Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 Reading Plan

Well, a new year is upon us. And this year, I've decided to do something I hardly ever do - use a Bible reading plan. In years past, I've just largely read whatever I felt like reading. When I had plenty of time, it worked out well enough, and I generally got through the entire Bible at least once a year (several times through many books). But as my life has gotten busier (i.e. I got married and a real job), the "no plan" plan has proven to be grossly deficient. Some parts of the Bible have gotten short shrift, particularly the major OT prophets. So this year, it's time to get serious, and stick to a plan.

I looked at some different plans, and didn't really like the way a lot of them looked. So I decided to create one of my own, a bit more flexible than the "read these particular chapters on these particular days" plans. I decided to just divide the different books up by month, trying to get a blend of genres in each month (history, prophecy, etc), and just finishing those books by the end of the month. Psalms was split up into 12 sections of 12-13 each.

January: Genesis, Psalms 38-50, Hosea, 1 Corinthians, Song of Solomon

February: Exodus, Job, Psalms 13-25

March: Leviticus, Psalms 1-12, Isaiah

April: Numbers, 2 Corinthians, Psalms 126-137, Matthew, Joel, Colossians, Jonah

May: Deuteronomy, Psalms 88-100, Hebrews, Ecclesiastes, Amos, Daniel, Galatians

June: Joshua, Mark, Psalms 26-37, Jeremiah

July: Judges, Psalms 63-75, Obadiah, Ephesians, Proverbs, Ruth, 1 and 2Thessalonians, Lamentations, Micah, Philemon, Jude

August: 1 and 2 Samuel, Psalms 138-150, Revelation, 1 and 2 Peter

September: 1 and 2 Kings, Psalms 51-62, Ezekiel

October: 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms 101-112, John

November: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Acts, Psalms 76-87, Zechariah, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Haggai

December: Luke, Psalms 113-125, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Malachi, 2 Timothy, Titus, James, 1 and 2 and 3 John

Now, this is just a plan. I do reserve the right to change the order of books, but the goal is to stay ahead of the chapter pace. This comes out to about 98 chapters per month, and that's frontloaded a bit, so that December only has 69 chapters of reading. Since late November and December are big travel times, the goal is to stay ahead of pace so I'm not trying to cram 150 chapters in at the end.

Astute readers may notice something missing from the list. I don't have Romans in there anywhere. Why's that? I've decided that Romans is going to be my focal book for the year. The goal going forward is to pick at least one book (two or more if they're short ones, like the Johannine epistles) and study it thoroughly for the year. Read it many times, read commentaries, write some bloggage about it, memorize it, that sort of thing. This year will be Romans, and we'll see how that goes. So it's not included in the rest of the plan; I'll be reading it at least once a month on top of the other reading. Like everything, this is subject to change based on how it goes; I could move on to a different book after six months, stick with Romans the whole year, or even go into next year with it. We'll see.

So, anyone else have a plan? How are you going to dive into the Bible this year?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Schwarzenegger and the Emergent Church

Hey, did you know we just had some elections? If so, you probably heard that the Republicans got smoked. Lost the presidency, bigger deficit in the House, and thiiiiis close to not even having the theoretical threat of a filibuster in the Senate. One of the main questions that naturally arises is: where do they go from here?

The governor of California, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had some comments on this during an interview with Brian Kilmeade. (Unfortunately, the clips I could find online didn't have him saying it, only Kilmeade relaying the quote. It's part 2 of the interview, during the closing 30 seconds or so.) The Terminator says that for the Republicans to return to power, "they should move away from some of their core principles, those conservative principles, and start spending on programs Americans want." I find this response fascinating because of how it relates to current (and historical) ideas in the church. But before getting to that, there are at least two problems I see with it.

First, as many have pointed out, his prescription is largely how the Republicans got into this problem in the first place. This would be more than a post of its own (I'm sure there are a few books detailing it), but suffice to say that the mere existence of the term RINO (Republican In Name Only) shows much of the problem. These guys speak the conservative message to get elected, then govern like liberals. Unconscionably high spending is but one symptom. They just nominated the most "moderate" Republican in decades and he got destroyed. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, I don't think that becoming more liberal in a country that is largely conservative is a recipe for success.

