The New Normal

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I’ve recently been reflecting on the current health crises, both in terms of personal health and our physical well-being as a species. The statistics are disturbing, to say the least. Honestly, when I step back and attempt to take it all in, the implications are staggering and the fear I have for the future of humanity, very real.

A little extreme? I don’t think so; not when you take a serious look at the numbers. Let’s consider autism for starters. I remember a time when the diagnosis was rare. In the eighties there was approximately 1 autistic child per 5,000. Some of the small numbers of children who were diagnosed with autism had to travel to other states to even receive treatment. In fact, very few doctors in the US specialized in treating autism. But this all changed in the nineties with an explosive increase of cases.

Now, you can hardly go anywhere without running into a child, or two (or three) with serious neurological disorders—most of which are lumped under the autism label. You see them in restaurants, malls, schools and churches. Many parents, God bless them, are struggling to deal with children whom they deeply love and who would do anything to improve their child’s condition, yet are at a loss as to what caused it or the steps to take to try to remedy some of the symptoms. Studies now put autism at 1 in 68. That is, unbelievably, over a 600 percent increase! Is this normal? Anybody else notice?

And to add insult to injury, at the current rate of growth it’s predicted that one in every two children will be autistic by the year 2025. I know that this claim has been “debunked” by some. Yet you only have to study the graphs to see the plausibility of such a prediction. If autism rates have been steadily increasing for over two decades, why will they not continue to rise?

This should not only cause us pause, it should knock the breath out of our collective lungs. We should be jumping up and down, demanding answers, shouting in the public squares and not resting until the crisis is checked. A few are doing so. But the sad truth is, too many people only shrug their shoulders and accept it as if this is the way things are supposed to be. Or worse, they simply blow it off as lunacy to even be concerned.

What about cancer rates? According to current statistics, one in three people will contract cancer. One in four will die from it. Who doesn’t have among their relatives or close friends victims of cancer? And you are lucky if it’s only one or two. I don’t generally buy the misdiagnosis line, either for cancer or for autism—the convenient out that says, “We just didn’t know what to call these conditions before advanced diagnostic testing. I don’t believe that the doctors of the last few generations were that clueless. In one sense they probably knew more than current medical professionals because they didn’t rely on computers and high-tech equipment. They thoroughly learned and memorized the symptoms of a multitude of rare illnesses and depended on their experience and instincts.

Let’s add to this brew type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, brain tumors, rising sterility rates and now on the upsurge, kidney failure. Anyone who cares to know can find major scientific and medical studies documenting sharp increases of incidences in all these areas. Thankfully, many people are becoming more and more concerned with their health. We are beginning to understand our bodies shouldn’t start breaking down at 25. The organic food craze, exercise and health-tip sites are all positive rumblings occurring among a substantial portion of society.

But beyond acknowledgement that there is a health crisis in the West, we need to ask why. And this is where it seems to me we miss the forest for the trees. “Yes, the figures do certainly show people are increasingly unhealthy and that neurological disorders are abnormally high. I do agree there are measures I can take as an individual to alter my eating habits and limit my exposure to certain environmental toxins.” Well said. But how did things get to this point?

Allow me to give an example to explain what I mean. Years ago I had a conversation with someone who has an autistic child. In the course of our cordial talk, I ventured to pose the question of whether they thought vaccines had anything to do with their child’s condition. I wasn’t pushy, nor was I as educated on the ins and outs of the vaccine issue as I am now. Hence, I didn’t go very far with my query. The response I got was, “Why does it matter what caused it? It’s just something we have to deal with.”

That answer bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Granted, knowing what exactly caused this particular child’s autism would not have substantially change matters. The damage was done. Yet, why would you not want to know? There are others who would obviously benefit from knowing potential causes so as to possibly avoid seeing their own children become autistic. Also there is the relative peace of mind it would bring to the suffering parent.

I’m not saying a vaccine was responsible for this child’s autism. I don’t know what caused it. But I do know if I were the parent, I would want to find answers. And if my answers led me to an uncomfortable conclusion, so be it. At least I would know.

I simply can’t understand why so many people don’t care to seek answers, whether it comes to their health, or the economy, or the state of the present geo-political landscape, or any of a dozen other pertinent matters that affect us all. Ignorance is generally not bliss. In fact, what you don’t know could very well kill you. High fructose corn syrup, GMO’s, aspartame and MSG are literally toxic to the body. Not knowing this and consistently eating food containing these can seriously compromise an individual’s health. Mercury is bad, even if it’s a “trace amount” in a vaccine. Glyphosate (weed killer) in the water supply damages the kidneys and has been linked to numerous other health problems including autism. These are things I, at least, want to know. Give me all the facts—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I can handle it.

However, I do understand one reason why people remain in ignorance. And that is what is so frustrating.

The condition has been described by various names, one of the more popular being the “normalcy bias.” Simply put, this mental outlook is what allowed Germans in 1942 to ignore the fact that all the Jews in their neighborhoods had been picked up by the Gestapo and disappeared. It’s what caused “good people” to turn a blind eye (or nose) to the smell of burning flesh rising out of the smokestacks at the strange camp over yonder in the woods. It’s not that the public couldn’t figure out what was going on. They simply chose not to.

