The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

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We are Kermit Gosnell

Justin Donathan is a husband and father of two precious little girls.  He is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary  and the University of Oklahoma, and he lives in St. Louis, Missouri where he is currently working in the legal field as he pursues a call to pastoral ministry.  You may contact him at jdonathan@gmail.com.

The details of the trial of abortionist and infanticidist Kermit Gosnell have been haunting me, and I’m sure many of you, for some days now.  What this man did, and how he got away with it are so difficult to process on so many levels.  I’ve felt anger, sadness, desperation, horror, and more reading the testimony and editorials.  And then there are all the issues with the trial itself. Read more…

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Just War as Christian Discipleship – Part 1


I recently finished reading Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s excellent little book, Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State. And while I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a full review, I figured I would post more than a few excerpts here over the next few days and weeks.

Bell’s book isn’t perfect, and there are a few areas where I think we are left with more questions than answers, but overall it is a very good introduction to just war history, theory, and practice from a distinctively Christian perspective, and its benefits and usefulness far outweigh its flaws.

While Bell avoids partisan debates for the most part he pulls no punches in speaking straightforwardly about what justice demands in the Christian tradition as it developed from the Augustine and the fathers (modified from Plato and the Greeks) through to Aquinas, Vitoria, and Grotius in the early modern period.it is an excellent introduction to the Just War tradition from a distinctively Christian perspective, and its strengths are much more prominent than its weaknesses.

After a brief history of Just War thinking, and making an important distinction between modern, secular, just war theory, what he calls Just War as public policy checklist or Just War (PPC), and Just War as Christian discipleship or Just War (CD), Bell asks the question, “Has there ever been a just war?”

Such is the history, in brief, of the just war tradition since its adoption and adaptation by Christianity. What the history reflects is that war is not one thing always and forever, that it is no necessarily and inevitably “hell” as Sherman and others would have it. To the contrary, it is a human practice and as such is capable of being waged in different ways, from the highly ritualized and almost game-like wars of medieval chivalry that were minimally lethal (my favorite example being a yearlong war involving one thousand knights in the 1127 CE during which five died, four of those being the result of accidents), to the limited wars of attrition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the total wars that characterized significant wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At the outset of this chapter, the question was raised as to whether war could ever be just. Both pacifists and realists suggest the answer is no. While the historical overview suggests that war need not be total, it does not provide an entirely satisfactory answer to the question of whether war can in fact be just. By itself it does not refute the skeptics. These skeptics sometimes pose the question of just war in a more pointed manner by asking, Has there ever been a just war?

Such a question threatens to plunge us into the midst of the culture wars and the ideological battles of the current moment. After all, there is no shortage of persons willing to proclaim this or that war just or unjust in a manner that appears to be driven more by the political fortunes of the moment than by any deep familiarity with the just war tradition. From the longer perspective of history, there are historians of war and of just war who have argue that there have indeed been just wars.

From a Christian theological perspective, however, the question of whether there has ever been a just war is largely beside the point. From the standpoint of the Christian moral life, it is the wrong question. After all, the Christian moral life does not depend on whether that life has ever been lived faithfully before or not. If Christians are called to be a just war people by God then the proper response to that call is not to step back and ask, Has anyone else done it before us? Rather, even if it means going forth like Abram and his family into the unknown and unprecedented (Heb. 11:8), the proper, faithful response is to discern how our life should be so ordered in response to that call that we might be a people who wage war or refrain from waging war in accord with the precepts of just war. In other words, the proper response to the call to just war is not, Has it been done before? but, How then should we order our live so that we might respond to the call faithfully?

Perhaps the misguided nature of the question will be clearer if we put a similar challenge to another facet of the Christian life. Take, for example, the Ten Commandments. We might ask if there has ever been a Christian community that has embodied them perfectly? Has there ever been a Christian church that has succeeded in living out even one of them perfectly? Or take the Great Commandment that we love God and our neighbor. Has there ever been a church that has followed that commandment without flaw or failure? That the answer to these questions is no does not in itself render the commandments invalid, irrelevant, or unrealistic. That the Christian church has displayed and in the course of its life continues to terrible failures with regard to both love of God and of neighbor does not abolish that calling or erase the reality of that love in its life. That we miss the mark, that we continue to struggle with sin, does not diminish either the high calling to or the reality of holiness and virtue in the life of the church. Our failure as a people does not disprove God’s call; neither does our repeated failure establish that we are not in fact capable of accepting and embodying that call. All of this means that even if one could definitively show that the church had never even once embodied the just war discipline in war, that in itself would not prove that just war was neither the church’s calling nor a real possibility in its life.

