Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Moral and Ethical Question

I'm in Dallas for the next few days. I'm staying with a person who is my superior, and we have a witness in town. We ate dinner last night, and their conversation was full of rampant wickedness.

What's my responsibility? If I'm at dinner hearing ribald humor, what do I do?

Frankly, it's a perplexing situation for me. I didn't participate, but I didn't denounce either. Well, I did at one point in a passive-agressive way

What am I supposed to do? Am I to just disengage, or am I to actively denounce, or something else?

Monday, April 27, 2009

God Doesn't Need You

The least understood aspect in the redemptive work of God is also the most important.

It is this—the first cause and highest motivation of God’s redemptive work is for His own sake, or more specifically, for the sake of His own holiness. Contrary to the most popular “Christian” mantra of the day—Jesus Loves You and has a wonderful plan for your life, God’s chief concern is not the manifestation of His love towards men; rather, it is His own holiness.

But what is holiness?

“Holiness is self-affirming purity. In virtue of this attribute of his nature, God eternally wills and maintains his own moral excellence. In this definition are contained three elements: first, purity; secondly, purity willing; thirdly, purity willing itself “ (A.H. Strong).

Wholly other is often how holy is described. Dorner writes, “that is holy which, undisturbed from without, is wholly like itself.”

Most often we associate “self-affirming purity” to holiness and less often its equally important counterpart—“maintain(ing) his own moral excellence.” However, scripture makes no such distinction:

“Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:22-23, ESV).

From Ezekiel (as well as I Jn 1:5 and elsewhere) we learn that the primary cause of God’s restorative action among men is “for the sake of (His) holy name” and the vindication of his holiness. The secondary effect is man. If He is as He is revealed by His word, then God must be holy. And to be holy is to remain holy--“it is the part of goodness to protect goodness” (Dorner). “God must maintain his holiness, for this is his very Godhead. If he did not maintain it, love would have nothing to give away, or to make others partakers of” (Strong).

While it is ever so popular to sing about holiness during praise and worship, it is equally as uncommon to ever hear about it during teaching. (At this point the smartly attuned reader might grab a towel to wipe the drops of sarcasm in my use of distasteful and inaccurate modern church vernacular). Among the reasons that the holiness of God is confined to the modern praise song genre--where verse twelve was established from verse one and reemphasized in six, seven and eight--is that mindlessness often substitutes for the mysterious in contemporary “Christianity.” And the mysterious is rarely explored or taught and hardly ever preached (sans HB). As such, the mystery of God's holiness just isn’t practical enough for the modern “Christian” mind, so it largely lies unexplained and unexplored.

As I have tried to grasp the significance of this idea--God’s vindicating holiness as the first cause and primary motive in setting His Kingdom aright—admittedly, I’ve struggled to find its practical import. Seemingly, this truth would set man further from God rather than closer. That God, and only God, is fit to satisfy His own wrath and maintain His own holiness must be true. But what does this mean for man? For me? How does the high truth of His holiness affect our daily lives? Are we merely an afterthought to God? And as weeks passed by, I found no good answers.

Then, this past week, it hit me.

As I was reading an essay from a particular Swiss theologian, I encountered an idea that I hadn’t considered in a long time—God doesn’t need you.

God doesn’t need anything.

While we are creatures of need, God is not. Further, I thought that this must be an all-important aspect of His holiness, His wholly othernessGod does not need. One of the key truisms of His being “wholly like itself” is just that--God does not need. Otherwise, every being not “wholly like itself” has need. Thus, they are distinguished as creatures.

This underestimated truth—God doesn’t need you—suddenly made the essence of God's holiness more understandable. The practicality of holiness is that at its highest level, in the essence of the Godhead, it isn’t very practical at all. Practicality always necessitates need. If something is to be practical it must first be needful, right? But God doesn’t need us in order to be God. In other words, God does not need to be practical. If He is so, then He wants to be so, but He does not have to be so. Contrary to popular thought, His high truths do not have to be contextualized to man in order to be any truer or effective or relevant. And he certainly doesn’t need you to establish His holiness, nor does He need you in order to preserve His holiness. Thus, the origin of holiness is not practical concerning men—it needs not men in order to be what it is.

