Letter from America: Coping with hurricanes

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Members of the South Carolina’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SC-HART) perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas, August 31, 2017. The SC-HART team consists of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the South Carolina Army National Guard with four Soldiers who are partnered with three rescue swimmers from the State Task Force and provide hoist rescue capabilities. Multiple states and agencies nationwide were called to assist citizens impacted by the epic amount of rainfall in Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez)

Late on Friday 25 August 2017, Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall as a category 4 hurricane in south Texas, after gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico.

With wind gusts of 130 mph, it hit Rockport, Texas, and then moved back into the Gulf, only to make a second landfall in Corpus Christi as a category 3 hurricane.

The storm soaked the Houston area with over 50 inches of rain. While many hurricanes break up after making landfall, Hurricane Harvey parked itself over southeast Texas, especially the Houston area, for five gruelling days with little signs of dissipating.

The combined effect of record-breaking rainfall and the overflow of reservoirs, bayous and levees caused massive flooding in the streets. In many places the floodwaters were over 10 feet deep and people had to take shelter in trees or on rooftops.

Nearly a quarter of Harris county was submerged under floodwater. The storm caused widespread power loss in the Houston area and shelters were scrambling to find adequate food and water for thousands of refugees.

By 29 August, over 13,000 people had been rescued and more than 30,000 were displaced across the state. Houston airport was shut down and hundreds of flights cancelled.

Since its advent in the Caribbean, Hurricane Harvey has caused the deaths of over 80 people and billions of dollars in damage. It is probably the worst storm to have made landfall in the United States.

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)

Civil response

As floodwaters began to rise in Houston, people scrambled to get above water. The city police, National Guard and many other first responders rescued thousands. Many looked to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to issue a mandatory evacuation, but the mayor declined, stating, ‘You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road. If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare’ (CNN, 8-29-17).

Other city officials and even CNN meteorologist Chad Myers agreed with the mayor: ‘He was right when he said, “I don’t want 6.5 million people on flooded roadways and dying in their cars”.’

The mayor of Houston did order a city-wide curfew and positioned high-water rescue boats near critical areas for immediate evacuation. The George R. Brown Convention Center was opened as a shelter, with hundreds assisting evacuees with food, water, first aid and other needs.

The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, issued an order to the National Guard to assist with evacuation and rescue efforts and the Army Corps of Engineers worked hard to manage the large reservoirs brimming with water from the rains.

With nearly 6.5 million people in the Houston metro area alone, rescue and aid efforts were overwhelmed and in desperate need of manpower. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was also involved in coping with the disaster.

Civilian response

One of the amazing things about this tropical storm was how so many civilians were instrumental in aiding the rescue efforts. Locals in the Houston area with boats, fired up their motors or used their canoes and kayaks to help neighbours out.

Federal groups like FEMA welcomed this aid. An article in The Atlantic put it this way: ‘That isn’t necessarily a sign that FEMA was unprepared for the hurricane, or that it’s unusually overwhelmed. In fact, the expectation that civilians will spring to action is central to the way federal, state, and local governments approach huge disasters like Harvey.

‘There’s simply no way for those levels of government to marshal the resources fast enough to do all that needs to get done. Roads are impassable; resources are spread out; and manpower is limited’.

While government cannot provide a response as quickly as needed, a top-down response from the government probably wouldn’t have been the best answer anyway. Local people know much better what they need and benefit from being involved.

Groups from all over Texas drove down to help out. Men from the Fort Worth area fired up their airboats to help out. When asked why he volunteered, one boater commented, ‘We’re Texans, dude. We’re … crazy. We help each other’ (‘As Harvey moves east’, Los Angeles Times).

Cajun Navy 

Not only were locals involved, but volunteers from other states came to help. The ‘Cajun Navy’, a flotilla of boaters organised through Facebook from neighbouring Louisiana, drove down, with their boats in tow, to assist with rescuing those displaced by the floods.

Experienced in navigating the waterways in Louisiana and having helped out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the boaters drove nine hours from Baton Rouge, through heavy rain, to the edge of the floodwaters in Humble, Texas, about 20 miles north of Houston.

One group of the Cajun Navy, led by Todd Terrell, had organised 763 boats and had over 1,500 volunteers spread out over Texas. Using map and walkie-talkie apps on their phones, they spread out on the flooded roads looking for those who needed rescue.

During one such rescue effort, the Cajun Navy came to the aid of stranded residents at an assisted living home in Port Arthur, where elderly folks in wheelchairs were waist deep in water.

One pastor from Louisiana was asked why he came. ‘I lived through Hurricane Katrina, and, in some ways, this is worse’, he said. ‘It’s going to take Texas a long time to come back from this. When we were in trouble twelve years ago, Texans came down to help, and so we are just loving our neighbour back’ (Ibid.).

Church responses

Since Harvey’s catastrophic touchdown in southeast Texas, churches have been at the forefront in giving aid and providing shelter. USA Today interviewed two members of City Church in Houston, who loaded 30 vehicles with blankets and other supplies and distributed them at local shelters.

One of the church’s members, Joe Looke stated: ‘Christ says the two biggest charges are to love your neighbour and to love Him, and that’s what we’re trying to do’. One local children’s minister saw 16 refugees huddled together in a gas station and invited them all, including their dogs, to her home (‘In a storm the church is bigger than Joel Osteen’s building’, USA Today, 8-30-17).

Many criticised Lakewood Church, the 16,800-seat megachurch pastored by Joel Osteen, for not opening its doors to refugees during the flooding. The church closed its doors over the weekend and did not open them until Tuesday morning.

Local social media users posted pictures of the megachurch with little damage from the storm and apparently in excellent condition to host refugees. Someone tweeted, ‘Worth noting that some of their parking is underground (note flood gates) but they could still drop ppl off at the door easily’ (@cmclymer).

Due to such criticism, many statements were made by the church in defence of their decision. Don Iloff, Osteen’s brother-in-law and church spokesman, stated that there were safety concerns over flooding and the church posted pictures of standing water in the hallways and car park. Iloff also reported that the area around the church was flooded and three flood victims had come to the church before being taken to the George Brown Convention Center.

The church officially stated: ‘We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution centre for those in need’ (CNN, 8-30-17). When Lakewood did finally open as a shelter to flood victims, they posted pictures of donated items that had been brought to the church.

Wider help

Other churches around the USA sent funds and fresh supplies to the refugees in Texas, Louisiana and other affected areas. Organisations such as the Presbyterian Church in America’s Mission to North America and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief raised monies to help provide supplies for the flood victims.

Please be in prayer for your American brothers and sisters who have experienced the loss of homes, businesses and even family members. May God use this disaster as a means of bringing people closer to himself.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in November 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

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North America and Reformation in the Netherlands

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Perhaps the Reformation’s most lasting impact on the American church has come from the Netherlands.

The Reformation came later to the Netherlands than Germany and England, perhaps because of extreme persecution. The German states retained some autonomy, but there was no such protection in the Netherlands. During the Reformation era, over 50,000 Protestants were martyred for their faith.

When Philip II ruled over the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), he persecuted the Dutch, through his Spanish bishops and veteran armies. He also stripped the nobles of their power and imposed heavy taxes on the people, thereby solidifying the Dutch against the Spanish, politically, economically and spiritually.

As James E. McGoldrick has written: ‘Economic and political factors provoked resistance to Spain, and Protestantism infused it with spiritual energy and dedication. The history of the Reformation in the Netherlands is therefore the story of a struggle not only against religious despotism, but against political tyranny also’ (Presbyterian and Reformed churches: a global history, p.56).

