When “The Pot Called The Kettle Black”

“For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices pose a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused theGoEnglish_com_ThePotCallingTheKettleBlack Chinese of doing…In 2012, for example, a report from the House Intelligence Committee, headed by Mike Rogers, claimed that…the top two Chinese telecommunications equipment companies, ‘may be violating United States laws’ and have ‘not followed United States legal obligations or international standards of business behavior.’…But while American companies were being warned away from supposedly untrustworthy Chinese routers, foreign organizations would have been well advised to beware of American-made ones….The NSA routinely receives—or intercepts—routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal, and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. It is quite possible that Chinese firms are implanting surveillance mechanisms in their network devices. But the United States is certainly doing the same.

Warning the world about Chinese surveillance could have been one of the motives behind the US government’s claims that Chinese devices cannot be trusted. But an equally important motive seems to have been preventing Chinese devices from supplanting American-made ones, which would have limited the NSA’s own reach. In other words, Chinese routers and servers represent not only economic competition but also surveillance competition: when someone buys a Chinese device instead of an American one, the NSA loses a crucial means of spying on a great many communication activities.” – Glenn Greenwald in No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

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Out And About (2014/12/15)

Policing and Racial Justice


  • Ross Douthat’s Why We Tortured, Why We Shouldn’t is a balanced and thoughtful piece which argues from a conservative position that torture should not be performed
  • Peter Hitchens (Christopher Hitchens’ Anglican brother) forcefully argues against torture. He says: “If we, the self-proclaimed apostles of liberty and justice [torture people] then we will become the very thing we claim to fight. And we will have been defeated by ourselves…torture is never, ever justified. It corrupts the society that allows it, and incidentally fosters endless hatred among the victims, which may return to harm or destroy us decades hence.”
  • Eric Margolis forcefully argues that torturers are not patriots–they are criminals.
  • Dick Cheney apparently has no regrets about his role in the treatment of the “war on terror” detainees.
  • Joe Carter’s 7 Things Christians Should Know About Torture is worth reading.
  • Steven Wedgeworth  has some reflections on torture and the gospel.



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On Memes Which Advocate Torture

memesHere are some (allegedly) brief thoughts about what I call “Because..9/11 Memes”. Basically these are memes which juxtaposit the torture utilized against suspects in the war on terror with scenes from 9/11 or ISIS beheadings, in an attempt to ridicule those who concern themselves about the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

1. Though I am certainly not against memes (they have their place and can be useful in provoking thought), I find that the meme has often become a predictable carrier of half-truths, misleading statements, and various forms of fallacies. These sort of memes are no exception.

2. Not all of the people who have been tortured were terrorists–this is an important fact which these memes ignore. The memes imply that all of the alleged terrorists are guilty, but that clearly is not the case. So, even if torture can be justifiably used on terrorists, we must reckon seriously with the fact that some of the torture is being applied to the wrong people, after all, they are only alleged terrorists and have not had their day in court. And the battle lines are not as clear as they might have been in previous conflicts. How many wrongly accused men would you torture to get X amount of net gain in discovering potential terrorist plots?

3. Though the authors of the memes may not think waterboarding is a big deal, when you get into the areas of fear and reactionary thinking–there are no readily available brakes from taking it further. What if torture isn’t enough? Once careful ethical considerations are tossed out in the face of mere risk aversion, there are very few limits. What would the torture advocate do if rape was the only way a terrorist attack could be averted? They must have some line at which they would stop. So then, a legitimate question is this: Why stop at some point beyond waterboarding, but not before waterboarding? Of course, one could go around and around with these questions. I think to avoid the gridlock, we must ask ourselves: What are our operating principles? What is ethical? How ought we to treat our enemy (or suspected enemy) when he or she is in our custody? These memes do not help such examinations, but rather seek to sway emotions such as fear.

4. The memes usually list a few of the least ominous sounding descriptions of the torture methods utilized. However, even those are much more severe than the memes imply. What is not often mentioned is that the methods are combined with other methods, and, in some cases, used hundreds of times alongside severe physical and psychological abuse. The memes also totally miss a point that some analysts and researchers have made: torture doesn’t just affect the person being tortured. It affects the torturers too.

