Wow, Predicting the Future is Hard!

Make that “impossible”. Because I’m a Christian, I believe that God can do the impossible. But accurate foretelling of large-scale events is something that belongs to the office of prophet, not the office of journalist, or tech guru, or economist.

Built into history-writing is a temptation to plot events beforehand. This can take the form of a myth (controlling story) of either progress or decline. And, interestingly, one person’s progress is another’s decline. So you can read post-Enlightenment Western history as a story of sexual liberalization, with occasional bumps (i.e. the Victorian era). Depending on your ideology, this is either great or awful.

People, religious or non-religious, love myths of progress and decline. I have good friends who are gripped with nostalgia for a more conservative past, and others who are starry-eyed optimists, looking forward to a world that is increasingly safe for unbelief.

We have to reject myths of progress or decline, Christian or otherwise. Through the ages they have offered innumerable false positives. The world is perennially about to end or be transformed, due to divine judgment or environmental disaster. The Age of the Spirit, or the Age of Aquarius, the Second Coming, Nuclear Winter, or the unstoppable tide of Secularization are always at hand. Except that they aren’t. And if you’re going to take your Christianity at all seriously, you have to reject all claims to know the moment at which history will resolve.

This is when it’s good to be an amillenialist and a Calvinist. The first term means simply this: Jesus reigns, now, above the chaos and the “wheat and tares” dynamic of the world. The Lord is enthroned above the flood. We are neither hoping perversely that the world goes down the tubes so that Jesus will hurry up and start reigning, nor calling every technological and social improvement a triumph for the kingdom. The kingdom grows – oh yes – but not in the neatly quantifiable ways we may think. And its full revelation will not the the result of a gradual process, nor its citizens everyone we might think. Many will say in that day, “Lord, Lord!” and but turned away – and the last shall be first.

More on the second term later. Suffice it to say that times may be harder or better for specific people; things will change; but we cannot see the curve from where we stand. Not progress. Not decline. Just different. And the same.


Abortion on Demand

The following is adapted from a note I recently wrote to a friend on the topic of abortion. More specifically, I was responding to this article.

Reducing the rate of abortion is a lot more complicated than simply overturning Roe v. Wade or defunding Planned Parenthood. The evangelical solution du jour for everything is the political one. Somehow if you just defund something that is publicly funded, or make something illegal, it will go away.

It’s good that the author gets into the complexity of abortion rates and stats, although I wish the RAND Corporation article he cites had given some of the social history of abortion in Russia. And it was good to note that illegality has not stopped the abortion rate from being very high in Uganda (alongside an astronomical fertility rate: 6.24 births per woman according to the World Bank). Marvin Olasky’s social history of abortion in America estimates that there could easily have been 100,000 abortions a year among prostitutes alone in the United States around the time of the Civil War (1.8 per prostitute annually). That puts the abortion rate in 1860 in the neighborhood of the rate in 2000. (Estimating 100,000+/total population of 31m in 1860 vs. 1.31m/total pop. of 249m in 2000.) So this far more complicated than simply outlawing abortion.

But there are very real problems with the article. First, the author is not believable in his claim to be concerned. Evangelicals often sound alarmist: this is because they are genuinely and legitimately alarmed. The author here is not. “I value life” – the lives of various people around the world. “I also value the nascent human life of the unborn.” Ah, that fatal adjective. This cell mass is on its way to being a human life; by implication, I am on my way to valuing it alongside lives I already consider human.

Second, maybe I missed this, but why won’t Roe v. Wade reduce the number of abortions? Roe v. Wade outlawed states from making laws prohibiting abortion (with the exception of late-term, viable children). If it were overturned tomorrow there would be a raft of new state laws restricting or prohibiting the practice within months. Some of those laws – such as those requiring women seeking abortion to view ultrasounds of their children (and these laws have repeatedly been challenged, and sometimes struck down on the basis of Roe) – are exactly aimed at moral suasion rather than simple prohibition. For certain, some women in a no-abortion state will go out of state, and others will seek an illegal abortion. But others will take an abortion off the table as an option. Ease of access + official approval = nudge toward a decision.

That gets to the third and maybe biggest problem. Planned Parenthood is a powder keg because its existence and funding represent the stance that abortion is a public good. The secular liberal academic, media, and political establishments (and they are mostly secular and mostly liberal, even if Fox News says so) are of the opinion that unborn children are not human, and access to abortion is a human right. (There are rare, honest people like Naomi Wolf who say that an unborn child is human, and that they still have a right to abort.) Meanwhile members of the white upper class hardly ever practice what they preach. They use contraception carefully, have fewer partners, and marry. You know the stats. Abortion is far more common among poor and racial minority women than among middle income or white women.

There seems to be an assumption here that bad behavior is inevitable among the proles, so we had better make sure they can clean up after themselves. Won’t fewer unwanted poor children benefit society as a whole? Further, the gains of the sexual revolution are so important, so precious, that we will never publicly question them.

Evangelical Christians are often very removed from the everyday world of modern cities, filled as they are with educated, sexually polymorphous, and diverse people. That reality wears on those who live in the middle of it (as difference inevitably does). But evangelicals are also closer to the lower/working class world of babies and work and welfare and dysfunctional extended families than many of us are, and they have correctly sniffed out a major problem with funding Planned Parenthood and not striking down Roe: the effective, powerful message these send that sexual promiscuity is fine, just as long as you don’t let it get in the way of your (economic) dreams. At the end of the day, anything goes, as long as Moloch (or actually, Mammon) gets his due.

Ending abortion is far more complicated than simply striking down Roe or defunding Planned Parenthood. But those are important steps to take, if we are ever to seriously pursue the goal (voiced by Presidents Clinton and Obama) of reducing the number of induced abortions in the United States.

Counterintuitive Ways to Fight Evil

Looked today at Romans 12:9-21, for which the exhortations, “Abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” form bookends. Here it is not the call to fight evil that is amazing, it is the method: you defeat evil not with anger and aggression, but with good:

  1. Warm, genuine love for fellow believers. “Let love be genuine … Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
  2. Fervent service. “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
  3. Practical love for others. “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
  4. Humble love for others. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
  5. Peace with those outside. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
  6. Love instead of revenge. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Can we summarize this? I’ll try: for God’s people, fighting evil looks like internal love and external peaceableness. For someone with a very robust view of Christ’s kingship and coming judgment, Paul places a surprising emphasis on taking care of our own and minding our own business. What might this look like?

The practical everyday life of the church will be warm, affectionate, attentive, quick to meet needs, and hospitable; rather than formal, distant, self- or family-centered, holding each other at arm’s length.

In our dealings with outsiders we will be quick to agree whenever possible, ready to back down from a fight when we can do so in obedience to Christ, always taking our personal feelings out of the picture. Because we are confident that Jesus Christ has both received the judgment for our sins, and will bring perfect justice to bear one day, we can forbear and forgive when we are wronged.

We can suspend judgment of others (inside our outside the church), an act of faith in the only just Judge to do his job. We can love the unlovely – warmly, affectionately, practically, humbly – because we are loved.