Green Room

Hobby horses and “callous theology”

posted at 11:58 am on December 21, 2012 by

Earlier this week, I wrote that the season of Advent has a lot to teach us all — but perhaps especially public figures — about humility and grace in the face of fallen human nature.  That applies to those leaders in the faith arena that want to use tragedies to climb on hobby horses, too.  Peter Wehner rebukes James Dobson for arguing that Newtown demonstrates that “we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.  I think that’s what’s going on”:

In the New Testament, suffering and death are more often evidence of obedience than disobedience to God.  When the Lord told Ananias to go to Straight Street and place his hands on Saul (later Paul) to restore Saul’s sight, the Lord said to Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”  The two most important figures in Christianity – Jesus and St. Paul – died violent deaths (according to Christian tradition, Paul was beheaded by the Romans).  So the effort to create a cause-and-effect – in this case, turning your back on God leads to mass shootings and violent death – is itself theologically misguided.

The workings of God in the midst of tragedy cannot be reduced to a simplistic moral mathematics in which sin yields to disaster, in part because America is not a covenant community on the model of ancient Israel. The community of faith is found in every nation.  Believers share the blessings and tragedies of their neighbors. Rather than declaring the suffering of their neighbors to be deserved, they should work and pray for the common good.

A second point: Earlier this year we learned from the FBI that violent crime rates in the U.S. are reaching historic lows.  Since 1993, for example, the rate of violent victimization has dropped by more than 70 percent.  Those findings undercut the Dobson thesis. If America has gotten less godly, why would God’s judgment (which Dobson believes manifests itself in violent crimes) be getting less, not more, severe?  On the flip side, the number, rate, and ratio of abortions in America are lower today than in the past.  So why would God lash out now, when the abortion rate is going down, rather than before, when it was going up?  And how would Dobson explain why the murder rate was higher when same-sex marriage wasn’t even being discussed and more people believed in God?  One can see how terribly confused Dobson’s argument is once it’s actually scrutinized.

Third, Mr. Dobson assumes he knows the mind of God and what most grieves, angers and moves His heart.  But surely Dobson knows that Jesus mentions divorce more often than he mentions homosexuality (which Paul addresses but Jesus does not).  So why is same-sex marriage on Dobson’s list but divorce is left off?  And what about the other things that concern God – like indifference to the poor, not caring for the stranger and alien in our midst, a haughty spirit, and riches?  When I listen to James Dobson and I read the gospel accounts, two jarringly different portraits emerge.

Is this a case of fallen human nature?  Yes.  But we’re part of that same fallen nature, too, and we can only dimly see the will of God.  Like others on the political stage, Dobson seems to be grasping at this singular tragedy to demand acceptance of his long-held political agenda.  Even though many of us agree in large part with his agenda, this is just as obnoxious as gun-control advocates leaping to push their anti-Second Amendment agenda and arguing that their policies would have prevented a madman from murdering children without having any of their facts straight.

That impulse is part of fallen human nature, too, and it would be churlish and arrogant to deny that we all have that impulse from time to time.  Some events should prompt us to be more on guard against it, and Newtown is definitely one of them.

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I like Dobson a lot, but there’s no way of telling whether he’s right or not. That said, society as a whole appears to be getting worse as religion is increasingly pushed from the public square.

Othniel on December 21, 2012 at 12:44 PM

I just got this wonderful Tribute to those children killed last Friday. I felt it should be passed around. This is along the line of your post Ed.

Sandy Hook Elementary School

Twas’ 11 days before Christmas, around 9:38
When 20 beautiful children stormed through Heaven’s gate.
Their smiles were contagious, their laughter filled the air.
They could hardly believe all the beauty they saw there.
They were filled with such joy; they didn’t know what to say.
They remembered nothing of what had happened earlier that day.
“Where are we?” asked a little girl, as quiet as a mouse.
“This is heaven” declared a small boy. “We’re spending Christmas at God’s house”.
When what to their wondering eyes did appear,
But Jesus, their Savior, the children gathered near.
He looked at them and smiled, and they smiled just the same.
Then He opened His arms and He called them by name.
And in that moment was joy, that only Heaven can bring
Those children all flew into the arms of their King.
And as they lingered in the warmth of His embrace,
One small girl turned and looked at Jesus’ face.
And as if He could read all the questions she had
He gently whispered to her, “I’ll take care of Mom and Dad.”
Then He looked down on Earth, at the world far below
He saw all of the hurt, the sorrow, and woe.
Then He closed His eyes and He outstretched His hand,
“Let My power and presence re-enter this land!
May this country be delivered from the hands of fools
“I’m taking back my nation. I’m taking back my schools! ”
Then He and the children stood up without a sound.
“Come now my children let me show you around. ”
Excitement filled the space, some skipped and some ran.
All displaying enthusiasm that only a small child can.
And I heard Him proclaim as He walked out of sight,
“In the midst of this darkness, I AM STILL THE LIGHT.”


letget on December 21, 2012 at 12:56 PM

letget on December 21, 2012 at 12:56 PM

Had to send that around myself. Beautiful verses. Thanks for sharing 🙂

Atlas on December 21, 2012 at 1:23 PM

I don’t necessarily come to the same conclusions that Peter Weiner did – it seems like Weiner responded to strawmen instead of what Dr. Dobson actually said.

But the larger point about seeking humility is worth considering.

22044 on December 21, 2012 at 1:35 PM

I believe that Peter Weiner is offering a strawman comparison by equating events in a society with personal events for specific individuals (Jesus and Paul) while ignoring their differences.

Jesus had to be sacrificed. That was his entire mission on earth… to offer a way of salvation to everyone by paying the price for their sins. Children in the massacre were not Saviors. This comparison isn’t valid.

Paul suffered for being a Christian and witnessing. He died as a martyr for God because he refused to recant his testimony. The children in the massacre were not evangelizing others, dying because of their testimony. This comparison isn’t valid.

HOWEVER, there are real verses in the Bible that speak to what happens in society when the people turn away from God. In those verses, it becomes clear that God removes his protection and allows them to suffer until their suffering becomes so great that they turn back to God and seek his involvement in their lives. These cycles repeated over and over in the Old Testament. And while I do believe that we have been turning from God as a society, I don’t believe this massacre is necessarily a direct result. The cycles mentioned in the Old Testament occurred over decades (or longer). If anything, we should be aware that things will get much worse before the cycle turns around.

dominigan on December 21, 2012 at 3:17 PM

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