Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
Since 2007 Mez McConnell has been senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He’s also active in planting churches in poor areas and believes pastors should not avoid doctrine or dumb down theology when preaching to low-income congregations. Such paternalism misses the mark by wrongly viewing poverty as a lack of means, McConnell says: The primary problem is spiritual. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
Your mum abandoned you when you were 2 years old, and your dad was away a lot? Yeah. He liked to bet on horses, watch football, and drink.
Your stepmother was not a nice person? She was highly abusive and violent.
And at age 16 you were convicted of assault? No, age 12. Assaulting a couple of older people.
You grew up with a lot of violence: A friend of yours was stabbed to death? A girlfriend of mine at the time just took a knife and stuck it straight into his heart. One minute we’re having a cigarette. Next minute he’s bleeding to death in the back of the car on the way to the hospital.
‘Historically, Reformed evangelicals were at the forefront of true mercy ministries, hospitals, schooling for the poor. We’ve left the poor behind. We’ve left them to theological fruitcakes.’
That raised in your mind some spiritual questions? I began to wonder, Where was he? What was happening?
Did anyone at that point help you think through those questions? No. Had a Catholic background, sporadically.
So you’re homeless at 16 and you’re in a fight at a nightclub, stabbed a couple of people, could have escaped … Hey, Doc, you’ve got good info on me.
A Patrick Henry student here, Harvest Prude, did some research. There she is, at the back. Is that you? Are you, like, FBI or something?
She’s good. But did you want to be caught? Yeah. I was messed up. Prison seemed like a good idea.
Some Christians came to see you. They brought me some tobacco and a radio. They talked to me like I was a human being rather than a project.
So when you got probation, you went to live in a Christian house? I found an old book in this dude’s house. It was a Matthew Henry commentary on the Bible. You’ve seen one of those bad boys?
Yes, with Bible passages and comments on each. I just thought I’ll read this thing, right? I read it from start to finish. Took me a couple of months, but I read it.
Any particular part got to you? I got converted reading the book of Romans. That’s a cheeky book to get converted by, right? Romans just resonated with me because I’ve been taught lies my entire life, largely by social workers and drug counselors. They just lied to me blatantly.
What were the most common lies? The biggest lie: I wasn’t really a bad person, I was a good guy who had a terrible upbringing, a terribly abusive childhood. I was a product of my environment.
They’re saying you are not responsible. Exactly. I’m a victim. But Paul says: No. You need to take responsibility for yourself, for your actions. Boohoo, you had a tough childhood, but you are a sinner standing in front of a holy God and there’s no excuse for your sin, regardless of how people mistreated you.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” has that famous line, “saved a wretch like me.” Some people in the United States say, “Oh, we don’t like to say wretch.” So they changed the words to “saved someone like me,” but you had the understanding that you’re a wretch. People who don’t like the word “wretch” are wretches too, aren’t they? Simple as that.
How do they come to understand that they are wretches also? You just tell them, Doc. Maybe they dress nicely, but some nicely dressed rich people are the most duplicitous people on the planet.
Because there’s a tendency to think … Wealth, education, erudition: They’re easy masks to hide sin. People say, “It must be so difficult to deal with all the drug addicts and the losers in your ministry?” No. I tell them, “There’s loads of drug addicts and losers in your world. They just hide it better.” Easy to hide being a loser when you’re driving a nice Mercedes, right?
Why do we hear so often that we have to be soothing in sermons, careful not to alienate anyone? Why do we hear that when it so obviously is ineffective? Because people are wretches and they don’t like it.
You’ve been at your church 11 years, and you’ve planted six others. How do you train the people who are coming in to be pastors there? What’s your process of trying, in a sense, to give them the same DNA you have? In the UK Christianity is almost encased in a middle-class educated bubble. But historically, Reformed evangelicals were at the forefront of true mercy ministries, hospitals, schooling for the poor. We’ve left the poor behind. We’ve left them to theological fruitcakes, liberals.
