Ice Bucket Passion – considering the merits of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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I’m sure you’ve been enjoying your recent subscription to the 24-hour Ice Bucket Challenge Network formerly known as Facebook. It’s quite a phenomenon – one that demonstrates the power of social media, the power of peer influence, the power of ultimatums, a powerful national desire to help others, and a host of other pretty fascinating human behavioral habits.

This isn’t the Harlem Shake. This isn’t planking. It shares some similarities from a viral standpoint. But this is young America’s first real, significant attempt to use the overwhelming accessibility of social media for good.

I’m not quite ready to do the full trispectival analysis on this yet, in part, because I don’t know that it’s fair or accurate to suggest that certain positions line up with religion/irreligion, etc. But we’re going to do something similar here by pointing out how Christians might process the good, the bad, and the important questions surrounding the occasion.

There’s been lots written on both sides of this thus far (points and counterpoints), I’ll try to just link & summarize for what’s already been said, and expound on the viewpoints I haven’t yet seen addressed.

The Good

1) People moving to help others

Look what we’re capable of! For all of the new avenues for slander and the self-indulgent “look at me” proclivities of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, it’s as though we’re finally starting to see in tangible ways the tremendous reasons why God would allow something like social media to exist.

As of August 22nd, the NY Times was reporting that well over $40 million has already been donated to ALS research. While the motives of the philanthropy are debatable (which I’ll get to), there’s no denying this is more “other focused” than most of what we see. That’s a beautiful thing. For the cynics of contemporary culture who are convinced that altruism is non-existent, this at least gives pause.

2) Christians seeking to provide physical aid

Ever since F.D.R.’s New Deal, there has been a shift in American mentality – that physical and emotional aid comes through the government, not the church. Consequently, churches have lost this God-intended tangible expression of love, which I believe is a major reason why people are skeptical that churches can provide genuine spiritual aid as well. God designed for these things to go together. The recent lack of connection between physical and spiritual, I think, has likely contributed to the mass exodus from local congregations in the late twentieth century.

Historian Rodney Stark describes how social concern by Christians for physical well-being led to interest in the Christian faith in the early years of Christianity…

“alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86)

As several plagues struck the Roman Empire in the early centuries after Christ, Christians contemplated what Christ himself would do in such situations. While the pagans fled the town where plagues existed, leaving sick friends, relatives, and strangers to die, Christians reasoned that Christ himself sacrificed time, energy, resources, even his life to help the sick. Furthermore, they used belief in the gospel truth of eternal life through a Risen Savior as a resource for courage. They knew that when they died they were heaven-bound, which gave them a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than their pagan counterparts, who believed this life was it. Church fathers like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius, and Eusebius were all consistent on this. Furthermore, this life-jeopardizing mercy wasn’t some marketing ploy to attract new followers. They did this because they believed they were honoring Jesus in the process (Matt. 25:35-40). The early father Tertullian claimed:

“It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (Apology 39, 1989 ed.)

In short, Christians who aren’t seeking to provide any sort of physical relief to the ailing have lost something that is printed in the DNA of the Christian Church. So, in its own way, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as carried out by Christians, is at least demonstrating a public acknowledgment that we really do care about the physical welfare of humans. While every other religion proposes a fleeing from this present body, in the doctrine of resurrection, Jesus taught (and gave his life for) a redemption of that very body, not just the soul. Followers of Jesus care about the health of bodies as well as the souls within them.

Chris Fernandez, David DeJesus, ALS Ice Bucket ChallengeThe Bad

So how much does pouring a bucket of ice water (or wasting valuable water, if you’re a cynic) do to help the cause of ALS research anyways? What is the net gain of “raising awareness”?

Now, the critics of the critics, i.e. the people who are saying, “Why can’t you just let people do this fun thing and raise awareness in the process? Why can’t you just let this be?” while kind and gentle in spirit, aren’t recognizing some important details that do deserve careful consideration.

There are a number of arguments against the challenge. Some, like the charitable funding cannibalism argument, I personally find to be less compelling arguments. So, I’ll keep it to the two that concern me the most.

1) Coercion Motivation

I know MANY people whom I believe would take the Ice Bucket Challenge simply because they’re terrified of how it’d make them look OR how they’d feel about themselves if they didn’t.

From a Christian perspective, an action typically isn’t just a good or bad action, it’s dependent, to some extent at least, upon motives. The classic example of this is Cain and Abel, an account that proves God is not merely seeking obedience to laws, but rather a certain type of obedience – obedience that is motivated by a recognition of God’s grace.

