Friday, October 28, 2011

Thoughts on II Samuel

The second half of the Book of Samuel is usually thought of as the story of King David’s reign over Israel. I’d never really thought about how it might provide some insight as to how Christians are supposed to behave. However, when I reread it earlier this year, something stood out to me. We’re presented with a number of stories that feature individuals giving and taking of advice: Good council. Bad council. Subjects reasoning with superiors. Women reasoning with men. The stories highlight how sympathy, inflated egos, desire for peace, desire for revenge, and imperfect and incomplete knowledge about the situations at hand can render desirable or undesirable results.

The women of II Samuel give good advice, yet in one case it’s not accepted. That’s the lot of Tamar, David’s daughter, as she tries to prevent her half-brother Amnon from raping her. Despite his love for her, Amnon ignores her warnings and suggestions (ch. 13). David didn’t love the wise woman who appealed to him, yet he listened to her even though he saw right through her story (ch. 14). The wise woman of Abel-Beth-Maacah was to be an insignificant war casualty, but despite her boldness, Joab listened to her (ch. 20). Amnon, however, makes for a strange case in that his regard for his sister in no way prevented him from violating her. And in the end, perhaps because of a guilty conscience or bruised ego caused by her rejection of him, he begins to hate her.

I can identify with Amnon in the sense that my humiliation can easily breed contempt for those who’ve witnessed it. But what’s interesting about his response is the Septuagint translators’ use what most of us consider extremes: ἀγαπάω (agapeo, “to love”) and μισέω (miseo, “to hate”). (The forms specifically used in the Greek are ἠγάπησεν, ἀγαπῶ, ἀγάπην in vv. 1, 4, and 15 and ἐμίσησεν and μῖσος in v. 15.) These are exactly the same words used to contrast God’s conduct toward Jacob and Esau, by Paul in Romans 9:13 (ἠγάπησα and ἐμίσησα in the Nestlé-Aland 26) and by Malachi in 1:2 (ἠγάπησα in the LXX). In no way do I mean to suggest that “love” and “hate” can’t each have a variety of meanings, but that that the words, as used in other Bible passages contextualize Amnon’s radical change in feelings.

For Christians, “love” and “hatred” are extremely powerful words, used throughout both the Old and New Testments. God is a great hater of our sin, but our salvation is made possible by God’s great love for us (e.g., John 3:16). It’s amazing to think that someone might love someone else so completely and yet still turn against them. We are repeatedly told not to hate but to love each other, and this becomes a lesson on changing our attitudes about those we already have ill feelings towards, such as our enemies (e.g., ἀγαπᾶτε and μισοῦσιν in Luke 6:27). However, I’m beginning to realize how important it is to protect those we love from our hatred also. That might be the point behind Colossians 3:19 & 21, which tells husbands not to be harsh with their wives and fathers not to provoke their children. A man might deeply love his family, but that love won’t necessarily stop him from hurting them physically or emotionally. Amnon, despite being one of the most unpopular Bible characters, can serve as a constant reminder that those we love are also in danger of being hated by us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Social Security Reform…Through Student Loan Reform?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked at your paycheck stub and let out a groan. Social Security payroll withholdings are so depressing. We can’t spend the money on food, rent, and car payments now. We can’t borrow from this imaginary life savings account and repay it later. Worse yet, we’re coerced into contributing to the common pot with no guarantee that we’ll ever have a chance to eat from it.

The mainstream view of Social Security seems to be that it’s been a tremendous flop. Beneficiaries are living longer than they imagined as youths, collecting more than they initially contributed. The Federal government is tempted to use designated funds for other welfare projects, an action which, if committed by a non-profit organization, could result in serious legal trouble. With a track record like that, it’s no wonder that the current labor force generally distrusts the system. Americans constantly are told to take charge of their retirement savings with the expectation that Social Security won’t be around much longer.

