Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Romans 14 in the Age of Fake News

It happened again yesterday. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across an article that I knew right away was "fake". It was posted by a well-meaning friend as well as being liked and shared by several others. The headline was compelling enough that I had to click the link to read what all the fuss was about. Everything written seemed plausible, despite the obvious typo in the headline, but then I reached the end of the article where it read, "source: ufomania.org".

Graphic from CNN.com
Thankfully this happens less now that the heat of the campaign season is behind us. But people are still biting on the bait and getting hooked even if it is with less frequency. Later in the day another friend shared a meme (so it was without any source) making a dubious claim that put down another only to score a political point.

Why do we continue to get sucked in like this? There were numerous articles following the presidential election regarding fake news and how social media has become an echo chamber that only serves to reinforce our opinions. Here are just a couple articles that go behind the scenes. I'm going to summarize what many see as driving this phenomenon.

We desire a validation of our worldview. This isn't limited to politics. It extends to religion, sports, and entertainment. I'm guilty of this- if I watch a move that really gets my wheels turning, one of the first things I do is check reviews to see if anyone else picked up on the same things I did.

We want validation and acceptance. That's why we congregate around like-minded people. That's why it is more joyful to watch sports in a crowd versus alone on your TV (and why tweeting during live events has become so popular- so much so that some sports websites even include a social media frame along with live streaming). This is human nature and why headlines that reinforce our points of view are compelling. We tolerate our own cognitive dissonance because being validated is more important than being right. At the same time seeing news, articles, or memes that fit our preconceptions subliminally convinces us that our opinions are right (thereby making other opinions wrong, which is technically impossible).

We want to believe. Sometimes we think we know something but maybe we lack confidence in its truth. So we cling to anything that builds up our personal lack of faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see" (going with the NIV translation- you can switch out confidence and assurance with "substance" and "evidence" if you'd rather rely on the King James). So faith is inherently confident and is self-reinforcing with its own evidence. This definition of faith then assumes some level of trust.

But we don't apply faith that way. We have faith in things we hope for, but hope is only that. We hope something is true, but we lack confidence or assurance so we seek out evidence. This type of faith is the type that implicitly exclaims, "I told you so!" when we find what we think is proof. So we share articles about NASA scientists that proved the calendar is missing a day because of Joshua making the sun stand still thousands of years ago.

We get sucked in by sensationalist headlines. Did you know that in the mainstream media journalists don't write their own headlines? Did you know that in publishing authors usually don't come up with their own titles? There are professionals whose job is to write the headline that will get the most attention or book titles that will sell the most copies. There is research in the social sciences that takes this as far as identifying the best fonts, verbs, and even the maximum number of words to use. Online we try to maximize our Search Engine Optimization.

Over the weekend I was watching one news program where a journalist was getting grilled about a sensationalist headline that the host then claimed qualified the news as "fake". The journalist tried, with little success, to defend his work by noting that he didn't write the headline. He tried to steer the discussion to make the point that what some are calling "fake news" are simply examples of sensationalism or bias (both of which drive ratings, clicks, and shares).

Yet we're guilty of promoting the sensationalism we're being fed. In the example I opened with, which wasn't a political story at all, the headline was catchy enough to share without even reading the contents of the article. Had the person done so, I suspect she would've noticed the suspicious source being "UFO Mania". But that's not the only example. During the election a friend shared an article about Planned Parenthood based on a headline that seemed to reinforce her worldview. She apparently didn't read the article, because the article made the opposite point she was trying to advance. And this leads me to my last reason...

We have a problem with a lack of discernment. Much was made of the "intelligence gap" or "education gap" identified in polls during the election. But this isn't necessarily a matter of intelligence or education. Discernment is different. A lack of discernment takes things at face value without critical thinking. Discernment is the ability to take information and question its validity, independent of knowledge, information, or opinions you already have. You can be uneducated and have discernment. This is often described as being "street smart". At the same time, you can be highly educated and lack discernment. We see the same thing in church where someone might be described as "so heavenly minded they're no earthly good".

I hate to say it, but the church is guilty of promoting this lack of discernment. We listen to sermons built around verses that are proof-texts for the point that is trying to be made even if taken completely out of context. We do not follow the example of the Bereans who were of "more noble character" for checking whether what Paul was preaching was true (Acts 17:11). Meanwhile we reinforce a leadership structure that assumes a hierarchy of knowledge, holding those with a  DMin or MDiv with special esteem. Even though we have access to more information than ever before, tools that can help us study the Bible with unprecedented depth, we're really not that much different than the peasants who were kept in line by the church by their illiteracy.