I like your memoir, Is There Anybody Out There? You’re clearly not thrilled with the typical middle-class programs to help the poor. Often guys who like to be trendy say to me, “I’m thinking about starting a mercy ministry. We’ll have a soup kitchen in the city just to show the world the love of Jesus.” Most mercy ministries in most churches in the Western world need to be closed down because they’re not helping the poor at all. They’re doing the reverse. They’re helping middle-class Christians feel good about themselves because they think they’re showing the love of Jesus to poor people by opening a soup kitchen or giving them a handout. But they’re not really helping anybody, not in the long term and certainly not in a Biblical fashion.
What do they typically do wrong? In mercy ministries, 50 homeless guys show up at your soup kitchen or your food pantry, whatever you want to call it. You’re handing out food and maybe you chat to a couple of them about Jesus, and it’s “high-five, 50 people came last night. We’re a roaring success.” But the next week the same 50 guys come, and six months later, it’s the same 50 guys. Twelve months, two years … I was in soup kitchens for six years. I know the drill. The same people are coming, and they’re not being helped to move on.
So what is showing the love of Jesus? What should that really look like? Showing the love of Jesus is proclaiming the truths of the gospel. Jesus came because there’s a sin problem. It doesn’t matter if you live behind a gated community or under a bridge, you are separated from a holy God. But here’s the good news, baby: You can turn from your sinful lifestyle and put your faith and trust in Christ the Lord for salvation, and He’ll forgive you. That’s the good news.
So, mercy ministry and showing the love of Jesus is preaching the gospel of Christ? If you don’t get that, you’re an idiot, in my opinion.
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Ann Gauger received her bachelor’s degree from MIT, did a postdoc at Harvard University, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington’s department of zoology. Her scientific writing has appeared in Nature, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and other scientific publications. These establishment credentials are helpful because she’s also involved with the Discovery Institute, the world leader in developing and explaining intelligent design theory, which many establishment scientists despise. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
How did your professors react when you became involved with Discovery? “She used to be smart.”
But defenders of Darwin do admit that life appears to have been designed. Richard Dawkins says biologists have to constantly remind themselves that life is evolved.
I used to work at DuPont, the inventor in the 1930s of nylon—and 40 years later scientists found a bacterium with an enzyme dubbed nylonase that was able to digest nylon, which is a synthetic chemical not found in nature. Evolutionists use that as proof that new proteins can rapidly evolve, but you found a different story. It wasn’t what we call a frameshift mutation, a DNA deletion or insertion that shifts the whole way a sequence is read. I discovered a whole body of literature by some Japanese workers who had found pre-existing protein folds. There was no new protein, no novel protein fold, no new mutation.
‘Most scientists are blind to their own assumptions. They don’t even consider that there might be another explanation. For them, common descent is an automatic. It’s a given.’
And now you’re undermining what we’ve seen frequently reported in newspapers and magazines: that a special creation of Adam and Eve, one couple from whom all of us are descended, could not have happened. Most of my scientific career seems to be involving people asking me questions and then I start down a path. In this case, a philosopher asked me how strong was the genetic evidence against Adam, because everywhere it’s been proclaimed we had to come from a population of 10,000. It’s led to people in the church suggesting there is no such thing as a historical Adam. So when the philosopher asked me, I said, “I don’t know. I’ll go look.” I started with a paper that Francisco Ayala, a very famous evolutionary biologist, wrote to disprove the possibility of a first pair.
I understand that part of the detective work involves mitochondria, the tiny power plants within a cell that nonscientists like me became conscious of when we began hearing about “mitochondrial Eve.” We inherit mitochondria mother to daughter, mother to daughter. Some scientists in the 1980s sequenced mitochondria from people from all around the world, and then came up with a map showing the pathway of sequence descent and tracing it back to a single sequence, one woman in Africa. Everybody said, “Look: mitochondrial Eve.” Ayala didn’t like that idea. He did some calculations and concluded there were too many variants to pass through Adam and Eve.
Seemed like a solid argument? Yes, but I kept looking and found two papers a few years later suggesting that the number of variants was much smaller. So I’m working on an alternative population genetics model that doesn’t depend on evolutionary assumptions.
The Templeton Foundation, a very well-funded group based in Philadelphia, gave Ayala its big award and so forth. Has it given you an award? Of course not. I don’t even know if he’s issued a retraction of his paper, even though it was mainstream scientists who demonstrated he was wrong.
