How to consider the political views of religious leaders

Photo credit: Republic of Korea

Photo credit: Republic of Korea

Most Christians want their religious leaders to speak out on important issues of the day. We want them to wrestle with relevant topics and to take a stand on the events that shape our world.

We don’t want the pulpit to fall silent. We have an important message to carry; our mission is to be a light in the darkness, a voice in the wilderness, a helping hand in times of trouble.

Throughout American history, Christian ministers have led the way to tremendous, positive change. They sparked the revival that fueled the American Revolution, advanced the cause of abolition, and organized the civil rights movement.

Today Christian leaders continue to guide the way on issues such as protecting the unborn and defending marriage, while others emphasize environmental stewardship or racial reconciliation. We benefit from the unique perspective members of the clergy bring to these topics, thanks to their religious training and spiritual devotion.

But sometimes religious figures cross an important boundary that separates healthy, constructive teaching from divisive, unfounded rhetoric.

When that line is crossed, we may feel something isn’t right in our gut, but often we have trouble identifying the problem and determining what to do about it.

They’re supposed to be the authority figures, we reason; they’re the leaders we listen to and depend upon for help in answering some of life’s most important questions. What if they know something about God’s word that we’ve missed?

Or, how do we know if they’ve taken it a step too far?

This is a dilemma I’ve pondered for years. I’ve wanted Christian leaders to speak up on political issues, but I’ve also been wary of the division and unwarranted judgement that can result if we politicize the church.

Recently, I stumbled upon a new way of thinking about that dichotomy and have developed a method we can use to unpack a minister’s political speech. This is how we know if there’s a problem, and what to do about it.

The error occurs when a religious leader ventures beyond teaching Biblical principles or sharing political opinions (advertised as such) and begins judging his brothers and sisters who hold other opinions, even to the point of denying the validity of their Christianity on that basis.

It is a serious offense that must be recognized, rejected and replaced with truth.

Recently much has been made of an encyclical written by Pope Francis in which he weighs in on global warming. His attention to the topic of climate change drew praise from the Obama administration. Tellingly, however, the White House press secretary was caught off guard when asked if the President also shared the Pope’s view on abortion, an issue which is intricately woven into the same message.

We should expect the Pope to honor human life and God’s creation. And if he’s serious about these principles, we should expect him to take a stand and seek policy solutions. Some of us may disagree with his conclusions, but we can understand his passion in advocating a particular set of political remedies. It is his role as a leader and a person of influence to speak out and share what he believes God would have us do; that’s precisely what we want from him.

If we are to believe the media reports, however, the Pope went much further with his position on firearms, allegedly saying those who manufacture weapons or invest in such companies “can’t call themselves Christians.”

In a case such as this, our first step ought to be verifying the accuracy of the quote, making sure it was translated correctly and was not stripped from context.

Next, we should identify the principle or value behind the statement. Was he referencing the value of human life, our reliance on God for our security, a combination of these, or something else?

After we have the principle in mind, we can test whether the Pope’s statement is correct and appropriate by observing whether there are other valid ways it can be upheld and implemented.

For instance, can we also place value on human life by providing a defense for it, through the manufacture of weapons? Can we rely fully on the providence of God by giving him the glory for giving us sharp minds, strong hands and material resources with which to defend ourselves from harm?

If the answer to these questions is yes, the Pope has gone too far. He has made an improper political judgement in denying the Christianity of those who hold the same core principle(s) but have reached a different political conclusion.

When such statements are made, our process should be this:

  1. Identify the principles behind the statement.
  2. Test whether multiple, valid conclusions can follow from those principles.
  3. If yes, recognize judgmental political statements as improper.
  4. Replace the improper statement with truth.

No political persuasion holds a monopoly on principles and values. Both the Left and the Right, Republicans and Democrats and everyone in-between, have ideas for implementing policies that reflect larger values and hopefully make the world a better place.

That doesn’t mean we have to consider both sides equal, or abandon our preferences as individuals. We will naturally tend to side with one particular camp or another. There will always be political disagreements and varied policy preferences, many of them at odds with each other, even when we share the same values and principles.

We should encourage our religious leaders to hold fast to principles and values, to speak out on them and take a stand, and to inform themselves and seek the best possible political and policy conclusions. We should encourage them to share their opinions and offer the best arguments they can muster.