“Neither is (God) worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Paul, Acts 17:25, KJV).

But if you insist on practicality, here it is--one practical implication of God’s holiness is for us to realize and rest in the truth that our God needs nothing.

Nothing from us makes Him any more or less God, any more or less holy, any more or less capable of carrying out His will.

But wait a second...Or does it?

I would submit that most “Christians” live as if God does need them. How else could He accomplish His will without our testimony, our prayer, our sacraments, and our efforts? The theological error that comes from this line of thinking—that God does need man in order to accomplish His will—is abundant and popular.

If you doubt what I am saying, then consider these common lines of thinking born from our false sense of God’s need, or just visit any run-of-the-mill church, look and listen:
God needed to create man because He was lonely;
God needs your decision and your cooperation in order to save you;
God needs some men to accept His invitation because He loves them all;
God needs you to help restore His creation and its culture in order to prepare the way for His second coming;
God needs to establish a physical kingdom on earth;
God needs a priest in order to establish His true church, one who perpetually atones for the sins of His people;
And on, and on.

The principle that holiness is a manifestation of love, or a form of benevolence, leads to the conclusions that happiness is the only good, and the only end; that law is a mere expedient for the securing of happiness; that penalty is simply deterrent or reformatory in its aim; that no atonement needs to be offered to God for human sin; that eternal retribution cannot be vindicated, since there is no hope of reform. This view ignores the testimony of conscience and of Scripture that sin is intrinsically ill-deserving, and must be punished on that account, not because punishment will work good to the universe,--indeed, it could not work good to the universe, unless it were just and right in itself. It ignores the fact that mercy is optional with God, while holiness is invariable; that punishment is many times traced to God’s holiness, but never to God’s love; that God is not simply love but light—moral light—and therefore is “a consuming fire” to all iniquity. Love chastens, but only holiness punishes in judgment” (Strong).

Where holiness is not seen as the preeminent and fundamental principle in all of God’s action, men will generally have an inaccurate and exaggerated view of their own importance and a theology marked by “a summer ocean of kindliness, never agitated by storms” (Dale). They will also misunderstand God’s love. Where “holiness is a manifestation of love” or worse (ie. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life), then God must have need, since He would need everything to work towards “the securing of happiness” as “the only good, and the only end.” Since we know that this does not always happen, it would make God needy if true--if God is incapable of always accomplishing His will, then He is no longer wholly like himself if anything happens against His will. Incidentally, this is why Joel Osteen can never reconcile a 9/11—ie. certain bad things happen against God’s will. When “holiness is a manifestation of love” it must be this way since it is up to man to meet God’s need, to respond to God’s call, and to help secure the “happiness” God so desperately needs people to experience.

Let me introduce the God of modern America. What an impotent, namby-pamby God!

How different is a true understanding of God, where holiness is the preeminent and fundamental principle in all of God's action.

A true understanding of God realizes that He loves us not because His need is to love, but rather, He loves us because His desire is to love. He loves us because He will love us, not because He should love us. His love isn’t bound by need like ours is; His love knows no bounds. Born out of His holiness, the transcendent nature of the love of God (ie. greater than need since God doesn’t need) meets exactly what men need! If “holiness is the track on which the engine of love must run”(Strong), then all other imitations of love—love not born of holiness--are but malfunctioning trains soon to be derailed. Think of how this implicates our loves here on earth; think of how this should implicate our love towards Him--not solely born of need but of desire as it is reciprocated as best we can.

Only God can meet our deepest need because only God has no need Himself. And as we more fully understand that God needs nothing, perhaps we as his children can more fully know the depths of His holiness, His justice, and ultimately, His love.

Perhaps too, we can live with less need ourselves as we are holy as He is holy, shunning our fleshly idols more often, saying with Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As we become more holy and we need less and less, the fear of the Lord will become grafted into our souls more and more as it was with Solomon and Job. We will come to understand how His wholly otherness makes His love possible and ultimately meaningful.

