Acton Institute Powerblog

John Calvin and Occupy Wall Street

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“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up.” So said French president Nicolas Sarkozy to UK prime minister David Cameron as an instance of what BusinessWeek has dubbed “Europe’s Insult Diplomacy.” But it’s a retort that strikes me as equally relevant for the pontifications that pour forth from ecumenical officials in Geneva on almost every topic under the sun.

The latest instance of imprudence in the cause of desperately seeking relevance is the claim from Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), that the reformer John Calvin “would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I explore the dynamics of what I call the “ecumenical-industrial complex” in my book released last year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. One of the points I make in the book is that ecumenical officials like Nyomi cannot seem to resist the opportunity to weigh in on contemporary political and economic issues as if there is a single, univocal, and absolute Christian position.

The claim that Calvin and OWS are kindred is precisely the kind of obfuscatory rhetoric that we don’t need from ecclesiastical representatives, whether at the congregational, denominational, or ecumenical level. On the constructive side, in Ecumenical Babel I make the case that the ecumenical movement, rather than making absurd claims akin to that of Calvin and OWS, might “decline to issue doctrinaire and casuistical proclamations about this or that particular policy. Instead, the ecumenical movement would understand its role in this sphere to provide broad guidance rather than particular judgments.”

The upshot of such a change would be that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness would place correspondingly less emphasis on direct political engagement and advice…and correspondingly greater emphasis on providing moral guidance to the church.” As opposed to saying that JC (whether John Calvin or Jesus Christ) “would have been in the streets of New York or London,” as Nyomi claims, instead “the character of ecumenical statements on social issues…would be far more restrained and chastened than we find today.”

But as long as the mainline ecumenical movement continues to conflate unity with unanimity on particular social questions, don’t expect reform to happen anytime soon.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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