But we should not allow any religious figure to deny people their Christianity or judge others on the sole basis of political preferences, as some are in the habit of doing. And when we hear such statements being made, we should call it out, deny it a foothold, and put truth in its place.

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cost of DiscipleshipThe Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Put simply, The Cost of Discipleship is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s meditation on what it means to answer the calling of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus calls, it is no light invitation. For the disciple, answering the call means putting all else aside and obeying Christ. It is not assent to a program or to a process known in advance; it is a decision to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Christ does not start with a small ask, preparing the disciple for increasingly large steps of faith. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Jesus asks us to pick up our cross of suffering (bearing the burdens of others and offering them forgiveness) and follow him. “The gospel call’s first step radically affects one’s whole existence.”

This is “costly grace” – following Christ and his commands, as opposed to “cheap grace,” which presumes salvation without obedience. But faith is only real when there is obedience.

Bonhoeffer’s central focus in Discipleship is the Sermon on the Mount, and he leads the reader through Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Matthew, offering interpretation, cross-referencing other passages from scripture and adding insightful commentary along the way.

What does Jesus have to say to us today? Bonhoeffer asks us to listen to Christ directly and get our answers from Him.

The call of the apostles differs from our call today, because while they left all to follow Jesus, we “abide where we were called” (1 Corinthians 7:20-24). Bonhoeffer explains what it means to abide in Him and how we ought to view Christ, the world, the church and ourselves, and how we ought to respond to his call.

The Art of Being Unmistakable, by Shrinivas Rao

The Art of Being UnmistakableThe Art of Being Unmistakable by Srinivas Rao

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Exploring the things that make us special and unique, even our failures and inadequacies, and being genuine and true to ourselves as we work, develop and create – these are key to finding true success and happiness.

Srinivas Rao wrote The Art of Being Unmistakable through a series of Facebook status updates after coming to the point where he just wanted to be honest, even if it meant committing career suicide.

The path of success he had been following wasn’t working. Rao was uninterested in the jobs he had trained for and had no passion for the offices and board rooms. The life society had prepared for him was empty and void of meaning. He wasn’t measuring up to the supposed ideal. He longed to spend more time engaged in the one activity that made him happy, surfing.

Rao discovered being honest with and about ourselves, and ignoring the external definition of success, makes us authentic and leads us to do the very things that make us come alive, and paradoxically, tend to bring success our way. We have it backwards.

Furthermore, as the revolution of information and technology progresses, being our authentic selves is the best way to build job security. When we provide value by delivering the experiences that only we can, it’s harder for us to be undercut by cheap labor or replaced by robots and machinery.

The gatekeepers are going extinct, and it’s never been easier in the history of civilization to choose for ourselves and to make a unique impact on the world.

We need to shift our focus, Rao says, from being wildly successful according to the standards of others to being “unmistakable.” We should put down the map and pick up a compass.

If I have any criticism of Rao’s essay, it would be simply to amend the following passage from the perspective of a Christian who believes I am not the final authority but instead answer to the first Creator, who formed my creative spirit and fills my life with meaning and purpose: “You are the final authority on it all. Your sign-off is the one that matters above all. You get to say whether you live a life filled with meaning and purpose.”

The Art of Being Unmistakable is a fast-paced pep talk for creative people. Rao encourages readers to set big goals that inspire them, to follow their passions, and to blaze a new path.

Study what you want to learn, not the subjects that seem important. Focus on being different instead of being better. And don’t sacrifice the things that make you stand out for the sake of conformity.

Four adaptations of the Bullet Journal system

I’ve been experimenting with Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal system for about five weeks.

Here are a few things I really like about it:

  • You don’t need to buy anything; you can use any blank notebook you already have.
  • You can keep everything in one journal, rather than lugging around multiple notebooks.
  • You will have a record of what you’ve done with your day, week and month.
  • You store appointments, tasks, notes, and reminders together in one place.
  • You use every page, and no space is wasted or meaningless.
  • You can configure it to work best for your particular situation.
  • You can quickly find anything you add to the index page.

I highly recommend the system overall, but of course it isn’t perfect. And it’s only as organized as you make it, which could be a problem if you aren’t well organized in the first place.

