Friday, February 11, 2005

Hot Buttons?

Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea.

These were critical battles in the Persian War against Greece. The huge, hierarchical and monolithic Persian Empire launched an incredible long-range war of conquest against the loosely organized city-states of the Greek homeland. Darius attacked Marathon by sea, and though his troops vastly outnumbered the Greeks, he was repulsed. His successor, Xerxes, launched an even larger assault by land and sea, mobilizing what was probably the largest military force in the history of the world, bridging the Hellespont and marching inexorably up the Ionian coast, through modern Turkey, up around the Aegean sea and through Macedonia toward Attica and Athens. Armies of the Peloponnesian peninsula, which included Sparta, wanted to fall back to their own land, defend the isthmus, and abandon Athens and Attica as lost. Athenians pointed out that Xerxes would not stop at Athens, that he had conquered all the lands lying along his route so far, and that if the Peloponnesians abandoned the Athenians they would simply fight the same Persian army later, at their own cities, and then without the help of the Athenians. They decided to stay together and fight Xerxes in Attica. Thermopylae, a narrow pass famous for the stand of 300 Spartans against over 300,000 Persians, decimated Xerxes’ troops and demoralized them. All the Spartans died, and Xerxes burned Athens, but the Athenians had already relocated to the island of Salamis. Again, the Peloponnesians wanted to withdraw to their own territory, but instead were convinced to make their last stand in a great naval battle off Salamis, in which a relative handful of Greek ships trounced the huge Persian navy and sent Xerxes packing quickly back to Persia. The Greeks pursued the Persian army and engaged them on land at Plataea, and beat them again. The Persians never returned. Though there were many skirmishes, and some other sizeable battles, these four are remembered because they were places in which the Greeks decided to “take their stand” against incredible odds, realizing that their entire homeland was behind them.

In his review of Jim Wallis’ new book, Byron Borger notes, “As (Wallis) and his colleagues like Tony Campolo at the Call to Renewal often say, we don’t need more polarization caused by insistence upon conservative hot-button issues (prayer in schools, homosexuality, expanded militarism) but rather should develop a renewed care for the very issues that the Bible speaks most about---social justice, economic equity, urban renewal, racial reconciliation.” Wallis makes this exact point in his recent interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air”, adding abortion to the list of “hot buttons” that have supposedly caused and amplified polarization. In that interview, he makes the argument that the Bible has only a handful of references about homosexuality, but thousands of references to poverty. He is very reluctant to directly answer Terry’s questions on abortion and homosexual marriage, but when pressed allows that he is against abortion, but we should approach it by (somehow) working together to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, and furthermore that we need to protect the civil liberties, including the right to civil unions, of homosexuals. But, of course, those shouldn’t be the main issues.

As an aside, one wonders about this approach to Biblical interpretation. I don’t find a single verse about elective abortion, for example, yet he is marginally firmer on this issue than on homosexuality, which is outright condemned as a capital crime in the Pentateuch and everywhere else treated as an “end-stage” sin. And I wonder about all those verses about urban renewal and racial reconciliation; like, where are they?

But my broader concern is his understanding of those chief points of conflict between the two Cities (Babylon and Jerusalem) as being problematic and distracting. The minimalizing term, “hot button issue”, glosses over the fact that these issues are two very legitimate battlefronts between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Make no mistake: behind these fronts lie infanticide, euthanasia, and pedophilia. Two of the highest elites in the city of Babylon, Peter Singer of Princeton and Francis Crick of DNA fame, have already pressed the case for the first two, and essays and books have already been published exploring the latter (with consenting children, of course.) If we fall back from these issues, or arrange some type of “appeasement” or compromise, we will simply be fighting again later, even closer to home, with a culture that has become yet more emboldened to smash all boundaries and be “free”.

As long as there is conflict between the two kingdoms, the fronts will be heated, and could be characterized as “hot button” issues, or “lightening rod” issues. In the ancient church, one such issue was emperor worship. No one thought Nero was really a god, any more than anyone thought Nebuchadnezzar was. The issue could have been characterized as silly, philosophical and theological. “As long as the emperor-god doesn’t ask one to actually sin (against the second table of the law, anyway) who cares if you bow down to him, show respect and obeisance like everybody else? We know there is only one God! All the emperor cares about is that you’re a loyal citizen, and this is how he wants you to show it. Come on. Why throw your life away on such a fine distinction?”

Because it is the current, visible debate. Sometimes you choose the ground of battle, and sometimes the enemy does. In the cases of abortion and homosexuality, the battle was brought to us in “surprise” attacks through the courts. We are essentially defending ground that had never been overtly attacked before.