5. It strikes me that those who dismiss waterboarding as being “no big deal” are very detached from reality. It is a far cry from “a few drops of water.” I suspect if they had been subjected to waterboarding before an actual enemy with all the psychological/physiological implications of that, their opinion on waterboarding would change. In fact, it strikes me that a large percentage of those that have even been water boarded in a controlled training exercise are against the use of waterboarding.

6. Even if the forms of torture being utilized were theoretically justifiable to prevent a terrorist attack, it does not necessarily follow that torture is (a) the best means to that end or (b) that it will even be a successful means to the desired end. When asked to provide concrete examples, the advocates of torture tend to come up quite empty, often pulling out very questionable cases. These memes seem to suggest by implication that torture is a surefire (or at least effective) way to prevent terrorist attacks. But the truth of the assumption is not evident.

6. Though it is certainly plausible to envision a “ticking time bomb” scenario where torture saves the day, that is clearly an idealized “hollywood” outcome. It could happen, but generally in the real world, the results of torture are much less predictable, torture tends to produce unhelpful information. While there are a variety of opinions as to how useful the information actually is, there is no consistent, clear cut data that shows consistently good informational results from torture.

7. In general, it appears that some of the people who would be best “positioned” to know the reliability of torture are the quickest to speak of its limitations. Former C.I.A. director Porter Gross said “torture does not work.” F. Andy Messings, a retired U.S. Special Forces major and director of the National Defense Council said “Anybody with real combat experience understands that torture is counterproductive.” David H. Petraeus said “Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.”

8. When I see the memes, as anachronistic as it may be, I wonder what the American founding fathers would think. They certainly were against the idea of trading liberty for security. They also were very vehemently against torture in their own context. This is significant since those most eager to defend torture are often those who are very much concerned with America’s heritage and recovering the founding vision. In a debate Patrick Henry said: “What has distinguished our ancestors?–That they would not admit of tortures, or cruel and barbarous punishment…[others] will tell you that there is such a necessity of strengthening the arm of government, that they must…extort confession by torture, in order to punish with still more relentless severity. We are then lost and undone.”  George Washington was also quite against torture in his day. He said: “Treat [prisoners of war] with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands”. He also said: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”  One can (rightly) argue that there are certain things about today that make the situation quite different. Fair enough. However, the same people that tend to argue for torture tend to revel in the past and the founding values. And while the situation may have changed quite a bit, there are principles that carry over and we would do well to share the founder’s vehement dislike of torture.

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“Because..Obama” – A Sampling Of Problematic Themes In Political Discourse

1. “People will die if X doesn’t happen”. Basically, this is a fear tactic. It may be a grounded fear or an absurd fear. Either way, a connection is made and that settles it for many people. A solution will prevent deaths. Therefore, the morality of the solution is irrelevant. So are its ethics. So are its consequences. So are its costs. There are some very basic problems with this argument.

(a) As already mentioned, it is most often used to dismiss other (often stronger and more concrete) moral, ethical, or pragmatic considerations. Sometimes those alternate considerations themselves could prevent deaths. For instance, a report may cause some initial deaths due to retaliation, but it could lead to reforms that prevent even more deaths in the future.

(b) It is most often very hypothetical and dependent on a lot of “counterfactuals.”  In other words, people say something like “We should torture suspected terrorists to prevent another 9/11″, there are a lot of assumptions embedded in that statement: It assumes that torture works towards its intended goal. It assumes that the suspected terrorists are terrorists indeed. It assumes that even if they are terrorists they actually have actionable information to supply. It assumes that even if they are terrorists with actionable information that they actually have information about that particular event. And all that rests on the assumption that there will be a future 9/11.