Henson Ong on Gun Control: “A free people can only afford to make this mistake once.”

My Nominee for Man of the Year

I realize that this is essentially a symbolic act, and that the emotional reaction I get from it is much stronger than the actual impact it will have.  Still, I get a great deal of vicarious enjoyment out of seeing a man confront Congress as the negligent civil servants they are.

Reflection on the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle

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Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew

Today the Church remembers St. Andrew the first Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a martyr for the faith.

About:

St. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was born in the Galilean village of Bethsaida. Originally a disciple of St. John the Baptist, Andrew then became the first of Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-40). His name regularly appears in the Gospels near the top of the lists of the Twelve. It was he who first introduced his brother Simon to Jesus (John 1:41-42). He was, in a real sense, the first home missionary, as well as the first foreign missionary (John 12:20-22). Tradition says Andrew was martyred by crucifixion on a cross in the form of an X. In AD 357, his body is said to have been taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople and later removed to the cathedral of Amalfi in Italy. Centuries later, Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland. St. Andrew’s Day determines the beginning of the Western Church Year, since the First Sunday in Advent is always the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day.

Reflection:

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/Martyrdom_of_andrew.jpgReverent hearts, we hold the feast of the apostle Andrew in Christendom as the first in the [Church] Year not only because it falls near the season of Advent but also because Andrew was called first, before the other apostles, by the Lord Jesus. Even Durandus the bishop of Mende (13th century liturgist) , says, “The saints are be honored by imitation, not adored, as honor them as gods. They are to be honored with love, not adored with servitude.”

Now history tells us how St. Andrew. together with his fellows conducted their new office. Right away they left their nets and followed the Lord Jesus. And again, right away they left the ship and their father and followed Him. To them, Jesus is now the most precious one on earth—according to His mind they learn, according to His words they teach, according to His will they live, according to His decree they suffer and die. When St. Andrew was threatened with the cross, he said joyfully, “If I feared the punishment of the cross, I would never have preached the mystery of the cross.” Then when he saw the cross, he spoke, “Hail, precious cross, you who were dedicated by the body of Christ; may He receive me through you, who redeemed me through you.” And when he was living after three days on the cross, his hearers wanted to take him down by force, but he said, “Ah, let God take care of it! Do not make the peace of the Gospel suspect by your unnecessary revolt against the government.” That was apostolic constancy and long-suffering! This is what it means to “leave everything and follow Christ,” all the way to the last catch of fish.”

—Valerius Herberger (21 April 1562-18 May 1627, a German Lutheran preacher and theologian)

All of the above cited from the Lutheran Treasury of Daily Prayer.

Luther on the Inseparability of Faith and Good Works

Faith, however is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, [John 1:12-12]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures. And this is the work that the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has show him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.

–Martin Luther, from his Preface to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, cited in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, IV. 10-12

Ron Paul’s Farewell Address to Congress

Today Ron Paul gave his farewell speech to Congress.  It wasn’t flashy or nostalgic.  It was long, detailed, serious, and full of invective and exhortation.  But it was what needed to be said.  It was what it had to be.  A sober assessment of one man’s efforts to bring real change and responsibility to an out of control and corrupt system.  Paul knows that on the surface he has little to show for his efforts, but as he mentions, today there is a growing constituency of people, especially young people, that see in his well worn arguments, his jeremiads against tyranny, his calls for a recognition of the importance of liberty, not the ravings of a crank or a tinfoil-hat-wearing curmudgeon, but the passion of someone who has spent a lifetime advocating for liberty and principle over and against corruption and personal aggrandizement.

Today marks the end of an era.  Ron Paul was the consummate statesman of our age.  We can only hope that those he has inspired will carry on his legacy of character, fidelity to principles, honesty, and service.  Today we salute you Dr. Paul.

Is the election just an exercise in scapegoating and championing?

My friend George wrote an excellent piece on the sociological phenomena that attend voting.  It’s short but sweet.

Are you, like me, worn out by presidential election season?  It is exhausting keeping up with debates,  sorting truth from lies, tracking the ads, dissecting the statements, and arguing with our neighbors.  And all leading up to what? Casting one measly vote out of millions.  Our efforts to change the world for good start to feel like riding a ten-speed bike in first gear.  We frantically spin our feet but hardly move.

