Category: Bible and Theology

It turns out there’s a phrase for the reality of ‘crony capitalism’ in Hebrew: hon v’shilton, which is “literally translated as capital and government, an expression Israelis use to describe the rich’s influence on government.” Check out Bloomberg Businessweek for an overview of current controversy on Israel’s “business elite.”

Of course business need not corrupt government. But the temptation for those with a concentration of economic power to turn that into political advantage in order to retain economic dominance is perennial. In a 2008 interview with venture capitalist Ronny Douek, who founded the Israel Center for Civil Society, Jerusalem Post interviewer Ruthie Blum Leibowitz asked Douek about hon v’shilton:

Doesn’t the connection between business and politics – what we call “hon v’shilton” – have negative connotations?

Yes, unless it is defined as taking mutual responsibility for society. With the right balance, it can only be a good connection. Take, for example, people here who saw ways in which they could have an influence on road safety or education…

Douek’s answer refers to his pluriform view of social life, in which he likens Israel “to a table resting on three legs – the government, civil society and business.”

As an aside, one instance of the ancient Hebrew root for the modern term shilton appears in Ecclesiastes 8:4 as supreme: “Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?'”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, October 18, 2010
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This year’s Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010, is underway and all reports are of a massive event, with substantial buildup and coordination of efforts of and implications of various kinds across the globe. (Dr. Anthony Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, participated in one of the conversation gatherings last month leading up to the Cape Town event.)

In my book published earlier this summer, Ecumenical Babel, I mentioned Cape Town 2010 as one of the major ecumenical events taking place this year. Dr. Stephen Grabill, in his foreword to the book, wrote extensively of the opportunities and challenges facing evangelical ecumenical efforts.

Grabill writes,

I think holistic biblical stewardship understood as a form of whole-life discipleship may be just the motif or infrastructure that the ecumenical movement has needed “to move purposefully forward.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an unprecedented opportunity exists to disciple the church in the fundamental pattern of holistic stewardship. As the church becomes increasingly aware of issues of sustainability, seeks to understand the role of business, and expands the message of the grace of giving as a central motif of the Christian life, an environment for personal and corporate transformation takes root.

Dr. Grabill and Brett Elder (of Acton’s strategic partner, the Stewardship Council) are both in Cape Town over the next weeks to participate in the event in a number of ways.

Speaking of Grabill’s usage of the phrase “grace of giving,” there is a site setup to coordinate a number of the resources that are being made available to Cape Town delegates. A special edition of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible is being made available to all the attendees, as well as a Cape Town edition of occasional papers for the Resource Mobilization Working Group published by Christian’s Library Press under the title Kingdom Stewardship.

For a really stunning and inspiring story of how the concept of stewardship can enliven and enrich our lives, check out the story of Bishop Hannington of Uganda, now appearing on the Grace of Giving site.

Bishop Hannington from International Steward on Vimeo.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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A good give-and-take on the tea party movement on Our Sunday Visitor. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, weighs in:

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.

“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.”

Read “Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” on the website of Our Sunday Visitor.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
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Last week I linked to Joe Carter’s On the Square piece, “What the Market Economy Needs to be Moral,” challenging his view that we need a “third way.” He has since clarified his position, and noted that what he wants is not really an alternative to the market economy but an alternative grounding, view of, and justification for the market economy. This is a position with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Today I want to highlight something else from Carter’s helpful piece. Carter first cites an anecdote from Andy Morriss:

One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so—markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.

Carter then goes on to note:

This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, why do we expect God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle”? The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.

These two quotes bring out one of the most intriguing points in Carter’s piece. The point is that we are to appreciate the market for what it is, a God-given institution in which human beings created in his image relate to one another for the betterment not only of themselves but also of each other.

Think about the implications of Morriss’ anecdote for a moment.

God works through human means…this is his regular or normal way of acting in the world, through secondary causes including human action. We need not always pray for miraculous healing, but rather that God empower skilled doctors and nurses to heal us. We need not always pray that manna fall from heaven, but rather that God enable farmers to farm.

In his important book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster makes programmatic use of this reality in an interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats. As DeKoster writes,

The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!

So, in the case of the sheep who gave Christ something to eat when he was hungry, we find that

God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …

  • agriculture,
  • wholesale or retail foods,
  • kitchens or restaurants,
  • food transportation or the mass production of food items,
  • manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
  • innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.

DeKoster goes on to outline similar lists for those who regularly provide water to satisfy the thirst of others and those who provide clothing for those in need. These three are representative, he says.

The Lord’s choice of the kinds of services that are instanced in the parable is carefully calculated to comprehend a vast number of the jobs of humankind. The parable is about the work needed to provide the sinews of civilization. Doing such work, the Lord says, is serving his purposes in history, and in exchange he rewards workers far beyond their input with all the abundance of culture’s storehouse.

As I’ve noted previously, this view of work is transformative for how we approach views of wealth and poverty. We begin to finally be able to see work not just as a way to get a paycheck, but as the way God has ordained for us to truly serve others and thereby to serve Him as well.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 7, 2010
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Joe Carter discusses “What the Market Economy Needs to Be Moral” today over at First Things: On the Square.

He rightly points to the twin errors of collectivism and atomistic individualism, each of which have been soundly criticized in Catholic Social Teaching, for instance.

I do wonder, though, given that Joe acknowledges the role of free individuals (not to be abstracted from their social relationships and responsibilities, of course) whether we need a “third way” as he proposes, or simply a framework for evaluating a variety of acceptable ways of engaging the market (or maybe that’s precisely what he means by a “third way”).

That is, if there’s no single Christian view of the government, why would there be a single Christian view of the market? The question becomes here more one of prudence than of mandate, and the “Christian view” of the market simply outlines the broad strokes of acceptable approaches.