(c) It leads to absurdities. If we really, really, really believe in the logic behind “People will die if X doesn’t happen”, why stop at ones preferred measure? There is indeed a slippery slope. There is always a more extreme measure you could take. Torture might not be enough. And if our morality and ethical reasoning is generally dominated by “we should do whatever it takes to avoid risk, we will end up at a very absurd destination before we realize it. Is a completely safe country one we would want to live in? Probably not. So at some point we have to say “we will stand on this principle” even if deaths might occur.

(d) This argument is a way of stacking the deck. You get to blame every hypothetical possibility (even one which has no bearing on the subject at hand) on the subject at hand. So when someone says “If this document get released, people will die” or “If this report is made available, people will die,” not only are they conjuring up hypothetical situations, but they are evading the fact that there are a plethora of OTHER causes (some perhaps even more direct) which could lead to that outcome. And so, this twisted logic leads people to blame documents and reports and leaks for later incidents that most probably have other causes, and often the discourse doesn’t pay attention to the actual evidence for such a causal link.

(e) There is often a conflation going on in this argument. The report or the leak is blamed for what, strictly speaking, should be ultimately blamed on the scandal the report exposed or the scandal that the leak talked about.  If you torture people, there may very well be retaliation. It is sophomoric to automatically blame all the retaliation on the exposure of the the thing rather than the thing itself. Perhaps if we reformed our ethics (ie. didn’t torture), then we wouldn’t need to worry about that retaliation, whether it be leaked, reported, or found out about another way. It’s better to fix the ship’s structure than plug all the holes.

2. “Only Innocents Should Get Their Day In Court”. This problematic argument is basically circular. You start by assuming that someone is guilty and then argue that guilty people (like person X) shouldn’t get the protections that innocent people do. I realize that we can’t always carefully qualify what we say. However, we need to be cautious about the assumptions we make when it comes to the legal classification of people whose activities have not been thoroughly investigated or are not in the public record. This frequently comes up in the torture discussion. The reasoning goes something like “If they wanted to be treated kindly, why did they commit acts of terrorism?” or “Terrorists should expect to be tortured” or “They killed people, so why can’t they be torture?” or “If Joe didn’t want to be strangled by the police, why did he break the law?”

What is most often completely ignored in this pattern is that, in the actual world we are living in, it should be noted that:  (a) some of the group of those being tortured are innocent, and (b) even those that are guilty have, in the case of torture, often not been proven so by anything more than hearsay or by where they were located or who they kept company with or the judgement of someone not qualified to make such a determination.  They are alleged terrorists, not terrorists. The individual who a police officer attempts to arrest is an alleged criminal, not necessarily a criminal. And even if they are confirmed terrorists or criminals, they were made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and given some protections.  We don’t necessarily have to have “alleged” in front of everything we say, but our statements about matters should show some recognition about what has been satisfactorily determined through the proper channels.

3. “Because..Obama.” Thabiti Anyabwile has recently called the name “Obama” the “escape hatch of all escape hatches.” The problem is that, in some circles, a mere citation of the name “Obama” (or some other leader) has a remarkable power to shut down discussion. This problem has two facets: (a) This is a “scapegoat” type of pattern. Some narrow down the problems with their country so narrowly that everything wrong with the country can be boiled down to one person–and hence they feel there is no need to explore the issues further.  This is an easy pit to fall into if we take our cues from the current pundits. To people under sway of this, the issue is simple: just elect a new guy into office. All (or much) will then me peachy. However, most problems currently grappled with are much more complex and systemic than that. And so, any attempt at reform that stops at changing the political figureheads is not real reform. (b) The other way in which “Because..Obama” works is that any cause which gets associated with Obama automatically becomes “dirtied” or worth avoiding. This is basically “dirtying the waters.”