But there's an even more fundamental problem with this idea. You would hope that these guys are conservatives because they believe that the conservative worldview is the best way to govern. They believe that these principles are the best thing for the nation, for the states, for the individual people living under that authority. They are convinced that if these principles are enacted, the country will benefit; if liberal policies are enacted, the country and its people will suffer.

Given that, here is a rough paraphrase of Ahnold's vision. "You believe that conservative principles are the best way to govern the country - best for the nation, best for the people. But you may have a better shot of getting elected if you abandon those principles. So you should intentionally do what you believe to be detrimental to the nation and harmful to people, so that you can have more power."

Am I the only one who has a problem with this? How could someone even think about doing such a thing in good conscience? If one truly holds that his view is beneficial and the opposing view is harmful, how ghastly must he be to change positions just to get into power? What Ah-nold is suggesting as the future for Republicans is utterly reprehensible (at least, it is for the actual conservatives in the party - for the RINO's it'd actually be a refreshing bout of honesty).

To see just how ridiculous this is, take one of the pet liberal causes and suggest the same thing. Think back to 2000, when the Republicans have just won the presidency and clean majorities in both houses. The Democrats were no doubt searching for ideas to get back into power. Imagine someone suggested in all seriousness: "You know, we believe that a woman has a fundamental right to abortion without restriction or negotiation. But the R's oppose abortion, and they're kicking our butts. So maybe we should switch sides on this issue, oppose abortion, and maybe then we'll win more elections." Is it even possible to imagine this conversation happening? Would it not be absurd for them to take a core value and speak/work/govern in opposition to it in order to win elections? Yet here is a prominent Republican, suggesting in all seriousness that this is not only a viable option, but their only choice. Unfortunately, there's no sign he was joking (and based on the way he's governed, he's quite serious).

In the political arena, this idea is an absolute joke. How could someone even think of abandoning core principles like that in order to be more popular or powerful? If someone could even consider this, would it not show that he doesn't really believe that position and/or doesn't consider it very important? Or if he does really believe it, and believes it to be highly significant, yet is willing to oppose it for personal gain, how utterly despicable would that person be?

But enough about politics. Hopefully it's obvious why such an idea - abandoning core principles to have better "success" - is either ridiculous or reprehensible in the political arena. But how about in the church? Would the foolishness/wickedness not be exponentially greater, since the issues at stake are of eternal significance?

And yet, this is a constant refrain within the church today. The culture is postmodern, we are told, and so the church must embrace postmodernism. People don't like truth claims, so we need to stop saying the Bible is true. People are offended by talk of sin and hell, so we need to stop talking about them. They don't want doctrine, so we need to forget about that and just tell stories (from which they can make their own meaning). We need to stop preaching the gospel and just meet their felt needs. People don't like hearing about the exclusivity of Christ, so we need to pretend all paths lead to God. And if we do these things, our churches will be full and we'll have all kinds of influence!

This nonsense is coming most strongly today from the emerg* camp - Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, etc - who claim we need to abandon Christianity and embrace postmodernism (or a pomo/Christian syncretism). A century ago the claim was that the church needed to embrace modernism. Before that... It seems there's no worldview so anti-Christian that the church hasn't been told - by well-meaning individuals, no doubt - that it must abandon the gospel and embrace the unbiblical teaching. If it insists on the gospel, the church will fade into irrelevance. But if we just stop insisting on Biblical truth and embrace the current prevailing worldview/fad, well, the church will really be strong and be able to reach a lot of people!

So here's the question I have for them. Let's just say we do create the perfect Christian/postmodern blend they want, and we reach a lot of people with it. What exactly are we reaching them with? Because it sure isn't the gospel. And if the gospel is true, abandoning it to "reach" them just leaves them in their sin and under God's wrath. So what, exactly, is the point of doing so?

Logically, there are only three possible reasons someone would suggest setting aside the gospel in this manner.
(1) They don't believe the gospel is true. This is no doubt the case for some if not all of them. For instance, it's really hard to believe that Brian McLaren actually believes pretty much any part of the gospel, let alone the whole thing. Of course, given the pomo view of truth, it's tough to say that any of the emerg*s actually believe anything.
(2) They don't believe it's important. I guess it's possible that someone believes the gospel, but just doesn't think it's significant enough to be beyond compromise. I'm not sure how someone could actually believe the gospel - that we are sinners facing God's wrath, who can only be reconciled to God by embracing the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, resulting in a life of increasing holiness and faithful endurance to the end even in the face of persecution, and that all who reject the Son and persist in rebellion face eternal conscious torment in hell, but those who through God's grace embrace the Son receive eternal joy with God in heaven - then decide that it's not really all that important, and we can negotiate it away for a good enough offer. The position I guess exists logically, although I would suggest that anyone who would fit here really fits #1.
(3) They are more concerned with personal gain/power. In this position, someone is convinced that the gospel is true, that it's the only hope for people about to be on the receiving end of God's eternal wrath - but they would rather have a full church or sell some books or something. The wickedness of this position is unspeakable.

