In the Right Ballpark

The old rabbis made a hand-waving connection between the big commandments and the smaller ones. If you haven’t heard hand-waving before, what I mean is an observation that appears true but there is no immediate way to prove it. Mathematicians use the phrase when something is asserted that gets you in the correct ballpark and being in the correct ballpark is the only thing that matters. Mathematics and theology are closer disciplines than probably either group would like to admit. Since I’m a practical putzer in each, I can make statements like that. Any-hoo, the Rabbis probably got the initial idea from God himself who consistently compares Israel’s idolatry to adultery (Jeremiah 3:8ff, Ezekiel 16:1ff, Hosea 4:1ff, really the entire book of Hosea). If you have a problem with the first commandment (No other gods) then you will have problems with the sixth (no adultery). Of course what this is really useful for is going the other way. If your society is full of sexual sin, you have a deep problem with idolatry. If your society has a problem with stealing (7th commandment) then the spiritual problem causing it is with the 2nd commandment (don’t steal the honor from the name of God). This matching up of one through five with six through ten (sorry Reformed folks, we are using the numbering the Rabbis, the Catholics and everyone else did until Calvin) continues in hand-waving fashion. It gets you into the right ballpark for spiritual issues.

The one that I want to comment on is actually three-eight. The eighth commandment is don’t bear false testimony against your neighbor. Now all the law has a positive and a negative force. The negative force is don’t lie about your neighbor. The positive force in the words of Luther is “put the best construction on everything.” Our 24/7/365 existence combined with the ever present desire to appear “in the know” (FOMO anyone?) has created a monster for the positive force of the law. We immediately jump to putting the worst possible construction on any answer by people we think are against us. It is not just that they disagree with us but that they are evil. In more formal times we would be talking about words like slander, libel and smear. Rachel Held Evans, a societal bellwether in many things, is instinctive in putting the worst construction on everything. The most recent example is taking to the CNN belief blog to pontificate righteously condemning as evil baby starving people those who decided that they were no longer going to support World Vision after their initial statements per SSM. The best construction would have been something along the lines that following the revelation that World Vision was not what they thought, these people decided to move their support to another charity now with greater trust. For example maybe to Samaritan’s Purse, or to drop the charade at all and just give the money to a completely secular charity. Helping people is helping people. Nobody is confused about UNICEF also being a representative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or in other words, pure doctrine actually matters, even though our low content non-denominational culture has been trying to deny that for decades.

There are any number of things where the real problem in society is that we can’t tell the truth about our neighbor and instead substitute the worst thing we can possibly think up for their motivations. No matter how many pinches of salt are given to being a “uniter and not a divider” or “representing not blue or red America but The United States of America”, until the real spiritual problem is addressed we will continue tearing each other apart.

And getting into the right ballpark spiritually means looking at the third commandment which is about keeping the Sabbath day holy. Luther’s explanation of this priceless. “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” If you are tearing your society apart through slander and smear, the real problem that is being made manifest is the ignorance and disdain for the Word of God and the gathering of believers.

Now there is an interesting issue here regarding two kingdoms and the church. America is not the church. Confusing the two, as I am in danger of doing above, is not the right path. Addressing the spiritual problem flows in two ways. The easy way is directed as the great multitude of the post-protestant penumbra of America, the washed (i.e. baptized) hordes that have left the church or have taken up dissent from within for fun and profit. The call of Joel 2:11-17 fits. “”Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him.” Respect for the Word of God does not mean twisting it to fit your preconceived notions and self-justifications. Keeping the Sabbath means placing yourself under the Word. And the 6th commandment and Jesus on divorce and marriage (Mark 10:1ff) are clear. As I said that is the easy one. The tough one is that the same Word makes clear what the church is to do regarding itself to those who will not accept its teaching – 1 Corinthians 5:1ff. The fact that we have entire church bodies that have been lost to the church because of our inability honor the Word is a travesty worthy of mourning.

“Yet even now…” That is the call to Christian Hope. Yet even now, when according to human standards the thing is dead and lifeless, God is faithful. He is the God of the living. He is the God of resurrection. Our Hope springs not from our ability to actually call the assembly or keep the fast, because we cannot. Our Hope is the steadfast love of the Lord. He relents over disaster. He calls forth his unfaithful bride and puts her in white for the wedding feast. That is why we return. That is why the church will live. It is not our love, it is His.

Google, the 8th Commandment and Original Sin…

Tyler Cowen asks the question if Google Autocomplete can be libelous? Not a bad question, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

From Germany:

…for Bettina Wulff it’s a nightmare. The wife of former German President Christian Wulff wants the search engine to cease suggesting terms that she finds defamatory. This has nothing to do with the search results, but rather with the recommendations made by Google’s “Autocomplete” function, a service that is also offered by competitors like Bing and Yahoo. All one has to do is type her first name and the first letter of her last name to get search suggestions such as “Bettina Wulff prostitute,” “Bettina Wulff escort” and “Bettina Wulff red-light district.”

Don’t forget the problem of cascades here:

The Autocomplete function, the usefulness of which Google so guilelessly praises as a means of giving one’s fingers a rest, undeniably helps spread rumors. Assuming that someone unsuspectingly begins to look for information on “Bettina Wulff” and is offered “prostitute,” “Hanover” and “dress” as additional search terms — where, independent of their actual interests, will users most likely click?

The real question is in that last line. If Google autocompletes your search and one of the terms is prostitute or {fill in the blank with unflattering and embarrassing term}, which one would you choose? The 8th commandment says “do not bear false witness against your neighbor”. When he asks what does this mean, Luther adds the positive burden to “put the best construction on everything”. Google might be the greatest facilitator of trespass the world has ever seen. And yet it is darn funny and irresistible.

A medicinal reminder

I’m usually pretty rough on institutions. If I am being truthful it is because I’m a trained cynic. The best training and advice I ever got as a young financier was to understand the compensation structure. Once you understood the compensation of everyone key in the room, you knew what position they were going to take. Crafting good presentations was all about making sure all the key people appeared to get a slice. The net effect of that is that institutions always act in their own best interest. Even if their mission or the collective best interest will be smothered and crushed. Here is a great example of the UAW turning down a contract that would have kept an ‘Old GM’ plant open because the current workers preferred to keep their slots at ‘new GM’. The chance at getting a UAW GM job was worth more than a current job and an increase in the number of jobs in the local area.

One of the tough questions I asked the confirmands last night was does following the 8th commandment (which according to Luther means putting the best construction on everything) mean being an idiot? Is my cynical take on institutions, which I have rarely seen violated, a breaking of the 8th commandment? (My answer is probably, but sin boldly.)

As much as the church usually confirms my cynical view of institutions, it still remains about the only place where I get surprised. And it is usually because of individuals who refuse to sin boldly against the 8th commandment. And while not being idiots, they choose to act like them and work within the institution. And they usually bear the price – the cross – of such a choice.

Jason Byassee at Duke Divinity recalls the good of institutions in the hellhole of the Sudan. It is a medicinal reminder of the good of functioning institutions.

I guess here is the crux of my problem. Acting like my cynical view rarely endangers the mission of most institutions. But the mission of the church is directly damaged. There is a sense that your could say the mission of the church is to be the anti-institution, the institution that acts not according to the rules of this world but according to the kingdom of God. The church here and now is about putting your neighbor at the same level, about being your brother’s keeper. When it works, when it is competent, it can give a glimpse of stitching the world back together as Mr. Byassee puts it. It gives a foretaste of the Kingdom currently hidden among the cynicism.