Sword of the Spirit and Bible against Christmas lights

The Weapon-Wielding Baby Jesus Asleep in the Hay

Last week’s commentary about the Merry Christmas “culture war” was a break from politics per se, and the response to it ran the gamut. Some thought I was wrong, while others agreed; some flat missed the point, and others thought it sounded “kind of scary.” So, continuing my “seasonal break,” I can’t wait to see what you think about my weapon-wielding baby Jesus.

Of course, baby Jesus didn’t have a weapon lying beside Him in the feeding trough where His mother, Mary, laid Him. And we have no record of Him playing with weapons as a boy. In fact, we’re told that when He was arrested as an adult—Easter on the calendar—He told Peter to put away the sword that Peter had used to cut off one of the captor’s ear and then Jesus healed the man’s ear.

Sounds just like the baby-Jesus-turned-man that Isaiah prophesied about with these words:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called . . . Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Isaiah 9:6–7 NKJV).

And angels announced His birth by singing about “peace on earth.”

Bearing the Sword

Sounds a lot better than the “Old Testament God” to whom a song of praise was lifted with these words:

Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, And punishments on the peoples; To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute on them the written judgment—This honor have all His saints. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 149:6–9 NKJV).

That such words are in the Bible, let alone a Hebrew worship hymn, probably horrifies and embarrasses a lot of Christians.

But let’s hold our Andy Stanley horses a minute before we throw out the so-called war-mongering God of the Old Testament. The grown-up baby Jesus said this,

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34–36 NKJV).

What? Did Jesus lose His mind on this one? He actually said He came to bring a sword?! Peter, it seems, is owed an apology! But let’s back up a bit and think this apparent contradiction through.

We All Want Wrongdoers Brought to Justice

I bet I’m not the only one who would be willing to say this:

If I lived under oppressive, tyrannical leaders who thought they were God and could wield their authority over my family and me and over my nation in any capricious manner they wanted, then I would be delighted if God raised up someone or some group of people to bring a final end to such unrepentant leaders.

In fact, I suspect the political liberals who have wished death on President Trump do so for this very same reason.

Identifying the Wrongdoer and the Consequences

Now, let’s hold onto this thought about the tyrant so described while we read God’s assessment of all of us in our natural condition. “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. There is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10–12, quoting from various Psalms). Well, that’s not very complimentary!

But if that’s who we naturally are in God’s opinion (and who am I to quibble with God?), then His assessment of the consequences shouldn’t be very surprising and it’s not very hopeful. “The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:8).

In other words, on our own and as we are, peace will always escape us, but it’s at this very point that the birth of Jesus is good news for those who believe God’s assessment of us!

In a way too mysterious for finite minds to comprehend fully, the second of the three persons who make up the one essence of being that is God takes on a second nature—a human one—and comes among us through the womb of Mary.

Through the sinless life of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead, Jesus introduces into this world a new kind of humanity. He bodily ascends to Heaven as the first of this “new kind” of humanity and sits at the right hand of the first person within the Trinitarian God, the Father. The government of the entire human race is now on shoulders of this new person, Jesus, as Isaiah said it would be.

Then, at the direction of the Father, the third person within the Trinitarian God, the Holy Spirit, comes to bring the now eternal life of the resurrected Jesus to others who then become a part of this new human race, those not born of flesh and blood, but by the Spirit (John 1:13).

This story is truly fantastic; it makes sense of reality to those for whom this new life becomes real. But it’s mere fantasy to those who find God’s assessment of them only fighting words. Thus, the members of the “old race” are bound to be in constant conflict with the members of the “new race,” because they believe different things and love and follow different leaders.

That conflict will not end peaceably until the Word of the Prince of Peace prevails over us by means of that Word which “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” in Psalm 149. And may that Living Word bring you peace this Christmas!

year-end 2018

If you enjoyed this commentary, give your special year-end gift to FACT today to help us fight for God’s design for marriage and families, life, and religious liberty for Tennesseans.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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illustrative manger scene and Christmas tree ornament that says "Away in a Manger"

Why I May Never Say ‘Merry Christmas’ Again

With today’s encapsulation of stories about schools banning certain Christmas songs and Christmas-related words and images, I couldn’t help but think about the protests in recent years over the shift from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” I get that for many these things are a lament about the increasing secularization of our culture and that for others these things are about stifling religious speech. But something bothers me about the fuss, and this week I may have finally put my finger on it. In fact, I may never say “Merry Christmas” again.

I don’t know the origin of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” but whatever it might have meant at one time, what’s important to me is what it means now. Webster’s dictionary entry suggests that the word merry now means “full of gaiety or high spirits.” The “archaic” meaning of merry according to Webster’s was “giving pleasure,” and perhaps that understanding better captures what I’m about to say. In either case, merry just doesn’t seem to be the right word to associate with Christmas.

