Defending discrimination

“Give therefore your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discriminate between good and bad: for who is able to judge so great a people as yours?”

1 Kings 3:9

 

The word “discrimination” is kind of like a briefcase. It carries a meaning inside, as all words do. But it’s one of those words that we carry around with us often enough and rarely both to open. Instead, whenever the word might come up, we’re more likely to beat people over the head with it, never once considering that we could open unlatch the briefcase and think about what we’re actually talking about.

If you have ever been online before (as I will assume you have if you’re reading this), I’m rather confident that you have seen this actually happen. People accuse other people of discrimination, other people defends themselves from the charges, and within moments someone has a bruise on his skull that looks an awful lot like the corner of a briefcase. To whomever the charge of discrimination sticks comes defeat and shame.

But this way of things is itself quite a shame. For, if we unpack the suitcase, we’ll find ourselves reminded that discrimination is not all bad. Discrimination can be and usually is good. It is only our modern politics which has kept us from recalling this rather obvious fact.

Perhaps you don’t get what I mean. To explain, I’ll point out that the dominant usage of the word discrimination today is quite different than it has been in the past. The top two definitions which appear on Google are as follows:

  1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
  2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another

The first definition is obviously what most people mean today, but the second used to be far more common. And in today’s mad blindness to plain realities, the second is often mistaken for the first. If you don’t recognize the real differences between two things, you’re likely to consider any way that you treat them differently as unjust or prejudicial. This is what we love to do today.

The difference between these two definitions of discrimination—between good and bad discrimination—is determined by what you are doing and whether the different treatments you give are reasonable for that purpose. Let’s take an example. If you are trying to draw a realistic castle, you would probably discriminate against your bright purple colored pencils in favor of grey ones. This would make sense and be very right, because the color of the pencil is very important to what you’re trying to do. On the other hand, it would make no sense to discriminate against a pencil simply because it had been touched by the truck driver who delivered it to the Walmart you bought it from is a Trump supporter. Even if you dislike Trump supporters, the fact has nothing to do at all with your project to draw a castle.

This extends every bit as well to people. If you are in charge of hiring an engineer for a nuclear plant, you will discriminate against a 17-year-old kid who dropped out of high school and knows basically nothing but how to play World of Warcraft. You will instead prefer someone who has training and knowledge that will help him be a nuclear engineer. This is discrimination, but it is good discrimination. The reason for picking one kind of person over the other is a based very directly and reasonably on what you’re trying to accomplish. On the other hand, if you were to favor a white Alabamian over a Rwandan man, despite equal credentials in nuclear engineering, you are probably discriminating badly, which means injustice. Or, speaking of race, it is perfectly legitimate to discriminate against white women in favor of black ones if you are casting the lead for a movie about Rosa Parks.

The problem for us is that, in an era absolutely obsessed with equality, we can lose sight of real differences between people and things. So people can be accused of unfair and unjust discrimination even when their reasons for discriminating are very right. A major example of this is marriage. Up until recently, society discriminated against gay couples in favor of straight couples. Then, in the blindness of modern society, we forgot the real reasons for this discrimination, and people started to believe that it is wrong. Soon enough, we stopped discriminating and gave gay and straight couples equal access to the institution of marriage.

This was a big mistake. Like I said before, whether a certain kind of discrimination is right or wrong depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. So what is marriage for? Why did humanity originally choose only straight couples for marriage? The answer would have been easy to most of the world for most of history: babies. The most important kind of sex, when it comes to broader society, is the heterosexual, because it is the kind that actually creates new human beings, which is what society is made of in the first place. Society in general, and its institutional form called the “government,” has little reason to care about what goes on in the bedroom between gay people, because it won’t make new human life. But if straight couples can create people, then it’s hugely important. That’s the biggest reason why marriage had to be made an official, recognized part of society and government. Marriage discrimination against gay couples was never arbitrary or unjustified, because the key point of marriage as a formal part of society was that it was meant to protect the place where humans come from. Babies and their parents need special privileges and protections, thus we have heterosexual marriage. To extend it to gay couples is an example of a failure to discriminate when it is needed, kind of like putting a white Neo-Nazi in charge of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration out of “fairness.” It’s not right. It’s forgetting that discrimination is sometimes good and necessary.

