Justice and Your Local Church

By the time the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – each in its own turn – were judged and destroyed by God for failing to abide by the covenant they made with him on Mount Sinai, the people of each kingdom had vitiated every moral stricture imaginable at one point or another.  Adultery, murder, idolatry – they tried it all, and the bible even records that two kings of Judah practiced child sacrifice (Ahaz & Manasseh, 2 Kings 16:3 & 2 Kings 21:6, respectively).  The two kingdoms were, in short, as disobedient and evil as it is possible to be.  And God punished them for it.

Don’t worry – I’m not on an evangelical America-must-turn-or-burn trip.  Israel and Judah had a signed contract with God (you get that’s what was on the stone tablets, right?), the United States of America does not.  I find it unlikely we’ll be held to the same standard.  Having said that, however, it is instructive to note that for all the ways Judah violated God’s covenant, He held two specific violations to be more egregious than the rest.  The first is idolatry, and since we don’t have a treaty with God promising that he will always be the God of the United States of America, I suspect God’s expectations on this count are different for us than they were for Judah (or Israel).  The second key violation, however, strikes me as universal in its applicability: sex.

Just kidding!  Only a jest!  It wasn’t sex, even if evangelicals sometimes act like it was.  It was justice.  Above all else, God judged Judah and Israel for being idolatrous and unjust.


Many American evangelicals like to argue about what justice is or is not; I have no intention of entering that debate, in part because it pretends that God never spells it out.  Read Jeremiah 22:3 (I’ll wait.  Do it now.).  That’s justice.  There are other pertinent passages, to be sure, but none so succinct (not to mention useful as a summary) as Jeremiah 22.

As long as I’m telling you what I don’t plan to argue, let me also add here that I’m not writing about immigration today.  Obviously, this passage has some application in that area, but that’s not what I want to point out this time.  Instead, permit me to highlight that Jeremiah 22 is not addressed to the masses.  It’s relevant to everyone (did I mention it gives a definition for justice from God?), but it’s not directed to the people.  It’s directed to the kings of Judah, and this chapter addresses 4 of Judah’s final 5 kings.

The reason for that is obvious: justice on a systemic level was the responsibility of the king in Judah’s monarchy.  It was up to the king to make sure that the legal protections in the law were implemented fairly; it was up to the king to ensure that everyone was treated as though they bore the image of God.  Consequently, when God wanted to accuse Judah of breaching its written contract with Him by failing to promote justice, God sent a prophet to complain to the king.  Think of it as God following the bureaucratic protocol of the day; He registered his complaints with the appropriate department.

So what would be similar for us who live in a republic?  Since God can’t complain to a king we don’t have, who is our guarantor of justice and the party answerable to God’s protestations?


It’s a fairly complicated question, actually.  On the one hand – this being a republic – we are all responsible.  On the other hand, Romans 13 tells us that God raises our leaders to their place and even entrusts them with the power of life or death (unless you think “sword” symbolizes something other than bloodshed, in which case you’re probably both wrong and a pacifist), so presumably a leader is accountable, whether that leader is king, governor, or president.  Having said that, however, it’s not as though our society can only be subdivided into presidents and the masses; there are myriad different subgroups that can also be said to hold special responsibility for justice in the United States – police, Justice Department bureaucrats, lawyers, prosecutors, and especially judges.

Ah yes, judges.  Zeus-like in their courtrooms, frequently re-elected by a populace who wouldn’t know  the judge from a terrorist on the street, and participating in a profession the pinnacle of which entitles one to be addressed as justice personified (like Justice Scalia or Justice Sotomayor).  We’re all accountable for justice to one degree or another, but judges make justice their career.  For that reason, justice in our country may depend as much upon the integrity and understanding of judges as on everyone else combined, and they are arguably the group most responsible for justice in our republic.