This condition occurs incrementally. It creeps and crawls, subtly fogging the brain and numbing the senses. We think everything is “normal,” when in fact if we were to step back and shake our heads clear of the layers of social conditioning, we would be appalled—terrified even—at the real state of affairs. And I guess I’m in part answering my own question. People in general would rather be ignorant than afraid, preferring deception to discomfort. We will go to tremendous links to justify a terrible situation just so as to not have to deal with it. But fear is healthy if it drives us to see how things really stand. If I’m sleeping in a burning house, I want my neighbor to scream and terrify me with the news of my impending doom. Only then will I be able to escape.

The decline in the health of Americans is not normal. The drop in IQ levels is not normal. A social life completely revolving around a screen instead of face to face, or at least voice to voice, interaction is not normal. An economic bubble much larger than it was in 2007, hence more catastrophic in the event of its eventual bursting, is not normal. Civil wars and uprisings across the globe on the scale that we are currently witnessing are not normal. Or, maybe all this is normal and I’m crazy. Maybe it’s the “new normal” and I need to get with the program.

For all that, however, I prefer health and economic stability, peace and prosperity. Healthy children, contented parents and wholesome family units bring me joy. I like my brain to function correctly and I enjoy sitting down over coffee to chat with a friend. I’ll hang on to these things, and I hope others will do so as well.

But in my plea for a reclamation of reality, I don’t want to digress too far from the question why. Why are things the way they are? I won’t presume to say I have all the answers. Each person must come to their own conclusions, anyhow. But answers never come when there are no questions allowed to draw them out. Let’s not be content with the current state of affairs. Let’s follow the truth wherever it might lead.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed.

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Spreading Democracy (A Bad Idea)

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Athenian Crowd

The twentieth-century is lauded politically as the age of the victory of the democratic ideal. The United States has seemingly appointed itself the dispenser of democracy worldwide. The problem is that the US is not a democracy.

The US is a constitutional republic. And it’s not merely a matter of semantics. There are fundamental differences between a democracy and a republic. These differences are important enough that they need to be rightly recognized and understood. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give the textbook answer. I will, however, attempt to offer my views on the distinction.

A democracy at its most fundamental level is mob-rule. The majority triumphs. The winner takes all. Athens and other Greek city-states operated as democracies. Aristotle was skeptical of this form of government. The framers of the Constitution knew the dangers as well and attempted to avoid the pitfalls that a pure democracy would inevitably produce.

The most obvious danger of a democracy is that men are too easily swayed by charismatic personalities. If an elegant and influential speaker can convince his hearers that his position is preferable, he can secure the majority’s vote. It is all too easy for truth and logic to be cast aside in favor of the “best” argument.

In a pure democracy there is very little to anchor policy. Laws continuously evolve according to the whims of the populace or its leaders and thus too easily morph into something completely different than was their original intent. Therefore, the unique and necessary feature of a constitutional republic is that it is firmly fixed upon the rule of law. This defining characteristic in the US is known as the Constitution (with its accompanying Bill of Rights).

Everyone from presidents to police officers takes an oath to the Constitution. Yes, government officials do represent the people, but first and foremost their job is to uphold the rule of law. Officials are not elected to to make their own renegade decisions. The Constitution offers the governmental and civil framework through which elected representatives of the people perform their duties.

The American founders were concerned that both the people and the states be represented in government. They acknowledged how crucial it is for the citizens to have a voice. They also understood that their needs to be a balance between the people’s voice, the states’ sovereignty and the rule of law. This is where the little understood electoral college comes in. Because of it, American citizens indirectly elect their government officials. The states appoint their respective electors, which, in theory, honors the power of the states without annulling the people’s desire.  

Why is all of this important? A pure democracy is easy to manipulate or corrupt. A purely republican form of government, though representative, has no anchor to check and stabilize man’s perpetual propensity toward the accumulation of absolute power (tyranny). A constitutional republic, however, has as its foundation a fixed and stable constitution. A constitutional republic not only ensures representation of the people and the states, it simultaneously safeguards– through its constitution–the inalienable rights of the individual.

It is entirely possible that the American people and states no longer meaningfully exercise their legitimate authority. It is possible that the Constitution is largely ignored. And it is possible that our “elected” officials simply make their own decisions according to the desires of those who know the locations of the closets where the ugliest skeletons reside. I hope not. Yet, it is possible.

The next time someone insists the United States is a democracy, beg to differ. The Founders surely would have.

Falling Republic, Rising Empire

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Bread and circuses, as defined by Dictionary.com, is something, as extravagant entertainment, offered as an expedient means of pacifying discontent or diverting attention from a source of grievance. In a similar vein, thefreedictionary.com defines the phrase as offerings, such as benefits or entertainments, intended to placate discontent or distract attention from a policy or situation. Oh boy, where do I start? So much in western culture and society falls under this metonymic purview that I’ve decided to devote a whole section of my blog to it.

Perhaps the origin of the phrase bread and circuses is a goodand logical—starting place. So as not to waste your time with information you can find on the internet just as easily as I can, I’ll be brief. The phrase originated from a Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, around 100 A.D. The average Roman had lost all desire for political or social involvement. In Juvenal’s words, “the People have abdicated our duties [of voting or being politically involved]… [The People] now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses. In other words, no one cared what was really going on in the empire so long as they received an occasional handout (bread) or were regularly entertained (circuses).

Fast forward, say, two thousand years. The most audacious experiment in governance of, for and by the people has endured for over two centuries. Granted, it was never perfect. Out of necessity it continually sought grounding upon its foundational document that was the law regardless of how some on either end of the political spectrum desired to alter its original precepts. And though there were people who did suffer under its system—particularly the poor or landless—this was usually due to those with power or money abusing their influence for selfish ends and not the fault of the law itself.