Try as some may, no movement to eliminate or privatize Social Security has been successful. Legislators are reluctant to change, obviously because senior citizens and near-retirees make up the largest voting demographics. Stop collecting the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax, and who’ll feed the “Baby-Boomers” who’ve contributed so faithfully to the cause? Yes, we might agree that the system is overdue on a major structural overhaul, but we need a feasible solution…that is, one that doesn’t cost anything to our elders who rule the voting booth.

As of now, what does the younger generation of workers do in face of a pending Social Security crisis? Work. Pay necessities. Repay college loans. Try and fail to save privately for retirement. And continue to pay for someone else’s retirement. No wonder most give up and party instead. No wonder few are interested in settling down and raising a family. Something must be done.

My suggestion? Allow one particular deduction from future payouts: student loans. Right now, “Gen-Xers” are too busy scrambling to pay for their post-secondary education to save for their own retirement. Eliminate that atrociously large debt burden that’s squishing a significant percentage of the young working population, but don’t change their tax contributions. Workers would be free to begin saving privately earlier. Retirees won’t feel threatened by a loss of payments.

I do recognize that the system can’t be changed overnight. This would require some serious coordination among the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Social Security Administration (SSA), and possibly other government agencies. And the Federal government, like private creditors, isn’t going to jump at a chance to lose interest payments on loans. However, as a potential means for Social Security reform, I think that it might have some promise.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thoughts on 1 Corinthians

Involuntary celibacy is on the rise. No one wants to do anything about it except advocate waiting, and waiting is a grossly inadequate policy rule. As I write this post, hundreds – thousands? millions? – of never-married believers are suffering from chronic sexual desire. Like many Keynesian-sympathizers who see deficit spending as the solution to economic woes, Christians – regardless of sex, race, and marital status – recommend patience as the only honorable choice for singles. As a short-run Band-Aid, waiting can work; but it hasn’t proven to be a viable solution in the long-run.

In my opinion, the biblical support for singles waiting is shaky. Yes, there are passages instructing us to be patient and persevere, but persecution and vengeance are generally the concern, not husband (or wife) hunting. We have the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel, but she was praying for a child, not a husband. We have Adam being put to sleep in the Garden of Eden, but his wait had an expressed divine purpose. (And if you ask a young-earth creationist, he’ll insist that Adam was asleep for, at most, a few hours.)

I’m not suggesting that patience isn’t a quality worth pursuing. It’s just being misapplied. Many Christians see waiting as part of a paradigm, sort of a worldview in which one’s marriage prospects are solely divine business while people exercise freewill in hunting for food, a job, a house, and everything else in life. Its advocates, although well-meaning, are generally naïve about temptation too. A single facing temptation to use pornography or sexual experiment is rightly told to flee (1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22; cf. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39). This eliminates the immediate danger, but doesn’t solve the problem of having unmet sexual needs. Rebounds just encourage onlookers to lecture even more about fleeing and waiting.

It’s very suspicious that the Christians advising this are, more often than not, either married (i.e., have a legitimate sexual outlet) or admittedly uninterested in sex (i.e., asexual, voluntarily celibate, or in possession of a naturally low sex drive). And they generally don’t even stop lecturing a moment to put themselves in others’ shoes. Rather than give up belief that fleeing and waiting is the only solution, many even accuse struggling singles of neither trusting God nor attempting to control themselves.

The Apostle Paul was more sympathetic. He outright says that he wishes everyone – married and single – could be celibate, yet he admits that it’s a “gift” that few have (1 Corinthians 7:7; cf. Jesus discussing eunuchs in Matthew 19:12). To those who can’t control their sexual urges, he offers one and only one prescription: marry (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9, & 36). He doesn’t say to wait. In fact, he conveys a sense of urgency, something that Christians have failed to take seriously.

Uncomfortable as it might be to accept, the biblical solution for involuntary celibacy is marital sex. The flee-and-wait approach to life will never satisfy one’s God-given cravings. As Paul suggests, it just makes things worse. I know that from personal experience, as do many others. It’s not surprising that so many Christians succumb to sin when their fellow believers make light of their situation and the cure. Until the Christian community makes a conscious decision to change the way we address singles’ sexual needs, it will continue to lose the battle against pornography and fornication.