I tried to think of a clear way to illustrate the hazard to justice that injustice by one judge can present, but it will be easier if you just read this article instead (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2339865/Woman-molested-COURTROOM-marshal-orders-arrested-explanation.html).  Did you read it?  Watch the video even?  Good.  That vignette is injustice given life, and while there are obviously at least two parties responsible for that injustice, I blame the judge (yes, she’s technically a case master, but that’s functionally the same thing) more because the judge has more power.

Vitally, the judge in this episode kept her job until last week.  You’ll notice that the events in the article/video took place almost two years ago (August 2011).


Like me, you probably assume that this was a bizarre and isolated instance of madness; your local judges are just and honorable.  The problem, obviously, is that you probably (like me) have no idea.  One bad judge could perpetrate hundreds of injustices a year, and if it takes two years for one of those misdeeds to meander into the media, what then?  How many lives would be ruined and how much injustice done?  God only knows, which is precisely the point.

If we as evangelicals care about the things of God, we have to care about justice, and that means we have to care about judges.  I know that we sometimes talk about Supreme Court justices in presidential election years, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the judges who impact my life and yours by ruling on the daily and seemingly trivial matters.  Small claims court, divorce proceedings, moving violations, civil trials, and criminal trials too.  It’s not that federal judges don’t matter; it’s that the small-time judges – like the judge in the article/video above – handle so many more proceedings that their net impact on justice is arguably larger.  They matter more.  And we have no idea who most of them are.


If we want to please God by caring about justice, this is one thing we can do.  We the evangelical community can choose to ensure that we know enough about our local judges to have opinions on the justice of their conduct.  For those judges that are elected, we can organize and vote.  After all, how many churches would need to mobilize to swing a judicial election?  This is justice within our power (and by “our,” I mean laypeople.  There are certain legal problems with pastors campaigning from the pulpits, so this is for you and me to do, not our pastors).  And with respect to the case masters or other judges appointed rather than elected, we can ask for more than simple anti-abortion partisans.  It’s within our power to make judicial justice an election issue every time.  Since we know that God cares immensely about justice, maybe it’s time we start to pay more attention to judges.

Speculating on Syria’s Christians (Again)

Want to make your pastor squirm uncomfortably, stammer tremulous non-answers, and then avoid you on sight for a month?  Read this post, and bring up Syria with him.  You see, events in Syria appear to be heading in a very uncomfortable direction for those evangelicals (read: the vast majority) who have a theologically systematized way of viewing the Middle East, and it just might end up becoming totally unexplainable.  And since evangelicals seldom relish trafficking in the unexplainable, brace yourself for a deluge of off-topic platitudes about God’s sovereignty.  You might even want to wear hip-waders or bring a raft.

Allow me to present the problem, in 5 simple assertions:

1) Syrian Christians generally support Assad                                                                I’ve mentioned this one before, but it bears repeating as most American news sources continue to assume American opposition to human-rights violating tyrant Bashir Assad.  The man may use chemical weapons on his own people (and by ‘may’ I mean absolutely, positively, inarguably has and will), but he doesn’t kill Christians.  Under him, Syria has been regarded as the safest Middle Eastern country for Christians, and the Syrian Church has been predictably grateful for that.  Although it doesn’t appear to have offered open institutional support to the Assad regime, the pre-war status quo was definitely OK with the Syrian Church, and Assad’s armies include numerous Christian soldiers.  Admittedly, some key rebels are Christians too, but for reasons addressed in #2 below, that may not prove decisive if Christians are forced to choose a side en masse; inasmuch as generalizations can be made about this, it seems like Syrian Christians tend to prefer Assad.

2) The Rebels increasingly consist of and depend on Jihadists                            Since help from Western governments has been sparse and few of us are willing to die for a Syrian cause, the rebels have found help where they could: the Islamic extremists who loathe Assad but love fighting and dying for causes in which they can believe.  Media reports have suggested that the extremist element among the rebels has flourished, both in numbers and in status.  For obvious reasons, this complicates the willingness of most democracies to aid the rebels, which only serves to increase the relative power of the Jihadists within the rebel movement.  It’s not fair to say the rebels are all Islamic extremists, but it is fair to wonder who would actually hold the power if the rebels achieved whatever would pass for a win in this conflict (Since it appears Russia will not allow Assad to lose but the rebels could presumably maintain an insurgency indefinitely, an outright win seems unlikely for either side, and the remaining options defy characterization in a mere blog post).