The common man experienced almost unheard of liberty. He was protected by the law in what he thought, said, wrote, and worshiped. He was entitled to a fair and speedy trial by a jury of his peers. He was secure in his papers and effects. He could redress his grievances. He had the right to defend himself. Of course, I speak of America and her Constitution. And though it might seem like it, I’m not out to lionize the good ‘ole U.S. of A. But I do feel that the political principles she embodied in theory (and sometimes in reality) are legitimate and life-affirming.

In my humble opinion, the Republic is falling. The reason the Republic is falling is because she’s become an empire. And history, both secular and biblical, reveals that all empires fall. The process is painful to observe and even more painful to experience. A British historian, Sir John Bagot Glubb, outlined the historical cycle of empires. They all followed a similar pattern.

1. The age of pioneers

2. The age of conquests

3. The age of commerce

4. The age of affluence

5. The age of intellect

6. The age of decadence

7. The age of decline and collapse

Also, according to Glubb, empires or nations tend to last no more than 250 years. If we calculate America’s founding at the traditional date July 4, 1776 and subtract that from 2015 we get 239. I’d say that’s pretty close to the end of the cycle.

Even if you think all this is historical hogwash, it’s clear by the most basic of moral standards that we in the West are certainly living in an age of decadence. Perhaps America is the flagship, but she has a whole fleet of other nations under her global influence. Enter bread and circuses.

In order for criminals who make their way into governments, institutions and corporations to get away with their nefarious deeds, the populace must be distracted. This distraction comes in many forms. The people can be bullied into submission. This is the case in most third-world countries. The common man is so concerned with staying out of the way of the police and militarywho have been given a free pass to reign down terror on whomever they pleasethat his fear distracts him from the government’s open looting of the national coffers.

A bit more sophisticated distraction is the dangling of the welfare carrot before the poor or unemployed masses. A hungry man will put up with almost anything so long as he knows he will get to eat. This is the “bread.” Roman politicians passed laws so that free or greatly subsidized grain could be doled out to the poorer citizens. These politicians were smart. They knew how to secure votes. Or, in modern times the presidential candidate might promise the voters that they will receive a free cell phone if he wins the election. Whoops. That would never happen in a civilized, informed society. Okay. I won’t go there.

But what about the people who aren’t poor—who don’t need government subsidies? What about the middle and upper classes? Why, circuses of course! Entertain them to death, sometimes literally (i.e. those who’ve died sitting in front of a monitor from cardiac arrest after a three day gaming binge). Hollywood, T.V., video games, the internet and sports. These in and of themselves are neutral and can be socially beneficial. Their moral attributes don’t depend on the medium but the content. Nevertheless, they can and are used to distract the masses.

And entertainment, no matter how innocent and wholesome it begins, tends toward moral degeneration over time. Human nature lusts after more illicit and abnormal forms of entertainment in order to achieve the same levels of previous pleasure. As society becomes inured to the creeping corrupting influences, ethical and moral concerns are ignored or disregarded all together. It’s a vicious, exponentially-increasing cycle.

But aside from the moral factor (but not ignoring it), there is the remaining fact that in our distracted state, we are an intellectually-deficient society. Many American’s can’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a world map, but they know their military invaded these theoretical (and “evil”) countries. Many Americans can’t name the three branches of government, much less recite one or two amendments from the Bill of Rights. Many are disgruntled with the current economic situation, but don’t know why it is what it is.

These are just a few examples of basic knowledge our parents and certainly grandparents took for granted. In fact, a lot of this basic stuff I even learned in school, and I’m not that old. Geography, politics, history, economics—how can one even function in the “market-place of ideas” if he doesn’t know or care to know where he came from and where he might be going? The simple answer: he/she doesn’t. On a sad aside, many people don’t even read one book a year.

Speaking from a spiritual perspective, I’ve observed how cultural distractions have also invaded the churches, turning aside many Christian communities of faith from following the Scriptures in certain areas, and fostering an unwillingness within the church’s walls to deal with the realities of the world outside.

If bread and circuses is a sign of decadent times, then it might be prudent to wake up and take notice what’s going on around us. A fallen empire doesn’t tend to get put back together again. However, out of its ashes could very well rise something far worse.

The Church, the State and the Political Game

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As I’ve been using in previous posts the terms church, state and politics, I think it prudent to define what I mean by them. Each of these terms is loaded with implications, thus their interpretations myriad. Unfortunately, most people these days receive their working definitions, and certainly their opinions, directly from the media, the entertainment industry, or even the not-so-subtle socially-engineered messages woven into public events like the fairly recent Super Bowl. So I realize I can’t assume when I use a word a certain way, I’m connecting with the reader. Besides all of that, I need to sharpen my own focus by defining to myself what exactly I mean!

Church

Wow. I’m starting with the most difficult of the three to define. Broadly-speaking, when I use the term church, especially in reference to the state, I’m referring to those who subscribe to a traditional interpretation of Christianity. I generally don’t include Roman Catholicism in my definition. I feel there are major doctrinal and historical differences between the non-Roman and Roman positions. These differences are wide enough, in my opinion, that when I write I will distinctly point out if I am referring to Roman Catholicism as opposed to collectively lumping together Protestant, Free Church or Orthodox expressions of faith as the church.

Personally, I prefer a more biblical definition. In this sense the church is not an organization, a social movement or even an ethos, but a spiritual community comprised of believers in salvation through Jesus Christ. But if I’m using church in this sense, it will be either readily apparent or specified.