Treaty of Westphalia

War broke out between the Dutch and their Spanish overlords. Led by William of Orange, the Dutch eventually secured freedom for the Netherlands, after the Eighty Years War, at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The Dutch then began establishing their own church. One of its principal leaders was Guido de Brés, a pupil of Calvin. He was one of the main writers of the Belgic Confession of Faith. This, along with the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort, comprise the ‘Three Forms of Unity’, the theological backbone of the Dutch Reformed Church and Dutch Reformed Churches in America.

Some other factors marked out the Dutch Reformed from other Protestant churches. The Dutch extended freedom of religion to Catholics and Jews, and desired the state to advise in spiritual and moral matters. Its church was also characterised by a strong vision for Christian education.

Because of their policy on religious freedom, many other Protestant groups, such as the Scottish Covenanters, French Huguenots and English Separatists found refuge in the Netherlands. However, over time, threats to Christian orthodoxy crept in from the state. Influential men, such as Grotius and Descartes, were to have a devastating effect on the church’s theology.

Though efforts at reviving and reforming the Dutch Reformed Church came at different intervals, the Great Secession (Afscheiding) occurred in 1834, when many pastors left to eventually form the Christian Reformed Church (1869). Since then, the Reformed church in the Netherlands has split and re-formed many times. Some of the strongest and most orthodox branches of the Dutch Reformed movement are now in the United States.

Early Dutch influence in America

The Dutch joined other European nations in colonising America. The first Dutch settlements began in 1621, when the Dutch West India Company bought land from native Americans along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, and called it New Netherlands. This eventually became New York city.

Many of those who settled here were Protestant refugees uprooted by the Eighty Years War. The first governor of New Netherlands, Peter Minuit, was an elder in the colony’s first church and a devout believer. Jonas Michaelius was pastor of the church and sought to share Christ with native Americans in the region.

Like their homeland, the colony stood for religious freedom and became a haven for Puritan dissidents and others. It remained Dutch until 1664, when, as ‘New York’, it became Great Britain’s colony. The church would almost certainly have come under threat with the change, had not William III (of Orange) been a native Dutchman.

Dutch influence remained strong in New York until 1820 when the use of the Dutch language in churches died out. Dutchmen who had a gospel influence in America during the Great Awakening included Theodore Frelinghuysen and John Livingstone (a Scot educated in the Netherlands).

The Dutch Reformed Church in America has been zealous for Christian education and the church has remained a strong Calvinist stronghold, closely allied with the Presbyterian Church (especially its ‘Old Side’). In 1867 it became the Reformed Church in America and began sending missionaries to China, India and Japan.

Abraham Kuyper

During the late 1890s, America received its greatest Dutch influence in the person of Abraham Kuyper. As heterodoxy gripped the Dutch Reformed Church in its homeland, orthodox believers continued to hope that the church would revive again. But then ‘Groningen theology’ emerged, a liberal movement that rejected the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ.

The orthodox were led in opposition to this heresy by Abraham Kuyper, who himself once espoused a modernist interpretation of Scripture and even rejected the resurrection. But, converted while pastor of a Dutch Reformed Church, Kuyper had become a sound Calvinistic theologian and preacher.

Not only was he instrumental in refuting Groningen theology, he also founded the Free University of Amsterdam, a Christian newspaper and a Reformed political movement in his homeland. However, he concluded that reformation was not possible in the Dutch Reformed Church and so left it to start the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, in 1886.

Perhaps Kuyper’s greatest influence on the United States today is through his theology. In 1898, he delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton, setting forth his Calvinistic beliefs. Kuyper’s assertion was that: ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’

This means that Jesus Christ is Lord over all areas of life, including science, art and politics. This was Kuyper’s covenant-kingdom worldview that shaped his writings, lectures and life. During his lifetime, he was an effective professor of theology, a journalist, pastor, and politician. He even became prime minister of the Netherlands.

Pillarising

Kuyper was also a pioneer of ‘pillarising’, a societal system, in which social differences are measured against ideological rather than socio-economic factors. Each religious or political group (Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, Socialist, etc.) had its own social and political institutions, free from state meddling. This approach is still pivotal today in Dutch politics and society.

Kuyper was progressive in his thinking and sought to distance himself from the stigma of Enlightenment thinking and be innovative in all things, especially in the social, spiritual and political freedom of minority groups. He sought to marry theological orthodoxy and cultural progressiveness.

Kuyper’s influence in the US is also felt in his ‘neo-Calvinistic’ thinking. He maintained that Calvinism was not merely a type of theology, but a way of thinking and life with a profound impact on practical life. It was the ‘only decisive, lawful and consistent defence for Protestant nations against encroaching, and overwhelming modernism’ (Lectures on Calvinism, p.12). It is the ‘most consistent form of Christianity, and indeed Christianity’s highest expression’ (Ibid., p.190).

Kuyper said, we should view all academic subjects through the lens of God’s truth. Scholarship is a ‘sacred calling’, where we are cultivating our minds around God’s truth, and, in so doing, glorify and honour him. This idea has greatly influenced Reformed Christians in America.

Kuyper also promulgated the idea of sphere sovereignty, in which each of us has their own sphere of influence: work, family, church, state, etc. Each sphere interacts, but stays separate.

Kuyper urged that, since all spheres are created by God, they are all under his sovereignty. However, each sphere has its own sovereignty. So, the state should not exercise power over the church, and the church does not have authority over the state. This does not mean that churchmen cannot be involved in politics (he held political office for many years). Rather, it means that the church shouldn’t dictate on laws and other matters to the state.

Calvinist worldview

This philosophy has influenced many American educators, pastors and theologians, including Tim Keller, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson. It has also influenced academic institutions like Covenant College, Calvin College, Dorothy College, the Clapham Institute and Redeemer University College.

In summary: Calvinistic Dutch influence has instilled a great sense of the importance of sound education as being to the glory of God among Reformed believers (Kuyper himself was home-schooled by his father); the Three Forms of Unity have left a lasting impression on the Reformed American church — my own church, for example, (which is not Dutch Reformed), uses the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism for corporate confession, along with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms — and we owe much to the tenacity and fervour of the Dutch Reformed, their love for education and desire for a Christian influence in politics.

Today the largest Dutch churches in America are the mainline Reformed Church in America (RCA), with over 138,000 communicant members, and the conservative Christian Reformed Church in America (CRCNA), with over 235,000 members. The latter is Calvinistic and many of its members embrace Kuyper’s Calvinist worldview.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in October 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Letter from America: Women’s roles in the Presbyterian Church in America

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This June, the 45th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in Greensboro, North Carolina, to carry out the business of the church.

The previous year had been a landmark year in the life of the church, as elders from the conservative Presbyterian church voted to usher in racial reconciliation in a historically Southern denomination, that had once been prejudiced against African Americans.

Further issue

While Overture 43 in the 2016 assembly brought about an incredible time of repentance and prayer by the brothers (see report in Evangelical Times, September 2016), the assembly was overshadowed by the appointment of a committee to study women’s roles in ministry.

This appointment garnered intense debate, as many feared that this study committee, made of women and men, would encourage the full inclusion of women as elders and deacons, such as the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) practices.