Is merry the right word if the point of a Christmas greeting is to distinguish it from a greeting like “Happy Holidays” that, for many, is not so much a nefarious slam on the celebration of Christ’s birth as it is an acknowledgment that some may be celebrating a contemporaneous seasonable religious event and that others may just see Christmas as a break from the usual routine?

The answer for me came as I was reading the most complete telling of the facts surrounding Christ’s birth found in the New Testament, the story in Luke chapter 2. The word first associated with the birth of Christ is glory. We’re told that an angel appeared to shepherds tending their flocks near where Christ was born and “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Then a host of angels joined the one angel, and they all began singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” After the shepherds found the Christ child, they left glorifying God.

Glory, not merry or merriment, seems to be the operative word when it comes to how the Scriptures would have us think of Christ’s birth. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the word glory and the meaning it is intended to convey relative to God.

This is a subject too deep and full of meaning for this one little commentary, but I’ll focus on this: Glory is often used in Scripture to describe God’s moral beauty and perfection and as a way of describing its visible manifestation when a bit of it breaks through into our earthly existence. Glory is perhaps the best we can do when we try to describe what shone around the shepherds.

I don’t fully understand what is meant by the glory of God, but Scripture gives us some idea. It tells us that sin is more than doing something wrong or not doing what is right but is to “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Scripture also tells us that the natural inclination of human beings is to “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God” for something less glorious and find value, worth, significance, meaning, and praise in that lesser thing.

In this regard I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

In conclusion, it seems to me that by “Merry Christmas,” Christians settle for an expression that does not do Christmas justice. The phrase expresses contentment with and wishes for seasonal merriment when glory is what Christmas really offers. It is offered to all those who believe that the baby born in the manger was God incarnate, coming to provide a way by which those who had fallen short of the glory that was originally ours to enjoy—a relationship with the God of Glory—could again enjoy that relationship, both now and for eternity.

Wishing one a merry Christmas is a bit like offering people mud pies for their Christmas dessert. Wishing them a glorious Christmas? Well, that is the offer of a holiday at the sea!1

year-end 2018

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NOTES

  1. Revelation 4:6 in the NKJV says, “Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal.”

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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man in handcuffs with Lady Liberty in background

Criminal Justice Reform on Tennessee’s Agenda

Governor-elect Bill Lee and various state legislative leaders have voiced an interest in working on criminal justice reform during the next legislative session. This is not a topic that I would normally wade into, but it points to what I perceive to be a systemic issue in “reform” efforts in modern politics.

Understanding How the Present System Works

I mean no disrespect to anyone in state government, but let’s be realistic. Any serious consideration of reform within any social sphere has to begin with a recognition that very few people will be really knowledgeable about that sphere, particularly when the relevant pool is only state policy makers.

The number of legislators that have interacted with the criminal justice system is rather small, and even fewer have interacted with all the components of our criminal justice system, from the law enforcement officer’s beat on the streets to a person’s release from prison. They will need information beyond what they themselves possess to understand the situation.

Understanding How the Current ‘System’ Developed

Understanding the present situation is important, but when it comes to reform, I’ve come to see how important it is to know and understand how we got to where we are. We have to know how that which we are going to reform came to be as it is, examine what changes have been made over the years (centuries), and the assumptions made at the time of those changes. If we don’t understand that history, we may find ourselves trying to fix something that we’re only doing because we’ve done it in the past.

For example, last year I was reading Law and Revolution—The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold Berman. He made this statement:

[T]he legal systems of all Western countries . . . are a secular residue of religious attitudes and assumption which historically found expression first in the liturgy and rituals and doctrine of the church and thereafter in the institutions and concepts and values of the law. When these historical roots are not understood, many parts of the law appear to lack any underlying source of validity.

Then Berman explained how the doctrine of the atonement (being made right with God) articulated by St. Anselm in the 11th century led to our modern system of criminal law.

Prior to Anselm, the law focused on vindication of the victim, restitution, and restoring the divine order of things. That’s because offenses were seen as being committed against God and the victim.

But Anselm moved the focus in atonement to the individual needing to “pay for” his or her sins against the law of God committed after being baptized. And, in a similar fashion, the focus in civil law began to shift away from vindication of the victim and restitution to vindication of the law itself, a “crime” against the body politic. And that’s why, today, we have this sense that every “crime” needs to lead to jail time so that the criminal “pays his debt to society.”

Concern for restitution and the individual victim has been largely pushed aside in favor of punishment, per se. Maybe we need to consider where restitution to victims over prison terms makes more sense. After all, law abiding citizens are “victimized” by having to pay for the prison, meaning the criminal’s victim is victimized twice.