State

I use the term state to refer to the whole system of governance. Any type of government, regardless of its form or influence, is a physical expression of the abstract “state. This includes everything from a monarchy, aristocracy and polity (or republic), to a dictatorship, oligarchy, and democracy (or mob rule). By the way, Aristotle in his Politics states these six, along with variations of them, are the only types of government. And the latter three are simply the negative inverses of the former three.

The state is a neutral term. That is, by itself it implies neither good nor bad governance. Context defines the form in which the state manifests itself, and its efficiency or lack thereof.

Political scientists make a sharp distinction between the state and the government. I acknowledge they are different terms and caution does need to be exercised when using them interchangeably.

Politics

My use of the term politics is typically in reference to the maneuverings and machinations that occur in relation to government, especially in relation to government policy. Politics can also refer to an individual or party’s particular views on governance. Politics is largely understood—for better or worse—through categories or labels, i.e. liberal, conservative, libertarian, left, right, republican, democrat, independent, Jeffersonian, Whig, Federalist, etc. (please pardon my largely “American” examples).

What is the Relation Between the Three?

I believe the Bible teaches that the church and the state are dichotomous: separate entities that exist in historical parallel. Religion and government, along with economic systems, are the three constants in human history. At times the relationship between the church and the state has been nearly symbiotic. In other eras in certain settings, the two have clearly stood in direct opposition to one another.

In some cases the church has bowed to the state and done its bidding to varying degrees. At other times the church has resisted the state’s infringement upon its domainand suffered the consequences. And, on the rarest of occasions, the state has allowed the church the freedom to exercise itself in society as it desires. At any rate, the state does affect the church, and the church the state.

Jesus expressed both the dichotomy and the relationship simply yet with timeless profundity when He said, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).

The ongoing debate is determining what exactly does belong to Caesar verses what belongs to God. And after an individual makes that determination (for we all do in one way or another, even if it lacks a “spiritual” connotation), what then are the consequences of those decisions? This is what I explore when I write about issues pertaining to church and state.

Thus remains politics. Where does it come in? Everywhere! I can’t very well discuss issues of the state without it being political. So all this is what I mean when I encourage dialogue about religion and politics.

Keeping a Journal

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Journaling, like letter-writing (you know, with ink and paper), has pretty well been regulated to the quaint-customs-of-the-past bin. One reason, no doubt, is the internet. Blogs serve as a digital journal of sorts. And social networking offers a quasi-journaling experience. But by and large the keyboard has replaced the pen, the screen the paper, the email the old-fashioned letter, and the blog the journal. What a shame. What a loss.

A journal page has never disappeared from in front of me, unlike something I’ve typed onto a screen. I’ve never not been able to read a journal entry because the power was out or my laptop battery was dead. I realize this is not a relevant scenario for most folks. But for me in my setting, electricity is an exception, only present when I initiate its production (i.e. solar panel, battery or generator).

A journal is real, substantiated by physical pages between two covers. I can touch it, store it and retrieve in reality, as opposed to from some nebulous cybercloud. This isn’t a diatribe against the internet. I’m obviously utilizing the web’s advantages right now. It is, however, another plea for a reevaluation of what we are in the process of losing with technology exponentially exploding, inevitably brushing aside and in some cases obliterating all that doesn’t conform to its image.

Therefore, I’m promoting journaling.

I’ve been keeping a journal on a daily basis (with only the occasional exception) for over a decade. I made a few false starts in high school, but could never get into the habit. The impetus was finally finding something I felt worthwhile to write about. In my case, journaling was motivated by my spiritual journey. Now it still includes that, but much more as well.

Another factor was that I started noticing in my reading, particularly of biographies, how common the practice used to be—especially among the literate class. Just about anyone who has left their mark on history kept a journal. So what was it that people used to find so valuable about journaling?

Most obviously, the practice insures the preservation of a personal, historical record. It’s been with joy and pleasure, sighs and even sadness that I’ve pulled out my old journals and re-lived those events whose only present reality is what translucently lurks in my memory. In some cases, I’d completely forgotten the details of an incident or conversation. While re-reading journal entries, whole days, weeks or even seasons come flooding back with startling freshness. Lessons I’d once learned and noted are reinforced. I’m also able to trace the subtle shifts and nuances of development, both in my convictions and perspectives, enlightening the path that brought me to my present worldview.

Journaling encourages critical thinking in its advocating of observation and reflection. One has to sit down, open up to that blank page and undertake to mentally process the day’s events. What was significant about today? What did I learn? Where did I blow it? Who might I have offended and need to be reconciled with? Then, how does today tie into yesterday and the day before? All of this is fodder for journaling.

That’s not to say I necessarily have something substantial to write every day. My life, like everyone else’s, is full of mundane and routine occurrences. Sometimes it’s takes a real effort to jot down a few lines. And at times, what I write in the evening is nothing more than a simple record of what I did over the previous twenty-four hours. However, I’ve discovered, it’s not what you write so much as that you write.

I know many people blog daily. And that’s great. But the difference is that blogging is for a wider audience and journaling is for oneself. This difference affects how and what we write. We write for others (whether acknowledged or not) in order to leave a particular impression. Since we don’t usually seek to make impressions upon ourselves, this factor is eliminated in journaling. There is a level of honesty and vulnerability reached by keeping a journal rarely achieved anywhere else.