The way you win an argument under this pattern is to associate the other side with someone so distasteful that it is an automatic win. For many conservatives, that is Obama. So, just because Obama says something about closing Guantanamo, some people automatically assume that the opposite is true–that Guantanamo should be kept open and anyone who thinks it should be closed is just an America-hating leftist. There is a troubling inability among some to separate people and positions. And so, there is a lot of guilt by association. For instance, if you support amnesty you will be sometimes accused of being an Obama supporter (while, in reality, many conservatives have also supported it). Ultimately, even the worst politician gets some things right. And so we should think independently enough to know that sometimes even our “opponent” will come to a proper conclusion. And so we should avoid knee-jerk positions. And yet such knee-jerk “if-he-does-it-it-must-be-wrong” thinking is so pervasive. You almost get the sense that if Obama says “1+1=2″, there would be a small slice of radical conservatives who would, at the very least, be tempted to say “well, not really.”

4. “Because…Party Politics”. This is kind of like “Because… Obama”, except it is more focused on dismissing something because it was initiated by a certain party or was done as part of a broader scheme of partisan scheming. Yes, partisan politics do cause a lot of problems. And, yes, very few political actions are “disinterested”, they are usually done for certain reasons. And often political parties bring up certain things for sleazy reasons. However, we must stop the guilt by association. The fact that the  torture report may have had some strong political manoevering behind it is not a convenient excuse to ignore it or dismiss it. Just because there might be what some might call “race baiting” doesn’t mean that racial concerns are to be discarded. Or that we should ignore immigration reform just because some people on the wrong side have used it for the wrong reasons.

5. “Either You Are With Us Or You Are Against Us”.  This is an age old pattern. Basically, if you don’t sign on to one part of an issue or you suggest alternatives, then you are against the whole program. It confuses allowing something with supporting it.  This sort of issue tends to encourage group thinking and ignores that some issues are more complicated than meets the eye. If you are for treating terrorists more civilly, then you are “for the terrorists.” If you believe in prison and sentencing reform, you are “for the criminals”. If you believe there should be more accountability for police officers who abuse their badge, you are “against the police”. If you believe in reforming drug policy and softening the penalties or perhaps even legalizing some drugs, then you are for drug use.  If you are against laws which prohibit gambling, then you are “for” gambling. Whole complicated issues (and even whole partisan platforms) are turned into a binary “with us or against us” sign off that doesn’t recognize nuance or other ways to deal with the issue (while still maintaining that the thing is indeed an issue).

6. “Because….Cost”. Another thing to watch out for is simple appeals to cost to reject something. Certainly, there are things that waste money. And certain people should at times speak out about it. And some people have very consistently looked to cut costs. A true budget cutter truly has to look at even minor costs.  However, we must look at credibility and context. Sadly, some of the people who talk the biggest about “cutting spending”, freely propose spend large sums of money on things they agree with. Sometimes cost is a smokescreen to shut down conversations. If a politician spends tons of money in “charity” towards foreign despots, but then chafes at spending money on his own people’s needs, then there is a fundamental question to be asked about his “fiscal conservatism.”

Conservative arguments against government healthcare may ring hallow when some of those same conservatives are “gung ho” about providing rich foreign despots with a nest egg (not to mention the latest military hardware). If a politician just came from signing a $900 billion military appropriation bill and then complains about the cost of a $30 million report which attempts to provide some oversight to military actions, it shouldn’t be hard to see that (a) he doesn’t mind spending when it suits his interests and (b) his complaint about the cost of the report, even if technically correct, needs to be contextualized.  $30 million shouldn’t be wasted, but we need to contextualize that figure. Nitpicking about costs only has credibility when there is a general sensitivity to such things (especially in ones preferred spending areas!) We should prevent casual appeals to “cost” as a conversation stopper or a reason to avoid doing the right thing.


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A Review of Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God

Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God by Dane Ortlund (4 stars)

As a historical figure in Protestant Christianity and American history, Jonathan Edwards looms large. However, far too many people have, in their minds, pigeon-holed him as a strident, one-dimensional “fire and brimstone” preacher. He was actually a brilliant philosopher and theologian, one of the most brilliant and innovative in the 18th century. He also has a lot to teach us about the Christian life, which is basically the central point of this book.