However, a ‘Committee on women serving in the ministry of the Church’ had been commissioned, to examine the role of women in ministry, with five study goals: the biblical basis, theology, history, nature and authority of ordination; the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses; and, should the findings of the committee warrant Book of church order changes, to propose the necessary changes for the GA to consider.

The committee was also charged with composing a pastoral letter, to be approved by the GA and sent to all churches, encouraging them (within the parameters of the PCA’s doctrinal standards) to: promote the practice of women in ministry; appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church; and hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.

History

The PCA was founded in 1973 to stand fast against the advances of theological liberalism and remain pure to the Scriptures and Reformed doctrines. One of the pivotal issues that caused this split from the liberal Presbyterian Church was the issue of women in church leadership.

While the Presbyterian Church in the Southern US was slower than that in the North in its progress toward liberalism, the ordination of women as elders and deacons became the norm, during the 1960s as America was caught up in the civil rights debate.

As the above committee stated: ‘When the PCA was formed, objection to the ordination of women as pastors and elders was an animating issue. We agreed upon it and rallied around it (all of us, men and women), because we rightly saw that it was an issue of biblical authority. Today, that commitment remains dominantly embraced’.

Today, the PCUSA ordains women as elders and deacons in accordance with the culture’s mandate for the full inclusion of women in every sphere of leadership. The PCA has maintained that the role of elder is only open to men. But, in recent years, some churches have practised the commissioning of women as deaconesses or forgone the practice of ordaining deacons, by informally selecting men and women for the service of the church.

This is not the first time a study committee on this subject has been approached. During the years 2000-2011, the PCA’s GA was busy debating and judging cases where presbyteries had commissioned or ordained women as deaconesses.

Overture

One such instance was in 2009, when the Philadelphia presbytery presented an overture concerning this issue, since they had licensed a candidate who took exception to the Book of church order 7-2, which states that, ‘In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only’.

The presbytery presented an overture to the GA to examine this subject, but the GA answered in the negative. It was ruled that, ‘The question of the role of women in the Church is not a new or unstudied issue … the proposed study committee is unlikely to break new ground or shed new insights’ (37th GA, 2009).

While the suggestion to form a study committee lay dormant since 2011, the issue of women as deaconesses did not. Pastor Phil Ryken of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia wrote an article on the subject, stating Tenth’s stance as: ‘Nor do we ordain women as deacons. Although this was our former practice, since joining the PCA in 1982 we have sought to honor the teaching of Scripture and our adoption of the Book of church order by ordaining men only as deacons — a useful and dignified office.

‘At the same time, we have appointed gifted women to assist the deacons in their ministry. Each year women are nominated for service, approved by the session, and presented to the congregation for election at our congregational meeting in December.

‘In January they are commissioned for their service through prayer, much the way we commission our Sunday school teachers and short-term workers, which includes neither the laying on of hands by the elders — a rite of ordination — nor the congregational vow of obedience which church members make to deacons as officers of the church’ (‘Brief statement on deaconesses in the work of Tenth Church’).

Other pastors, such as Tim Keller, Jim Hurley and Ralph Davis, agreed with Ryken, though others like Ligon Duncan differed on this subject. While the subject was approached through writing and much internal discussion, the question of women’s roles in ministry still came to the forefront in 2016’s GA.

Report

The committee, made up of men and women from the PCA with all sorts of views on the subject, worked extremely hard over the course of the year to bring forth nine recommendations and a statement to the 2017 GA.

They presented their report and the GA accepted it with thanks and worked, over the course of two days, to debate the nine recommendations.

To be brief, the report confirmed the confessional standards of the PCA, that only men were to be ordained as deacons, and gave an extremely helpful exegesis of the scriptural basis of ordination.

One of the major events in the GA’s business was the debate over Overture 3, where the Westminster presbytery made an overture to, ‘Declare that the 44th General Assembly erred in the formation of an ad interim committee on the role of women as not being properly before the court, and dismiss the ad interim committee with apology’.

After much debate (in which a motion almost prevailed to dismiss the whole report), this overture was answered in the negative.

The GA took each recommendation one at a time and much time was spent in debate. The assembly adopted Recommendation 5, which stated that sessions (elders of the church) should ‘consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church, so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilising the gifts God has poured out to his entire church’.

Furthermore, the GA voted to approve an amended Recommendation 6, which reads, ‘that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate’. They also affirmed Recommendation 8, which stated that ‘sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and under-represented women in the PCA’.

Conclusion

While many in the PCA were concerned about this committee and the complexities it would present the conservative denomination, the committee must be thanked for their due diligence in searching the Scriptures and providing a concise report for the assembly.

This issue of the role of women is a tough one, to be sure, especially since the PCA is much broader in its views than other smaller conservative Reformed denominations. We must praise God that the committee’s report remained biblically orthodox in deciding that only men should be ordained to the office of elder and deacon.

Women’s gifts are so often under-represented and under-appreciated in Reformed denominations and I’m thankful the report gave such recommendations at presbytery level.

The report may not have given specific biblical or confessional definitions for their recommendations, but at least they encouraged presbyteries to work these matters out, so that these issues may come to the assembly through their proper channels.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in September 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Letter from America: President Kennedy’s Assassination

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Minutes before assassination

On Friday 22 November 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

Then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s immediate succession and Kennedy’s sudden death spurred worldwide controversy and raised suspicions of conspiracy, that were increased by the nature of the investigations that followed.

This year, thousands of documents not previously released (many thousands were released in the 1990s) were published after a directive from President Trump.

Motorcade

President Kennedy’s purpose in coming to Dallas was primarily to reconcile divisions that had arisen within the Democratic Party in Texas before the 1964 election (the following is based on archives.gov).

Tensions had arisen between the current governor John Connally and Ralph and Don Yarborough (no relation). While meeting with the governor in El Paso earlier in June, the president decided to visit Texas again in November and it was agreed the governor handle the planning and details of the president’s visit, with presidential special assistant Kenneth O’Donnell acting as coordinator for the trip.

Originally the plan was for the president to visit four major Texas cities in one day. Later, the trip was extended to last from the afternoon of Thursday 21 November to Friday 22 November. It was also agreed that a motorcade through Dallas would be the best way for the public to see the president.

Initially, the governor was not in favour of this plan, since he thought there would not be enough time, but later agreed. ‘Once we got San Antonio moved from Friday to Thursday afternoon, where that was his initial stop in Texas, then we had the time, and I withdrew my objections to a motorcade’.

All the necessary security measures of the time were taken into account and local police and federal security officers were apprised of possible threats to the president. There had been no mention of Lee Harvey Oswald.

When the president made his visit to Dallas on that fateful day, thousands of people lined the street designated for the parade, awaiting his arrival. The planned route of ten miles meandered from Love Field, through suburban Dallas, and downtown to the Dallas Trade Mart.

Shots

As the president’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza at 12:30 CST, two shots (and many thought a possible third) were fired from the Texas Schoolbook Depository. The first shot passed through Kennedy’s throat, while the second shattered the right side of his skull.

‘Governor Connally sustained bullet wounds in his back, the right side of his chest, right wrist, and left thigh’. He had heard the first shot and turned to his right to shield the president, but never was able to, because the second bullet hit him in the back.

After the second shot, the driver accelerated the vehicle and drove to the hospital. ‘Other secret service agents assigned to the motorcade remained at their posts during the race to the hospital. None stayed at the scene of the shooting, and none entered the Texas School Book Depository building at or immediately after the shooting. Secret service procedure requires that each agent stay with the person being protected and not be diverted unless it is necessary to accomplish the protective assignment’.