In light of these truths, we should live then not as if God needed us, but rather we should more fully live because He loves us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Second Amendment Applicable to the States

Some of you will recall that I wrote a piece in this space last year in the wake of the Heller case, where the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to keep and bear arms (as opposed to the right being limited to the need for a militia or the like) and in the process struck down a law passed by Washington D.C. However, as many of you know the Bill of Rights initially worked only to restrict the federal government. For instance, “Congress shall pass no law” really meant the U.S. Congress only. Following the War of Northern Aggression, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified by the States. Jurisprudence interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment (which specifically limits the powers of the several States) gradually incorporated most of the Bill of Rights as being applicable to the States. So Texas can’t establish a religion, conduct unreasonable searches and seizures, or engage in cruel and unusual punishment. Only recently have the States been governed by mollycoddling nannies, so the courts have previously not had an opportunity to speak to the issue of whether the Second Amendment is applicable to the States. (ADDENDUM: In doing some additional research, it appears that the 9th Circuit has previously looked at the issue, and in typical nanny-state style deemed the Second Amendment to be a collective right, and not an individual right. The Heller case destroyed that line of thinking.)

Well, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona (this is from memory, so I may have missed a state or two) has spoken, and I am surprisingly pleased by its holding.

The case, styled Nordyke, et al. v. King, et al. pits gun show vendors against the County Board of Supervisors for Alameda County. the County passed an ordinance making it illegal to bring onto or to possess a firearm or ammunition on County property. Historically, a gun show was held annually at the public fairgrounds in Alameda, which was effectively made illegal by the statute. The ordinance was passed under the auspices of being responsive to a shooting that took place at the County Fair and various school shootings, such as Columbine. In fact, one member of the Board (King) had been seeking for a way to specifically ban gun shows for some time, and even sent a memorandum to the City Council to figure out how to do it. In refreshing honesty, King had stated she’d “been trying to get rid of gun shows on County property [for] about three years,” but had “gotten the run around from spineless people hiding behind the constitution.”

In 1996, the 9th Circuit held that the Second Amendment protected only a collective right, not an individual right, which precluded an individual from bringing a suit to challenge the constitutionality of a gun law. The 9th Circuit opened its opinion by affirming that Heller abrogated the court’s previous assertion that an individual couldn’t challenge a gun law.

In the 9th Circuit’s discussion of the law it would apply to the Ordinance at issue, the court cited Heller and other sources to state, “The Second Amendment protects a right that predates the Constitution; therefore, the Constitution did not grant it.”

In order to determine whether a right is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment (under a doctrine called Substantive Due Process) courts historically engaged, generally, in the following analysis: whether the right is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty; and whether the would-be right is one without which a fair and enlightened system of justice would be impossible. Obviously, that’s a bit esoteric and philosophical, so it has been replaced by a historical survey of whether the right asserted is part of the “actual systems bearing virtually every characteristic of the common-law system that has been developing contemporaneously in England and this country. Therefore, incorporation turns on whether given this kind of system a particular procedure is fundamental–whether, that is, a procedure is necessary to an Anglo-American regime of ordered liberty.” The 9th Circuit wrote that “this culturally specific inquiry compels us to determine whether the right is deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The court then engaged in a lengthy recitation of the history described in the Heller opinion, copiously tracking the history of gun rights in England and colonial America. Of course, this analysis inevitably leads to the conclusion that the right to keep and bear arms predates the Constitution.

The way in which the 9th Circuit quotes the Heller opinion is a testament to the Anglo tradition of jurists writing opinions rather than merely rendering decisions. The force of Scalia’s writing in Heller has lead the most liberal appellate court writing, “We therefore conclude that the right to keep and bear arms is deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Further, the right “has long been regarded as the true palladium of liberty.” The court concluded that the “crucial role this deeply rooted right has played in our birth and history compels us to recognize that it is indeed fundamental, that it is necessary to the Anglo-American conception of ordered liberty that we have inherited.” The Second Amendment was thus determined to be incorporated by the Fourteenth.

In the end, the Ordinance was held to be reasonable since it only applied to government property. This is probably the right decision. However, the big issue in the case was whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right, which it was held to do.

Equally encouraging was this passage from the concurring opinion, “the right to bear arms is a protection against the possibility that even our own government could degenerate into tyranny, and though this may seem unlikely, this possibility should be guarded against with individual diligence.” Well stated.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Words Mean Things

I normally try not to bore people with shop talk, but I thought I'd share a work story from today.