Every four years we invest a disproportionate amount of our time, energy, and emotion in an event that we have virtually no influence upon.  And we sense the futility. We rightly seek to bring righteous transformation to the world, but when we examining it objectively we see the investment doesn’t pay off.
Why do we do this?  And is there a more efficient way to change the world?

Read the rest here.

A Review of Children of Heaven

My wife and I recently watched the Iranian film Children of Heaven by director Majid Majidi.  The film debuted in 1997 to rave reviews and won a number of awards, as well as gaining widespread critical and viewer praise.  It is indeed beautiful, or at least poignant,  in some ways.  The director captures a range of emotions, especially from the brother and sister protagonists in a uniquely honest, and penetrating way.  There is a kind of childlike simplicity to the film that, as Roger Ebert noted, is a bit of a breath of fresh air after the almost constant barrage of cynicism and smart-mouth snarkiness of so many modern American  films aimed at children.  Children of Heaven isn’t exactly a children’s film but, like some of Roberto Benignin’s works, it has a childlike character to it, and would probably be enjoyed by many children.

The film’s story revolves around a poor young Iranian boy living with his family in the poorer part of  Tehran who, after picking up his sister’s shoes from the tailor, loses them, innocently enough on his way home.  Fearing their parents’ wrath, the two children conspire to share the boy’s shoes until they can come up with a plan.  This leads to many problems from shame on the part of his sister at having to wear too big boys’ sneakers, to the brother (Ali) being routinely late to school since his sister’s classes end just minutes before his begin.  Finally a plan is hatched for the brother to enter and, not win, but get third place in a city-wide foot race for boys his age, the third place prize for which includes a new pair of sneakers.  I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that things don’t work out quite as planned.  Nevertheless we are tipped off, through a fleeting shot of the father’s bike cargo, that through some extra money he has made doing gardening for the wealthy in Tehran  he has bought both children a new pair of shoes.  Nevertheless, the film ends with the boy dejected and crestfallen (not knowing of his father’s purchase) at his inability to do for his sister what he had promised.

There is much more that could be said, and there are a few high points in the film (like when a shopkeeper takes pity on the sister who has dropped one of the remaining pair of shoes into a gutter and helps her retrieve it), but in the end I was quite unimpressed with the film.

However, I do think it illustrates some important points about the fundamental differences between Christian, or even vestigial post-Christian cultures, and pre-Christian cultures.  Obviously, being shot in Tehran, the film is set in an Islamic, and non-Christian context.

What stood out to me and my wife both, more than anything, is that the central conflict, the anxiety that riddles the film and creates all the (palpable) tension, was premised upon a fundamental inability of the children to communicate with the adults in their lives.  And the fault was not with the children.  For the first 10-15 minutes  of the film (after the opening sequence), the viewer is subjected to multiple scenes in which it seems that every adult is yelling at either another adult or, more often, one of the children.  But that’s just the beginning.

Think about it.  A 9 year old boy loses a pair of shoes.  Even granting severe poverty, this should not be a cause for the kind of existential angst that the children endure for the next 90+ minutes.  But it is.  There is no ability to simply explain to his parents what has happened.  (What did happen, for context, is that he set the shoes, which were in a plastic bag, down in a sort of cubbyhole between a few crates of a street vendor’s vegetables while he stepped inside the shop to pick up some potatoes for his mother.  While he was selecting the best ones he could find, a street person walked by and, after gaining permission from the vendor to pick up the empty bags, did so, accidentally picking up along with them the bag containing the shoes.  An innocent happenstance by any reckoning.)  Yet this scenario led to a situation in which the children felt doomed, unable to tell their parents for fear of beating, and being shamed, and unable to speak to any other adult in their lives.

But the problem is simply compounded from there as the children try their best to deal with the problem on their own.  Yet everywhere they turn they find hostility, impatience, and a kind of subtle brutality from the adults in their lives.  Ali is struggling to get to school on time after making the shoe switch with his sister.  But it’s as if explaining the situation to the principal is unthinkable.  He is simply berated.  (One of the few adults in the movie that does come off as decent is his teacher, who rescues him from being sent home at one point, but even then, it seems that he does so because Ali is one of his best students, and not because of the fundamental injustice of not hearing the young man out, who is clearly at his wit’s end, stifling tears, and trying to hold himself together.)

