the Limits of Police Authority

A post from SCOTUS Blog shows how the Supreme Court is considering issues of police safety balanced against individual rights. Wisconsin courts have dealt with the issue of when a stop starts and ends, so unless the Supreme Court interprets the US Constitution is a manner more restrictive than Wisconsin has (which I doubt will happen), there may not be a huge impact here. Regardless, though, it was a good read.

Analysis: More police authority in sight?
Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 2:54 pm | Lyle Denniston

Along the way toward reaching a major new issue on police authority, and hinting that some Justices were ready to uphold at least some expansion, the Supreme Court on Tuesday got diverted into a question it has never decided. And that may complicate its move toward a decision in Arizona v. Johnson (07-1122), testing a police officer’s pat-down for weapons of a passenger emerging from a car that has been stopped for a traffic violation.

As the case reached the Court, it involved a rather sweeping claim of police power, perhaps going well beyond police action in roadside encounters. It is a claim that was described during the hearing by Justice John Paul Stevens as “a rather extreme position” and by Justice David H. Souter as “a pretty wide-open standard in the real world.”

The wider argument, made by both the state of Arizona and by the federal government in support, was that police who encounter someone in a public place should have the authority to frisk that individual any time they fear he may be “armed and dangerous,” even if they have no suspicion that any crime has been or is being committed. Put that way, the claim would appear to lead to a major expansion of the pat-down authority that the Court first embraced, in significantly more limited form, in a 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio.

Some Justices, notably Stevens and Souter and, to some degree, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seemed troubled about the breadth of that argument, exploring various hypotheticals about chance encounters on public sidewalks where there is no hint of criminal acadtivity afoot, or on a roadside when all the motorist is doing is changing a tire. But it was by no means clear Tuesday that a majority of the Justices shared that concern. The comments of others seemed, for example, to suggest that fears for police safety — especially at roadside — may well be so vivid in everyday life to justify, for those Justices, some added pat-down authority.

But a good portion of Tuesday’s one-hour argument was taken up with exploration of what appeared to be an antecedent question dealing explicitly with roadside stops: when does such a stop begin and end, in relation to police discretion on what they do after the initial stop? In Fourth Amendment terms, that question is: when does a police seizure of an individual begin and end, especially during a traffic stop?

If the seizure is found to have come to an end once the traffic violation itself has been explored, any police activity that is intrusive after that — such as a pat-down search for weapons — may be harder to justify constitutionally and, indeed, may not be justifiable at all. If, however, a passenger — and the driver — remain seized throughout the stop, up to the point that police make it very clear that the individuals are free to move on, then police activity during the seizure may more easily satisfy the Fourth Amendment.

The Court, for all of the legion of roadside stop cases it has decided, has never ruled explicitly on when a seizure in that context comes to an end. In the case before the Court, involving Arizonan Lemon Montrea Johnson, a state court ruled that his seizure had ended prior to the time he left the stopped vehicle in which he was a passenger, and thus an officer’s pat-down after that was unconstitutional because the officer had no suspicion that a crime was being or had been committed by him.

To Arizona and the Justice Department, Johnson was not free to leave when he was patted-down, so the officer was free to do that search, especially since she feared he might be armed and dangerous after her discussion with him of gang activity in the area. But, to both the state and the federal government, it really makes no difference whether the seizure had come to an end: either way, according to their broader argument, the officer’s fear for her safety was enough to justify the pat-down even without any suspicion of a crime.

An assistant state attorney general, Joseph L. Parkhurst, and an assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, Toby J. Heytens, fervently defended the broader argument, contending that past statements by the Supreme Court made it clear that officer safety was such a central concern in public encounters (especially at roadside) that a pat-down search for weapons should be considered well within police discretion. Heytens indicated that authority might even exist if the officer came upon someone changing a tire — if the officer had a notion that the individual was a threat to the officer’s safety.

Justice Antonin Scalia, taking perhaps the furthest position in support of their argument, suggested to Parkhurst that it should be enough to justify a pat-down that an officer suspected an individual to be either armed or dangerous, but not necessarily both, because either one might be an illegal activity the officer was authorized to deal with.

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., somewhat less expansively, suggested that, if the traffic stop was valid in the first place, it might be enough to justify a pat-down if the officer during the stop developed a suspicion that the passenger was dangerous.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., suggested that, if an officer thought an individual was carrying a gun, because the officer saw a bulge in the person’s clothing, it should not be necessary for the officer to wait for that individual to shoot first before doing a pat-down search.

Johnson’s lawyer at the podium, Andrew J. Pincus, had considerable difficulty making his argument against the sweeping claim to search power because he was pressed closely and repeatedly about whether Johnson was still under police control — not free to leave — when he was patted-down. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in fact, almost reached the point of badgering Pincus on the point. Justices Kennedy and Souter also seemed quite thoroughly unpersuaded that Johnson was free to leave, and Kennedy even contended that the Supreme Court had made clear in a 2007 decision in a roadside case (Brendlin v. California) that an individual in Johnson’s situation certainly would not have felt he could walk away from the scene.