The president was still breathing when they arrived at the hospital, but soon died in the trauma operating room at approximately 1.00 pm. It was surmised by the medical staff that ‘President Kennedy could have survived the neck injury, but the head wound was fatal’.

President Kennedy’s body was then taken to Love Field and placed in the back of the aircraft. Just before take-off, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States, with Jacqueline Kennedy looking on in shock at his side.

Jack Ruby shoots Lee Oswald

Aftermath

No one saw it coming. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who murdered President Kennedy, was not even on the list of suspicious persons before the president’s visit to Dallas.

Some 70 minutes after the assassination, Oswald was arrested near a theatre, for the murder of the president and of Officer J. D. Tippit, and was questioned by Dallas police and the FBI. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was held in custody for two days.

Upon being transferred to a vehicle that would take him to jail, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, shot Oswald in front of live television. This sequence of harrowing events, followed by the conflicting reports of witnesses of Kennedy’s assassination as to the number of shots fired, or the location from where they were shot (the depository or ‘the grassy knoll’), made the whole event seem like conspiracy.

The gun recovered on the sixth floor of the depository had indeed been Oswald’s, but no other shooters were found that may have shot from the grassy knoll. The Warren Commission, primarily responsible for reviewing and investigating the assassination, found that Lee Harvey Oswald:

‘(1) Owned and possessed the rifle used to kill President Kennedy and wound Governor Connally,

(2) brought this rifle into the depository building on the morning of the assassination,

(3) was present, at the time of the assassination, at the window from which the shots were fired,

(4) killed Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit in an apparent attempt to escape,

(5) resisted arrest by drawing a fully loaded pistol and attempting to shoot another police officer,

(6) lied to the police after his arrest concerning important substantive matters,

(7) attempted, in April 1963, to kill Major General Edwin A. Walker, and

(8) possessed the capability with a rifle which would have enabled him to commit the assassination’.

On the basis of these findings the commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin of President Kennedy (archives.gov).

Other committees

However, the Warren Commission was not the only party involved in investigating the murder of President Kennedy. Other committees researched the assassination and provided other insights (some contradicting the Warren Commission’s report).

The ‘United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities’ (also known as ‘The Church Committee’) reported that there were many deficiencies in the information the CIA and FBI gave the Warren Commission, that therefore made their findings and conclusion incomplete.

Another committee, the ‘United States House Select Committee on Assassinations’, was also involved, but at a much later date (September 1976). This committee studied the deficiencies of the federal investigative branches in the assassination case in great detail and stated they did not rule out a conspiracy.

Their reasoning was because the CIA and FBI only gave information for specific requests and their findings were often inadequate. Furthermore, they concluded that the secret service did not adequately protect the president before or during his fateful November trip to Dallas. Four committee members wrote dissenting reports to the suspicion of a conspiracy.

A police dictabelt recording was re-examined, along with the facts, and the Justice Department made the judgment ‘that no persuasive evidence can be identified to support the theory of a conspiracy in … the assassination of President Kennedy’ (Letter from Assistant Attorney General William F. Weld to Peter W. Rodino Jr., undated).

Though their findings did not substantiate the likelihood of a conspiracy, the public was not convinced. Even since 1992, the date when records of the assassination were mandated to be released to the public, citizens were convinced that the case was not cold and that conspirators were to blame.

The federal government did not help sway public opinion on this matter, as the documents and substantial evidence for the assassination were held under lock and key, since it was deemed the documents were too sensitive for the public.

Assassination papers

It was not until 26 October 1992 that the United States Congress issued a law, first, establishing the creation of files associated with the assassination, and, second, mandating final and total public disclosure in 25 years’ time.

About 98 per cent of the files were released to the public in the 1990s and still more were released after the JFK Records Act, in October 2017. Conspiracy theorist and historians are now able to review the tantalising documents for possible clues of conspiracy.

The New York Times described the files as ‘a treasure trove for investigators, historians and conspiracy theorists, who have spent half a century searching for clues to what really happened in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963. They included tantalising talk of mobsters and Cubans and spies, Kremlin suspicions that Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the killing, and fear among the authorities that the public would not accept the official version of events’.

However, there are nearly 3,600 files still held back, most of them privy to the CIA and FBI, who have requested the president keep them back for sensitive reasons. They are currently being reviewed for 180 days, and the president has stated that any agency wanting to continue withholding documents after 26 April ‘should be extremely circumspect in recommending any further postponement of full disclosure of records’ (Washington Post, 27 October 2017).

While the agencies involved, especially the CIA, have declared that nothing in the withheld documents purports conspirators, the fact that the documents have been withheld has only emboldened the hopes and assumptions of conspiracy theorists.

Lessons

So what is to be learned from this history? First, it teaches that the heart of man ‘is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). Lee Harvey Oswald was utterly deceitful in his actions.

He murdered the president and he lied about that action, as well as about his possession of the murder weapon. We do not know what possessed him to murder Kennedy, since he never confessed his reasons to the authorities.

Second, we can remember that God is in control of all circumstances, even in horrible tragedies such as this one. John F. Kennedy strove to create and enforce laws that gave equal rights to all mankind, no matter what colour their skin was or whether they were a man or woman.

America was still groaning under the horrors or segregation and racism (as it is today) and many were brazenly opposed to freedoms for African Americans. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson subsequently passed the Civil Rights Bill, stating, ‘No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill, for which he fought so long’.

It could be said that, were it not for Kennedy’s sudden death, the Civil Rights Bill may not have been enacted so quickly. That enactment, at least, is something to praise God for.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in December 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Giving Keller back-word

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When Tim Keller, senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, was selected earlier this year as the recipient of Princeton Seminary’s 2017 Kuyper Prize for ‘Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness’ (a $10,000 prize), the Reformed world was ecstatic.

Princeton had even celebrated Keller as ‘an innovative theologian and church leader’ and a ‘catalyst for urban mission’ (Christianity Today Gleanings, 22-3-17).

The award is named after Abraham Kuyper, a prominent neo-Calvinist theologian from the Netherlands, and is awarded to academic persons ‘whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement, in matters of social, political, and cultural significance, in one or more of the “spheres” of society’ (ibid.).

However, that excitement was dashed to pieces when Princeton rescinded their decision and stated they would not award Keller because of his views on women’s ordination and LGBT. Instead, they would forego the award ceremony and only invite Keller to give a lecture on missionalism, at the conference in April.

Evangelicals were dismayed and confused, wondering why a liberal seminary would want to award Tim Keller, a conservative, complementarian, Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) minister, and then back out of it?

Princeton

Being part of Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary has a distinguished heritage and history. Princeton University — or what was once known as the College of New Jersey — began in 1746, under the auspices of the New Light Presbyterians. It had John Witherspoon, a Scottish minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence, as one of its first presidents.

The college undertook the training of ministers, but by the early 19th century decided they needed more concentrated training, and so Princeton Theological Seminary was born.

Chartered by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1812, Princeton Theology Seminary was born into a stronghold of strong Scotch-Irish theology and thought. Starting with only three students, the seminary grew quickly and furnished pulpits with excellent gospel preachers, all over the United States.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Princeton Seminary was foremost in the defence of Calvinism and Presbyterianism in the American church and trained some of the finest theologians to that end. B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, and Geerhardus Vos were all trained at Princeton during that time.