Also, the influx of Islamist fighters into the rebel forces has rendered neutrality virtually impossible for the Syrian Church.  Assad will let them live, but the Jihadist rebels are increasingly giving them the choice of emigration or death, so the Church’s efforts to stay out of the fight on an institutional level appear to be timing out.

3) Hezbollah is now openly helping Assad, and he’s doing well                                The rebels aren’t the only ones getting help from Islamist whack jobs – Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Islamists who have often received support from Assad in their battles against Israel – have now openly entered the fray on the side of their patron.  I’m not entirely sure how much of a difference this will make for Assad, but the war is increasingly going his way, and it looks like the war’s end will find him still holding power in at least a portion of sovereign Syria, and likely most of it.  Which means Hezbollah’s willingness to die for him in his hour of need will probably mean great things for Hezbollah in the future, but lousy things for Lebanese Christians and Israeli Israelis.

4) It is now conceivable that Israel could be dragged into an open war                What was unimaginable is now disconcertingly conceivable, however unlikely it remains.  Israel may not care whether their blood enemy Assad or a bunch of Islamic terrorist rebels win the war, but it matters immensely to Israel that Hezbollah not receive Syrian chemical weapons.  Look for Israel to ignore shipments from Lebanon to Syria – it would serve Israel well for more Hezbollah people and resources to be exhausted in Syria – but bomb the crap out of anything moving from Syria to Lebanon, if only to be safe.  Just don’t expect Assad, as his fortunes continue to improve, to take that lightly.  Will Israel end up in a war with Syria or Lebanon?  Probably not.  But don’t bet your house on it, because it is definitely now in play.

5) This would mean evangelical-supported Israel killing Christians                         So, with Syrian Christians being driven increasingly into the arms of Assad and with Israel seemingly heading for a conflict with the Hezbollah/Assad alliance (and whatever the odds against open war, Israel has never had qualms about isolated incidents, unacknowledged attacks, and all the covert options genius can devise), we seem headed for a military conflict in which some of God’s Chosen People kill some of the Body of Christ.  Israel would never openly make war on Christians for the sake of their being Christians (They need what few global friends they have, and also, it would be wrong.  And my money says the reasons belong in that order), but attacks against any non-Hezbollah parts of the Syrian government forces would be attacks against Christians just the same.  Which is theologically problematic, to say the least, for those evangelicals who hold that Israel can do no wrong.


So there it is.  Evangelicals overwhelmingly support Israel, in both political and economic ways, but Israel appears to be on a crash course with an army that includes significant numbers of Christians.  I expect many churches will rationalize this by suggesting that opposing Israel is always wrong, no matter what, as well as arguing that the Christians in Syria are cultural Christians and not really Born Again.  The type of people who read my blog will recognize that for the specious calumny it is, but just in case, permit me to retort: it is unacceptable for American evangelicals who risk literally nothing to be Christians to denounce as phony self-proclaimed Christians who risk their very lives in that proclamation.  We who shoulder few burdens cannot denounce as fake those struggling under real crosses.

Well, I said cannot, but of course we can.  But your pastor probably won’t be that stupid/insensitive, and that’s why he’ll squirm and avoid you if you bring this up.  It’s actually to his credit.

Watergate, Obama, and the Worst Scandal in American History

The first time I read that some Republicans were comparing the Obama administration’s scandal orgy with Watergate, I laughed aloud.  I accept that we could conceivably get somewhere like that from here, but that’s a concession no different from saying I could conceivably crawl all the way to Santiago, Chile from my apartment.  Theoretically possible, but never gonna happen.

