God bless America

This weekend citizens of the United States of America celebrate the 245th birthday of our country. Plans are already being formed for our Sestercentennial, our 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Any year, the Fourth of July is a national holiday, a day to rejoice in the blessing of being Americans. We rejoice because our celebration commemorates, not a war or battle or military victory, but an idea. Our country was founded on the premise that all people are equal, that we possess human rights, that freedom benefits us all and is something worth celebrating and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

I am not ashamed of the United States of America. It is my country. I thank God for it, and I pray that God would continue to bless it. The USA is not perfect. Many times, we have fallen short of our goal of providing liberty and justice to all people. We cannot erase the mistakes of the past, but we can hold to our national principles and work for a better future. We learn how to work together as a nation, even though at times we disagree with one another. The America I love is based on certain truths. They may not be self-evident to all, although Thomas Jefferson once wrote that they are. But the truths of freedom, equality, and justice come from God, and these truths apply to all people, not just to some people.

Our human rights—call them life, liberty, and private property—are God-given rights. They do not come from our government. Instead, our government exists to protect and preserve those rights. If our government fails to do that fundamental job—if it ignores those rights or tries to rob us of those rights—we have an additional right to alter or replace that government. If each of us fought for our own personal rights, protecting our lives and liberty and property from one another, chaos would result. Therefore, we join together and respect a government that defends us from enemies abroad and enemies at home, from nations that oppose our freedom and criminals that would cheat us of what is ours. In defending our human rights, the government is consistent with God’s Ten Commandments, which protect (among other things) our lives, our marriages, our personal property, and our reputations from the sins of others.

In addition to protecting and defending these rights, the government also provides for the general welfare of its citizens. By common agreement of the majority, the government provides (on its own or with the cooperation of private organizations) highways and other transportation, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation facilities. Citizens willingly surrender land to build these facilities and tax dollars to operate them; then, citizens are free to use them or not use them. If the way these facilities are operated begins to infringe upon our rights as citizens, we are free (and obliged) to alter them or replace them. We elect leaders and advise those leaders about how many government services we require or desire and how much freedom and property we are willing to surrender for their existence. Although citizens disagree with one another about public services and about their funding, we continue to work together to form a functioning society, compromising when we must and convincing others when we can, doing what is best for ourselves and for our neighbors (never thinking only of ourselves and our individual wants and needs).

A truly just society protects and defends all human lives. Care for the young, the elderly, the sick, and the weak begins in the family. It extends into the community, especially into faith-based communities. The government might connect needy people with resources in their community; it might even supplement the help available some communities to protect and defend lives. As the government also seeks to protect and balance other human rights, a truly just government never overlooks the most basic human right, which is the right to life. When a child is born to parents who do not want him or her, or who are unable to care for him or her, connections can and should be made with families or other institutions who will provide that child with the care and upbringing he or she needs.

A truly just society keeps a watchful eye on medications and on other substances that may be abused to the harm of its members and their neighbors. The government does not prohibit substances that can be used safely, but it regulates the use of dangerous prescriptions, striving to ensure that they are prescribed and taken properly and safely. It prohibits all substances that cannot be used, even in moderate doses, without harm to the user. The government penalizes people who knowingly sell and distribute dangerous substances to the harm of others. At the same time, it connects addicts and other damaged persons with the care they need to recover from their problems and overcome their addictions. Meanwhile, moderate and appropriate use of those substances that can be consumed safely is not prohibited or penalized. Lawmakers must keep themselves informed of the latest research regarding medicines and other dangerous substances.

A truly just society protects its citizens from criminals bearing dangerous weapons without restricting the right of law-abiding people to own weapons. Once again, law-makers will need to be informed about what weapons are available, what persons are shown to be at high risk for access to such weapons, and what provisions can be made for care and treatment of those who might be dangerous due to poor health rather than due to criminal intent. No doubt compromises will need to be reached between the extremes of comprehensive gun control and unlimited access to weapons. These compromises might be accomplished on a regional basis rather than at a national level.

A truly just society protects and defends marriages, which are best defined as one man and one woman who have made a lifetime commitment to love and support and honor each other. Along the way, a government might help to preserve friendships without judging the quality of those friendships or interfering with their privacy. Where marriages do not exist, friends should be allowed to share their property with one another, to make friends their heirs, and to give friends legal rights of visitation while sick, representation in financial matters, and the like. Sexuality is—and should remain—a private matter, not a concern of the government. Sexual interests and preferences should not be material for public discussion and debate. Even while defending freedom of speech and expression, governments should be allowed (on a local level) to limit and restrict discussion and description of matters that are considered private and personal, offensive, or obscene. Families, businesses, and other community organizations should be allowed to block broadcasts and transmissions into their property of material that violate their private and personal values.