However, this staunch defence was not to last much longer. During the 1920s the great debate between modernism and fundamentalism shook Princeton. Modernism and liberalism were creeping into the church at this time, and Princeton had front row seats to the debate.

At the heart of the issues debated was the authority of Scripture, and the meaning and reality of Jesus’ death, resurrection and atonement. In the end, evangelicals held firm to the orthodox teaching of the Scriptures and Christ’s death, resurrection and atonement, while the modernists stated that you could modify these teachings for a modern audience.

When Princeton sided with the modernists in 1929, Machen, along with several others, including Cornelius Van Til, left Princeton and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Since that point, Princeton Seminary has aligned with the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). It now holds unorthodox teachings and a modernist stance on large portions of theology, including such hot topics as the ordination of women and LGBT matters. Their desire is to embrace a ‘full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church’ (ibid.).

Reversal

Historically speaking, it made sense for Princeton Theological Seminary to grant its Kuyper Prize to one of the most well-known Reformed pastors and writers in America, Tim Keller. In fact, his work as a pastor, church planter and author fits the description of the qualifications for the award.

However, it also seemed ironic for him to be selected, considering Princeton’s theologically liberal stance on the orthodox teachings that Keller and the conservative PCA hold high and dear.

Princeton president Craig Barnes issued a lengthy explanation for rescinding giving the prize and stated that, ‘We have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year’. Their reason for saying this was the concern of several alumni that giving Keller the award would affirm his and the PCA’s stand on women’s and LGBT ordination — a stance the seminary does not share.

Barnes elaborated: ‘As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centres or student organisations. This commitment to academic freedom is vital to the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community. In talking with those who are deeply concerned about Reverend Keller’s visit to campus, I find that most share this commitment to academic freedom.

‘Yet many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.

‘I have also had helpful conversations about this with the chair of the Kuyper committee, the chair of the board of trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the PCA’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year’.

Aftermath

After this statement was issued, many in the evangelical community condemned Princeton for their tactics and defended Keller through Twitter and other mediums.

Dr Rev. Ligon Duncan, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, tweeted: ‘This is @ptseminary’s loss, not @timkellernyc’s’. Dan Darling, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, stated: ‘If you can’t give an Abraham Kuyper award to Tim Keller, who can you give it to?’

Tim Keller’s own reaction was less boisterous: ‘Let’s just set aside the prize. It’s gotten to be too much of a distraction’ (Sojourners interview with Craig Barnes). On 6 April, he arrived at Princeton as re-planned and lectured solely on ‘Seven ways to have missionary encounters in Western culture’, which were his gleanings from the work of Lesslie Newbigin, an 18th-century British missiologist (Jeff Chu, ‘Princeton seminarians were outraged over Tim Keller. Here’s Keller’s point I wanted my peers to hear’, Washington Post, 12-4-17).

As Chu noted, Keller barely quipped about the liberal mainline, except at one instance where he criticised liberals ‘for overemphasising the gospel’s horizontal, social axis at the expense of the vertical and salvific’. On the whole, Keller’s talk was not antagonistic and did not incite violent commentary from the students. His response to the reversal of the award should be commended; he acted in a gracious and Christian manner.

If there is anything to be said of Tim Keller, he is most certainly not a Martin Luther in temperament. While Luther would have heeded Kuyper’s words that, ‘When principles [that] run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith’, Keller responded quietly, but still stuck to his convictions.

Intolerance

Keller is a winsome man and that should earn him respect among those who do not share his views, even at Princeton. But it is disturbing to think that the freedom to express what we believe and what is absolutely true in Scripture is no longer acceptable in academic institutions or public places around the world.

Still, we must proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and not be surprised when others mock or persecute us. As Jesus says, ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you’ (John 15:18).

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in August 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Letter from America: Culture Clash

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On 12 August 2017, neo-Nazis, members of the KKK and other white nationalist groups met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the proposed tear-down of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and to stage the largest yet rally to ‘Take America back’.

As these hate groups clashed with counter-protesters on the streets, demonstration and protest led to widespread violence, the fatality of three and the injury to dozens.

As I read about this event, I was as disgusted as others by the bigotry and hatred manifested by the white nationalists, let alone the fact that hundreds of them bore black swastikas on shields and cried the words ‘Blood and soil!’ (the Nazi motto).

Hatred and violence

One young white nationalist, a self-proclaimed Nazi stated: ‘We are assembled to defend our history, our heritage and to protect our race to the last man … We came here to stand up for the white race’ (Washington Post, 8-13-2017).

As the groups converged on Main Street, a grey Dodge Challenger hurtled into pedestrians and then sped away in reverse, harming dozens and killing one. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr. is being held in custody.

In the aftermath of the riot, police arrested some and dispersed the crowd, while first-responders aided the wounded and injured. Later, a helicopter crashed for unknown reasons while its two officers were encircling the riots. Both officers died in the crash.

Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, sent the hate groups that converged on Charlottesville the following message: ‘Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth’. The city manager stated: ‘Hate came to our town today in a way that we had feared, but we had never really let ourselves imagine would’.

As the world turned its attention toward Virginia in the news surrounding the violence, many looked toward Washington DC for a response from President Trump. Finally, the president tweeted, ‘We all must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one!’

Later he spoke a little more on the subject, but without specific condemnation of white supremacist groups: ‘The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now … We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides’ (above quotes, Ibid.).

Humble Christian general

As an American from a southern state, it disturbed me that someone would want to tear down an historical monument, especially one of Robert E. Lee. He was one of the best southern men in history, a devoted Christian, a man worth emulating, and a hero to those from the south.

But monuments do remind us of that bitter and horrible Civil War, and the fact that men enslaved other men because they were ‘lesser’ men through skin colour. We want to repent of our racism and past slave-holding and should strive to do that which is loving.

It is interesting to note that Robert E. Lee, a stalwart Christian general in the Confederate army, detested the idea of erecting monuments to Confederate leaders so soon after the Civil War.

He wrote in 1869, concerning a monument to the battle of Gettysburg: ‘I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered’.

He commented further on the erection of a monument to his friend, Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson: ‘My conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the country would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating, its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour’.

I would heartily agree with Robert E. Lee that perhaps these monuments need to come down. It is horrifying to think that such terrible bigotry and racism, especially Nazism, exists in 21st century America, but it is alive and kicking and tearing this country apart.

Love your enemies

Yet despite these difficulties in American culture, the church must continue to preach the gospel and pray for our leaders. This is a time when the world is looking for answers and the church should be ready to stand up lovingly and cry out, ‘We have the answer in Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace!’

This is not a moment for pointing fingers, but to love all around us, especially our enemies.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in December 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Federal Vision

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Justification by faith, where vile sinners are counted as righteous before God for the sake of Christ, is often polluted by the waters of moralism. Martin Luther is said to have described this justification as ‘the article by which the church stands or falls’. It was this that brought him to faith in Christ, as he read through Paul’s epistle to the Romans, while still a monk.

Since the Reformation, countless sermons and books have been preached and written in defence of this pivotal doctrine, and Reformed and evangelical churches throughout the West continue to do battle for it.

Auburn Avenue

One fairly recent theological fad that has caused discord and confusion is a teaching called Federal Vision (FV). This had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Dr Norman Shepherd, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, began to teach to his students that we are saved by a combination of faith and works.

In 2002 he spoke at a pastors’ conference, at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America, PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, along with Douglas Wilson (who only in January 2017 has now distanced himself from FV), John Barach, Steve Wilkins and Steve Schlissel, on ‘The Federal Vision: an examination of Reformed covenantalism’.