I will add that this doesn’t change the magnitude of the Obama administration’s corruption, but I’m not going to attribute it all to a Nixon-style crime spree on the part of the President himself without seeing some concrete evidence first.  The fact that somebody may have deployed the IRS as election-year storm troopers while the Attorney General decided to convert the Justice Department into the Stasi in order to combat access-obsessed journalists and (we learned today) anyone who uses a cell phone is shocking, and I don’t mean to underplay it.  Both are fundamentally un-American exercises of power.  But Watergate?  Please.


I confess that one reason for my strong reaction is the mythological weight that Watergate has acquired over the years.  I’m not sure when this happened, exactly, but at some point I came to regard Nixon’s second term as the moment when cynicism towards government was born in the USA, as if the assassinations of the 1960’s and the lies of Lyndon Johnson in no way undermined anyone’s confidence in the Truth, Justice, and the American Way that Superman defended.  What’s more, I know I’m not the originator of the let’s-put-it-all-on-Watergate-and-blame-Nixon school of thought.  This is a conditioned response on my part, even if I can’t put names to my brainwashers.

At any rate, Watergate has come to symbolize the ultimate political scandal in the United States, and the idea that any subsequent scandal could approximate such a defining nadir seems ludicrous.  This is stupid for two vital reasons: first, Watergate was actually a pedestrian and unimaginative affair.  A paranoid burglary followed by a bungling and increasingly panicked cover-up by garden-variety power hungry men.  Local school board elections come with juicier scandals these days, and with apologies to All the Presidents Men, the only way we’d make Watergate into a movie today is as a comedy – not a drama – and even then, we’d have to add more sex if we wanted to sell tickets.

The second strange thing about using Watergate as the rubric by which all scandals are measured is the fact that an American Vice President – while in office – murdered the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, and didn’t even resign his office.  Call me crazy, but I’ll take Nixon (and Obama, obviously) over that any day.


The shooting of Alexander Hamilton (you know, the guy on your $10 bills) by Vice President Aaron Burr was a long time ago.  I don’t want to hurt any Baby Boomers, but so was Watergate.  I know there are other reasons why Watergate has endured in our memories in a way that the Burr-Hamilton duel has not (TV and Bob Woodward, to name two), but it’s 2013 now and nobody old enough to remember being shocked by Nixon has their original hair color (except for Al Pacino and those of you who have the original hair color “bald”).  In fact, well over half of today’s Americans weren’t even alive when it happened, and for those 150,000,000+ of us, both scandals are just stories from a world we never knew.

Anyway, Aaron Burr.  Apart from his exceptionally tasteful first name, historical accounts of him suggest that his megalomania and thirst for power would’ve made Nixon blush (at least, Nixon would’ve blushed before sending the IRS after him).  The backstory to his 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton includes Burr tying with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, and Hamilton – acting as a power broker from the other party – ensuring that the presidency was kept out of Burr’s hands because he feared Burr would make himself into a dictator.

I’ll reframe that to make sure you caught it.  Remember the interminable 2000 election between Bush and Gore?  Imagine if Presidents and Vice Presidents had to be voted on separately (instead of as a ticket), and imagine that Gore lost the 2000 election outright, but Cheney tied Bush (Since Burr was Jefferson’s running mate, but somehow tied him for president.  Did I mention Burr was Machiavellian?).  Now imagine a major figure from the other party, someone like Teddy Kennedy was in 2000, saw to it that Cheney was made VP instead of President not because he disliked his politics – remember, he’s from the other party, so he dislikes both of their politics – but rather because he saw Cheney as a potential Castro or Chavez and despised him as a person.  Now, imagine if after that plus four more years of political intrigue between Vice President Cheney and Kennedy, Cheney shot and killed Kennedy.

This happened.