Understanding the Larger Context

Another obstacle to reform is the increasing tendency in modern society to see all of the different spheres within our social order as fitting into some particular silo, with each silo distinct from the others. But silo thinking brings only limited reform at best, because those doing the reforming fail to see the interconnectedness of things in a universe. As the previous section just demonstrated, theological concepts provided a foundation for thoughts about justice and crime that live on to this day.

So, criminal justice reform that looks only at issues of legal representation, sentencing, and prison conditions but doesn’t look at what contributes to and lies at the root of criminal acts will fall short of what needs to be done if we are to have a just society, not merely a different looking system labeled “justice.”

Understanding the Influence of Worldview

But this last point shows the point of real departure when it comes to reform—dealing with divergent worldviews. How one sees the world will determine how one views any proposed reform.

This was underscored for me when, as a young state senator serving on the Oversight Committee on Corrections, I heard one of my colleagues say that education in prison was the key to eliminating recidivism.

Don’t get me wrong, being educated and being in a better employment position once released from prison is a good thing. But there are educated people sitting in prison and many uneducated people who are not.

Nevertheless, we have those who will still insist that criminals, are just victims of something outside themselves. And if that is one’s worldview, then he or she will want civil government to “fix” everyone’s circumstances. Before you know it, criminal justice reform turns into a demand for “social justice.”

I, on the other hand, believe wrong conduct is not a consequence of being unable to read, write, and do arithmetic or really the consequence of anything outside the person. Jesus said it is not that which is external to a person that causes him or her to do wrong. The Apostle Paul said he knew what was right, but he just didn’t do it. The root of the wrongs we commit are found within us, present company included.

So, if Governor-elect Lee and the Legislature really want criminal justice reform, they better think through the worldviews of those they will task to lead that effort. And therein lies the systemic problem of reform today; modern politics insists on a diversity of worldviews being at the table, which makes agreement on reform all that much harder. Those worldviews will determine the goal and the scope of the work to be done and the suggested reforms that will come forth, and it’s hard to find agreement when those at the table disagree at the most basic, fundamental level.

year-end 2018

If you enjoyed this commentary, give your special year-end gift to FACT today to help us fight for God’s design for marriage and families, life, and religious liberty for Tennesseans.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Photo ofBill Lee and a man writing notes

An Open Letter to Governor-Elect Bill Lee About His Advisors

Bill, congratulations on your election as our state’s next governor. I followed with great interest both the primary and the general election in which you ran. Our political stories are remarkably similar in some respects, and I hope you will find this particular thought most helpful going forward.

Our political experiences are similar in a number of ways. I was a political outsider and it was clear to voters that I professed to be a Christian. But there is a particular similarity that leads to this bit of advice.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you were speaking one evening with your wife, Maria, about the need to respond to the advertisements that had begun to attack your political views. Her comment was, “I don’t think you should go down that road.”

Her advice became the tagline of the television ad that was your response. I remember watching it and calling my wife to say, “I just saw Bill’s response to the ads running against him, and I think it won the election for him.”

But the reason I find your story about Maria so compelling is that within four months of my election, in my very first legislative session, I was confronted with a huge local issue that, for its success, required enabling legislation at the state level. Every prominent member of my community called me in support of the legislation.

Technically, the legislation would not have violated any of my campaign promises, but it sure violated the spirit of one of them. It would have allowed local governments to do what I said I would not do. I agonized over what to do and whether I could somehow rationalize supporting the legislation because I would not be committing a direct and immediate violation of my campaign promise.

So, I did what you did. I went to my best friend and confidant, the person on earth I trusted most to be “for” me, my wife. I do not say that to demean my parents and their support for me. I thank God for their support since birth. But Linda had chosen to make a vow to me before God that transcended biological kinship relations and, at that point, she best knew who I then was at my core and why I had run in the first place.

I explained to her how I could technically vote for the legislation and then told her the names of those who had called me and how, as the politically and financially powerful people of our community, they were in a position to make or break me in my next election.

She listened, and then said, “I don’t remember the names of any of the people you mentioned supporting your campaign.”

I said, “Well, you’re right. They didn’t.”

Then, according to Proverbs 27:6, she most graciously and kindly gave me that “wound” which only the most faithful friend is willing to give, not for my hurt, but for my good: “Well, you won didn’t you? Just do what you think is the right thing.”

That settled it. She was right. Before God, I would not do indirectly what I had promised not to do directly.

I voted no. I also never had a political opponent during my second and third reelection campaigns.

Bill, over the next few weeks, you will be filling your cabinet and deciding who will be on your personal staff. These people will be very important, but I would remind you of what Solomon said, “Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts her; so he will have no lack of gain” (Proverbs 31:10-11 NKJV).

