Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

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But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 25, 2011.

My dad has often said that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. A younger me was less inclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives—but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action; rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary for growth. From this, we grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer often sounds like a more polished and polite version of a young child’s begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts—even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered on such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him. Just as we (hopefully) grow to see our parents as so much more than providers, we should mature in our understanding of God.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us, at least at some point, struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority. The Scriptures, which reveal both God’s eternal power and the drama of human choice, give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position.

To put it too simplistically, we can look at it this way. Those who see God’s authority rigidly, to the point of not allowing man responsibility for anything, view God’s sovereignty correctly—He is either sovereign over all or not at all—but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly, to the point of diminishing God’s power, correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

I’ve known people who grew into belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, though, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent Son, Jesus Christ, was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vís-a-vís God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil is in reality an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The crossEcce Homo is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too. Though a display of His grace and power and authority to erase our sins, it is still more. Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being. Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4:15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

The suffering which culminated at the cross included 33 years of life in this broken place. Christ lived with the poor sanitation, poor health, and poor food and water quality common to all in the first century world. He lived through three decades of human strife, quarrelling, brutality, political tension, sickness, sorrow, and death. Even more than that, He was born into poverty, a member of an oppressed people group, living in a town and region of low reputation as far from the power centers of the Roman world as one could get. He was probably maligned all His life by those who knew that His birthday and Joseph & Mary’s wedding day didn’t add up. He was probably envied and maneuvered against by His siblings and neighbors. Perhaps His carpentry shop was robbed or vandalized. In his years among us, He took into Himself the fullness of human misery so as to be unassailable in His compassion for us.

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness (and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith) we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are both predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whose name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

The longer I follow Christ, the more I embrace my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift hasn’t been so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with the magnitude of my sin and the ways mine and others’ sins are reflected in the systems of the world. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems in the face of God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I thought I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”  Amen.

Photo: Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, Public Domain.

The Way of the Righteous: Psalm 1

In 2011, I wrote a short series on selected Psalms for Disciple Magazine. A few of these are now showing back up here with slight updates.

My goal in writing and teaching on Scripture is usually explore it expositionally with an eye toward application. That is, opening the Bible, and seeing what the text in its context has to say about our belief and practice as Christians. This is in contrast to what I’ll call exploring the Word prescriptively—approaching selected texts in answer to a question or problem. Both expositional and topical Bible studies can be valuable in shaping our understanding the Word, but I try to stick to exposition to keep myself grounded.

Why Psalms?
Expositing the Psalms is not as clear-cut as studying the more logically structured, largely straightforward style of a New Testament epistle or a book of history. This is a book of songs and poetry meant to stir the people of God to worship and contemplation of the Lord and His Law, not necessarily of narrative or instruction. It does not lend itself easily to a verse-by-verse study; in fact, to break it down that far often distracts from the important themes and imagery the Psalmists develop through poetic structure and musical cadence.

These difficulties, however, should not discourage us from studying the Psalms. Rather, they should draw us in and guide our approach to the book. Here are a few suggested “ground rules” for interpreting and applying these hymns of worship.

1) Psalms are lyrical, not always literal. This does not mean that the poetry here is somehow exempt from inerrancy, but that it is filled with word pictures and illustrations that should be read as such. Over-analyzing the wording in a metaphor (instead of its message) misses its power to move us to worship and repentance, and will almost certainly lead to an interpretation that ventures far afield from what the author intended.

2) Most Psalms focus primarily on God’s character and our response to Him. In short, they’re about worship. When we approach the Psalms for insights into God’s character, man’s sinfulness, and what a repentant and righteous heart looks like, we find a treasure-trove. Specific commands, specific behaviors, specific prophecies, and specific history, though present, make up far less of the content here. They are more often implied and alluded to than explicitly stated.

3) Psalms (like all Scripture) need to be studied in context. To read the Psalms without ever having read the history of Creation, the people of Israel, and their covenantal relationship with God (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament) will breed confusion and frustration. Sometimes, even specific Psalms cannot be fully understood without a background of their specific history (such as Ps. 51 in light of the narrative of 2 Sam. 11-12). Even though they are rooted in the old sacrificial system and a world before Christ, the Psalms teach us about the unchanging character of God. There is a reason He has preserved them for us today, and the truths He reveals through these songs are not for one time and one people only. 
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The Example of Jonah

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 2014. Part 5 of 5

At last we come to the great “showdown” of this story—when Jonah finally speaks honestly with God and, in spite of his rage and despair, the Lord teaches him graciously yet again who is sovereign and just.

Jonah (after taking a rather, shall we say, circuitous route) obeyed God, delivering a fiery warning of coming judgment to the people of Nineveh. To his surprise, they listened and repented, and, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10).

Far from the reaction you might expect after what looks like a “successful” delivery of his prophetic message, Jonah reflected bitterly on Nineveh’s repentance: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). In his grief and anger, Jonah cried out to the Lord: “He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (4:2-3). Continue reading