Of course, there were some key differences.  Ted Kennedy was a major Democratic figure, but we’ll never see his face on paper money; he just wasn’t important enough.  In contrast, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Alexander Hamilton in our country’s history.  Also, Aaron Burr served out his term and never resigned, and was later arrested for treason for maybe trying to start his own new country on the Gulf Coast.  So not only did the Vice President kill someone who gets mentioned in the same breath as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but he avoided any penalties for doing so, and shortly thereafter tried to set up his own country.  All after tying in an election for President of the United States.

So why is Watergate the scandal against which other scandals are measured?


I remind you of this moment in our history to remind of you something else about which I’ve written before: the hysteria pervading modern American politics is embarrassingly overwrought for anyone who knows our history.  Obama’s administration is not the most corrupt or the most shocking in history: Harding’s was probably more corrupt, and Jefferson’s Vice Presidential scandal (the Burr-Hamilton duel) towers over everything we’ve seen since, including Nixon’s masterpiece.  Gridlock between today’s parties is not the most toxic or intransigent in history: the United States once had a Civil War.  Politics today is not more personal than ever before: Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton.  However bad things may be today, they’ve been worse, and they got better.  So while I have no idea where the current scandals will go, until Joe Biden kills a man, we should probably just calm down.

Sherlock Holmes and the Prophets

Mrs. Frankenfeld and I can’t get enough Sherlock Holmes.  Fortunately, this is the right moment to have that fetish, since there are two current series on TV (Elementary on CBS and Sherlock from the rainy island of the character’s birth).  There’s also the movie franchise starring Robert Downey, Jr., which I admit we avoided at first because the previews looked like someone had put a drunken Michael Bay in charge of shoehorning Hollywood excess into horse-and-buggy London.  As it turns out, we enjoy these too.  Even so, that’s not enough of a fix for us – after all, the BBC’s Sherlock calls three episodes a “season,” and the CBS show is gone for the summer now – so we spend breakfast every Saturday with the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes from my childhood, courtesy of Netflix.  Which makes four different ways in which we can score our Sherlock fix; as I said, it’s a good time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan.

I have to admit, however, I wonder why that is.  Apart from the obvious, of course, which is that content producers have discovered it’s a profitable time to be in the Sherlock Holmes business.  The denizens of chez Frankenfeld must not be the only people willing to mainline this Victorian hero in any and every form; the market clearly demands it.  But why?


It’s easy to forget that Holmes, as originally conceived, was a gentleman in the rigid society of Victorian England, and is consequently the strangest of heroes.  The inflexibility of Victorian social mores has become a cliché, but it’s not exactly false, and if the atrocities of colonialism – so indefensible through any lens today – ever made sense, they did so under the pretext of introducing and/or preserving order.  If the British Empire of the 1890s loved anything, it loved ordered society.

The character of Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile, found that preoccupation bemusing.  Caring not a whit for order in society, he wanted order in thought, and was willing to trash almost any social convention in order to achieve it.  Breaking laws, scorning the police, occasionally protecting murderers if he found the homicide justifiable – if it made sense to the mind, Holmes was all in, making him the archetypical Victorian antihero.

Of course, the current Sherlock Holmes TV series are set in the present, absent Victorian constraints, and the CBS Holmes so far works exclusively as a lap dog of the NYPD, cheapening the thrill of Holmes-as-a-rebel immeasurably (no really, the proof that I have a Holmes addiction is found in my willingness to regularly immerse myself in what is most accurately described as CSI: Sherlock Holmes).  Even so, in his singular devotion to logical deduction, Sherlock Holmes is a misanthrope in any era.  Even in the morally anarchic present London, he stands out as an unkind weirdo.