The idea that the church needs to embrace the latest cultural trend, even though it means abandoning the gospel, is presented by many as the loving way. But upon even cursory analysis, it's obvious that it's either a total lack of faith in the gospel, or an utterly wicked decision to grab personal status at the cost of their souls. There is absolutely nothing loving about abandoning or compromising the gospel. At best it's a sign that the person doing so is still lost in their own sin; at worst it's a sign that they're both lost and really hate people with unspeakable hate. When politicians talk about doing this, it's ridiculous. When people ostensibly representing the church do so, it's a reprehensible evil.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Relevance - How Utterly Irrelevant

Those of you who don't read Al Mohler's blog really need to. Just go subscribe right now. It's OK, I freely admit that everything he writes is better than this stuff. Go subscribe, then maybe come back.

Back? OK, good. The most recent entry there is describes the outrage directed at The Obama because of a truly despicable act - he invited Rick Warren to pray at his coronation. The horror! Turns out the anger is primarily from gay groups, who despise Warren because he has the audacity to be a pastor who believes what the Bible says regarding many things, including homosexuality. It seems nothing is more infuriating to them than an actual, practicing Christian.

Now, what's really interesting to me is that this "controversy" is surrounding Rick Warren. Because he's also been criticized, often quite harshly, by the more conservative (i.e. Biblical) Christian camp. Warren is the face of evangelicalism to reprobate world, their idea of how far someone can actually follow that Christian stuff without going too far (at least not very often). At the same time, to Biblically-faithful evangelicals, Warren is the face of the compromise camp, those who are so "seeker-sensitive" they take the edge off the gospel and make it more palatable to the unsaved.

The idea is to make the message more 'appealing' to sinful ears; the basics of the gospel are there in a sense, but with plenty of padding on the rough parts and some candy thrown on top. One of the main buzzwords you hear from that group is relevant - how can we make the gospel relevant to the unsaved around us? How can we keep the church relevant? How can we provide relevant help to the felt needs (another buzzword) they have? Warren has made quite a name for himself leading the relevance movement and soft-selling the gospel for years - and as Mohler pointed out, all that relevant goodwill amounts to less than a hill of beans as soon as he takes a stance on sin. The gospel of relevance, the gospel of being liked by the world, the gospel of having the world think you're cool and with it and not so bad after all - as soon as you take an actual fully-Biblical stance on one of someone's pet sins, all that relevance and coolness and he's-not-so-bad-after-all-ness goes right out the window.

So that's the first problem with the gospel of relevance. To those still in full rebellion against God, the gospel is the most offensive message imaginable. "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life" (2 Cor 2:15-16). If your ministry is based on getting people to like you, and hoping that because of how much they like you they'll just naturally embrace the gospel, you are sadly, horribly mistaken. When you finally get to the gospel - or as in this case, even in the same ballpark - your likability is gone. Either you will offend them to the core at some point, or you perpetually compromise the message to make sure that doesn't happen.

The second, funnier issue with trying to be relevant comes from attempts to dress up the gospel in pop culture (often with justification found from a terrible point-missing reference to Acts 17). You know what I'm talking about - looking for 'creative' ways to 'witness' through showing that we Christians can do the pop culture just the same as everyone else. The problem with this approach is perhaps best explained by (warning: pop-culture reference) Abraham Simpson: "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me." As the culture continually changes, attempts to make the gospel "cool" inevitably end up... Well, I suppose the best way to explain it is to just show some examples. Take a few minutes and look through the Graveyard of Relevance. Then when you're done laughing, take a few minutes to think how ridiculous that "The Day the Earth Stood Still" Jesus-y T-shirt is going to look in a few years (as if it doesn't look ridiculous already).