Through lectures and academic papers, Shepherd and others propose that baptism imputes the benefits of Christ’s righteousness to the person being baptised, and that a true believer can fall away from the faith.

FV teaching is still active today in certain churches. Dr R. Scott Clark, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, California, describes the movement as ‘a group of writers, some of whom are ministers in confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches’ who deny or question the ‘distinction between the church visible and church invisible and … [propose] that there is no distinction between those who are in the covenant of grace externally and internally’ (The Confessional Presbyterian, Vol. 2, p.4, 2006).

FV fundamentally teaches three things: that men are saved by faith and works; that baptism confers salvation to the soul; and that a true believer may lose his salvation.

Confusion

FV is about a supposedly Reformed view of covenant theology — hence the name ‘Federal’, meaning covenantal, and much of what it seeks to accomplish is a redrawing of the lines between Lutheran, Catholic and Reformed. But, in doing so, it makes a confusing doctrinal mess.

FV adherents suggest there are two kinds of election: an eternal, unconditional election, in which God decreed a particular number to be saved; and a conditional election, in which believers are saved on the condition of their obedience, not Christ’s, after coming to faith in Christ. FV maintains that through baptism someone is regenerated, and all who are baptised are in the covenant family of God.

While FV seems to espouse a high view of the church and cater to the covenant theology-loving hearts of Reformed believers, its ideas are neither found in Scripture nor in the Westminster Standards of Faith that FV writers claim to hold dear.

The Westminster divines clearly made the point that baptism does not save: ‘Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptised are undoubtedly regenerated’ (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF), 28.5). Baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ, but not the actual agent of that union.

Furthermore, the Scriptures state that none of the elect can fall from grace, and denies they are saved by both faith and works. Paul says: ‘For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring, not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham’ (Romans 4:14-16); and ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Justification

FV brings confusion into the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Peter Leithart wrongly maintains that ‘God’s judgment is never simply a declaration that changes one’s legal standing without changing one’s condition or situation’.

Steve Wilkins states, ‘The Bible teaches us that baptism unites us to Christ and his body by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism is an act of God (through his ministers) which signifies and seals our initiation into the triune communion … At baptism, we are clothed with Christ, united to him and to his church, which is his body’ (see PCA’s Report of ad interim study committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology).

FV writers also state that Christ’s active obedience is not transferred to his people and that imputation is ‘redundant’ because it is subsumed in ‘union with Christ’ (Ibid.). But this is directly opposed to the Westminster Standards:

‘Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God’ (WCF, 11.1).

Assurance

One of the things that FV seek to remedy in their teaching is excessive introspection about assurance that can be common among believers. However, they only make assurance more difficult when, in effect, they teach that salvation is dependent on our covenant faithfulness rather than Christ’s obedience.

The PCA report (above) states the situation this way: ‘In the context of Romans 8, one FV advocate concludes that “clearly, Paul is not stating promises that are true only for some unknown group called the elect. Nor is he speaking only to a portion of the congregation whom he judges to be regenerate. Rather, he is applying these promises to all the members of the church who have been baptised and united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection’.

Behind this FV quote is their common assumption that, when the apostles addressed their readers as ‘elect’, they intended this to refer to all members present in the church. Yet this is not true. Romans 9 clearly concludes that there are those within the visible church who are not saved.

While FV proponents use baptism as an anchor for assurance, the Westminster Standards state it is the power of Christ that keeps believers united to himself. WCF, 17:1, states that those ‘whom God has accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved’.

WCF, 3.6, also states these beautiful truths: ‘As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

God’s grace

How comforting this is! It would bring little comfort to believers if our salvation relied on our keeping of the covenant, when Christ did that for us, imputed it to us and, furthermore, keeps us united to himself.

FV is a very slippery slope which makes our union with Christ, justification and assurance all dependent on something that we do. We can indeed be thankful that God’s gospel is a gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, and not dependent on our works.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in July 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Government by Executive Order

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If one thing could be said of Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, he is not a man to mince his words or follow the status quo.

This was clear from his inauguration address on 20 January: ‘Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, but transferring it from Washington DC and giving it back to you the people.

‘For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed’.

His blunt statements have garnered much criticism from politicians, the media and many who do not share his views. And recently there has been much criticism over his executive orders on immigration.

What is an executive order?

For those not familiar with the American political system, there are three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial; and there are checks and balances that prohibit each branch from being more powerful than the other.

As explained on the White House website: ‘The power of the executive branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the cabinet’.

While the President’s role is to enforce laws passed by Congress (the legislative branch), he may also issue executive orders ‘which direct executive officers or clarify and further existing laws’.

The justification behind executive orders (EOs) is foggy at best. Historically, the basis for them comes from Article II of the constitution: ‘the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States’; ‘the President shall be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States’, and ‘he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed’.

EOs have been issued ever since the days of George Washington, especially under President Wilson, who issued 1,800 orders. They have essentially the same power as law if based on constitutional or statutory law precedent, but can be overturned by judicial review.

When Donald Trump became president, he took no time to start running the country and issuing EOs. Of his 13 EOs since coming into office, three have garnered much press coverage and criticism. These pertain to immigration and border protection.

Border security and immigration (EO 13767)

Published on 25 January, this EO directs ‘executive departments and agencies to deploy all lawful means to secure the United States’ southern border, to prevent further illegal immigration into the United States, and to repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently and humanely’.

Trump is here beginning to put into action his plan to build a physical wall between Mexico and the United States. This EO gives greater power to the border patrol and other federal agencies to prevent, detain and repatriate foreign aliens. Although the wall’s planning and construction has yet to begin, due to funding constraints, all other policies contained within the order have been put into action.

During Obama’s presidency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was to prioritise the targeting of serious and dangerous criminals among illegal aliens, but turn a blind eye to other undocumented immigrants.

Under Trump’s administration this priority has changed and, according to the New York Times (25 February 2017), ICE received a morale booster with this EO. In southern California alone, 161 immigrants were detained in the last month for everything from felonies to misdemeanours, while ten of them had no criminal history at all. Not only has the order given ICE power to repatriate all illegal aliens, it has given it a hiring craze to call for 10,000 new applicants.

But not everyone is ‘gung-ho’ about the new immigration crackdown. The media and much of the American public has criticised President Trump’s move, with some calling it ‘extremist, ineffective and expensive’ (‘Trump orders construction of border wall, boosts deportation force’, by Jeremy Diamond, CNN).

The order has not only caused an increase in arrests and deportations, but much anxiety in the Hispanic community. Janet Murguía of the National Council of La Raza has stated: ‘Rather than provide real solutions, President Trump has decided to trigger greater chaos and fear, set in motion a mass deportation force, bully cities that refuse to indiscriminately persecute immigrant communities, and waste billions on a wall.

‘None of these actions will fix anything, but will devastate our economy and the social fabric of our country. Candidate Trump slandered Mexican immigrants as criminals, questioned the fairness of a distinguished US-born judge based solely on his Mexican heritage, and constantly repeated debunked falsehoods about immigration’ (Ibid.).

Public safety within the United States (EO 13768)

This second order and the one above together enhance the authority of United States border and immigration control agencies by disposing of sanctuary jurisdictions.

Previously, many US cities were set up as ‘sanctuary cities’ to protect immigrants from being repatriated by the US government. Matthew Feeney, in the San Francisco Chronicle (20 February 2017), defines this: ‘Sanctuary policies and practices include barring police from asking crime victims or witnesses about immigration status, as well as forbidding officers from stopping someone solely to determine their status’.

