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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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abuse of power current events injustice law politics

More Thoughts on the Mueller Report

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Robert Mueller was in a quandary. On the one hand, qualified legal opinion prevented him from prosecuting a sitting President for criminal acts. On the other hand, his investigation had uncovered compelling and substantial evidence that the President had sought to obstruct justice and tamper with witnesses in multiple federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Even determining that a crime had been committed could potentially weaken a future case against the President because it could be argued that the President was unfairly slandered when there was no official venue for him to clear his name or defend his integrity. Mueller therefore did the only thing he could do. He reported the facts and evidence in his investigation into obstruction of justice by the President without drawing a conclusion about whether his actions constitute a crime.

Mueller offers four reasons for conducting a thorough investigation without prosecuting the President or even determining whether he committed crimes.

  1. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Justice Department issued an opinion that a sitting President could not be prosecuted because it would undermine his ability to fulfill the duties of his office. Since Mueller’s investigation was for the Department of Justice, he chose to abide by that opinion. The Constitutional duty of determining whether the President committed crimes and prosecuting them falls on the Congress, with the House of Representatives bringing articles of impeachment and the Senate acting as a judicial body for the trial.
  2. The OLC’s opinion still permits an investigation, and Mueller had broad authority under the Department of Justice to pursue his investigation wherever the evidence might lead. Since the OLC’s opinion applies only to a sitting President, charges may still be brought once he is no longer in office. A thorough and comprehensive investigation now preserves the evidence for later prosecution. This gives new meaning to Trump’s reiterated wishes that he might be President for life.
  3. Since no charges could be brought, it would have been unfair to determine that the President had committed a crime. Under normal circumstances, prosecution and public trial provides an opportunity for the person accused of a crime to explain their actions and present exculpatory evidence. The courts have held, for example, that naming persons in an indictment without also charging them violates their right to clear their name in a public trial.
  4. Despite being unable to bring charges or determine that a crime was committed, the investigation was unable to find that the President did not commit obstruction of justice. If they had, they would have said so. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The facts and evidence presented in volume 2 of the report show that the President repeatedly and consistently sought to interfere both in the FBI’s investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election and in the special counsel’s subsequent investigation. He sought to influence FBI Director Comey’s conduct of the FBI’s investigation, eventually firing him because he could not obtain the result he sought. He also sought to curtail the Mueller investigation and urged witnesses to lie to investigators. The evidence is substantial and well-documented. The President even made public statements about his intentions.

The case against the President is serious and substantial. Charges stemming from it—if they are ever filed—would constitute federal felonies. Some members of Trump’s campaign and administration have already been charged with similar crimes and pleaded guilty or been convicted. Some are currently serving terms in federal prison. The question still to be decided is, “What are we, the People, going to do about the President?”

For many Trump supporters, of course, none of this makes any difference. They have already doubled-down on their support for him so many times that they are now blind and deaf to any fresh allegations of crimes he may have committed. It is all a conspiracy by the deep state. Even a cursory examination of Robert Mueller and his investigation, however, shows that such ideas are utterly unfounded. It would be hard to find a man of greater integrity in the conduct of his office. His investigation was thorough, painstaking, and by the book. If you have any doubts, read his report. Of all men living, only Trump could slander Mueller and be widely believed.

For the rest of us, our elected representatives in Congress have been handed a detailed case for impeachment. The only impediment to starting impeachment proceedings is political. Democrats have both a hope and a fear. They hope to win enough Senate seats for a majority in the Senate. They fear that impeachment proceedings could sway the election next November in Republicans’ favor. They might also be holding impeachment in reserve in case Trump wins a second term. If he does not win, he very probably will face charges in federal court. There will be no opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel to hold back federal attorneys from prosecuting him.

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death family fear injustice jesus kindness memory myth sin suffering theology

Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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