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fundamental problem with attempts to make the gospel 'relevant'. Namely, what could ever possibly be more relevant than the gospel? What 'felt need' could ever be more urgent than the need to be reconciled to the sovereign creator and lord of the universe? What felt need is stronger than the need to be forgiven and made righteous? What could ever be more relevant than a message that applies urgently to every person who has ever been and ever will be?

The entire idea of 'relevance' is at its core a lack of faith. Trying to make the gospel relevant says you don't believe God when he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), or maybe you think we're really not all that bad and won't be judged, or maybe that Jesus isn't really for everyone. Or for some, you don't believe that the gospel is powerful enough on its own, and we need to help it along by dressing it up in cultural trends. The Word of God - which, mind you, only created the entire universe out of nothing - apparently needs help from a Billy Idol song or a Ben Affleck movie if it's ever going to reach people. Right.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Phil Johnson on Ray Boltz

If he ever read this, I'm sure Phil would be a bit surprised to find out he had even written about Ray Boltz. And he didn't directly, really. What he did write just happened to shed a lot of light on a Boltz-related article, and since I happened to read them consecutively, it seemed like Phil was writing a response.

The Boltz article came with a strong recommendation from Justin Taylor, and it certainly is not without its merits. For those who aren't familiar with the situation, Ray Boltz was a prominent Christian singer back in the day, who has recently left his faith and family to pursue a homosexual relationship. This article was written by a leader with Exodus International, a ministry that works with people struggling to break free from same-sex attraction and homosexuality, to reflect on and issue a challenge based on something from Boltz's story that stood out to him.

Briefly, the issue that he addressed is the tendency of churches/Christians to over-react to revelations of homosexual temptation and/or sin. That is, this type of sin/struggle can often be treated much more harshly than others, even other sexual or marital sins or temptations. Even though the Bible speaks in equally harsh terms about things like adultery and divorce, people who confess to adulterous temptations, pornographic addiction, and even extra-marital affairs may find their church more willing to work with them to overcome these temptations or restore from these sins than those who come forward about similar-but-homosexual sins. The implicit challenge is to treat the sins/temptations equally - to use the same measures of grace and discipline to help the man struggling with same-sex attraction as we would the man struggling with lust, etc. We need to be just as serious about other sins such as fornication and divorce. More positively, we need to present the full Biblical picture of marriage in all its glory, such that all supposed alternatives are clearly seen to be utterly inadequate imitators (for example, see John Piper and Frank Turk do just that).

The Problem

So that was all good and challenging to think through. There was something in there, though, that just didn't sit right at all. It comes through strongest in this passage:

So, as much as I sympathize with a Church that grieves the lost perception of a
cultural hero, I sympathize all the more with a man who has been forced to
struggle in secret for decades by the very community he served.
In one of his
initial statements concerning his "coming out," Ray mentioned trying to overcome
his same-sex struggle by reading books on the issue. Books — that's all he felt
he had. I know there are many other people the world over who only have that
much to turn to, at least for now. Exodus hears from people every day asking for
help that we are simply too small to provide. And that's just the people who
struggle with this unpopular issue.

OK, so to summarize. There are people such as Ray Boltz who are struggling with same-sex attraction. They want to come forward to their churches, their small groups, their friends, and get the help they need to overcome the temptation. But they think that the reaction will be bad, so they keep it secret (or at most go to people who don't know them well enough to really help, like Exodus) and choose to fight it on their own. Some like Boltz tire of fighting and give in, even like Boltz becoming enthusiastic homosexuals. And this is supposed to be a problem with the church. Hmmmm. I see a few problems with this notion.

First, obviously, is that the reaction is assumed. There's simply no way to know how Boltz's church or close friends would have reacted to his struggles (remember that at first it was just temptation, not even sin) because he never gave them the chance. He (apparently) assumed they would react unbiblically harshly, and decided to fight it half-heartedly on his own. (Any time one chooses to fight sin solo, and refuses to enlist the support, prayers, and wisdom of fellow believers, it's a half-hearted fight at best.) It may very well be that the people who he should have confided in would have reacted as close to perfectly as possible - full of grace and wisdom, offering accountability and discipline as needed, etc. But Boltz (and the many others the article mentions) will never know because they never try, and yet these churches are blamed for their hypothetical reactions. This... isn't right.