Pride, guilt, and fear are all incredibly powerful motivators that don’t lead to God-pleasing action. Granted, if they lead people to moral behavior, to some extent, I’m still happy they exist as motivators. Jonathan Edwards, in The Nature of True Virtue, talks about a “common virtue” that exists in humanity. He’s talking about the natural moral code and conscience that God implants into all mankind alike. Ultimately, he’s suggesting that if a potential killer doesn’t pull a trigger because of thankfulness for Christ’s goodness or because of fear of going to jail, either way, regardless of motivation, we’re happy he doesn’t pull the trigger. Nonetheless, from a Christian standpoint, motivation means everything when it comes to whether or not an act is God-pleasingIf a philanthropic act is done to make yourself look good, it’s totally counterintuitive to Peter’s guidance on good deeds – “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12, also Matt. 5:16) In this case, the non-believers are acknowledging the “good” being done by believers, but notice whom they’re glorifying as a result – not the believer, but GOD. To safeguard against the pride that comes with doing good deeds to glorify self, Jesus encourages generosity and philanthropy to be done in private (Matt. 6:3-4), not on social media.

2) Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research

There has been a ton written on why this type of research does not jive with biblical ethics as well as the evidence that ALS participates in this type of research. Look here. Or here. Or here. Or, straight from the horse’s mouth, here. Without retreading everything, I’ll briefly jot down some of the clearest Bible passages that would suggest life begins at conception. Consequently, ending such life would clearly be unethical from a Biblical standpoint.

“Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.” (Is. 49:1)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.” (Ex. 21:22-23)

Bottom line, it makes zero sense to hurt life in the process of seeking to help life. Such a proposition suggests that one life is more valuable than another life, the same premise which fuels racism or genocide. Embryonic stem cell research, however, is arguably worse from the standpoint that an unborn child is entirely incapable of fighting - ALS 3

So here’s what scares me: how many lives are going to be saved by these ALS donations? And for how long? In contrast, how many lives will directly be taken specifically because of these $40 million plus in donations. Yes, I recognize that there is an option to specify that your donation does not go to embryonic stem cell research. I’m not convinced that this promotion is being carried out to the same level that the challenges are though. Furthermore, even if you can designate that your money is not going toward embryonic stem cell research, for Christians, the question remains about the ethics of knowingly funding an organization that is promoting embryonic stem cell research. And this isn’t exactly like shopping at Walmart or Target and finding out that some of their proceeds are going towards causes you wouldn’t personally support. Of course we cannot control how business owners spend their dollars. This is a little different – a direct funding of the unethical act itself, a proportionate line from your dollars to embryonic stem cell research.

I’m curious how the ALS fund gatherers would react if every single Christian, when they went to make their donation, would say, “I won’t give you $100 as long as you fund this kind of research. However, I’ll give you $200 if you stop funding embryonic stem cell research.”

The Important Questions Raised

I want to be careful not to be too dogmatic about much of this. To be perfectly honest, I’m personally not exactly sure how I feel about it. What I’m trying to do here is simply acknowledge that the ethics of this challenge are not cut and dry, despite what a passionate advocate for or against may say, no matter how loudly they may say it.

So here are the two things I can’t help but think about after reading several dozen articles…

1) End justifies means ethics. Is it okay to support an organization that is doing some good, while it is knowingly, willingly, and publicly also approving and sponsoring something that is not only biblically unethical, but logically counterintuitive – hurting life for the purpose of helping life.

2) Awareness disparity. Someone will call me insensitive here. That’s the risk I run. Why are so many Christians so passionate about raising awareness to help find a cure for a disease that, while tragic, cuts life on earth, and its quality, by several decades, but so slow to raise awareness about a KNOWN CURE for a disease (of sin) that threatens us eternally? Let’s say just 2/3 of the world (although I presume it’s significantly more), 5 billion or so people, are headed for a destruction much more debilitating than even ALS. Why don’t we witness more public, comfort-sacrificing, generosity-demonstrating gestures for the gospel? Maybe many are doing them. Maybe it’s in my head. I just don’t recall seeing many mainstream attempts by Christians.

