What Are We Accomplishing?

February 21st, 2011

Yesterday, during the morning worship service, I learned of Said Musa, an Afghan man facing execution by his government. His "crime"? Apostasy—Musa converted from Islam to Christianity about eight years ago. You can learn more through the Christian Post and National Review (and if you have registered with Wall Street Journal Online, an article here), but basically, Musa was arrested in 2010 after being seen in a video of a Christian worship service in Afghanistan. Even in the face of death, he has refused to recant his faith.

In the National Review article, Paul Marshall makes a probing observation:

[W]hen an obscure and aberrant Florida pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn a Koran, not only President Obama but much of his cabinet, as well as General Petraeus, weighed in on the matter.

If the actions of a Florida pastor who threatened to destroy a book holy to Muslims deserved public and presidential attention, then the actions of the Afghan government, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ ally, to destroy something holy to Christians, a human being made in the image of God, also deserve public and presidential attention.

As to the immediate situation, please consider making your views known to the White House (a web contact page is here).

Yet suppose the President were to decide to intervene. To what ideas would he appeal? More generally, what is the nature of the problem here? What is wrong with executing Musa?

This calls attention to notions of law and religious freedom. As a general matter, law imposes some scheme of morality, which is ultimately religious in its foundation (which indicates why the aphorism "You can't legislate morality" is not true). There are limits to the degree of religious freedom that a society can afford without undercutting itself. Some subscribe to a belief-action distinction in which the society does not forbid belief but forbids certain actions implementing those beliefs. For example, one might not criminalize belief in human sacrifice but would forbid the practice of human sacrifice; indeed, failing to prohibit human sacrifice would be destructive to our society. Similarly, one might not forbid belief in sharia, but to permit the imposition of sharia would be destructive to our existing society.

Of course, even a belief-conduct distinction does not totally solve the situation. If a belief is true, then contrary beliefs are false. In that case those holding contrary beliefs are in error and thus subject to the consequences of holding those false beliefs. Consequently, those holding a belief on important matters will, if they have concern for those around them, want others to turn from error and believe the truth, and thus they are likely to evangelize and "proselytize." Yet those holding opposite views will naturally view such efforts as subversive, as seeking to turn persons from truth to error. Which side is right? How can one judge without regard to the validity of the respective truth claims.

Thus, to condemn Musa's execution as a simple denial of religious freedom or some other universal human right is facile. Faithful adherents of Islam are not likely to see a problem; those who deny Islam almost certainly will. A person's evaluation of the underlying truth claims will ultimately wield great influence in the way the situation is analyzed and in what arguments will be convincing.

Back to Afghanistan, we have been engaged in armed conflict in Afghanistan for years now at tremendous cost of lives and money. Life is precious, and government funding is in short supply. If we have pushed out the Taliban for this government, one wonders what we are accomplishing—at least in this area?

Yet, as a general matter, exercises in "nation building" are a challenge in societies that do not share our culture, especially the component values and norms. We cannot expect others with vastly different religious beliefs to accept readily our views of ordered society and representative government. That leaves me wondering just how much we can expect to accomplish.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

February 15th, 2011

Probably you have heard of—if not seen—the ongoing Jeopardy contest in which man once again faces a machine, this time an IBM computer named Watson. Much is being said about the match and its implications. But I was struck with something that I read in the computer trade press today:

Operating on a single CPU, it could take Watson 2 hours to answer a single question. A typical "Jeopardy" contestant can accomplish this feat in less than 3 seconds. For Watson to rival the speed of its human competitors in delivering a single, precise answer to a question requires custom algorithms, terabytes of storage and thousands of Power7 computing cores working in a massively parallel system. (eWeek)

Massive it is! The photographs of Watson are striking. All to match the power of a single human brain.

When I read this, a verse of Scripture came immediately to mind. Addressing the Lord, David writes

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:14)

Let's chew on that.

See in Yonder Manger Low

December 26th, 2010

See! in yonder manger low,
Born for us on earth below,
See! the Lamb of God appears,
Promised from eternal years.

Lo! within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies,
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits amid the cherubim.

Say, ye holy shepherds, say
What your joyful news today;
Wherefore have ye left your sheep
On the lonely mountain steep?

"As we watched at dead of night,
Lo! we saw a wondrous light:
Angels, singing peace on earth,
Told us of the Saviour's birth."

Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was Thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this!

Teach, O teach us, holy Child,
By Thy face so meek and mild,
Teach is to resemble Thee
In Thy sweet humility.

Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption's happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

—Edward Caswall

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

April 4th, 2010

Christ the Lord is ris'n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav'ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened Paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Dying once He all doth save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Foll'wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

—Charles Wesley

Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted

April 1st, 2010

I heard and sang this hymn of Thomas Kelly for the first time last Sunday. It is fitting for Passion Week as we consider the death of our Savior.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ‘tis He, ‘tis He!
‘Tis the long-expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
By His Son, God now has spoken
Tis the true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear him groaning,
Was there ever grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress;
Many hands were raised to wound him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
‘tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.

Here we have a firm foundation,
Here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
Who on him their hope have built.