So, in the cause of journaling, here are a few tips I’d like to share:

Pick a time

I’ve found the evening is the best for me. Obviously, if you’re writing about the day, this is a logical time to do so. But if I wait until too late when I’m physically tired, it’s hard to motivate myself to think and reflect with anything near mental vigor. My tendency to late-night sloppy writing is a reflection of late-night sluggish thinking.

Pick a place

Habits are reinforced by routine. This goes for time as well as for as environment. I tend to journal at my desk. My journal resides on a shelf next to it, so I can sit down, conveniently open it up and go.

Jot down thoughts and observations throughout the day

I usually have a small notebook with me, either in my pocket or where I’m working. If a thought strikes me or I see something with potential to journal about, I make a quick note of it. As much as I would like to think I’ll remember a few hours later, the reality is I usually don’t. But I’ve discovered a notebook has the unique advantage that it doesn’t forget.

Write about anything and everything

On the most average of days, I might only write a few sentences, taking note of what I did, where I went, who I saw. The weather might even get a plug. These are the days when my journal reads more like ship’s log. At other times I might comment on a book I’m reading, or on a conversation I had. If I’m feeling really inspired, I could even write about a particular tree or an interesting bird. It’s also possible someone will get a character evaluation. And of course, anything out of the ordinary or especially memorable is sure to be put down in ink.

My point is, there are no limits, no rules, no parameters. Just write. It’s the process that’s the essence of journal writing.

Be consistent

Keep at it. Don’t get discouraged. You’re not writing to win a Pulitzer. In fact, you’re not even writing for anyone else to read it. Journaling is for you.

Like good reading habits, keeping a journal requires practice and discipline. But also like intelligent reading, the rewards far outweigh the effort!

Free Speech Cannot Have Limits (But You’re Free to Disagree)

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Are their limits to free speech? The pope seems to think so. According to his recent comments in regards to the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris, he clarified what he meant by these limits:You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.

I’m always concerned when I hear comments made by prominent world voices about the need to restrict free speech. I’m especially concerned when it comes from someone like the pope who of all people, as a religious leader, should understand the value of safe-guarding this most fundamental of natural rights.

First of all, who gets to define what are provoking or insulting statements? If I criticize, lets say, a point of doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, should that be illegal? I personally have strong religious and political opinions (so does the pope for that matter). Of course there are those who disagree with me. They might even criticize or insult me. But that’s fine. If I can’t take a proverbial blow or two, that’s my problem.

I have to allow others to say or write things I don’t endorse or agree with so that I too can continue to say and write whatever I desire. This is common sense. I don’t even understand wanting to be in a position where I can dictate to someone else what they can and can’t say. That waxes a bit too on the tyrannical side for me.

As a missionary I bear a message that I feel is relevant and proclaim it to those who I feel need to hear it. Since my conscience outweighs considerations of man’s laws, I would continue to do this whether it was “legal” or not. I’m thankful for a heritage of western democratic ideals that have thus far given me the legal right to exercise free speech. But the right to say what I want to say is a right no one can take from me…or you.

A subtler argument for limiting free speech is the matter something being labeled “hate speech.” Again, who gets to define what is hateful? There are mean, nasty, and downright evil-spirited folks out there. I hear and read comments that turn my stomach by their implications. I wish people wouldn’t say certain things and I cringe at the hate that drips off of the words and resides in the hearts of those who say them. But that doesn’t mean I should make it my mission to keep them from saying it.

I don’t have to listen or agree. I can even criticize and rebuke. But should I be able to shut down someone’s ability to speak their mind? I don’t think so. Not unless, that is, I’m willing to be be silenced as well.

Are their limits to free speech? I would argue no. When it comes to inciting violence or criminal activity, that no longer falls under the purview of free speech. According to the generally accepted theory of natural rights, my freedom ends when it infringes upon another’s freedom. A call for violence obviously has the potential to hinder another’s right to live and express his freedom.

The irony here is that the pope also made tongue-in-cheek comments about punching someone if they insulted his mother. He, of course, then quickly clarified that he doesn’t endorse the violence that occurred in Paris. But let me get this straight. He wants to limit my free speech, but at the same time he can “joke” about assaulting someone for theirs?

This whole issue is not about the pope. His comments are simply indicative of a disturbing global trend toward limiting the individual’s right to free speech. Once that ball starts rolling, it can go to a bad place quickly. And historically it’s a very difficult precedent to reverse. So let’s not go there! Instead, let’s continue to say what we think, proclaim what we believe, and graciously allow others to do the same.

Prepping the Mind

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With the increasing realization that we all need to be prepared for uncertainties in these uncertain times, it seems the concept of prepping has come into its own. This is an encouraging development. It’s unfortunate that being prepared for emergency situations or hard times ever fell out of favor, or at the very least was ignored. The old-timers had their own word for prepping. They called it horse-sense. Being prepared for the future for them was simply a fact of life.

It shouldn’t be a revelation that we are not guaranteed tomorrow will be just as easy as today. Whoever has eyes to see the instability of the current global economic situation will acknowledge this. Whoever has given up even looking for a job, or is holding down two or three and still not making ends meet has already begun to taste the bitterness of the economic reality.

What happened? I think in the West what happened (in part) was that we got really comfortable and astonishingly ignorant. We took for granted that we’ll always have power, water and a nearby grocery store stocked with an unimaginable variety of foods. We forgot that eggs come from chickens and that a hamburger is the result of someone somewhere having slaughtered a cow. We watch reality shows about swash-buckling mountain men while sitting on our couches and eating foods that make us fat and give us cancer. And all the while something in the back of our minds whispers that knowing how to work with one’s hands and survive is how it’s supposed to be.