So I propose that we end the pointless stigmatizing of discrimination in general. Let that first definition become second, and make the second one first. Discrimination is an essential part of human life. The only question is whether we will discriminate with wisdom and justice or foolishness and injustice. If we forget all of this, we are sure to do the latter.

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Some say the eclipse means the apocalypse. Does it?

Jesus is nearly here! Or something. Whenever something like an eclipse (solar or lunar) happens, there are people who insist that it is connected to the book of Revelation, or to Jesus’ prophecies about the coming of the Son of Man. Divine judgment is imminent! Next thing you know the Church will be Raptured, and Jesus will split the eastern sky. Might they be right? Is the eclipse a sign that Jesus right around the corner?

No.

There is no particular biblical reason to believe that a random total solar eclipse (which happen in different places really every few years) is connected to the apocalypse. Some of the prophecies do mention the sun going dark, but this has happened thousands of times since Jesus left. The only way to make this eclipse special is to root through all sorts of obscure astronomical minutia to create patterns out of nowhere. It’s just an exercise in fantasy.

But!

That’s really not all there is to be said. While we have no reason to associate this eclipse with Jesus’ return, we do need to remember that creation is by nature always symbolic. The heavens never stop witnessing to God’s glory and work. There is biblical symbolism connected with the sun and with its darkening, and it applies as much today as it did in the days of the prophets.

Biblically, the sun symbolizes two related things. First, it symbolizes God, particularly His face. Here’s how I put it on Facebook the other day:

The sun represents the face of God. It is too glorious for us to behold directly, but it gives light to everything else. It warms the earth and is the source of all life on its surface. It sits in heaven, gazing down upon all people. It shines upon the just and the unjust, blessing both. Yet it also can scorch and burn, and we need some degree of protection and distance lest we be consumed. We can see it, and truly receive its light and heat, but it is removed from us by a great distance and is completely incomparable to us.

Second, the sun symbolizes the highest rulers and authorities, both in the spiritual and the physical realms. The sun represents kings, councils, emperors, and heavenly powers (think angels and demonic gods). This theme shows up all the time in the Psalms and the prophets. This is connected to the sun’s symbolism of God. Since God is the highest authority of all, He is represented by other high authorities. So the same sun which represents God also represents other rulers.

We see, then, eclipses in the Bible do symbolize divine judgment on a double level. On the divine level, when the sun goes dark, this symbolizes God hiding His face. God turns away, and instead of shining the earth in blessing, He puts the world in darkness. On the lesser level, when the sun goes dark, it symbolizes turmoil among the powers of the world. Rulers and authorities are put in chaos, and in the prophets this often resulted in a king, emperor, or dynasty being overthrown.

So what does this mean? Does an eclipse visible over the United States today prove that America is about to be judged in some way? It may not; biblical symbols are not always directly connected in time and space to what they represent. Natural symbols are often general reminders which do not point to specific events. That said, it’s not hard to imagine that the eclipse does represent a coming judgment on America, simply because we are obviously ripe for catastrophe. There is already loads of political, social, and military turmoil in our country. Trump, trans, racists, radicals, inequality, ISIS, Korea, killings, etc. have filled up the news with more tension than we’ve seen in several years. People on all sides of all issues have been at fault in all sorts of ways. Rare are the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, especially in the places where are most needed.

I’m not saying this proves that the eclipse foretells an impending catastrophic judgment on us. Symbolism is complex, and not all signs point to something nearby.

But let’s just say nothing which could appear in the news over the next year or two would surprise me. America is ready to fall apart, and none of us need to see an eclipse to know that.

Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.