I suspect many of the Patrick Henry College students here have heard that man’s evolutionary path is pretty obvious since 95-99 percent of our DNA is the same as that of chimps, thus proving evolution. But doesn’t that show similarity, not descent? That two things look alike doesn’t mean they came from a common origin. Also, the fossil record shows a gap between apelike creatures and humanlike creatures.
No one’s found the missing links. They have things they attribute to being intermediate, but it’s usually just a jawbone or a piece of skull—and that’s a lot of weight to put on one piece of bone. Gaps can be filled, but mathematical analysis shows you can’t get specific mutations in the number you need in order to have that transition take place. Mathematicians from Cornell asked how hard it is to get a binding site in the DNA.
That’s a place where the combining of chemical substances can take place? Yes, a place requiring only one mutation: How long would it take? The answer: 60,000 years for a mutation to arise, 6 million years for it to become general in the population, to go from an apelike ancestor to us. That’s just one mutation. If you need two coordinated mutations, it takes 216 million years.
The idea is that you have to have these mutations coordinated and appearing simultaneously in the same individual? Yes. Another group from Harvard looked at Homo erectus from 2 million years ago and Lucy—Australopithecus—from 3 million years ago. How many changes would you have to make to the skeleton to enable Homo erectus to run? Minimum estimate is 16. If you don’t have enough time to get one or two mutations, how will you get 16? And 16 mutations is an absurdly low estimate for how many mutations it would take to get spine, pelvis, legs, feet, rib cage, skull all changed, etc.
You’re skeptical about some fossil finds? Paleontologists know fossils that are transitional between groups can make a career. There is a desire to release the news with the most fanfare and public exposure possible. That happens with declarations in Time magazine: the latest breakthrough … first example of the ability to walk upright … Lucy, she’s bipedal. Then, a few years later, comes careful reconsideration. Other paleontologists examine the remains, and they say, “Lucy could have been on all four. She has long arms, looks like she could knuckle walk, swing through the trees. Maybe she didn’t walk upright.”
Paleontologists in 1974 discovered the fragments they say made up Lucy about 3 million years ago: small brain plus legs that theoretically could have been for walking. Here’s a joke: They looked at her fossil skeleton to see if they could determine a cause of death. Do you know how she died? She fell from a tree.
You face strong opposition from BioLogos, an organization that receives funding from the Templeton Foundation and others to push into churches what’s called “theistic evolution.” BioLogos has a firm statement of faith on its website: There never could have been a historical Adam, or a first pair. But with evidence that there could have been, BioLogos may have to revise its statement and all of the things it’s taught to churches.
What motivates the scientific establishment to defend its assumptions of common descent? Most scientists are blind to their own assumptions. They don’t even consider that there might be another explanation. For them, common descent is an automatic. It’s a given.
Some of your writing is in a big white book, Theistic Evolution, that’s a great resource for people who are being propagandized to accept Darwinism. We call the book the great white whale. It’s a comprehensive scientific, philosophical, and theological critique of theistic evolution.
Where else can people go for information? EvolutionNews.org every day has new content about intelligent design.
And WORLD’s website, wng.org, has a weekly roundup, Beginnings, that reports on science and intelligent design.
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On Oct. 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act. The act made religious freedom abroad a priority for America’s diplomacy and gave the United States some bite by requiring sanctions for countries that violated religious liberty. In 1998, then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., voted to pass the IRF Act. Two decades later he is the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position the IRF Act created.
Brownback told me about the landscape of religious freedom abroad, including positives he sees under the Trump administration, and constant threats that require watchfulness and action. Here are some edited excerpts of our conversation.
What motivated you in 1998, and what did you hope would change? We didn’t think the foreign policy establishment was addressing the issues of religious freedom sufficiently. There were all these cases around the world—a number of us working to get people out of prison in various countries, or people of minority faiths being persecuted. We felt [the act] was something we needed in the State Department. It’s taken a while to get established in the human rights world, but it’s coming along now.
What strides have been made over the past 20 years, and what threats are looming? Unfortunately, there are more threats than expansion over the last 20 years. Eighty percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive atmosphere. There was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom after the fall of communism. Now, a lot of people are more religiously restrictive, to favor the domestic majority religion, or to hold down a minority. They don’t trust religion because they can’t control it. As if you could control God.