These symptoms of apathy have become so apparent that many people have noticed and begun prepping. There are web-sites galore with instructions and advice—and a lot of the information is certainly worth reading. Therefore, I’m not going to post one more article about how to be physically prepared. Instead I want to look at another facet of prepping. I want to look at prepping the mind.

Much of the prepping that we already do involves thinking through possible scenarios and how to best meet them should they arise. In fact, being mentally prepared is as important—and I would venture to say even more so—than the physical aspect. A person can have all the physical preparations in place for a multitude of contingencies but when the moment arises to implement his plans, panic or muddled-thinking can keep him from properly executing them.

And what about after—after we’ve eaten the storable food, harvested the garden, and used up the medical supplies? When the immediate emergency has passed and the situation has somewhat stabilized, we start looking toward the future. Owning a piece of land and beginning to work it now, in my opinion, is the best physical preparation that one can make. But that too obviously requires mental preparation to complement the physical.

Even if you are not in a position financially to purchase land or gather many supplies, there are things you can do. And these things are beneficial whether the world as we know it suddenly changes for the worse or whether we continue on our merry way for years to come.

The first of these mental preparations is to increase your stock of useful knowledge. The over-baked quote attributed to Francis Bacon, “knowledge is power,” still holds true. Those who possess useful knowledge not only survive, but thrive. The complementary word here is useful. So much of what is taught in the educational system, particularly in higher-education, is specialized knowledge. It’s great for when you’re in a setting that calls for it, but those settings are limited and are usually very dependent on society functioning normally.

We get the word “university” from two words that mean “unity” and “diversity, or the “whole combined into one.” The original function of the university setting was to provide a unified understanding of all the diverse fields of knowledge. These traditionally included science, math, philosophy, history, and economics among others. The “renaissance man” was someone who studied widely across many fields of academic discipline. He not only possessed useful knowledge, but was able to make necessary connections between the disciplines in order to secure a deeper understanding of the world around him.

How does one obtain such an education today? Read books! Crazy, I know. But I’m not talking about a steady diet of emotion-driven, time-killing drivel, but books that add to your knowledge, and ultimately increase wisdom.

There is a book for anything and everything out there. Start reading where your interests lie. Learn to process what you read and stick it somewhere in your mind where it will stay until you need it. Take up the classics, not only fiction, but in mathematics and the sciences. Educate yourself the way people use to. Read!

You don’t have to be wealthy to read. There is still a library or two around…at least for the time being. And, I’ve found many of the best books in my collection at thrift stores and used-book stores—even garage sales. Keep your eyes peeled. Knowledge is something that no one can take from you.

Needing knowledge is kind of obvious, I know (ha, ha). However, we tend to let ourselves get so easily distracted and end up wasting precious moments of time that we’ll never have again. Let’s redeem them!

Secondly—and this is closely related to the first—be mentally prepared by acquiring useful skills. It’s a smart practice to scour flea markets and antique stores for old (that is, durable) tools. The problem is a tool is useless if you don’t know how to use or maintain it.

Your grandfather’s old hand saw is worth keeping. All you need is arm-power to work it. But what happens when it gets dull (or maybe it already is)? Do you know how to sharpen it? The time to learn is now.

Like knowledge, skills are things that no one can take from you. Unlike stuff, you can’t have too many skills. And as an added bonus, they travel light. I’m thankful for the upbringing I had that introduced me to everything from yard work to carpentry to laying brick. I look around and lament for this present generation of video-game heads, some of whom have literally never even had to take the garbage out. But I also look at my father and grandfather’s generation and realize how many more useful skills they possessed than I do.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And I know there’s no time like the present to start.

Maybe you’ve already networked with other homesteaders or preppers in your area. You’ve begun developing a community, planted a common garden together or started a local co-op. What about discussing individual skill-sets? If you know your neighbor can wire a 12-volt solar system (and is a friendly guy), instead of spending too much time on that subject, try to pick up something no one else around you can do. Blacksmithing is a good example of a dying art. Before mass-produced factory goods, the local blacksmith made just about everything for the community that wasn’t wooden.

I learned to shoe horses years ago from friends in an old-fashioned Mennonite settlement. Since I currently don’t own any horses, I haven’t gotten to put this ability into practice recently. Yet even though I’m rusty, the skill is there. And when I need it, Lord-willing I’ll be able to implement it again.

The third area of prepping the mind factors in to both obtaining knowledge and acquiring skills. It is honing your memory. It’s a good practice to jot down what you’re learning from your reading, but being able to memorize it is even better.

Aside from reading and doing, many things I’ve learned I’ve simply gleaned from conversations. Sometimes I’ll suddenly have at my disposal a needed fact or a bit of useful information and wonder where it came from. Later, it will dawn on me that so-and-so mentioned that when I saw him downtown back in April. I didn’t necessarily mean to lock it in my mind, but there it held fast nevertheless.

Another good exercise for the ole’ memory is language acquisition. Languages are incredibly useful things to know, and learning them requires memorization—at least until the language becomes actual knowledge. Learning another language also helps you to think more clearly, make sharper mental connections and put to regular use the cob-web infested corners of the brain. And beyond all of this, you’ll be able to communicate with a whole bunch of folks you couldn’t before!