If we don't dig deeper on matters of eternal importance, why would we expect to be any different when it comes to the media we consume? We blindly trust what a particular news source has to say the same way we nod our heads and proclaim "amen!" during a sermon that makes a point nowhere to be found in scripture.

Which brings me to Romans 14.

Romans 14 would seem like a non sequitur after the discussion of politics in Romans 13 but then we remember that this also follows the Romans 12 admonishments to "not think of yourself more highly than you ought" (12:3) and "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (12:18). Taken in that context, you could consider Romans 13 and 14 as applications of 12.

Interestingly, Paul immediately follows his discussion of politics with a warning to not quarrel over disputable matters, as if anticipating the obvious divisions to come. At the same time, he tells us to "accept the one whose faith is weak" and uses dietary laws and religious feasts as examples. What we sometimes miss when reading this is that these religious duties aren't analogous to whether or not it's ok to watch R-rated movies, rather they are demonstrations of one's own religious identity.

Follow the train of thought Paul is providing us: live at peace with one another, submit to authority because everything is under the authority of God, don't get wrapped up in disputable matters, and don't allow those things to become central to your religious identity. In other words, don't let politics define your religion. Because if you do, it will prevent you from being at peace with others, make you unable to submit to governments whose policies you disagree with, and lead you into useless arguments over matters of opinion (a literal translation of "disputable matters").

Sounds a lot like the state of the church today.

Running through this train of thought is the notion that some will be able to do this easily and others will not. Some will have faith that is "strong", while others will struggle because of their "weak" faith.

It may sound mean to say that those who revel in "fake news" are weak in their faith, but taken in this context it is the truth- they merely lack discernment. That doesn't mean I get to look down on them or mock them (which I am seeing far too often from Christians on the progressive end of the political spectrum). Rather Paul tells me that I need to be patient with them and put aside my own convictions for the sake of their faith.

So what do we do to confront the fake news we see nearly every day? We need to remember that the Kingdom is not a matter of Republican or Democrat (to paraphrase 14:17) and that "anything not done in faith is sin" (14:23). We need to ground our politics in faith- faith has to come first- and practice our convictions with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (the rest of verse 17). We have to be humble enough to set aside our political points of view for the sake of others. Really, if our political discourse is causing someone else to struggle- whatever the reason, whether it is based on fake news, or is argumentative, or devalues the unnamed 'other'- we need to knock it off.

And prayerfully by applying the word we can learn discernment, by having confidence in God's love we can overcome our need for validation, by growing in faith we can increase our confidence in those things that are unseen, and with our eyes fixed on Jesus may we not become distracted by sensationalism because in him alone is Truth. In Christ there is nothing fake.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Submit to All Authorities?

Debating politics with another believer? Chances are one of you, and some point in the argument, played the Romans 13 card. Like most trump cards (no pun intended) it is really useful when desperate, but can be ignored if not needed. But what does it really teach us about politics?

A year ago, my church started having adult Sunday school before our weekly worship services. I've been helping teach the classes and we've covered the Psalms, Revelation, Ephesians and most recently, Romans. Our class on Romans happened to coincide with the elections and many were hoping we'd get to chapter 13 before having to vote. Unfortunately, covering only a chapter at a time, we didn't get to the thirteenth chapter until well after the elections and into the new year. I lost count of the number of times someone would ask for my thoughts, knowing that we were weeks away from covering the material but feeling the urgency of our political climate.

Photo: Mark Wallheiser, Getty Images
Interestingly, had someone asked for my opinion a year ago my answer would have been much different. But studying Romans following in-depth studies of Revelation (and its condemnation of the false prophet-beast/church-state) and Ephesians (with its emphasis on unity) changed my perspective greatly.

Coincidentally, or perhaps it was the Holy Spirit- who am I to say?, we studied Romans 13 the week before President Trump took his oath of office.

Of course on the surface, Paul is usually quite straightforward- "submit to all governing authorities". The only qualifier he offers is that governments are established by God to enact justice on behalf of God.

Most of the time when discussing this passage, we add our own qualifiers- as long as the government's laws don't conflict with God's laws, or that the word of God always trumps (again, no pun intended) worldly edicts or executive orders. Unfortunately the oft-quoted, "we must obey God, not men!" is from the book of Acts, not Romans. Paul doesn't give us any way out. We are to submit. Period. End of discussion.