Here are some specific things I don’t like about it:

  • You still need a separate calendar to schedule future appointments and events. That is, unless you never have multiple appointments on a single day in the future, and you never make appointments beyond the current month.
  • It’s not perfectly clear if new tasks should be added to the day or to the month.
  • It takes a minute to flip back to the current month page.
  • There’s no obvious separation between different types of tasks and appointments, for instance home and work projects.
  • There’s no built-in guidance to remember things like your priorities, goals, roles, etc., or to provide you with inspiration.

There’s no easy way around some of these shortcomings. For instance, I plan to keep using an online calendar to keep up with future events and appointments.

But with a little tweaking, other deficiencies can be addressed within the Bullet Journal system itself.

Here are four such adaptations I’ve implemented:

  1. Sticky tabs.

  2. IMG_3046Sticky tabs help you find the monthly overview pages.

    I don’t have many tasks that are created and completed in one day, but the monthly task list is more useful.

    I’m constantly flipping back to adjust my monthly task list or to add something noteworthy beside a day on the monthly calendar.

    You can pick up a pack of these sticky tabs at Office Depot. They’re about $7 for a pack of 60-plus.

    They should help you flip between the monthly summary pages and the current page, without losing your place.

    And if you don’t want to keep an old tab when the month is over, just peel it off.

  3. A monthly focus.

  4. IMG_3049Determining a focus will give direction to your month.

    This is something I picked up from the Passion Planner system (thanks, Matthew), which provides space for users to create a weekly focus.

    For me, it seemed too difficult to come up with a new focus each week. But I decided to concentrate on improving my health in the month of May, and keeping that in mind has really helped me make a number of important changes recently.

    I suggest adding your focus to your monthly calendar page. I added it as an afterthought in May, placing it at the bottom of the calendar page, but it could just as easily be written at the top, beside or below the name of the month. See suggestion #4 for help settling on your monthly focus.

  5. Staggered icons.

  6. IMG_3048Staggered icons help you separate between categories of tasks and appointments.

    Before, my tasks and appointments were a jumbled mess of personal and work-related entries.

    At work, I couldn’t locate the next appropriate task item at a glance. I had to review the entire list of work and home items, which could become pretty distracting.

    You could use an extra icon to label one category of items, but I recently discovered staggering as an easier solution.

    That way, if you decide to implement the suggested icons for “important,” or “remember,” you aren’t cluttering up that column or wasting an icon.

  7. Monthly reflections.

  8. IMG_3047A monthly reflections page gives you a reason to review and reconsider.

    Because each month begins on a new spread, I had an extra page at the end of April and didn’t know what to do with it. Without giving it much thought, I created a “Reflections on April 2015″ page at the end of that month, and I ended up writing about the things I enjoyed and what I wanted to do differently in May.

    That simple page of reflections and resolutions caused me to think differently about the month ahead, and helped me determine May’s focus.

    Creating a reflections or summary page at the end of the month will help you analyze what you’ve done in the preceding weeks and prepare for the next few.

My version of Bullet Journal is still a work in progress. But after many years of using other systems, it seems like a winner. Do you have a system that works great for you, or perhaps a Bullet Journal adaptation of your own? If so, leave a comment; I’d love to hear about it.

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, by Paul Johnson

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and ChomskyIntellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky by Paul Johnson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In the first and last pages of Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson makes his succinct case against “the secular intellectual.” He says intellectuals are influential men who ignored the inherited wisdom of the ages, sought to replace the authority of God with their own reason, and proceeded to squeeze the culture into a shape of their choosing.

To test how suitable such individuals were to guide mankind, Johnson selects a small handful of representative philosophers, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists and political malcontents. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, each chapter exposes the strengths and weaknesses, mainly weaknesses, of each candidate.

The result is a very informative, yet sobering and ultimately mind-numbing survey of society’s general decline over the past two centuries or so.

It is unlikely Johnson employed an objective list of qualifications to settle on this particular shortlist of intellectuals, unless the parameters included such factors as: abused the generosity of others, mismanaged family relationships, suffered from sexual problems, and rearranged the facts in order to misrepresent even their own personal lives.

While some of the lost fragments of history are interesting, Johnson’s eagerness to demonstrate the parallels between them renders the study monotonous. He gives the subjects’ accomplishments only the most basic mention, while information about their personal debts and illegitimate children crowds out everything else.

If Johnson succeeds in driving home the point that intellectuals are dangerous liars with no morals who cannot be trusted to guide society, he simultaneously reveals himself as an inadequate guide to intellectuals. Or, at least, not a very entertaining one.