I could go on at length with examples, but the point is that while the film takes up the children’s perspective, and show the children’s innocence, it doesn’t exactly make the adults, who treat the children with utter contempt, appear particularly bad.  It’s as if that’s just the way life is.  One can’t help but feel that Ali and his sister will likely grow up to be the same kind of calloused and harsh people their parents are.  It’s as if the director wants to celebrate the innocence of youth, while at the same time giving in to a kind of fatalism that says that innocence must be lost, and when it is, so must be kindness, compassion, care for others, and basic decency.

A couple more examples will help demonstrate.  Their is one notable sequence in the film where the father becomes very jovial, kind, and even playful with his son.  It is when he has made a large sum of money unexpectedly (with his son’s help) doing some gardening for a rich family up-town in Tehran.  Yet this only illustrates the basic problem that throughout the film poverty and hardship are seen as legitimate, or at least unavoidable excuses for cruelty and harshness.  In the ethos of the film it seems entirely natural that the father would go from being a cruel authoritarian to a jocular friend and father with just the addition of some cash.

Likewise, one of the most poignant scenes in the film occurs when Ali and his sister, having discovered that a girl who goes to school with the sister is now wearing the lost shoes follow her to her house.  Clearly they have in mind to confront her or her family, or to somehow try to get her shoes back.  But then, peaking around a corner they see that her father is a blind beggar.  Immediately the two look at each other with knowing glances that communicate that they both realize that they cannot seek to get the shoes back.  They may have been lost unfairly, but you cannot take back even what you need  from a blind man and his daughter who had nothing to do with the initial loss (they had traded for the shoes with the street person who picked them up in the first place).   As I said, this is a beautiful and poignant moment in the film, but what is striking about it is that it demonstrates a moral and ethical sensibility in the children that one simply cannot imagine  being shared by the primary adults in the film.  The children are the mature characters, conspiring against the bickering and hateful adults whose domination they live under.

Finally, the film’s end follows a pattern set which seems determined to mitigate any real sense of hope.  The film is full of one vignette after another where hopes are raised and then dashed.  Ali kindly picks up his sister’s shoes from the tailor and stops at the grocer for his mother, but alas, his sister’s shoes are stolen in the process.  Ali’s father finally finds a way to make some good money for the family, but the scene ends with a brake failure that results in a bike crash and a simultaneous crushing of what had been the most joyous and hopeful moment in the film thus far.  Ali proves to be a very fast runner and excellent athlete, sure to be able to get his sister the shoes she needs, yet things don’t work out.

[Spoiler alert: Don’t read beyond here if you don’t want to know how the film ends.]

It even seems that the director is so intent on continuing the motif of dashed hopes that he will suffer plot holes to retain this theme.  For instance, Ali noted in the film that if he won third place he would have to exchange the shoes he won, as they would be boy’s shoes, and too big for his sister.  Thus the idea of trading a valuable item won for what his sister needed is already introduced.  Yet somehow we are to believe that the first place prize is not of equal or greater value and thus not something that can be traded for a pair of shoes for his sister?  This simply made no sense to me.  Yet it seemed necessary to continue the theme of dashed hopes, and almost victories.

But to get back to the actual ending, the film concludes in such an odd way.  On the one hand we know that the father has purchased new shoes for both children, yet we are left with an image, beautiful as some find it (I actually found it a bit odd) of the dejection of a child who feels that he has failed to remedy a situation that he only felt responsible to remedy in the first place  due to the failure of the adults in his life to truly care for him.  I was at first shocked and baffled when the credits rolled, and then almost angry.

There are other points that could be made about the general setting that I believe represent a sort of pre-Christian reality– a world filled with death, whether it’s the dingy, unclean buildings, the gutter that runs through the center of every street, the wholesale sworn allegiance of small children to the great leader, etc.  but that is an essay for another time.  For now I will just note that there was a sense of despair, hopelessness,  and even death that seemed to hang over the film.  Poverty is indeed a dark thing, but history proves that the light of the gospel can and has created and sustained light and life even in the midst of poverty.  The poverty of this film was not the poverty of those who had hope, but the poverty of the dejected, downtrodden, and those who live in darkness.