Except that it's not the end of discussion. The most common mistake when it comes to Bible-interpretation is to take verses from the Bible as stand-alone nuggets of specific wisdom without considering its context. And the context of Romans 13 is important.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that Paul wrote this to a church under the rule of Nero. Or even to consider the political subtext of its cultural context (see The Arrogance of Nations by Neil Elliott for that discussion). I'm talking about the context within Paul's letter itself.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that Romans 13 comes after Romans 12 and before Romans 14. Romans 12 describes an ethic that Christians should strive for. It begins by instructing us to offer ourselves as "living sacrifices", not "conformed to the pattern of this world". This echoes Jesus, "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:24) If we seek the things of this world- politics, power, wealth- then we will lose our very selves. But if we choose to make ourselves living sacrifices, giving up those very things that the world promises will make our lives better, we will gain so much more.

With that "renewed mind" opening the chapter, Paul continues with a few statements that are crucial to understanding Romans 13. In verse 3 we are told to "not think of yourselves more highly than you ought" and similarly in verse 18 that "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another". (See my post from Romans 12 for more) Paul describes a position of humility as our default state. Then he closes the chapter by urging us not to take revenge because that is up to God. (12:19).

Interestingly, right after Paul tells us that it is up to God to judge and avenge, he then tells us that the government wields the sword in Romans 13. So government is an instrument of God's. This wouldn't have come as a shock to Paul's audience, despite being subject to Nero, because Paul already established this (and Jews recognized this from many of their own scriptures) in Romans 9 discussing how God used Pharaoh to bring about the Exodus.

At this point, it is crucial to examine our own faith. If we truly believe God is sovereign, doesn't that mean he is sovereign over governments? Much ado was made of "God intervening" in this past election. But would those Christians make the same argument if Hillary Clinton had won? Either God is sovereign or he's not. He's not just sovereign only when you get your way.

So what if you disagree? What if government is corrupt? Well Peter gives Christians in Rome similar instructions even while they are undergoing persecution (1 Peter 2:13-15). And we know from history how God used foreign, and assumed to be evil, governments to enact his will- Pharaoh during the Exodus, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:17), and Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). So even if a government is evil and corrupt, that doesn't prevent God from using it for his purposes. (Important distinction there: his purposes, not ours). Again, Paul doesn't give us any disclaimer to 'submit only if...'

So we must check our hearts. Why do we disagree? What are our motives? I appreciate Warren Wiersbe for pointing this out- you can outline Romans 13 by our motivations to submit to government: fear of judgment (verses 3-4), our conscience (verse 5), love (verse 8), and Jesus himself (verse 14). Do you disagree because you did something wrong and deserve justice? Not a good enough reason. Do you disagree because of your conscience? Well you need more evidence than that. Do you disagree because of love? In other words, is a law you disagree with inherently unloving? Now we're getting somewhere. Finally we come to the traditional canard- what would Jesus do? Would Jesus obey this law?

So there's a progression we need to examine when we oppose our government. Ultimately, if we cannot practice civil disobedience from a posture of love in submission to Jesus then we are only seeking our own self-interest or self-righteousness.

Another point to consider when you oppose government is Paul's following argument in Romans 14, which can be summed up as the strong must bear with the weak. In other words, you need to put your self-interest aside and think of others first. So is your opposition for your own good or for the good of another? I'll have more on that point in another post.

So does Romans 13 actually mean what it says and we're to submit no matter what? Pretty much yes, but context offers some nuance: we are to be humble, God is sovereign, and our motives have to be loving rooted in Christ.

Don't play the Romans 13 trump card to try an win an argument against someone with a different political perspective than you. Rather apply it to yourself. Check out that log before you worry about someone else's splinter.

(for more discussion on Romans 13, check out the podcast 'Theology on Mission' with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw and their episode: Protesting Romans 13)


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Perspectve

Yesterday I watched the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary while monitoring reactions on social media. It was interesting to see how either accepting or rejecting this particular Cabinet pick was taken so personally by so many.

Speaking of taking things personally, the same time I was glued to the TV my wife was a thousand miles away helping some of her family make funeral arrangements. The whirlwind of the past couple of days has helped me put all this political debate into its proper perspective.

So far this year, averaging nearly weekly, either someone close to me has passed away or someone close to someone close to me. Three in the past week alone. As hard as this has been, it has been good reminder that our lives are "but a mist" (James 4:14). That while we debate politics online, people in the real world are suffering- physically, emotionally, or spiritually- and our time is limited to do anything about it.

This isn't meant to diminish what I see are legitimate concerns with what is going on in the United States politically. But I think politics have become a sport- you cheer your side and boo the other, and defend your colors proudly to everyone you meet. It has become a distraction- I get too emotionally wrapped up in the latest headline while there is a homeless person on the nearest street corder begging for bread.

What I fear most about this distraction isn't just that it keeps our hearts away from the real needs right in front of us but that it also keeps our eyes from heaven, anticipating the return of Jesus.