In the first 12 chapters, Ortlund takes the reader through central themes in Edward’s sermons, such as: Beauty, New Birth, Love, Joy, Gentleness, Scripture, Prayer, Pilgrimage, Obedience. Satan, The Soul, and Heaven. The thirteenth chapter is devoted to four criticisms of Edward’s approach to the Christian life. And then there is a concluding chapter.ortlund

Chapters 1 through 12 are wonderful and rich as devotional reading. Ortlund does a fine job in faithfully reflecting Edwards’ emphasis and applying it to our day. I’m sure I had a quibble here or two in this section, but the vast majority of material in these twelve chapters is gold. Ortlund uses a lot of C. S. Lewis in connecting Edwards to today, a touch which–although perhaps slightly overwrought–is generally quite helpful. I found myself profiting greatly from these 12 chapters and can heartily recommend them. Perhaps they will stir up Christian readers to a more full and vibrant Christian life!

Chapter 13 was nowhere near as good as the previous twelve, in my opinion. It is this chapter that prevents this book from receiving a 5 star rating from me. I will not focus too much on this chapter, but I will give a brief idea of what I feel is wrong with it. The headings of his critiques are “Failure to Apply the Gospel”, “Missed Opportunities to Bring the Gospel Home”, “Unhealthy Introspection”, “The Goodness of Creation”, “Use of Scripture”, and “View of the Regenerate and the Unregenerate”. Let’s just say that most of the major ideas in the chapter are hotly disputed. I’m not sure Ortlund provides enough evidence to support his conclusions. I think in some cases Ortlund seems, at least to a non Edwards scholar like me, to be quite wrong in his critique of Edwards.  I found much of the”Failure to Apply the Gospel”and “Unhealthy Introspection” sections to be basically just plain-vanilla “Grace Lit” or “Liberate” blurbs. Maybe Edwards was too introspective. But, if so, I am equally sure that “gospel cliches” are not any sort of robust improvement in this matter. That Edwards is found wanting in the court of “Liberate” or “Grace Lit” theology only makes me respect him all the more.  I feel like more substantial information would be required to demonstrate how Edwards is deficient in these points.  I’d also say that, with a couple of exceptions, Ortlund generally fails in this chapter at satisfactorily “contextualizing” what he sees as Edwards’ flaws. How did Edwards compare with his contemporaries? I’d be a bit more at ease with this chapter if Ortlund gave the reader more background information alongside his critique.

The first 12 chapters were so good and profitable that I still gave this book 4 stars even through Chapter 13 brought the book down considerably. A less brilliant first twelve chapters would resulted in a worse rating. I hope that some day the publisher revises the book with a rewritten or revised Chapter 13. That book may very well worth 5 stars!

Insofar as Ortlund sticks to what he has done best, presenting a useful, practical introduction to a brilliant 18th century theologian’s teachings on the Christian life in Chapters 1-12, he has done a great service to the church! I hope many people will read these chapters and be helped and inspired by them! I certainly was encouraged and blessed by them.

Note: I received a review copy from Crossway.

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Two Poems Published in On the Rusk

I have two poems,  Ivan  Denisovich and Still Pool, in the latest issue of On the Rusk.

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Returning to my Holmes (A review of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes)

Sherlock-Holmes-007A review of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s been so very long since I’ve jumped into the Sherlock Holmes stories and this foray has been so very delightful. It reminds me that deep down, missing detection and deductive reasoning skills notwithstanding, I’m a devoted Sherlockian.

These stories are top notch, showing Holmes in his finest form. And they never grow old. A. C. Doyle’s genius is behind every stroke. It’s also heaping brilliance upon brilliance to have both Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock’s brother) and Moriatry (Sherlock’s reptilian nemesis) introduced in these stories.Though we hear so little of them, they are brilliantly crafted characters.

This book makes me want to move to Victorian England and become a consulting detective with all its peril. And then perhaps write a technical monograph on some obscure subject such as The Footprint Width of Peruvian Newts. It makes me wish there were thousands more canonical Holmes stories.