The issue of abortion is not moot; it is a hot-button issue precisely because both sides understand what is at stake. The whole field of bioethics, looming as the issue of the biotech revolution, is controlled by the determination of the value placed upon life in its various stages. Likewise, the issue of homosexual marriage is simply the narrow pass at which we are trying to stop the juggernaut of redefinition of normal human sexuality, a battle we largely withdrew from in the 1960’s, to our shame and now to our distinct disadvantage. The fact that these issues have rallied the Christian troops should be seen not as a problem but as an opportunity by folks like Wallis who want the church to become politically awake. Now that the troops are awake, and we have reinforcements, so to speak, direct their attention to these other legitimate issues. Educate them; send them forth. But don’t withdraw from the battles already joined or belittle them as “hot buttons”.


  1. Anonymous7:53 AM

    wow, joe. that was an incredible post. the battle is waging too.

    so in regard to social justice, et cetera, how do we approach something like gay-marriage in a society run by a rule of law and a constitution that doesn't address the issue?

    the wall i keep running into on this is that homosexuals pay taxes and have rights to what other taxpayers have...and i want to say "and should."

    is the issue something the church should be taking as their own? if so we need to start taking marriage more seriously. for all the face-talk on 'the santity of marriage' divorce rates among evangelicals are astounding. it can look like we really don't care and are more homophobic than pro-marriage.

    let me know what you think. really, what would this look like in action/on the ground? Because while i disagree with homosexuality and the gay agenda i don't want to run them out of town or burn them at the stake.

    where is the battle to be fought in this regard?


  2. Gotta work night-shift, so can't answer fully here. I may blog on this in the future, or we can talk.
    I don't want to persecute homosexuals either. But I feel that the agenda that is being pushed by them is one of forcing my practical affirmation of their lifestyle as OK. See my comment (buried in the middle of a very long'll have to look for it) at this blog:
    Page down to "Rights are Added" February 2, and in the middle of the comments is mine.

  3. Ok, 1) Wow, Dr. Kearns. You rock. Thanks for the insight!

    2) I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I've been struggling as to HOW we fight some of the battles. In a sense, right now we citizens of Jerusalem are temporarily living in Babylon...are at least side by side with citizens of that city. These citizens won't allow us to impose our own rules on them, particularly if we're living in their city. So I guess we have to play by their rules, but if we do so intelligently, we can still get what we want. I see no disharmony between outlawing abortion and constitutional law (or, loosely, the rules of the Babylonians). Outlawing abortion I think is easily defendable within the scope of the constitution (which is why I truly am surprised legalized abortion has lasted 30+ years). Homosexuality, however, is where I run into a brick wall. Of course I don't condone it; I outrightly oppose it. But when Babylonians only want to play by their rules, how we can we fight gay marriage/rights? As long as such rights as due process are constitutional how do we defend our cause? True, the phrase "substantive due process" is never found in the constitution, but is that our only argument against claims that the government does not have the right to impose rules on the private areas of our lives, where they don't belong? Or is the definition of marriage considered outside of that "private" realm? Basically, besides arguments of defending the sanctity of marriage, I really haven't heard anything else from the right. And although I too, would argue the sanctity of marriage, that argument only TRUELY holds in the Christian circle. It doesn't hold jack when debating with a citizen of Babylon. They don't care about sanctity of marriage. Their city is concerned with constitutional rights for everyone. Unless we convert everyone to Christianity (although that would be pretty sweet!) sanctity of marriage holds no water. From a legal standpoint, the left's argument is much stronger. How do we fight homosexual marriages? It's effects on culture? (I once read that every culture that began to accept homosexuality as status quo met it's demise in X number of years - don't remember the source of information though.) Psychological effects? I don't know. I'm just unsatisfied with how we are fighting this ethical battle. Any thoughts? I haven't read your comment on that other blog yet, but I plan to.

  4. Good post...abortion is the "hottest of the hot" issues out there. And it should be. Abortion is heinous and wicked--any compromise or lukewarmness on this issues invites God's wrath, for unborn babies are the "least of these." I was born two months premature so I take this issue personally.Where the right goes wrong is in not fully putting our actions behind our words. We should (me included) first adopt the children out there in a reeling foster care system. Then, I believe the world will have to listen to our talk about the "Sanctity of human life." Until the church reprioritizes from "A big building (big debt), consumerist, and my needs mentality to a mentality of "Where is the greatest needs of the lost world and put ourselves in the middle of it as Christ's people", then I believe we should be cautious with our pronouncements of being Pro-Life. I do believe our protestations against abortion are done more to assuage our consciences for inactivity (where we can say we did "something") rather than true moral exhortation to a world that needs to hear of God's truth on this issue.