The second problem is that it ignores a basic truth about confession: it's never easy no matter what. For example, I've been part of several small groups that have dealt incredibly well with confessions of ugly sins and terrible struggles. I've seen the way they've responded in as Biblically-faithful a manner as possible, and have no reason to doubt that they'd be any less able to handle my confessions of struggles and sins. And yet, it's really, really hard to come forward with these issues. Why? Because confession is hard. It has nothing to do with fear of abusive over-reaction. It has everything to do with not wanting to face the legitimate consequences. I don't want to admit that I have this struggle. I'm ashamed to admit that I've given into that sin. I don't want to go through the process of discipline and restoration, to have these guys knowing that I'm weak in this area and asking about it every week. Even expecting them to react properly, I don't want to come forward with my struggles because I don't want to face the reality and proper consequences.

It's not a matter of abuse; it's a matter of my own pride and desire for comfort. There's no reason to believe that those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or who have given in to homosexuality, are any different. Yes, for them there is almost certainly a higher likelihood of improperly harsh unbiblical treatment. But let's not pretend that if there was no possibility of such overreaction, they would all be incredibly willing to confess their struggles and get the help they need to overcome it. The fact is, many would be content to "fight" in secret, just as many others "fight" against lust, greed, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and myriad other sins, too proud to let anyone know of their struggle, and ultimately willing to give in to that sin rather than humbly confess and ask for help. And when we do give into that sin, would it not be ridiculous to blame the small group or church that we never asked for help?

How Phil Johnson Wrote About Ray Boltz Without Knowing It

So that was weighing on my mind when I flipped to the next article on my Google Reader list: The Devil Made Me Do It by Phil Johnson over at TeamPyro. In it, Phil describes an incident on a trip he took to India a while ago, when a young man asked him for help in dealing with a Satanic attack. When asked to describe the attacks, the man described the fights he had with his mother, how their violently adversarial relationship negatively affected other areas of his life. But more explanation was necessary:
I first asked him what made him think this problem was uniquely Satanic. As he described it to me, it sounded much more like raw carnal
pride on both his part and his mother's. They were constantly saying unkind and
unloving things to one another. He admitted that he purposely did things he knew
would annoy her. He spoke disrespectfully to her. He said he just couldn't stand
her and didn't like being around her.

It sounded like youthful rebellion on his part, more than a satanic attack.
So I said, "It sounds to me like you're just behaving in a fleshly way. I think
you need to look into your own heart for the culprit, rather than blaming the
devil and outside influences."

But he insisted that I just didn't understand the issue. It must
be Satanic, he said, because the nature of his conflict with his mother was so
powerful—and living with her was like living with the devil.

Alrighty then. So the guy was basically just acting like a typical rebellious youth. But he was convinced that it wasn't his own rebellion; it must be Satan making him act that way. He was not responsible for his actions here, nuh-uh. It was all because of Satan. This is obviously nothing more than an evasion of his own responsibility, and Phil offers a response that cuts right through that utterly lame excuse:
I told him first of all, that regardless of Satan's involvement in his struggle,
the root sin causing his problems was fleshly, carnal pride. I also reminded him
that when he sinned with his tongue, he was sinning deliberately of his own
accord, so he couldn't escape his own responsibility by blaming Satan for the
turmoil in his household.

And from there, he lays out a Biblical case showing that even when demonic influence is granted, the responsibility for the sin always falls directly on the man who commits it. That there is no sin Satan can force us to commit, but that it is always willful complicity on our part. That it is our responsibility to resist, and when we give in, it's no excuse that we were tempted, because the temptation just appeals to the evil already in us (James 1:14-15). Satan may stir things up, but the sin is already in us waiting to burst forth, and we have no one else to blame when we embrace it. Phil summarizes:
We'd all like to believe that our struggle with sin involves only external
enemies. We're willing to say that Satan is to blame for our sin. We're even
willing to blame the world—as long as it's an external cause. As long as we
don't have to take the blame on ourselves.

But even our struggle with the world is a struggle that is fomented by
inordinate desires that emanate from within ourselves, because "All that is in
the world [is] the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of
life" (1 John 2:15). Those are sinful tendencies that come from within us. We
ourselves are to blame when inordinate worldly affections crowd out what should
be a pure love for God and the things of God. Neither the world nor the devil
could ever take advantage of us if our own flesh did not cooperate.

So About Ray Boltz...