But Trump’s EO inhibits such rights by withholding federal funding from sanctuary cities and giving federal and state law enforcement agencies full legal power to apprehend undocumented immigrants.

While some states and cities are not enthusiastic about this order, other Republican states are gearing up for the change. Florida Secretary of State Aaron Bean and Representative Larry Metz stated they are pressing forward with legislation to impose ‘consequences’ on cities and counties ‘who say there are only select, certain federal laws they’re going to abide by’.

Bean said, ‘We’re also looking at removing the umbrella of your sovereign immunity for elected individuals, boards and constitutional officers’ (Kristen M. Clark in Tampa Bay Times, 27 February 2017). This would make law enforcement officials subject to lawsuits, should they not uphold federal law.

Foreign terrorist entry into the United States (EO 13769)

This is perhaps the most unpopular of President Trump’s EOs. It has brought much criticism and a federal judicial review.

In plain terms, it places a cap on immigration to the United States during 2017 (no more than 50,000); temporarily suspends the refugee programme for 120 days; bars entry to citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days; and puts an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. According to the Washington Post,over 700 travellers were detained on the order being issued and nearly 60,000 visas provisionally revoked (24 February 2017).

This caused much heartache for those detained or suddenly separated from their families. There have been protests at airports around the country, and from across the world. Lawsuits have come in from all sides. By the Saturday evening, a federal judge had placed a temporary halt on Trump’s order, calling it unconstitutional.

Later, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rescinded the judge’s order and called for the Trump administration to clarify its reasoning before further federal enforcement of the order could take place. Judges from New York, Washington State and Boston have already declared an emergency stay for international travellers affected by the ban.

Christians stranded

The order caused a tremendous outcry from US universities and businesses. In an interview for CNN, Mahmoud Hassan, an 18-year-old Syrian, stated that his ‘dreams [of attending MIT] are basically ruined’ (‘Trump travel ban: here’s what you need to know’, by Doug Criss, CNN, 30 January 2017).

This order, in particular, has been criticised by the church. In an interview with Christianity Today, president of World Relief Scott Arbeiter stated, ‘Our concern is that this action really does further traumatise a group of people that have already borne so much tragedy. The human toll is really crushing’ (‘Evangelical experts oppose Trump’s refugee ban’, by Kate Shellnutt, 25 January 2017).

Last year World Relief resettled 11,000 refugees, with nearly 1,200 churches assisting them. As Syria sends out most refugees by far, this order is devastating news both for them and for those who have a heart to help them. Many Syrian refugees are Christians who now have nowhere to go.

World Relief and similar organisations have done a tremendous job in relocating refugees and have stated adamantly that it is worth the safety risks to help those who are suffering. That being said, many Christians sympathise with Trump’s decision. Lifeway found that ‘Protestant congregations were twice as likely to fear refugees as help them’ (Ibid.).

The Pew Research Centre has stated that ‘about two-thirds of white evangelicals and mainline Protestants believe that America does not have a moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. Overall, 40 per cent of American voters agreed’. Sad news indeed for those affected by war and terror.

Principles

While Trump has certainly ‘come true’ on many of his policies, these EOs have stretched human rights issues to the maximum, and many in favour of Trump on 20 January are now singing a different tune.

The EOs have affected the church in many ways and pose an important question: how are we to respond to these laws? While we are certainly instructed by Jesus in Matthew 22 and Paul in Romans 13 to submit to the authorities, there is also a gospel obligation to love our neighbour (Matthew 25:34-40).

The greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But the second is, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). I think these principles must govern our view of Trump’s travel ban.

Let us continue to pray that God will expand his kingdom, which knows no bounds, and that we will all love and give help to our neighbours and sojourners among us, whether Syrian or Hispanic.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in May 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

Letter from America: Sports Protest

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Freedom of speech is a democratic right which has been exercised and abused over the course of American history.

This right, while of broad application, is not a total absolute. There are exceptions to the rule that often delightfully coincide with God’s design for the rule of law, such as the prohibition of libel, obscenity and slander, and the freedom to right of privacy.

That being said, freedom of speech is one of the more controversial freedoms. As one of five freedoms expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is something nearly every American knows by heart and can often quote verbatim, if felt necessary.

In recent months, this has led to protests of many kinds, not least those leading up to and following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.

Colin Kaepernick

But there has also been another, lesser known protest inviting attention. During the National Football League pre-season, in early August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt in protest during the singing of the National Anthem.

Traditionally, the crowd and teams stand for the presenting of the American flag and singing of the anthem. It is a way of showing respect for the brave men and women who fought and died to secure the freedoms we have in the United States.

Mr Kaepernick, however, used this occasion to protest against recent racial oppression of African-Americans in the United States by kneeling during the anthem.

Kaepernick had previously sat on the benches during the first two pre-season games, but was encouraged by a former Green Beret, now football player, Nate Boyer to protest in this way. Kaepernick stated: ‘We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are.

‘And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed, and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country’ (Mark Sandritter, ‘A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem and those who joined him’, SBNation.com, 6 November 2016).

Kaepernick was eventually spotted by the media on 26 August. His actions caused a huge uproar from the crowds and the social media.

Racial oppression

When asked why he kneeled, Kaepernick told reporters: ‘I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

‘This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice; people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

‘It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people; if we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.

‘I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.

‘People are dying in vain, because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos. I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right’ (Sandritter, Ibid.).

Increasing protest

Since his initial protest, other players have joined him, with some even raising a fist in the manner of Black Power Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Robert Quinn, defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, stated his reasons when asked why he raised his fist: ‘[I’m] Just standing up for my rights. Everyone knows the whole situation. Long story short, [Coach Jeff] Fisher asked us to stand. So I respect him enough to do that.

‘But at least to show awareness, raise my fist, show support out there that you have support throughout the league. I didn’t want to try to distract the team; just want to have my right of freedom’ (Nick Wagoner, ‘Colin Kaepernick continues anthem protest; other 49ers, Rams join’, ESPN, 13 September 2016).

Since Kaepernick’s protest, many other professional athletes have joined in taking a knee at the national anthem. With the media highlighting their every move, their actions have gone public and have had an incredible effect on athletes of all ages across the country.

While players and coaches have discussed these actions in the locker room and come to common ground on them, there are some fans and coaches who are less enthusiastic about the athletes stand for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.

When Megan Rapinoe (see picture), a member of the Seattle FC and national women’s soccer team, knelt during the singing of the anthem, during a game in early September 2016, the owner of the team moved the time of the national anthem to a following game without telling the players, so that she wouldn’t kneel during the anthem (Steven Goff, ‘Megan Rapinoe doesn’t get a chance to kneel for national anthem. It was played with teams in locker room’, Washington Post, 7 September 2016). Other professional players have lost paid sponsorship from corporations after kneeling.

Some of the backlash has been less than hospitable. According to an article in The Telegraph, Baptist preacher Allen Joyne stated, ‘If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you’ (Nick Allen, 18 September 2016). A few high school football players have received racial threats for joining Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.

Covenant College

The protest has even been manifested in Christian universities. In November 2016, six players from the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Covenant College (Chattanooga, TN) kneeled during the anthem.

Berto Dryden, a sophomore at the college, stated he was planning on kneeling even before the basketball season started. But before he could put his plans into action, the new basketball coach, Arte Culver, asked him about it and together they reached an agreement.