Indeed, if as Joe concludes Christians are to “to spend less time treating the markets as abstractions and more time working within them as models of Christ-like behavior,” then there are a variety of approaches to modeling such behavior in the context of market exchange. And why the radical juxtaposition between theory and practice when the rest of the piece is really calling for a new theoretical framework?

There are a number of other interesting elements, perhaps even tensions, in Joe’s thought-provoking piece. I hope to follow up on those in the next day or so.

Today at Mere Comments I highlight what I’m calling the “Neo-Anabaptist temptation.”

Check it out.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
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Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

Carl Trueman has a lengthy reflection and asks some pertinent and pressing questions on the nature of work and human intellectual development.

Recalling his job at a factory as a young man in the 1980s, Trueman writes concerning those who were still at their positions on the line when he had moved on:

Their work possessed no intrinsic dignity: it was unskilled, repetitive, poorly paid, and provided no sense of achievement. Yes, it gave them a wage; but not a wage that provided for anything more then the bare necessities of life plus a few packs of cigarettes and some cheap booze on a Friday or Saturday night. And it raised questions in my mind to which, more than twenty years on, I have still not found answers.

First, how does the church enable those in such jobs to find God-given satisfaction? It is oh-so-easy for those of us who have jobs which we enjoy doing to talk about `the dignity of labour’ when the labour we have has, in a sense, its own intrinsic dignity. But what of the labour that does not have such dignity in and of itself? Which is monotonous, unskilled, boring, poorly paid, and which slowly but surely bleeds any last vestige of creativity and spontaneity out from the veins? The obvious answer is, of course, to find such dignity in extrinsic factors, supremely in doing everything to the glory of God. But, let’s face it, it is a whole lot easier to do an enjoyable job to the glory of God than to sweep the factory floor day after day to the same.

Read the whole thing. There are more pressing observations and questions throughout.

But to at least point to the beginning of an answer, I’d refer to what Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write regarding work as the basic form of stewardship:

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

I think this insight is accurate regardless of the nature of the work itself, whether our job is inherently repetitive and mundane, or exhilarating and stimulating. If you want a look at how workers have infused their seemingly undignified work with dignity, check out the episode of Undercover Boss that focuses on Waste Management.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
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The conversations over the last few weeks here on work have raised a couple of questions.

In the context of criticisms on the perspectives on work articulated by Lester DeKoster and defended by me, commenter John E. asks, “…what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?”

I want to change people’s view of their work. I want them to see how it has value not simply as a means to some other end, but in itself. I want to change how they view their relationship to their work.

To echo DeKoster and Berghoef again, many of us simply view work as “a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial.” It may well be that. There is work that is better and work that is worse (to anticipate one of Schumacher’s points below). But we should also know that “the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more your will to persevere schools the soul.”

I want to add a bit of mystery back to the concept of work as well as a bit of spirituality. Again, DeKoster and Berghoef:

The results of one’s work can never be fully known. What will become of the produce raised, of the machine built, of the person fed? No one can foretell what will be the final consequence of today’s effort. Nor does the pay check really measure the value, nor the effort, of the work for which it is given. Wages are set by the market, and the results of work are hidden in the mists of tomorrow. What endures is what happens to the worker who bravely makes it through the day.

An aspect of this perspective, I think, is similar to that articulated by E.F. Schumacher in the essay, “Buddhist Economics” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Grace Marie Boggs notes the importance of the essay, in which Schumacher writes,

The modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

By contrast, the view of work in Buddhist economics is that it gives man “a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

On this point, at least, there is some correspondence between the Christian and the Buddhist view of work as school for the soul. Joshua Snyder relates how Schumacher said of the essay, “I might have called it ‘Christian Economics’ but then no one would have read it.” The views of DeKoster and Berghoef on the one hand and Schumacher on the other are not identical. But what they share is, in Schumacher’s language, a criticism of “a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

In a related vein, David Michael Phelps wonders whether the perspective he articulates between work and art “is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support).”

The answers are affirmative, I believe: Yes, yes, and yes. Beyond the perspective on the schooling of the soul as written by DeKoster and Berghoef, the seventeenth-century theologian and pastor Richard Baxter has valuable things to say about the relationship between work and temporal goods and spiritual and eternal goods. But these are just a small sampling of the rich Reformed resources that can and ought to be brought to bear on these topics.

Phelps will be discussing “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment,” at tonight’s Acton on Tap, and he moderated our RFA podcasts on “The Stewardship of Art” (you can listen to part 1 and part 2 respectively).

You can also preorder Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective today at the Acton BookShoppe.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
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There have been some engaging challenges to the view presented of work and its relationship to culture and civilization over the past few weeks (here, here, and here). I hope to post a more substantive response to some of the comments in the next few days. But in the meantime, let me pass along a helpful item that outlines the view of Pope John Paul II on the relationship between “culture” and “cultivation.”

Here’s a taste of the post, “Leisure and Art: A Start,” from David Michael Phelps:

It is also worth noting how closely JPII’s descriptions of the artist parallels his description of workers/entrepreneurs/etc. in other writings. [NOTE: here and here in particular] They follow from the same understanding that man transforms the world (and in doing so, himself) as he gets his hands dirty with the stuff of the world, enacts his creative will upon it, whether it be for a utilitarian end (work) or some gratuitous end (art).

Gratuitous work does not require leisure. In point of fact, as I think every artist worth his salt would agree, making art is rather laborious. Leisure doesn’t enter the picture until one lights a pipe, pours a beer, and sits back to admire the work.

As an aside, David Michael Phelps is the moderator of the latest installment of the RFA podcast, “The Stewardship of Art.” He’ll also be hosting the next Acton on Tap event the night before ArtPrize opens here in Grand Rapids, “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment.” You can check out details at the event’s Facebook page.