In Luke 5, Jesus shows love and compassion for a paralyzed man. Perhaps this nameless man had ALS or a similar disease. Jesus doesn’t ignore the man’s tragic condition. He cares for the physical as well as the spiritual. Mercifully, Jesus cures the man so that he is once again able to walk. Interestingly, however, Jesus announces forgiveness for the man’s sins first. In the process, he appears to be pointing out a vital issue of prioritization – that in a dying world, a living faith trumps a healthy body. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Luke 5:23-24) Jesus desires for this physically impaired man to have access to a resurrected body even more than a temporarily restored body. Again, for followers of Jesus, it’d only make sense that such predominance in priorities (spiritual ahead of physical) would also be reflected.

Again, I’m NOT saying I disagree with the challenge. I’m NOT saying Christians taking the challenge aren’t also emphatically sharing their faith. I’m merely suggesting that something about all of this seems VERY right, and yet something else seems a bit off.

Finally, I’d encourage Christians to not fall into the cliché visceral responses that much of the world does about such issues. Rather, consider these things carefully before you form your opinion. The world often declares something the best or the worst based merely on gut. And when two different people’s big guts collide, you have an ugly societal sumo match. Christians are to be more thoughtful. We don’t embrace or dismiss “because.” We weigh things carefully on a Scriptural scale and draw conclusions. So, participate or don’t participate, but do so thoughtfully, to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

Thoughts About Suicide

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There’s been no shortage of online attention the past couple of days given to Robin Williams’ suicide. Understandably. It’s hard to make a case for anyone contributing more to American entertainment in the past forty years. Very few have provided more laughs. So now we cry. The nation mourns.

What I haven’t seen yet, and what I think a community of largely bipartisan thoughts is longing for right now, is a “trispectival analysis” of the issue of suicide. I find it helpful to use this particular assessment tool whenever possible – consider what an irreligious assessment, a religious assessment, and a gospel assessment of a given situation would all uniquely look like.

I’ve used this tool before, but as a reminder, here’s a quick summary:

An irreligious person sees morality as relative, believes people are born basically good but sometimes hurt others or themselves when put in bad circumstances, and acknowledges no higher authority than man. Irreligion is perhaps best characterized by self-indulgence.

A religious person sees morality as purely black and white, believes there are good people and bad people, and while he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority, he believes that because of his good behavior he is more deserving of God’s blessing than the “bad” people. Religion is perhaps best characterized by self-righteousness.

A gospel-thinking person understands the black and white of morality but recognizes there is a shaded spectrum of motives, believes we are inherently born broken and powerless to put ourselves back together, and acknowledges Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. Gospel-thinkers are perhaps best characterized by humility about self and confidence in Christ.

With that said, how shall we understand suicide?

The Irreligious Viewpoint

The majority media viewpoint regarding Robin Williams is that he was a sensational talent who died too soon and left us with many fond memories. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with that…in part.

For the dozens of articles I’ve now glanced through on the topic, I haven’t seen any more insightful commentary on William’s life, career, and death than the one Newsweek provided. The author here astutely points out that for all the brilliance of Williams’ improv comedy, his most profound roles were in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. He observes, “That all three of those characters—Adrian Cronauer, Keating and Sean Maguire—were  men dedicated to enriching the lives of young men whose paths were at a crossroads was probably no coincidence.” I think the Newsweek author is spot on. Williams played what he knew – be it the fifty-two hilarious characters he wove together as the genie in Aladdin, or a middle-aged man reflecting on the internal conflicts of life in those three aforementioned - suicide 3

While remembering the brilliance of Williams’ career, however, you’ll notice that the irreligious world cannot ever offer a reasonable diagnosis of what drives such a talented man to take his own life. You hear a lot about mental illness as disease. You hear about addiction. I’m the last person to discount the occasionally debilitating effects of neurochemicals. But if the chemistry of the brain is the only contributing factor to Williams’ suicide, how do we account for the sixty-three previous years? Doesn’t even brain chemistry sound a little superficial to something so tragic? Fascinatingly, as though finally aware that there’s more going on here than mere chemical interaction, in such moments, even the irreligious community resorts to dabbling with the spiritual when it uses such expressions as “fighting his demons.”

The Religious Viewpoint

In our current age, it’s considerably rarer to hear the other end of the spectrum – the religious viewpoint. But it’s certainly still there. And it’s loud. This is the view of religious people that we are simply the product of our choices. We are who we’ve chosen to be. And we also then have responsibility for those choices. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with this also…in part.