There was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom after the fall of communism. Now, a lot of people are more religiously restrictive, to favor the domestic majority religion, or to hold down a minority.
Where you think that constriction comes from? A lot of countries look at religion as something that they want to try to control—even though virtually every country in the world signed the UN Declaration on Human Rights that included religious freedom. But then nobody was really pushing countries: “Look, you signed the agreement to stand for religious freedom and you’re not doing it. Why not?” It’s U.S. leadership that now is stepping up much more aggressively to push this right.
At the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this July, countries talked about their intentions regarding religious freedom. Talks, speeches, and signing declarations are great, but what action have you seen since the ministerial? We’ve seen several countries appoint ambassadors for religious freedom to be focal points for pushing religious freedom internationally. We’re working with nine different countries to host regional religious freedom events.
We’re going to do the ministerial again next year. It’s the only forum in the world where religious freedom advocates can get to key government leaders about issues in their country. And then specific cases—Pastor Andrew Brunson’s being freed. The president put sanctions on Turkey for holding him, which has never been done before.
What’s different between the official description of your position and the reality? I’ve been impressed with how doable things are—but you can’t do it in the “name and shame” way. You’ve got to make it in that country’s best interest. Either let Pastor Andrew Brunson free—or your currency’s going to stay down. You’ve got to say to other countries, “If you want to really grow your economy, you need to open up to religious freedom. If you want less terrorism, you need more religious freedom because somebody that you restrict will fight you.”
Are countries starting to understand it’s in their best interest to foster religious freedom? I think they’re just starting to see: Government’s role is to protect the right to religious freedom. It’s not to say, “We favor this group, we don’t favor that. We like this religion, we don’t like that, we don’t like any religion.” It’s to say, “You as a dignified human individual have a God-given right to choose to do with your own soul what you choose.” That’s a right that no government has a right to interfere with.
What if we fail to urge our allies to move in a forward direction? I think it says to the world—we believe it’s a key issue, but we’re willing to trade it. I don’t think we should be willing to trade it. It’s an important message to send to the world that we don’t look at allies differently than people that are not allies on religious freedom.
What shifted so we don’t trade religious freedom for “national security”? Just, look, you ought to do what’s right. President Trump’s been fantastic about that whereas others in the past, it was “Do we really want to fight with the Turks? Do we really want to have this big dispute?” Most would have said no, or the foreign policy establishment would have talked him out of it saying, “Look, we don’t want to get in a big fight with Turkey over one pastor that’s sitting in jail.” This president is willing to get in a fight about it.
What are your priorities for 2019? China and Iran are both big ones on the list. This administration has been willing to confront them for pursuing an agenda counter to human rights. And I want to get more players on the field pursuing religious freedom.
I really want us cracking into the Middle East. It’s moving toward a homogenized religion—just one brand of Islam—and driving everybody else out. In Northern Iraq we said we’re going to rebuild the Christian and the Yazidi areas and push the local governments to provide security for minority faith communities so they can stay.
When is aid more effective, and when are sanctions more effective? You’re always looking for whatever tool to make something happen. Sometimes it’s both, where you’re trying to encourage one set of behaviors and discourage another set. I hope in the future more countries would just come to the conclusion this is in their own best interest, rather than requiring all these sticks and carrots.
USCIRF has consistently called Saudi Arabia one of the worst abusers of human rights, yet we’ve continued to issue waivers. Have we turned a blind eye for too long? I think people are starting to recognize if you have a bad actor, whether they’re an ally or not, they’re not going to improve unless there are consequences to bad actions, unfortunately. So, you’re seeing us take clearer actions.
Do you think more action is forthcoming? I do. You’ve now seen us do it with two allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Before, we’ve shielded them generally. But that shielding hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We have to see the relationship can sustain sanctions in one category if they’re not performing according to international obligations.
You’ve got terrible situations, like the Uighurs in Western China, with people in detention camps. All over the world you start getting these systems in place where you’ve got an active faith community and now they’re all being watched. The United States needs to be aggressive in speaking out. Because if we don’t, it will spread.