Jesus told a parable about a 'rich fool' who plans to build a storehouse for all his grain so he can take it easy in the future. But he is a fool because that future never comes: "You fool! This very night your life will be demand from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" (Luke 12:20)

I'm beginning to view politics the same way. We choose who to support based on what we get out of it. But bureaucracy is slow. We won't see the effect of economic policies enacted now for a couple of years at best. The Department of Education won't disappear overnight (despite a bill desiring as much) and even if it did, the local school your child goes to won't just suddenly close. It took a year and a half to craft, debate, and pass a bill for national health care. It took several more months to enact it. We vote for what will benefit us in some future that may never come.

You fools! You vote worrying about your future when your very life may be demanded from you tonight. Or tomorrow. Or in six months.

But what about our children? And their children? These votes aren't just about us, but their future as well! I understand that, I really do. But it begs the question, in what or in whom are you putting your faith?

"Some of you will say,  'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil." (James 4:13-16)

If it is the Lord's will. That's a big if. And for whatever reason, whether you agree with it or not, this administration is God's will*. (Romans 13:1) So is our faith in God or our government?

*note, I have a post on this passage coming, so don't get too hung up on defining "God's will" quite yet

One last thought, as hard as it might be to put into practice the Bible is still true. "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these thing will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:33-34)

Don't worry about what politics is going to do about tomorrow. Do what you can to seek first God's kingdom today. Today has enough trouble to deal with, we have to trust God for tomorrow.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Useless Arguments

"Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way." (James 4:1, MSG)


Skim your Facebook feed and tell me this isn't so. Politics, religion, even griping about your boss/job/kids/school- it all comes from the same place in our hearts: we don't get what we want, so we complain. We may have grown up but we still act like spoiled children. We've just taken our tantrums from our bedroom floor to our Facebook wall.

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV)

"But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless." (Titus 3:9, NIV)

Useless, foolish, and stupid arguments. Sounds like social media.

I'm not saying we should be silent. We can cheer on or favorite sports team, or talk smack against a rival. We can share videos of cats being scared of cucumbers. We can also share headlines that catch our attention, make us scratch our heads, and at times make us question our place in the world.

Yes we can talk about religion and politics, taboo topics at the dinner table. But there's a right way to do it.

*****

When I was in college, I heard a sermon from Romans 12. At the time I'd go to church when I felt like it, leave feeling justified, and continue living as before. The Sunday I heard this sermon probably followed a Saturday night partying. It is likely I was hungover. But for the first time in a long time, the word came alive. My ears perked. I heard something I had never heard before: what my life was supposed to look like.

I don't remember the specific passage discussed; I know it wasn't the whole chapter. But my curiosity was piqued, I had to go back to my room and read the whole thing. I had to know what this was about. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. Romans 12 described what a Christian was supposed to look like. I didn't look like that. My friends didn't look like that. My church didn't look like that. This one chapter rocked my world.

Romans 12 has been a central part of my Christianity ever since. Even last weekend a guest preacher was giving his sermon and described Romans 12 as a "mini Bible"; that whenever we're not sure what we should do, we can always turn there for guidance.

Even if we debating politics.

For the past few months I've been teaching through the book of Romans. The first eleven chapters are deep in theology and history, filled with cultural nuances and relational complexities. But then Paul shifts gears. Therefore... because of everything I just bored you to tears with, live this way.

And as the Bible is wont to do, studying Romans 12 in our current polarized political context brought forth fresh insight. Those same key verses rang true, but they rang more clearly than they had before.

*****

"Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought." (Romans 12:3, NIV)

Besides our selfish motives, what causes fights and quarrels among us is pride. If I'm arguing with someone, I obviously think I'm right. Therefore, you must be wrong. We don't communicate with a sense of humility. We don't consider opinions outside our own echo chamber. We are not open-minded.

So we just shout past one another.

"As much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (Romans 12:18, 84NIV)

So we fight and we quarrel and we don't get what we want. We don't try and be peacemakers. We have to be right. Our worldview must be reinforced. Our political convictions must be protected at all costs.

And so we don't listen. We don't consider other people's perspectives, their experiences, their feelings. And we continue to divide.

"Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21)

We need to change our political discourse. We need to heed Paul's instructions. We must speak humbly, be peacemakers, and avoid sowing division.

*****

There is a lot going on in the world right now (there always is!). There is a lot to be concerned about (but not everything, and not everything the media would want you to think). As Christians, we need to stand out as light. We need to change the perception that we are known more for what we are against than what we are for. Bottom line, we need to love.

I wonder, if we all put this into practice what would my Facebook feed look like? Or maybe I should just go back to watching cat videos.