Self-determination, as a philosophy of the individual, has not exactly died, but it’s certainly going away in Western thought. Born out of the ideas of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and others is the idea that “you can be anything you want to be if you simply put your mind to it and work hard.” It was considered a mere matter of choices. This was the predominant thought in our “Land of Opportunity” for middle part of the 20th century. As the century closed, however, the Nature vs. Nurture issue changed the discussion about how we become who we are. You’ll notice, however, that neither of those arguments (i.e. nature or nurture) has anything to do with our personal choices. Genetics and upbringing are now considered to be major causes in our personalities, our morality, and yes, even our choices. Put differently, people are thinking less and less that we do bad things, like commit suicide, simply because we choose to do bad things.

This has raised many social questions. For instance, consider this: how accountable for their actions should we hold a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or one raised with Reactive Attachment Disorder? I don’t think anyone would suggest, “Not accountable at all.” But I also think that many people would assume it only natural that we’d have some additional understanding and sympathy for a child who suffers with a condition that he clearly did not choose for himself.

Nonetheless, the religious voice that you hear right now will tell you that Williams took his own life and will have to answer to God. He did this because he’s selfish, godless, and has no concern for the effects of his actions. There’s some truth there, but it’s typically said with such unsympathetic disdain that it disempowers any truth it proposes. If you’re really curious, it tends to sound something like this. When you’re telling someone “how it is” in a moment of tragedy, the smugness doesn’t quite reflect God’s spirit of “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)

By the way, ALL Christians, myself included, are guilty of both the Irreligious and Religious Viewpoints on occasion. The question is not whether we’re ever guilty of them. The question is, when we are, do we defend them or do we recognize them for what they are and repent of them.

The Gospel Viewpoint

This post is not a comprehensive summary on the Bible’s position on suicide. For such information, I’d go here. This is simply my thoughts on two common positions on the topic of suicide and how I believe the Bible guides us to a better one.

Suicide is NOT a product of faith. I want to be absolutely clear about that. However, the act itself doesn’t necessarily declare the complete absence of faith either.

If you’re thinking, “But I always heard when I was a kid that if you commit suicide you’re guaranteed to go to hell”, my guess is that you also heard that wearing jeans to church was also near the unforgivable sin too. Where are we at on that one today? I’m not suggesting doctrine changes. I’m suggesting the application of it sometimes changes and quite frankly, the application is sometimes just a bit off, an occurrence that is sometimes easier to see several generations out.

blog - suicide 2The Church automatically proclaiming hell for everyone who commits suicide in the middle 20th century is in some ways analogous to the Church finding as a heretic anyone who didn’t believe the earth to be the center of the universe in the early 16th century. It’s a claim that the Bible itself doesn’t make. And then Copernicus came along. And many ministers looked pretty silly as a result.

What we now know about neurosciences, although there’s still a LONG way to go, suggests that someone’s behavior, to some degree, can be affected by their brain chemistry. That some behaviors are also then more erratic, more consequential, more life-threatening than others seems obvious. In other words, it would appear possible for someone who is not thinking straight to take their own life due to poor momentary choices rather than outright unbelief.

Does that take away all culpability? Of course not. Suicide is still sin. Murder, in fact. And humans are guilty for their sins. But it doesn’t track that this particular sin forfeits salvation simply because there is little window for repentance after it is committed. Let’s flesh that thought out. What do you think the odds are that from the time of your last repentance until the moment you die you will have perfectly repented of each of your failures?

Not sure, but I wouldn’t bank my salvation on it.

In other words, your salvation is NOT based on your perfect repentance, but on your perfect Savior. So, if you confess your sins at church on Sunday, slip into a hateful thought about a fellow church member on your drive home, and as you’re distracted by your anger, you get into a car accident and die, THANK GOD your eternal life is not in jeopardy. God’s grace is a state that you live in, not a needle that you balance on. And therefore, if someone who professes Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a moment of weak faith, takes his or her own life, it’s tragic, it’s painful, it’s horrible, and it likely won’t ever fully be gotten over by the loved ones left in the wake. What it is not for us, however, is an occasion to declare someone in hell.

I have absolutely no idea about Robin Williams’ eternal life or death. I know he was raised Episcopal. I know that I’ve never heard of him professing faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. I know suicide points to either weak or no faith. All that said, I also know that because God fulfilled his promises in sending a Savior to pay for mankind’s transgressions, heaven or hell does not come based upon our actions in life…or death. Jesus is magnanimous enough that he paid for ALL of those sinful actions completely when he suffered upon the cross in our place. Heaven or hell comes when we either receive Jesus as Savior by faith or when we reject him.

God can save murderers. Even self-murderers. In fact, he’s in the basic business of saving murders, as we all are responsible for Jesus’ death. BELIEF in that is what ultimately makes the eternal difference.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)