What struck me about this film is that, although it is about children, and is in some sense told from their perspective,  it is set in a world that simply doesn’t value children.  Throughout the film children are treated as a bother and an inconvenience, except when they are essentially functioning as labor, or, in the case of the race, as a source of glory for the adults around them.  They are not listened to, or sympathized with (with a few counter-examples such as the shopkeeper mentioned above).  Their childlike wonder and naivete is not appreciated, as it was so famously by Jesus.  And ultimately the whole crux of the film was premised upon the children’s inability to communicate their needs, failures, hopes, desires, and even fears to those whose job it wasto care for them. I found the film poignant in a certain way, but also depressing and even maddening.  My wife described her reaction thus: “You know that sick feeling in your stomach that you got when you were hearing about the wicked Stepmother in Grimm’s Fairy Tales?  I had that feeling all the way through the film.  It’s like the kids were living in the presence of the evil Stepmother all the time.”  So often I couldn’t fathom the adults seeing a child in tears (even, for example, as Ali won the race) and not trying to figure out what was going on, what was wrong.  Instead, the adults gloried in the win of one of theirs even as the winner himself was clearly distraught and in deep emotional pain.

Children of Heaven is valuable in that it gives us a very powerful picture of the experiences of children, unfortunately it gives us a picture of the lives of children in a culture that devalues and uses them, and in the end take a sort of fatalistic, que sera, sera attitude that implies that the innocence of children is good and beautiful but not something that can be a model for us.  Jesus disagreed.

“…Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:3 ESV

Are you morally obligated to vote?

A few questions I have had for those who claim that it is your moral obligation to vote in the upcoming presidential election are these:

Do you vote in every election that you are eligible to vote in?  Every one?  Are you even aware of all of them?  I’m not.  Alderman, city council, dogcatcher?  If not, do you feel the need to repent when you fail to vote in any election you are eligible to vote in?  Do you scold or chastise friends, relatives, and neighbors who do not?  Even if you don’t, do you believe that you or they have sinned or failed to live up to your/their moral duty?

If the answer to any of these is no, then what is the criteria upon which it is claimed that one has a particular moral duty to vote in this election, or, more generally, in the national presidential and congressional elections that come up every four years?  On what grounds is there a moral imperative to vote in these elections that does not hold for each and every election that one could potentially vote in?

And, to add a bit of fuel to the fire, let’s remember that one’s vote for president is arguably the single vote that you can cast in the United States political system that has the least consequence.  For one thing, there are simply more total votes in this election, making yours a smaller slice of the pie.  Further, the electoral system means that if you are in a solidly red or blue state your vote will simply not count in the final analysis, period.

But more than that, many of the other votes you can cast, including the ones for alderman or city council will likely have a much more direct impact on your life than your vote for president.  Your vote in those local elections, combined with watercooler discussion and maybe a sign in your yard could at least theoretically have a measurable impact on the outcome of an election for someone that will make decisions that directly impact your day to day life (zoning, fireworks, local taxes, police numbers, etc).  I’m not saying this will necessarily be the case, but it is far more conceivable than the idea that your vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama (or even a third party candidate) will have any noticeable effect on either your life or that of those you care about.

I’m not advocating abstention here.  In fact, I intend to vote in the presidential election (although largely because there are so many other issues on the ballot that I am more interested in voting on).  I also think there are good reasons to vote in the presidential election if you can do so in good conscience   My point is that the attempt to make such voting a moral imperative and even to shame people into voting are misguided and uncalled for at best, and in many cases appear to me to be rather hypocritical.  It seems arbitrary to pick certain elections that one feels strongly about and suggest that it is a moral duty to participate in them, while not voting in, and perhaps not even being aware of, numerous other elections that have a less high profile status.

PostScript:

Finally, and just because it is a personal pet peeve, I cannot abide the claim that so many have suffered and died so that I could vote, thus now I am obligated to.  No, some have suffered and died to give me the right to vote or not. That’s why it’s called freedom. They suffered and died for freedom, including the freedom to protest a corrupt system by refusing to give it the consent of the governed.  I’m not necessarily saying we’re there just now.  I’m saying that it is a category mistake to claim that they  suffered and died so that I must vote.  If anything they suffered and died so that I may vote.  But further, and tragically, some of them suffered and died because our corrupt system sent them into unjust, undeclared, and unconstitutional wars, where they were used as cannon fodder to support political machinations.  So they are not martyrs for my freedom, but rather martyrs to the egomaniacs that control this country at the highest levels of government and use them to advance political interests.

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