Today I tried a case where the Plaintiff sued my client for breach of contract. The Plaintiff was a temp company---companies come to this temp service looking for individuals to hire on a short-term basis. My client signed a contract (which was prepared by Plaintiff's attorney) with Plaintiff, agreeing to pay a certain amount per hour for the temp. The contract also contained this provision (I'm just using Plaintiff and Defendant to identify the parties): "If Defendant hires an employee of Plaintiff within 90 days of the employee's last day on assignment, then Defendant will pay Plaintiff a conversion fee, which is calculated by . . . ."

The temp that was assigned to my client worked for about six months, until one day my client was rather late on a bill it owed to the Plaintiff (no dispute about this). Plaintiff called the temp and told him, "walk off the job; these people aren't paying us. Come back to our office and we'll try to find you another assignment." The temp didn't like the idea of being told to walk off the job (though he did it) and really didn't care for the possibility that the Plaintiff wouldn't be able to find him work, so he told the lady working for Plaintiff who called him that he quit.

After he quit he called my client, told her the story, and asked what to do with the office keys he'd been given. Several hours later, my client (the Defendant) called the temp back and asked him if he wanted to simply come work for Defendant. He agreed, and Plaintiff sued.

This case turned on the meaning of the word "employee." What is an employee? Do you interpret the document to capture its spirit and intent---Plaintiff clearly didn't want Defendant to hire the temp---or do you go with the basic and plain meaning of the term employee, regardless of the consequences?

I argued that (1) the contract must be construed against Plaintiff and in favor of Defendant (meaning that presented with two reasonable interpretations of the document the tie goes to the person who didn't write it), and (2) that the temp was no longer an employee of Plaintiff when my client hired him.

That the contract must be construed against the Plaintiff is black-letter law, and was a near given. However, I almost felt Clintonian disputing about the word "employee."

So let me tell you how it went. I have the president of Plaintiff on the stand and we have the following exchange:

Me: "Mr. G, how long have you been in the employee-staffing business?"

G: "18 years"

Me: "During that time have you come to an understanding of the meaning of the word 'employee'?"

G: "Yes."

Me: "What is the definition of the word 'employee'?"

G: "It's someone who has a job."

Me: "Fair enough. If was working for you, and I told you, 'I quit,' would I still be your employee?"

G: "No, but I'm not aware of Joe [the temp] doing that."

Me: "Are you saying you're not certain whether Joe still works for you?"

G: "As far as I'm concerned he hasn't quit."

Me: "Well, when was the last time he received a paycheck?"

G: "May 31, 2007."

Me: "Do you have a lot of employees you haven't paid in two years?"

G: "Well, sometimes there can be a gap between assignments."

Me: "Do you have workers compensation insurance with your company?"

G: "Yes."

Me: "Is Joe listed on your comp policy as an employee?"

G: "No."

And so it went.

I then put Joe on the stand who testified that he did, indeed, quit Plaintiff before being hired by Defendant.

Now everybody agreed that the purpose of the above-quoted contractual provision was to prevent companies from stealing staff from the temp service. But the issue before the Court (at least the way I presented it) was whether Joe was an employee of Plaintiff at the time he was hired by Defendant.

Well, the judge bought what I was selling and held that the contract did not preclude hiring former employees of Plaintiff.

So how much money was involved? The conversion fee was about $5,000. But the attorney fees sued for amounted to $18,000. Zilch on those claims. (I must note that the did owe about $500 on an outstanding invoice which we have to pay, and minimal attorney fees were awarded on that claim, but we had already offered $2,500 to settle which was rejected). The judge was a little annoyed that such a low-value case was taking up his whole day, but I think justice was served.

Morals of the story: it pays to go into any business that exists solely due to depravity (funeral homes, lawyering, doctoring, etc.); and just as we spent hours and hours arguing over what the meaning of "employee" is because the outcome of the argument had pecuniary implications, so too should we be careful to properly interpret Scripture, not by making frivolous arguments about minutiae, but by diligent study of the Eternal Word of God. It's actually kind of convicting that I spent so much time memorizing ridiculous provisions in this contract, and have memorized no Scripture this week.