So, this is my advice: When your supporters, financial and otherwise, would pull and tug you into opposing irreconcilable positions or a member of your cabinet and staff recommends something that causes a hesitancy in your spirit, go to Maria.

She was given to you by God and she has already proven her worth in rubies is far greater than any kind of contribution anyone made to your campaign or will make to your success in office.

And, by the way, Maria, I’m praying for you, too.

year-end 2018

If you enjoyed this commentary, give your special year-end gift to FACT today to help us fight for God’s design for marriage and families, life, and religious liberty for Tennesseans.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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handshake

Working Across What Aisle?

Now that the election is over, the question in the minds of many is whether those elected are willing to “work across the aisle” with each other. Will Trump and Pelosi work across the aisle to govern? At his very first press conference, Governor-elect Bill Lee was asked if he would have any Democrats in his administration. But what is required if political partisans are to “work across the aisle”?

During a meeting I had last Friday with a group of African-American pastors, I had a concrete, demonstrable experience that crystallized for me my growing understanding that there is a different, more important, and significant “aisle” that will have to be crossed if we’re going to see work across partisan political aisles.

Finding a Unifying Political Topic

Because I was the only Caucasian invited to speak at this meeting and had held office as a Republican, I decided to talk to this group of black pastors about something I thought might unite us.

Consequently, I focused on why the United States Supreme Court’s decision on marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, was the most important political and policy issue in the country and, more specifically, why it was actually worse for the black community than the Court’s Dred Scott decision.

I explained to them that, in Scott, the Court had only decided the meaning of the word “citizen” in the U.S. Constitution and had excluded blacks from citizenship. But when the Obergefell majority said that biological, sexual differences were no longer relevant to the one societal institution that had been anchored in that difference, it had effectively held that, as a matter of constitutional law, human beings do not bear the image of God that God said was reflected in the fact He made us male and female (Genesis 1:27).

Obergefell, I told them, was not as much the resolution of a legal issue—the meaning of the word “citizen” in a legal document—as it was an ontological, anthropological statement about the very nature of what it means to be human, in other words, what it means to be a “being” who is human as distinguished from other forms of being, such as animals.

The import of Obergefell became clear when I reminded them that many at the time of the Scott decision viewed blacks as non-citizens because they viewed blacks as something less than fully human.

The pastors to whom I spoke understood that erasing the image of God necessarily meant erasing the God in whose image we were made and that when God and the image of God were far enough removed from our memory, then slavery of some men by a majority of other men was justifiable.

Bishop Matthews Leaps the Aisle

With that as the setting, Vincent Matthews then got up to speak. Matthews is a bishop within the largest predominately black Pentecostal denomination in the country. He is in charge of his denomination’s Family Life Campaign throughout the world.

Bishop Matthews began by saying that in my explanation of Obergefell, I was “talking more black” than most black politicians, and then he launched into the issue of abortion and the devastation it was wreaking on the survival of the black community.

Bishop Matthews concluded by reaching across partisan aisles with this amazing statement (paraphrased from what I heard):

I will never vote for a politician that supports abortion. When people try to tell me how much help some pro-choice politicians bring back to the black community, I tell them that killing our people does not help our community.

The First Aisle We Must Work Across

In my remarks, I had told the pastors that the biblical line of demarcation between people, the real divide, lies not in skin color or party label but elsewhere.

The Bible tells us that God divides humanity by race in the only sense that matters to Him. The first race is composed of those who are only natural descendants of the first Adam, who God originally created. The second are those who are part of the new “race” descended from the Second Adam, Jesus, the God-man, by virtue of having been born again by the Spirit of God. (See 1 Peter 2:9, 1 Corinthians 15:45–47, John1:12–13.)

That is why Bishop Matthews and I were able to reach across the partisan political aisle on two fundamentally important and divisive “political issues.” We believe the really great and fundamental divide among human beings has been bridged by and a basis for unity has been found in the God-man, Jesus, who we both acknowledge as the only true Sovereign to whom all, including politicians and political parties, owe allegiance (Ephesians 1:20–21; Revelation 1:5).

When that basis for unity and that allegiance become more important than partisan unity and allegiance, when the proclamation and advance of the Kingdom headed by Christ are more important than touting and building a partisan community, and when His Word becomes the foundation for our policy “platform,” then we’ll find the problem of working across the political aisle greatly ameliorated. I look forward to that day.

year-end 2018

If you enjoyed this commentary, give your special year-end gift to FACT today to help us fight for God’s design for marriage and families, life, and religious liberty for Tennesseans.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

FACT-RSS-Blog-Icon-small Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.