An unexpected side-effect of my return to the Holmes canon has been an increased respect for the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes series.The nine episodes, as an adaptation, stand up to the scrutiny of an examination of the Holmes canon. Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful Sherlock. Mark Gatiss gets Mycroft right. Martin Freeman nails the essence of Watson. Rarely is a TV series so thoroughly vindicated as by the re-reading of this book.

If you haven’t read this book yet, the driving question is: why not?

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Responding to Voddie Baucham on Ferguson

For those who keep up on such things in the Reformed world, both Alan Noble and Thabiti Anyabwile have responded to Voddie Baucham’s blog post on Ferguson.

Both Alan and Thabiti have brought up some good points and outlined some major problems in what Voddie is saying. It should be noted that Thabiti’s post is not necessarily a direct response to Voddie (he’s made his points more widely applicable), but they are clearly written in view of what Voddie wrote.

I will share some summaries/excerpts here:

1. Thabiti acknowledges that sin is the overarching universal problem that is behind racism. However, he  observes that when some people say “the problem is sin”,they actually mean to dismiss the issue and, in a sense, actually dismiss the sin involved. Thabiti wisely advises that we need to avoid the sort of dismissive attitude that shares the theological truth that sin is involved and then says “It’s sin. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t bother me with empathy, compassion, suffering with those who suffer or anything of the sort. It has nothing to do with injustice or systems or the like. It’s just sin.”

2. Thabiti then sees similar undertones that sometimes spring up in statements like “What people really need is the gospel.”  Again, this is essentially a true statement. Everyone needs the gospel. However, when such a statement is used dismissively in a way that leads to alienating others, it might be we don’t even understand what the gospel is. He says “if we find ourselves making that statement [“What people really need is the gospel”] as a final rejoinder to real life problems, then we had better ask ourselves if we mean it. ”

3. (This one is not directly related to Voddie’s post, but is generally applicable to much of the discourse on the subject) Thabiti then shares how, in some circles, the name “Obama” is used to evade things, as “an escape hatch of all escape hatches. They simply blame President Obama. The situation doesn’t matter. …Say that name at just the right point and–poof!–any real world discussion or problem requiring genuine Christian witness and engagement vanishes from sight.”

4. Alan speaks about Voddie’s statements about the role of fatherlessness in this subject. He concludes that  “even if you accept [Voddie’s] claim that black fathers must become better fathers in order for substantial change to take place in black communities, there is no reason this must take place before addressing systemic racism.”

5. Alan speaks about Voddie’s comments on “black-on-black” crime.  Alan powerfully refutes Voddie’s comments about black-on-black crime and its relation to the subject at hand. Alan says the following “First, [Voddie’s statement] is another false dichotomy. There is no reason we shouldn’t speak out against police abuses just because there are criminals within the black community. Second, this ignores the deep harm that systemic racism causes, some of which encourages the very black-on-black violence he laments. When a community loses trust in law enforcement, they are less inclined to report crime, making them more likely to be victims of crime in the future. ”

6. Alan makes an interesting comment about Voddie’s dislike of treating the problem as a ‘systemic” one. Alan observes that “Baucham would not hesitate to call out systemic prejudice against Christians or the family unit, so he should be able to appreciate the charge that this same system also harbors injustices against minorities.”

These are just little highlights–I suggest reading the articles in their entirety if the subject interests you.

Here I will share the concluding paragraphs of each article

Alan Noble: “What Ferguson has demonstrated in a very public way is the deep divisions between the various ways that Christians understand race in America. While I am glad to see many in the evangelical church speaking out and having important conversations about race, we must be able to imagine a way forward which does not rely on an overly simple view of personal responsibility and causality.”

Thabiti Anyabwile: “I pray we work against any form of escapism that keeps us from being salt and light. I especially pray we work against escapism in the name of “the gospel.” If we would be “gospel people” in the best sense of the phrase, then we must be honest people. We must have that good Samaritan honesty that sees the situation accurately and enters it compassionately. When we’re in the situation, we may have to point out sin, we hope to actually do the work of evangelism, and we may have to point people to the world to come because “inconsolable things” break us in this life. But let none of that be superficial or trite. Let it be true and engaged.”

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