Four other players would join him in kneeling and the team agreed to lay their hands on the four players during the anthem. Dryden stated, ‘Rather than putting all attention on me and distract our main goal as a team, now we’re all on the same page. Even for people who aren’t kneeling, we’re all on the same page’. This action got a lot of flack from the college and Christian community at large.

Other students were quoted saying, ‘If you have family in the military, it’s difficult not to get angry. The heart behind it is great. It’s a noble cause. But even if they do it for completely the right reasons, I think what needs to be considered is how it’s perceived’.

Although the protest was never violent or abusive, the subject was brought to the Dean of Students. Sarah Ocando, associate dean stated: ‘We want to figure out how to protect student First Amendment rights. For us, it’s more about making sure students have the freedom to express things’ (Kristie Jaya, ‘Basketball players to kneel during anthem, The Bagpipe, 17 November 2016).

Reconciliation

Sometime later, the college made an official statement on the subject. They said that, while they ask students to remain standing for prayer and the National Anthem, they would not bind any student’s conscience to what may be a cultural mandate and not a scriptural mandate. Furthermore, they would work with the students to help them understand the best way to engage in racial reconciliation.

This is by far the most gracious response I have seen regarding the racial ruckus that has embroiled the United States in recent years. While I am of the opinion that we should stand at the singing of the National Anthem, I applaud the students at Covenant College who sought to do so peacefully and graciously — and especially for the manner in which they talked to their coach and to others who had been in the military.

Let us pray that the day will soon come when racial bigotry and hate cease, and Jesus reigns in every heart.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in April 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

The life and legacy of William Bradford (1590-1657)

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Puritanism has never been a popular ideology for most modern Westerners. Mention the word ‘Puritan’ or ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ to any American and the image comes to mind of a dour, black-garbed, Bible-thumping man. At best, someone might recall it was the Puritans that first made a substantial settlement in New England.

J. I. Packer describes this negative connotation best in his book Quest for godliness: ‘“Puritan” as a name was, in fact, mud from the start. Coined in the early 1560s, it was always a satirical smear word, implying peevishness, censoriousness, conceit and a measure of hypocrisy, over and above its basic implication of religiously motivated discontent with what was seen as Elizabeth’s Laodicean and compromising Church of England’.

However, as both history and Packer beautifully tell us, the Puritans were anything but the aforementioned stereotype. In fact, Americans owe much to the Puritans, for it was their values of individualism, work, education, and democracy that still influence and define Americans to this day.

Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans first arrived in the American Colonies on 21 November 1620 near what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their journey to the New World was long and hard, having faced persecution in England, exile in the Netherlands, and the hard rigours of life on the sea.

Among those who survived the long wintry passage was a man by the name of William Bradford. Although he was not a principal leader of the Pilgrims at the time, he would have a tremendous impact in the new colony and American history through his writings and governorship.

William Bradford was baptised circa March 1590, born to William and Alice Bradford, relatively wealthy landowners near Austerfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. By the time William was seven, both his parents had died and he was left to the care of relatives.

The defining moment of his life occurred when he stumbled in on a church service in the village of Scrooby, at about the age of 12. He was shocked by the lack of Anglican rituals and the intensity of the fellowship that they shared. He continued to attend throughout his youth and had become a member of the church by the time he was 17.

At that time, his fellow congregants, known as Separatists, desired to reform the Church of England by completely withdrawing from it. This was a dangerous idea; Separatist leaders were often arrested and imprisoned for such sedition. But Bradford was committed to this reformation and was even fined for his beliefs.

As King James I desired to have the entire congregation imprisoned, Bradford and his Separatist brethren escaped to Amsterdam. He remained in the Netherlands for 12 years, marrying Dorothy May and working as a fustian weaver.

Even though they were relatively safe from the long arm of King James, the Separatists from Scrooby were not altogether welcome in the Netherlands and found life hard and conditions poor. It was at the end of this 12-year period that Bradford and some of the other leaders began planning to embark on a journey to the New World.

Indeed, Bradford was central to this decision and process of planning. If it was not for his financial and logistical input, the Pilgrims would never have come to America. Dorothy Kelso in her biographical account of Bradford writes: ‘Bradford, now 30 years old and married with a young son, was in the thick of the planning.

‘Government permissions, financing, ship hire and provisioning, and a potentially dangerous first stop in England had to be worked out. There were heartaches as well; not everybody could go. The majority of the congregation remained in Holland and with them remained their dearly loved Pastor Robinson’ (Beyond the Pilgrim story, ‘William Bradford’).

Fledgling colony

Originally there were two ships, the Mayflower and Speedwell, but after putting out to sea, the Speedwell was found to not be structurally sound for the long Atlantic voyage. They sailed from Plymouth, England, on 16 September 1620 with 102 souls on board, and after 65 days of sailing sighted the Massachusetts coast.

Their first year in their new ‘Plymouth Colony’ was fraught with disease and death (half the original party died). During that time, William Bradford became the governor of the fledgling colony and helped unite them through their hardships.

By autumn 1621, they had gained new colonists and had a successful harvest. With a joyful celebration the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving. Bradford continued to serve (off and on) as governor of the colony for 34 years, until his death in 1657.

His journal Of Plymouth plantation describes their struggles and triumphs as a colony and is a wonderful source of information about the Pilgrim Fathers. It is a wonderful piece of historic literature. However, his greatest legacy was penned just upon arriving at the New World.

Before landing, the men of the Mayflower wrote and signed a contract called the Mayflower Compact. Brief but concise, The compact stated:

‘In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

‘Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

‘In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.’

American democracy

This historic document marks one of the fundamental beginnings of American ideals and politics. Ning Kang in his article on Puritan values states: ‘The early Puritanism played a key role in the establishment of American democratic regime. In fact, the Mayflower Compact of 1620 led to the birth of early American democracy.

‘The compact was signed on 11 November 1620 on board the Mayflower. It attempted to establish a temporary government, until a more official one could be drawn up in England that would give them the right to self-govern themselves in New England. Afterwards the “popular sovereignty” concept began spreading among other colonies’ (Puritanism and its impact upon American values, p.150).

Although the idea of popular sovereignty became more widely embraced in the politics of the 1850s, this doctrine was embedded in the minds of the Puritans as they came to the New World.

Being largely congregational in their church polity, their style of church governance was designed for the affairs of a church to be governed locally by its own congregation and elders (as opposed to Anglican polity, which is hierarchical).

This style of polity was also manifested in the way they governed secular matters. They erected a meetinghouse within their first months of being in the colony, from which they worshipped and met to govern the colony.

Social contract

Town Hall meetings continue to this day all over the United States. This philosophy of governance came out of the social contract school of thought, which was espoused by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and also drew from the writings of the Reformers.

Bradford was one of the principal signers of this compact and helped draft it. It was signed by the men from the Mayflower, but, strangely, the original copy cannot be found.

In God’s providence, Bradford copied this compact and included it in his journal Of Plymouth plantation, where it is the only extant copy.

This document influenced similar covenants among New England colonies. By the time of the American Revolution, colonists had an inherent belief in the idea of popular sovereignty.

This was so fixed in their minds that one of them would write this well known statement: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consents of the governed’ (The Declaration of Independence).

Those words echoed the Puritans and gave birth to a new nation. Therefore, Americans have a great reason to thank the Puritans, especially William Bradford.

This article was first published for Evangelical Times in March 2017 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.