With useful knowledge, skills and a well-developed memory we’re a long way toward being prepared for whatever life throws in our direction. Even if a catastrophic economic collapse, mass civil unrest or the solar-flare of the century never occurs, having a prepared mind will always be there to serve you in a time of need.

When Government Becomes God

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Just as the individual inevitably entertains some viewpoint on the matter of religion, so will government. Historically, governments fall within one of three categories in their approach to religion: they endorse the concept of God, deny the concept of God or make government itself God. I’m not specifying who God is at this point. I’m simply pointing out that religion, even if it’s a denial of it, will necessarily play a role in the state.

Examples of the first of these approaches are legion. The vast majority of governments over the millennia have adopted a god or gods to whom they’ve directed society’s worship. In ancient religions the priest class was typically the ruling class, or exercised at least as much authority as the elite. This often resulted in the religious/political leaders actually assuming worship as incarnate or representative gods themselves. Hence we see a combination of government both endorsing the concept of God as well as making itself God.

The Roman Catholic system, particularly as expressed in European society of the Middle Ages, is a specific example of state-endorsed religion. Kings allowed the Pope’s religion to be disseminated in their domains. In return, the Pope, as God’s so-called representative, gave his blessing to the king and his subjects. Everyone living within the Pope’s domain was a “Christian.” And the church used the state’s authority to enforce its viewpoint, even on pain of death.

Examples of governments flat-out denying God are much fewer and tend to be found in more recent history. Communist systems are officially atheistic in their approach to the religious question. Russia under Lenin and Stalin, and China from Mao Tse-tung’s reign up until the present, are representative of this approach. Basically, the state becomes God when the state’s religion is atheism.

America’s approach to religion was unique. Built on a political foundation laid by the British, the founders experimented with the concept of government not endorsing any specific religion and instead allowing its people to freely exercise their choice thereof. Though there were some who were Christians in the biblical sense, many of America’s original framers were Deists. But because such an open and largely unrestricted political policy toward religion allowed for the flourishing of Christianity, America is traditionally labeled a “Christian” nation.

Unfortunately, the American state has followed the same historical path as other nations, maybe just a little bit slower. All governments tend toward centralization. All governments seek more and more power. It’s in their nature. Hence, when there is no check on them, the end result is always some form of self-deification. This may not be as blatant as the emperor demanding incense be burned to him or some ridiculous dictator insisting he makes the sun come up, but it will manifest, even if subtly. When it comes down to it, the unregulated state always covets ultimate control. And if we unquestioningly bow to its demands, then logic dictates that the state has become our God.

But alas, people will worship something, whether it is God, gods or the State. We were created to do so. Where does this put the Christian who worships God and simultaneously lives under government? Are the two compatible? Yes. And probably the clearest passage to confirm this is Romans 13:1-7:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God…for it [the government] is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

 

The problem is these verses have been parroted by everyone from the popes to Adolph Hitler to Mao Tse-tung to the modern evangelical pastor.

Here’s how I see the passage in question. The “governing authorities” are states. No type of government is specified, so all forms fall under this umbrella. God, we are clearly told, is the author of all authority. He “establishes” governments. So the question is: does Romans 13 teach that God endorses everything that governments do?

I think the answer is obvious. Of course He doesn’t. A just and loving God didn’t endorse Nazi concentration camps, Pol Pot’s killing fields or Stalin’s gulags. It can be rightly said that God allowed these things to happen, for He obviously does allow evil to exist in the world. But taking it any further than that (“what God allows is what God wills) becomes a sticky theological argument and wading into the monergism versus synergism debate is out of the scope of the present article.

So if we can agree that God establishes governments but doesn’t endorse everything that governments do, then we can come to another obvious conclusion. What God doesn’t endorse, the Christian cannot endorse either. The Christian is in subjection to government so far as government is in subjection to God—or at least, to the moral laws of God that are written on the heart of every man.

And this is precisely what Romans 13 verse 4 tells us. The primary role of the state is to punish evildoers. That is, God has ordained governments to be the earthly arbitrators of justice. Ideally the man who does good has nothing to fear. However, the evildoer need not be surprised when he is punished for his deeds.

Now we come (very quickly, I’ll admit) to the crux of the matter. What happens if the state begins to do the opposite of what God has ordained it to do? Or to put it another way, what if the state punishes good and rewards evil? This is exactly what happens when governments become corrupt and begin to rot from within. When this occurs, the Christian must then draw lines. He has no choice if he is to remain faithful to God’s Word. To blindly follow government is to make the state God. And it is irresponsible, if not downright dangerous, for a pastor to teach his congregants the government must be obeyed all the time, under every circumstance.

The only thing that Christians are called to obey at all times under all circumstances is the Scriptures. This is why totalitarian regimes traditionally seek to outlaw the Bible. They hate the fact that a group of people in society hold to a standard of behavior that takes precedent over everything else—even state edicts. The Christian measures the state according to God’s Word. And an evil regime cannot abide this practice.

The fact is Bible-believers are statistically among the most law-abiding citizens of society. No government should fear biblical expressions of Christianity. God-fearing men and women are the salt of the earth: they help to preserve the crucial moral ingredient in society and hold the state to account for its decisions and actions.

 

But it’s not only Christians that out-of-control governments persecute. Anyone that stands up for conscience’s sake becomes a target. Anyone who speaks out against corruption and injustice is singled-out as a troublemaker—or these days maybe even a terrorist. The secret police round up the artists, musicians, writers and whistleblowers right along with the Christians. We all end up in the same camp, suffering the same fate.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn perceived from personal experience, “To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.” Solzhenitsyn sat languishing in communist prisons for many years lamenting that he and others didn’t speak up sooner against the evils of the system.