I hope the connection I see between the two articles is fairly obvious. In the second article, you have a man trying to blame his sin on Satan. If only Satan wasn't making me act this way, things would be perfect. I would never act like that on my own. It's not me. No, it's Satan. My sin - well, it isn't even sin really, it's a demonic attack. Not my fault.

In the first article, you have a seeming attempt to shift the blame for Ray Boltz's sin (as well as untold others) to their churches and friends. If only that church had reacted better... no wait. If only he had imagined that the church would have reacted better, he surely would have come forth with his struggle. And if he had thought their hypothetical reaction would be better, and confessed his struggle and sought help, he likely would have been able to overcome it. So his sin isn't entirely his fault - it's because his church didn' act better in his imagination. If only his church was hypothetically better, he wouldn't have sinned this way. So his sin, it's not entirely his fault either.

On one hand, the devil made me do it. On the other hand, my church made me do it. And actually in Boltz's case, he's even using the intellectually bankrupt "God made me do it" excuse: "If this is the way God made me, then this is the way I’m going to live." Which brings these cases even closer together, actually. The Indian fellow didn't sin; he was just under Satanic attack. Boltz isn't sinning; he's just living the way God made him.

But of course, these are far from unique cases of blame-shifting. Consider this classic example from Aaron. The setting: God has just delivered Israel from Egypt through repeated unquestionable miracles. He's led them towards the Promised Land, and along the way they stop at Mount Sinai, where Moses meets with God to receive the terms of the covenant. While Moses is meeting with God atop the mountain, the people apparently forget all they've seen (and are still seeing!) and ask for idols, which Aaron is more than happy to make in the form of a golden calf. When Moses comes down and confronts Aaron, just imagine the hubris necessary to concoct this excuse: "So I said to them, 'Let any who have gold take it off.' So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." In other words, it's not my fault - the fire did it!

But even that pales in comparison to the most insane example. This comes from Genesis 3, man's very first sin. God had given Adam and Eve everything they could ever need, and just asked for simple faith - that they trust God to tell what is right and wrong. Instead, they rebelled and wanted to be their own judge of right and wrong, to be self-determining instead of faithfully trusting their creator and provider, and they dove head-first into sin (the term "fall" can be a wee bit misleading, as if it was an accident). When God confronted them about their choice, Adam shoots back the most ridiculous accusation imaginable: The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate." Wow. It's not my fault; it's all because of her. And really, you gave her to me, so it's actually all your fault, God!

And sadly, we all participate in the same blame-shifting today. We come up with every excuse imaginable for every sin. It's because I learned it from my father. It's because my church didn't support me enough. It's because of Satan. It's how God made me, so what can I do? It's the influence of my culture. It's just because she's too hot, and how could I be expected to resist?

In the end, none of these excuses hold the slightest bit of water. And it does nobody any good to pretend that any of these rationalizations excuse the sin. Dealing with sin and temptation is hard enough when it's confronted honestly; allowing someone to hide behind an excuse is not helpful at all. And if it helps them fall more thoroughly into sin, it's actually just cruel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Illinois Politics, Makin' Us Proud!

Whoo! Illinois, baby!

The news broke today that our illustrious governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested in a corruption investigation. This was surprising news - surprising that it took this long. When I first moved to Chicago over two years ago, the very first day there was a news report about the governor being investigated for corruption. In the meantime, there have been other high-profile arrests and convictions for people very close to Blogo, and it seemed like every couple weeks new details broke about an investigation into an "unnamed public official" who could only have been the governor. So yeah, Blogo getting arrested for corruption - it's news along the lines of "water is wet" and "the sun rises in the east". All this story needs now is the typical "This isn't the Rod Blagojevich I thought I knew" speech from Th'Obama for some closure.

I realize this may be surprising to those who don't know the history of Illinois politics in general and Chicago in particular, but the government here is a truly spectacular blend of corruption and incompetence. Consider what the local political stories have been in just the past few weeks:

1) Our illustrious governor Blagojevich and truly wonderful senator Durbin [/sarcasm] leading the charge for President Bush to commute the sentence of former governor George Ryan. Why is Ryan in jail? Corruption, of course. What got him caught was an investigation into the sale of commercial driving licenses - as secretary of state, he sold them to trucking companies so they could distribute them to whomever they pleased. When one of the illegal truckers caused an accident that killed a family, the trail eventually was traced to then-governor Ryan (uncovering a lot of other stuff along the way, of course).