This extended discussion, of course, focused on an issue that the Court very likely did not have in mind when it agreed to hear Arizona’s appeal. And it probably complicates the Court’s task, since the Justices may have to decide, first, when a roadside seizure (or any police seizure, for that matter) begins and ends — an inquiry involving a multitude of variables, and then, second, decide what the Fourth Amendment requires or allows depending on the answer to the first question.

Arizona and the federal government would win if the Court were to rule that all that was necessary is a suspicion by a police officer that an individual is armed and dangerous; in that event, it would probably make no difference whether the individual was technically “seized” in Fourth Amendment terms, or not. But if the Court were to conclude that Johnson was not seized, would the Justices find that a suspicion of dangerousness was sufficient to justify a pat-down search, or some other form of police activity? And what if the encounter were somewhere other than a roadside after a vehicle stop?

Monday, December 8, 2008

This diagram comes from the Heidelblog. It presents an amillenial view of the concurrent events surrounding Christ's second coming. It's worth perusing.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christ Without Culture

Another in a series of good articles from First Things on the nexus between Christ and culture.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The End of Advent

Another excellent article from First Things, this one about how the secular Christmas extravaganza has swallowed Advent, exacerbating the loss in our culture of the meaning of Christmas.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

I just bought "The Wordy Shipmates" by Sarah Vowell last week, having heard her speak about the book on both National Public Radio and on "The Daily Show." Here is a link to an interesting review from Books & Culture magazine. Books & Culture is an excellent magazine from the "Christianity Today" family. Yes, I am a subscriber.

I am looking forward to reading the book--maybe over Christmas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Broken Windows Theory

I have long been a proponent of the "Broken Windows" theory of crime prevention. I was first exposed to the theory in law school by Professor Herman Goldstein, who is an expert in the role of the police in the prevention of crime. While the theory makes sense, it has been hard to do the research to test the theory scientifically. This article/podcast from Scientific American shows an attempt to test it scientifically.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Another excellent article from First Things

I regularly read the "On the Square" blog from First Things magazine. It is written from a Roman Catholic perspective, but one that clearly has some resonance with the Kuyperian concept of engaging and redeeming culture. Today's post is especially worth reading. Here is a snippet:

"The Church is not merely a voluntary association of the spiritually like-minded catering to the indulgence of private sensibilities in one of Babylon's many enclaves of choice. The Church is the Body of Christ through time proposing to the world the new creation inaugurated in his cross and resurrection and promised return. Whether against, above, in paradox, or transforming, she is always critically engaged—never surrendering to the cultural captivity that is the delusion of 'Christ without culture.'"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Resurrection, Ascension, and Aliens

A few years ago I borrowed the DVD of the 1951 sci-fi classic movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" from my local library and watched it with my kids. Now a remake is on its way.

This article from First Things was an interesting read. Science fiction seems to be one area where authors muse without fear of marginalization about the nature and possibility of the supernatural. I am currently reading Francis Schaeffer's "Escape from Reason" with a group of guys. I wonder how Schaeffer would deal with science fiction.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Economics of Jesus

Apaprently a few people disagreed with a sermon I preached on World Hunger Sunday (November 2). The issue related to how Scriptures teachings should impact our view of economics and politics. If I have a chance, I'll post the sermon. However, an editorial in the upcoming issue of "The Banner," deals with this issue in a very succinct way.

Reformed Matters
The Economics of Jesus
Rob Braun

A while back I held a class on the Canons of Dort. The group was made up of people from a variety of theological backgrounds, though everyone who came was interested in understanding the content and meaning of the Canons and the Reformed faith.
One evening our discussion turned to the subject of politics and economics. One person stated that “free-market capitalism is God’s economics in the Bible.” I found his statement curious, since the term “free-market capitalism” didn’t enter human vocabulary till nearly 1,600 years after the last page of the Bible was written.
So I asked the obvious question: “Where does the Bible teach that?”
The person who’d made the statement proceeded to point out several passages from the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). As he then pressed on to the prophets, I stopped him to ask what he thought of the economics of the “Law of Jubilee” in Leviticus 25.
Leviticus 25 is one of those curious chapters in the Bible. It was obviously meant to encourage continued tribal identity among the people of Israel.
The Law of Jubilee guaranteed that every 50 years, no matter who owned or lived on a piece of property, the property would revert back to the original family it was first given to in the time of Joshua. The value of the property, if sold, was based on the number of years between Jubilees. In other words, the longer the time was to the next Jubilee, the more valuable the property; the less time, the less valuable.
The most interesting statement of the chapter is found in verses 23-24: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine [God’s] and you are but aliens and my tenants [stewards]. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”
I pointed out to my class participant that this passage doesn’t sound like free-market capitalism as we know it today. Reluctantly he agreed it didn’t fit very well with his economic view of the Bible.
Jesus puts another interesting twist on the modern view of free-market capitalism. In Luke 6 he says: “If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be [children] of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (vv. 34-36).
Jesus’ words don’t exactly express free-market capitalism, yet they don’t exclude it either. The basic economic view of Jesus (if that is an appropriate term to describe his thinking) is simply that we take care of each other—enemies and friends alike.
Compassion and empathy describe that kind of economic view—an economics of godly love, or the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
As Christians we understand that it’s our duty to view all economic and political systems through the prism of Christ and his teachings. No one form of government, political party, or economic system can ever perfectly fulfill the gospel of Jesus or the will of God. The best we can expect to see accomplished in government and politics is “as through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). Clarity will come only when “perfection comes” (13:10), which will be at the consummation of God’s kingdom.
In the meantime, in this present fallen world we must do the best we can according to the gospel’s teaching: we must be a light, the city on a hill, and the salt of the earth, influencing the world around us with the gospel of Christ (Matt. 5:13-14).
If there is any one place Jesus does lay out his basic economic philosophy, it has to be in Matthew 6:19-21. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Sounds like good economic advice to me.
Author: Rob Braun
Rob Braun is a salesman, a freelance writer, and a part-time minister for Princeton (Minn.) Community Church. He is a member of Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Princeton, Minn.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What Would Amos Say?