My point is we are all in this together. We all live our lives under government. And we all have a responsibility to keep the state in check for the sake of conscience, personal freedom and for the generations that will follow us. Christians too often have hidden behind a misinterpretation of Romans 13, refusing to point out wickedness in high places and thereby granting governments immunity to do as they please.

We’ve tended to cower, shut our mouths and do what we’re told. This never works out well. We need to stand for truth now so we don’t have sit in jail for truth in the future. By then it’s a bit too late.

A Reading Plan

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I realized many years ago that there are way too many books. One can literally spend a lifetime reading and barely scratch the surface. With so many to choose from, where do we start? And perhaps more importantly, where do we go? I knew I had to come up with some kind of plan or I’d risk wandering aimlessly in the bog of entertaining yet shallow reading.

Historically, a well-rounded, liberal-arts education consisted in large part of reading the classics. These are books that have stood the test of time and proven themselves worthy of being read over and over by successive generations. They are generally books that we hear the titles of, know they supposedly contain intellectually-formative content, but nevertheless end up sitting on our shelves gathering the dust of good-intentions.

The classics are classic because they were written by people who had worthwhile ideas to communicate and perhaps more importantly, they were able to communicate them. However, reading of this nature can be a difficult task for the modern reader who is accustomed to the light perusal of news articles, web pages, blogs (whoops!), and maybe occasionally picking up a book that is interesting but doesn’t add anything substantial to one’s stock of useful knowledge. I’ve wasted a lot of time with reading of this type.

The thing about the classics—be it fiction or non-fiction, science or philosophy, history or mathematics—is that the reader doesn’t have to agree with the authors in order to appreciate them. He only needs to be able to follow the author’s train of thought. The benefit lies in the journey. The destination is always clearer thinking. So in this sense, we don’t ever “arrive.” But we can always be moving forward. It is a life-long process.

The classics have never been as widely available to the greatest number of people as they are in this time of history. Conversely, they’ve probably never been so little read. For those of us who’ve tried, it quickly becomes apparent that this kind of reading takes effort, more effort than we are accustomed to giving in our reading.

But as is the case with everything worth obtaining in life, intellectual integrity is not an effortless achievement. And, practice makes perfect. In other words, the only way one learns to read the best books is to buckle down and start reading them. There are no shortcuts. It takes time and energy and perseverance. It takes discipline, especially with so many distractions that clamor for our attention.

I didn’t really begin pursuing the classics (besides those which I had to read in school) until about ten years ago. Needless to say, I still have a long way to go. But it’s never too late to get into the game. In fact, I’m realizing more and more that age and experience offers deeper and richer understanding of the ideas contained in them. This is especially evident when I go back and reread a book after a few years. That is the beauty of a good book. It always offers something new and relevant.

There are many lists available on the internet of “classic” books. I prefer Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s list. Theirs covers a full range of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, specifically in regards to the historical development of Western thought. I’ve found this list serves as a useful guide and as a way to gauge my progress.

Plus, thanks to e-readers, many of the classics are available electronically—and many of these for free. This is especially helpful for someone like myself who lives in a country where good books are hard to obtain or too bulky to transport to a remote location.

I generally read across many genres. It doesn’t have to be a “classic” for me to pick it up. Yet, I do try to always be working through a book that challenges me to understand its contents because I know it has proved itself to be a book worthy of understanding. So if I have a reading plan, it’s to keep reading the classics. Can you really go wrong doing so?

After Five Years

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Recently I was reading up on integrating permaculture theory into existing homesteading practices. One author mentioned that it takes a minimum of five years to really get to know your land—to begin to understand the interaction of the land with the climate and to have had enough time to experiment with what will grow well and what won’t. This resonated strongly with me as I realized it’s been just over five years since we planted our first fruit trees and sowed our first garden.

Here in our neck of West Africa, we have about three more months of very dry weather. The first rains usually find us in April. I typically use the height of the dry season when the ground is hard as a rock and dry as a bone (pardon the clichés) to concentrate on building projects or to catch up on maintenance around the property. It’s also the season for beekeeping and digging a new well if need be.

I’m currently analyzing the biological systems at our disposal in an attempt to see how we can 1) synthesize systems so as to encourage natural symbiotic relationships, and 2) wean ourselves as much as possible off of dependency upon outside resources. The latter is always an ultimate goal of homesteading, while the former, in my understanding, is a primary aim of permaculture.

A simple example of symbiosis is utilizing to its fullest potential all the manure that accumulates from our livestock (chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep and a cow), composting it, and seeking to bring life back to the soil around our property that has been depleted of nearly all it essential nutrients. But this too touches on sustainability. I’d really like to get away from reliance on any outside-sourced fertilizers that we’ve heretofore used. This is a process that begins now, in the dry season, and culminates with the coming rains.

Another thing I’m currently studying upon is treating and tanning hides. A regular meat source for us is rabbits. They breed…well, like rabbits, and we’ve gotten to where we can easily eat a couple a week and still stay ahead of the curve. This means we end up with a lot of pelts. I hate to see them go to waste. Yet I’m woefully ignorant as to how to properly treat them. I’m especially interested in using the brain of the animal in question as the tanning agent.

Anyhow, these are just a few thoughts I’m having concerning the near future of my homesteading efforts. I will, as much as internet access allows, try to keep you posted on the progress!