I cannot imagine, let alone defend, a society that encourages and perpetuates confusion about gender. The vast majority of people are born with information that they are either male or female recorded in their chromosomes contained in every cell of their bodies. They are born with organs that match that chromosomal information. Rather than permitting or encouraging people to attempt expensive surgery, hormonal treatment, and therapy to change their gender, society should help people to accept and embrace the genders with which they were born. The tiny percentage of people born with a birth defect causing genuine confusion deserves medical and therapeutic help. The rest of us accept the bodies we were given and help others to do the same. People before, during, and shortly after puberty already face enough challenges, including confusion about who they are as male or female. Permitting, even encouraging, them to contemplate changing their gender at such a time only magnifies trouble and confusion; it solves nothing.

A truly just society allows successful entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but a truly just society also does not force other citizens to remain trapped in poverty. Taxes that support the work of the government remain fair for all people, not robbing the rich to give to the poor, nor lining the pockets of government bureaucrats. Assistance to the poor begins in the family and community but is supplemented by government assistance when needed. Such assistance may include temporary provision of food and shelter, but it also includes education and job training, access to information about available jobs, and community renewal. Employers are encouraged through government incentives to create jobs, to train and educate workers, and to provide those workers with benefits beyond their hourly salary. Help that flows from the centralized government is applied at a local level by resident citizens who perceive how best to assist their neighbors and improve the quality of life for their city, neighborhood, and the surrounding area.

A truly just society places few limits on the freedom of speech and expression. Deliberately dangerous and harmful communication is regulated, as are deliberate and harmful slander, libel, and other lies. Beyond these few limitations, governments allow communities to set and enforce their own standards of speech and public discourse. People can ignore messages that are obscene, hateful, or otherwise provocative. Open discussion of political matters is encouraged, not limited or censored. Artists of every kind are allowed to practice their arts, as their communities recognize and reward talent while ignoring and marginalizing poor and inappropriate expressions described as art. Companies that distribute individual expressions internationally are not permitted to censor their contributors on the grounds of political opinion or other controversial standards. Such companies have the right to limit obscenity, incitement to violence, or deliberate falsehoods, but beyond such limitations their control over the work of their customers is restricted.

A truly just society values all its members. Therefore, it celebrates all the cultures represented among its members. Each member of such a society is encouraged to have pride in his or her cultural background, to celebrate that background, and (as appropriate) to share the treasures of that background with others. Schools, libraries, and museums help to teach members of the community about its diverse cultures and their customs. Laws prohibit discrimination against any persons on the grounds of their cultural background, including their appearance and their native language or dialect. No culture is treated as better than any other; no culture is treated as worse than any other. Historic inequities are handled by enforcing anti-discrimination laws and by providing equal opportunity to all persons, beginning with quality education made available to all children in every community. Injustices of the past are acknowledged, but they are not cast as weapons to create or perpetuate war between two or more cultures.

The United States of America can be a truly just society. We began an experiment respecting and preserving human rights nearly 250 years ago. We have made regular strides in the expansion of human rights since that beginning. We have not arrived at our goal yet, nor will we do so completely while living in an imperfect world. But, as one of our Presidents has said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” We should love our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should continue to work together to preserve what is good in our country and to cure whatever ails in our country. We need citizens and leaders who love and respect all that America stands for, citizens and leaders who honor all that America works to achieve. Together, we can take what is good, and we can make it even better. God bless each of you, and God bless America. J.

SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.

Protecting lives

God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Salvageable adds: This commandment prompts discussions in many controversial areas: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and just and unjust wars, to name a few. Christians should seek God’s will in these extreme cases, but too often Christians become absorbed with these cases and overlook the everyday ways in which we are tempted to sin against this commandment.

This is the first of four brief commandments which protect, in order, lives, marriages, property, and reputations. (They are so brief that three of them are tied for shortest verse in the Bible, if we count letters in the original languages rather than in English translations.) Luther indicates that we not only are forbidden to kill our neighbors, but we are not to hurt or harm them in any way. Jesus goes even further, indicating that rage and insults against a neighbor also trespass this commandment.

Obedience to this commandment involves attitudes as well as actions. All human life is to be respected and even treasured. We should not even want to harm a neighbor. This includes deliberate acts of violence, and also carelessness. When we carelessly risk harming a person’s life or health, we break this commandment. That applies to our own lives as well. We are to be good stewards of our bodies—neither obsessing over our health and fitness to the point of idolatry, nor engaging in unhealthy habits that can shorten our lives or reduce our ability to serve God by helping our neighbors.

Even neglect is sinful. Not only are we to avoid hurting and harming others, but we are to help and support others. Both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for widows and orphans and all that are poor and vulnerable. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” But Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” God knew that his people would sin, failing to honor and protect the lives of their neighbors, allowing selfishness and greed and cold-heartedness to keep them from caring about the lives of their neighbors. Those sins continue today. Enough food is produced in the world each year to feed every person alive, preventing starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. The food is not distributed evenly, though, so that those who have more than enough can share with those in need. Politics, waste, and greed all play a part in the inequities of the world. We could be doing better.

Special circumstances call for a lifting of this commandment. Soldiers on a battlefield behave in ways that would be inappropriate anywhere else. Medical and religious professionals help families make difficult decisions about care given to the terminally ill. Many Christians believe that it shows respect for human life to deprive a murderer of his or her life. Even Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, dying so his people can live, purchasing forgiveness for all of our sins, including sins against the lives of our neighbors. J.