I wrote this four years ago as a class assignment. I was purposely somewhat provocative (but I stand by what I said) and it made for some interesting discussion. What do you think?

A warning yesterday and a warning today
One of the secretaries in my office is big into prophecy. You probably have met someone like her. She loves to read all sorts of books hawked by the television preachers about how current events are a foreshadowing of the last days. Earthquakes, hurricanes, war in the Middle East—all of these have convinced her that Jesus is about to return.

Prophecy is big business now. You can buy those Tim LaHaye books about the Second Coming at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and they are soon to be a major motion picture. I’ve seen all sorts of books about Bible Codes and the secret messages of the Bible on bookshelves everywhere. Someone somewhere is getting rich off the idea that Jesus might be coming again soon.

I wonder if any of those TV preachers, authors, book publishers or movie producers have read Amos. I suspect not, because if they had, they might not be so excited about Biblical prophecy.

Yes, the prophecies in Amos are primarily about Israel—the northern kingdom in particular. At the time Amos is prophesying, Israel is wealthy beyond belief, and its political power is at its maximum. But disaster is just around the bend—Assyria is building its forces and preparing to swing down and destroy Israel. And God, incensed that His chosen people have abandoned Him, is behind it all.

But those prophecies are a part of Scripture today—they were originally directed at Israel, but they speak to us today. And I suspect that they are there not simply to teach us that God was angry at Israel and preparing to punish them while saving a remnant.

What if Amos were alive today? What if instead of being from rural, small-town Judah, he were from rural, small-town America? Do you think his message would be all that different? Let’s imagine what Amos might say if he were sent to America today.

Instead of starting with prophecies against Damascus and Gaza, the powers of the world that stood against God for centuries, he might have start with prophecies against today’s anti-Christian world powers, maybe al-Qaeda and the Chinese government. But then the shocker would come when, instead of prophesying against Judah and Israel, he begins prophesying against Europe and America. What might he say?

“You proclaim that you are a Christian nation, a nation of Judeo-Christian values. But when you look at your trade policies, cannot it be said that you ‘sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of Nikes, I mean ‘sandals’? When you look at the way you conduct foreign policy, isn’t it true that you ‘trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground.’ When you examine your immigration policies, can you deny that you ‘deny justice for the oppressed?’ Israel may have had their cows of Bashan, but they pale beside your cows of Hollywood.

Israel in my day bragged about its righteousness in keeping all the requirements of the law. It prided itself on following all the rituals commanded by Moses. But those rituals and celebrations were merely empty rituals, a fancy way of showing religiosity with absolutely no content, no change of heart, and no repentance of sin. Now look at you today, trumpeting aloud about putting Christ back in your Christmas cards, while ignoring the need to put Christ back in your war planning. You wail and tear your clothes over the sin of abortion, but do little to make sure that every child is born into a safe and prosperous neighborhood where he will be cared for and protected. You do little to address the disaster that is your child welfare system; you ignore the needs of the addicted, the abused, and the desperate.

Can’t you just hear what God is saying to you and your religious leaders today? ‘I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

That’s not me, you may say. You’re convinced that you’ll be all right in the end. You’re not like those hypocrites, you put money for the poor in the Salvation Army kettle, you sent ten bucks to the victims of Katrina, and you sponsor a child with that group on TV. ‘Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria.’”

Amos would probably be no more popular in the time of Bush the 2nd than he was in the time of Jeroboam the 2nd. The high priests of our day would come from their shrines on Madison Avenue, in Hollywood, in the Pentagon, in Colorado Springs and Tupelo, Mississippi to denounce Amos, just as Amaziah did in chapter 7.
But popularity is no indicator of truthfulness. Maybe we ought to add another band on our wrists: “WWAS: What Would Amos Say?”