So Blogo has been pushing for him to be pardoned - not in any way hoping to set a precedent of leniency for corrupt governors, of course. Durbin, of course, once famously on the Senate floor accused American soldiers of being worse than Nazis, Stalin-era Communists, and the Khmer Rouge based on the unsubstantiated accusations (since shown to be entirely false) of terrorists. So naturally, when a governor has been shown beyond any doubt to be guilty of incredible corruption that actually killed, he pushes for extreme leniency (Ryan has served less than 15% of his sentence). Gotta have priorities, I guess.

2) The Cook County budget fiasco. Cook County recently raised sales taxes to the highest in the country - over 11% in some parts, over 10% everywhere. This was because of a massive budget shortfall, and in their infinite wisdom they decided that raising taxes again was the best way to make ends meet in a slowing economy. In other words, all the foresight of a goldfish. Anyway, the tax hike was supposed to raise around $460m that they needed. Their calculations assumed that spending habits would not change at all - again, total brilliance - so obviously they fell short, but still brought in an extra $380m or so, at the cost of driving off some business long-term. Stupid trade, but whatever.

Anyway, now comes the news that the $380m they raised is not just $80m short of the goal. Oh, no. It seems there were major mistakes in the budget, and they actually are still short by another $400m or so. Mistakes like, using numbers from the wrong years, or getting the police and parks departments mixed up, that sort of thing. Basic data entry errors. So many errors that they don't actually know how much money they need - they just know they don't have nearly enough, so we need to raise taxes or costs of other services again. So many errors that they won't even release a copy of this year's budget (!), because it wouldn't make sense. Just give us money and don't ask where it's going. Also, never mind that the people doing the budget are close friends relatives of Todd Stroger, the head of the county board. Nope, no nepotism here. And in no way was all that money wasted or spent illegally - which of course can easily be shown once the accounting gets corrected, which will never happen. This is so bold it should be unbelievable. Unfortunately, it's basically par for the course.

Obviously, a few months ago there was also the Tony Rezko scandal. For those who don't know, which will include most anyone who got election news from mainstream media, the short version is that Rezko is a Chicago-based businessman who made a fortune in real estate and used it to buy politicians. He was recently convicted on corruption and extortion charges in a trial in which an unnamed public official was prominently featured (today's news takes the probability of it being Blogo from about 98% to 99.999%). Basically this guy (along with the co-defendant who flipped, Stuart Levine) was buying favors from anyone he could get ahold of. In a completely unrelated incident, he was involved in a real estate deal with a then-unknown Chicago politician who got the better end by hundreds of thousands of dollars, contributed bunches to this fledgling politician's campaigns at the beginning of his career, and then that politician directed millions of public funds to Rezko's projects. But fortunately, there was nothing there worth investigating, or our diligent media surely would have been all over that.

So anyway, back to Blogo. What's stunning obviously isn't that a Chicago politician is corrupt. It's hard to find one that isn't. What's amazing about these reports is how bold he was about it. Blatantly selling the remainder of The Obama's senate term to the highest bidder - including taking offers over the phone - is about as brazen as you can get, especially since he had to know how closely this process would be watched, and with so many suspicions surrounding him already. The issue that really gets me is the extortion of the children's hospital. Basically, the state had money allocated to the hospital, and the governor let them know that he would block payment until the hospital's CEO gave him $50k. That's just wicked beyond words.

So what's the point of all this? It's a grim reminder of the reality of politics. Putting our hope in these guys is a losing proposition. When Christians misplace their faith, and view the party or a politician as savior or curer of the world's ills, it's foolish beyond description. The government - any government - is a means of common grace to help restrain evil. When it functions well, it can be great. But all earthly governments are subject to corruption and folly, because all are made of foolish, corrupt people.

But this further shows just how wicked we are. It would be nice to think that Blagojevich is an extreme case of human corruption, that we're mostly good and he just somehow hopped on the evil train. The reality is, we are all capable of his actions - or worse - if given the opportunity. If not for the grace of God - including common grace that acts to restrain such evil - the world would be utterly unlivable due to our wickedness. Those of us in Christ have only the grace of God to thank for making us alive and bringing about righteousness in us. And those not in Christ still have the grace of God to thank for not letting them do all the evil that is in their hearts. Let's take some time to thank God that openly, brazenly corrupt leaders like Blagojevich are still the exception rather than the rule.