Sherlock Holmes isn’t the first maladjusted savior to flicker across our screens, of course.  That’s always been a staple of filmed mythmaking, whether on big screens or small ones.  But the last decade has witnessed an onslaught of such heroes in numbers that I suspect to be unparalleled.  The cruel Batman of recent films, the reckless Iron Man, and the morally ambiguous Wolverine all come to mind, and each resembles the way Sherlock Holmes has come to be portrayed in vital ways.  It’s not just the feats of heroism that range from barely-credible to preposterous, mind you.  It’s the idea that one person can – in spite of his or her personality, disposition, and disdain for social conventions – singlehandedly impose justice on the surrounding world.  Sherlock Holmes does it with fewer gadgets, less carnage, and a dearth of explosions, but he does triumph over a villain – in Professor Moriarty – arguably more fearsome in his brilliance than any of the traditional super-villains.

Make no mistake: Sherlock Holmes, whether Victorian or modern, Londoner or New Yorker, is a superhero.  He wins the day over evil, using his unique abilities.  The distinction, of course, is that the superheroes here named are all comic-book fantasies, whereas Sherlock Holmes could conceivably exist.  He is, essentially, a superhero possessed of one extra power none of the others will ever attain: believability.


You can argue that believability is a lame superpower.  I suppose you could argue that it isn’t even a superpower.  Fair enough.  But Sherlock Holmes isn’t merely believable.  He’s believable and heroic, and that makes all the difference.  He’s a hero who doesn’t merely exist to serve our fantasies or inspire our wonder: he advocates for deduction and evidence-based practice.  He’s modernism’s John the Baptist, proclaiming the dawn of a new era.  He’s Sherlock Holmes, Prophet.


Modernism’s prophet shares much in common with the Old Testament prophets.  Think about it: Holmes has special knowledge that the leaders of his day need to access, and so do Jeremiah or Isaiah, to name just two.  Holmes’ dissatisfaction with some of his culture’s normal boundaries causes him to ignore or even transgress them, while many of the prophets so disrupt the social order as to earn execution.  Holmes’ genius and his eccentricities make him the object of curiosity, the prophets draw stares while lying on their sides for months on end (Ezekiel) or redeeming shamed wives (Hosea).  Holmes’ methods sometimes render him the object of ridicule prior to his inevitable vindication, Jeremiah was put in stocks and mocked before Jerusalem burned, and Amos was a hick farmer ignored before Samaria collapsed.  The prophets aren’t heroes to our culture, but they are the misanthropic parallels to Holmes’ Victorian antihero, inasmuch as they too are outcast truth-tellers burdened with a clearer way of seeing things.  They’re Ancient Near Eastern superheroes.

While Holmes has his moment, however, the percentage of Christians able to differentiate between Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel seems small enough to render even these major prophets functionally anonymous, let alone more minor figures, like Obadiah or Malachi.  I mention this not to elicit head-shaking over biblical illiteracy, but rather to acknowledge that our churches are filled with people more enthralled with Modernism’s prophet than with God’s several messengers.  It is a problem, but one with explanations less fatalistic then the standard evangelical expectation of societal degeneration.

To that end, permit me to make a suggestion informed by the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian prophet: the prophets in the bible go undifferentiated and unremembered because their heroism becomes less meaningful the further we move from the Iron Age.  That’s why Sherlock and Elementary have set Sherlock Holmes in modern megalopolises – heroes always look more impressive facing today’s struggles.  Anyone with a college education today would have seemed a dilettante genius in Victorian London, which compromises Victorian Holmes’ ability to impress us.  Apply that same level of genius to humanity’s most sophisticated cities in 2013, however, and it becomes spellbinding.  Amazing detectives are timeless in that way.  Jeremiah’s warnings about the end of Jerusalem, on the other hand, simply cannot translate to modern Los Angeles due to such basic incongruities as the lack of threatening Babylonians, the lack of an unjust but chosen-by-God gene pool, and the lack of a monarchy.  The same goes for the rest of the prophets.  They fail to inspire because we prefer to see miracles in our own setting.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should simply accept the notion that Jeremiah – one of the most compelling figures in all of history – has been rendered uninteresting by the passage of time.  But I do wonder what Jeremiah would look like as he navigated modern Jerusalem on my television screen, even if I have no idea how to make it work.