Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sider and Osteen

Christianity Today has an interview with Ron Sider that should be required reading for everyone who identifies him or herself as an evangelical Christian. Sider has for thirty years or more been calling Christians to live lives consistent with the Gospel, to eschew the materialistic excess of our culture, to care for the poor, and to share in each other's sufferings. The CT interview is well worth reading.

By contrast, I'm currently reading Joel Osteen's best-seller Your Best Life Now, and although I don't question Osteen's sincerity, and I certainly don't question his success (He's taken a church from 7000 members to close to 30,000 in about six years, if that's a measure of success), I really wonder whether his concept of God's will for our lives is accurate. According to Osteen God wants us to be materially successful and wealthy and He yearns to shower us with miracles great and small. Osteen believes that being aware of "God's favor" confers some special status on us that gives the believer who is conscious of it a sort of immunity to troubles which afflict those who fail to claim God's favor. Osteen seems to claim a special skill at divining the mind of God, insisting several times on every page that he knows what God wants, thinks, wishes, wills, and is going to do for those who claim His favor.

I have a difficult time accepting all of this. I don't know that God particularly wants us to be wealthy so much as that we be faithful. There's no Biblical precedent for thinking that wealth should come with one's status as a child of God, but there is Biblical warrant for expecting that persecution and other afflictions will beset us.

Nor do I think God summons up supernatural interventions to secure for us a parking space at the mall, as Osteen informs us God did for him. How must Osteen's claim that God answered his prayer for a parking space sound to a mother who has prayed her eyes out for a dying child to be made well only to have God not grant the request? Miracles are not trivial events dispensed by God like candy thrown from the divine carriage to poor waifs in the street. They are momentous and purposeful, at least those recorded in the New Testament are, and we have no reason to think that God works miracles more promiscuously today than He did then.

Osteen is surely correct in urging us to maintain a positive outlook on life, but his theology would be alien to people like Dietrich Bonhoffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship, his portrayal of the Christian life seems coarsely materialistic, and he makes God, whether intentionally or not, into a cosmic Santa Claus.

Ron Sider seems to us a much more authentic voice on the matter of how Christians should live their lives. We recommend him to our readers.

Killing Innocents

Richard John Neuhaus asks good questions about whether it is ever right to take innocent life in a piece called Speaking About the Unspeakable in the March issue of First Things. After spending a few paragraphs on the topic of torture (See our commentary here), he writes:

There is a related development that has also not received the attention it would seem to deserve. It is a generally accepted moral maxim that it is always wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Yet after September 11 it is the policy of our government to shoot down hijacked airplanes, thus killing the innocent passengers, if there is reason to believe that, as in the case of the World Trade Center, the hijackers intend to use the plane as a weapon. One can, of course, stretch the rule of "double effect"-the distinction between what is directly willed and what is only indirectly willed-but it is a stretch that teeters on the edge of simplistic intentionalism.

Father Neuhaus is calling, in this brief essay, for more attention to be paid to these matters by Christian ethicists and moral theologians, and his plea is certainly timely, as we noted in our comments on his post on torture.

The moral agony involved in the scenario Fr. Neuhaus offers for our consideration is perhaps mitigated somewhat by the fact that the passengers on the plane will likely die in any event. The question is whether they will be killed by crashing into a skyscraper at the hands of the terrorists or by crashing into the earth at the hands of an Air Force pilot. It is a choice fraught with anguish, certainly, but if there is reason to believe that the hijackers will murder even more people, and the only way to stop them is to shoot down the airliner, then it seems that shooting it down is the morally right thing to do. Even so, the morally right thing, in a case like this, seems almost heinous.

A more vexing question, though, is whether it is ever right to deliberately target innocent civilians in a time of war. It is vexing because the occasion for it arises with much greater frequency than does the occasion for shooting down hijacked airliners and the temptation to do it must be very strong on at least some of those occasions. Although targeting civilians violates just war theory, it has been done by virtually every nation ever to fight a war in modern times, including the United States.

The moral dubiousness of the Hiroshima bombing, to take but one example, does not derive from our use of a nuclear weapon, but rather from the fact that we deliberately targeted the civilian population for death. More people died from our use of conventional ordinance in the incendiary raid on Tokyo than died from our use of a fission bomb at Hiroshima, but both raids targeted civilians, and that's what makes them morally problematic. Had we dropped the bomb on the Japanese fleet out at sea or on massed troops on Iwo Jima, there would have been little reason to question the decision (In hindsight, of course, we can see that using the weapon crossed a threshold that might have been better left uncrossed), but if there was adequate justification for the wholesale incineration of civilians in Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, I for one don't know what it was.

There may be situations in war in which intentionally killing non-combatants may be for some reason necessary (although I can't think offhand what such circumstances would be), but we should never allow ourselves to return to the WWII mind-set which permitted us to kill innocent children and women with so little distress in our own souls. President Truman is said to have stated that he never gave the use of the bomb a second thought once the decision to use it was made. If that is so, it's a very difficult thing to understand, and very troubling.

Christians have written much about just war theory, but, as Fr. Neuhaus suggests, perhaps there is a need for them to write much more.