Category: Bible and Theology

On the new Reclaiming the Culture radio show, host Dolores Meehan recently interviewed Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the subject of “The Principle of Subsidiarity and the Service to the Poor.” Here’s how Meehan describes the show’s mission:

Bay Area Catholics are some of the strongest Catholics in the country. Reclaiming the Culture grew out of the desire to show that the Catholic Church in the Bay Area has the resources to confront the prevailing secular culture. Our purpose is to introduce great thinkers to listeners who may not have the opportunity to pursue an authentic, classical, Catholic education at, say, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. We see this as a chance to share the wisdom of the Catholic Church, which is far greater than many people realize, and is easily up to the task of engaging the prevailing secular culture. We want to move beyond catechesis and apologetics, important as they are, and enter into the arena where faith meets reason.

Click on the audio player below and listen to the interview.

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It’s worth noting that the original context of engagement of the ecumenical movement by figures like Paul Ramsey and Ernest Lefever (two voices that figure prominently in my book, Ecumenical Babel) had much to do with foreign policy and the Cold War, and specifically the question of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Last week marked the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today is the anniversary of the Nagasaki detonation. As ENI reports (full story after the break), the ecumenical advocacy against nuclear weapons has not abated since the 1960s.

The question of nuclear weapons is a complex one, that involves distinctions between ius ad bellum and ius in bello, strategic and tactical nuclear devices, and combatants and non-combatants. Kishore Jayabalan has also made the case that we also need to distinguish between different kinds of regimes.

It may well be that the question of nuclear weapons is analogous to the question of capital punishment: the government might well have the theoretical right to prosecute it, but given the practical limitations of human fallibility, there may be no morally-sound way to practically implement it.

As Paul Ramsey wrote of the nuclear question in 1967, however, the position that it is acceptable to possess the weapons only on the condition that they never be used is incoherent:

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

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During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.

This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.

Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.

People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy.  Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.

In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.

Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.

In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:

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!

On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.

Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.

Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.

On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.

People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.

I mentioned Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in the context of the Lutheran World Federation’s General Assembly and the theme, “Give us today our daily bread.”

In this book, DeKoster makes a pointed connection between work and food:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”

The Lord is saying that where humans are hungry, there he too chooses to hunger. He waits in the hungry man or woman or child, longing to be served. Served how? By the work of those who knit the garment of civilization through the production and distribution of food!

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.

God transforms plantings into harvests. Then he waits to be fed by those whose work turns harvests into one of the basic elements of civilization. The gift of ourselves to others through work is the gift of ourselves to God—and this is why work gives both temporal and eternal meaning to life!

WorkMany commentators on this passage in Matthew focus on the “giving” literally as the charitable act of giving, and this is as appropriate. But some others go on to identify the “giver” with the government, rather than charities, individual Christians, or the church itself.

But as DeKoster challenges us, we ought also to think of the “giver” as the person who works in the fields to harvest the food, who gives the sweat of their brow to bring food to the table of those of us who hunger, each and every day.

This shift in perspective, that sees our work as a form of service to others, a way of giving of ourselves to others, changes things completely. And I think it more accurately reflects the nature of market interactions and the value of human work.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth,” I reflect on the recently concluded general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Stuttgart. The theme of the meeting was “Give us today our daily bread,” but as I note, the assembly’s discussion of hunger, poverty, and economics lacked the proper integration of the value, dignity, and importance of work.

As I contend, work is the regular means God has provided for the maintenance of our physical needs. And work that is connected to the larger human community becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of others and productive of civilization. Lester DeKoster defines civilization in just this way, as

goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves—including ourselves—whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

These words come from DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly available in an updated second edition.

The omission of considering work in relationship to the development of wealth, globalization, and civilization is endemic to the larger mainline ecumenical movement, which I examine in greater length in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In that book I look especially at the outcome of the previous LWF gathering in 2004.

The trend observable in LWF recent history looks to continue unabated. The newly appointed LWF general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge of Chile, has the pursuit of “economic justice,” conceived largely of opposition to globalization, as a high priority. (Full story after the break).
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Courtesy Evangelical Outpost and the always-interesting 33 Things, here’s a video on the strangeness of the economics of incentives and punishments:



The lesson here is that people in real life, body and soul, are not simple rational economic actors who respond only to material realities.

We exist in the context of social webs and relationships. But we also have non-material faculties; consciences, free choice, creativity, speculative reason.

Homo economicus is useful as a partial model of human behavior, but it is not exhaustive, comprehensive, or reliably predictive. Why do economists try to universalize this model?

My theory is that it is in part a response to the post-Englightenment subversion of the unified field of learning. Theology was displaced, albeit briefly, as the queen of the sciences. Philosophy could not hold on, and was torn down by the clamoring crowd of other disciplines. Now each discipline seeks to place itself upon the throne, thus we get tyrannizing and universalizing claims from every academic discipline. Everyone tries to explain everything in the terms of their own discipline, and these explanations are therefore by necessity reductive.

For a bit more, see “Requiem for Homo Economicus,” from the Journal of Markets & Morality 10, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 321-38, in which Edward O’Boyle argues, “Burying homo economicus and substituting homo socioeconomicus brings the basic unit of economic analysis out of the individualism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the personalism of the twentieth century.”

To these models, we ought also add homo religiosus, all the while recognizing the each are models and therefore limited, partial, and provisional relative to the comprehensive picture of humanity in imago Dei.

In the background of this month’s 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, it’s important to recall the recent history of global Lutheranism.

The basic context is that Lutheranism has been self-understood as historically associated with social quietism, particularly as expressed in the church’s impotency in the face of the Nazi menace. One approach in answer to this has been to become correspondingly active in social causes.

This is, at least in part, we see such an emphasis on social justice issues at Lutheran ecumenical gatherings over the last few decades. This current gathering, for instance, is committed to focusing on hunger issues.

As the introductory ENI story relates, this move from social quietism to social activism is constitutive of the Lutheran ecumenical movement’s self-understanding.

German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in Stuttgart yesterday, “It has been observed that the Lutheran heritage in Germany has tended to encourage individuals to be obedient subjects rather than active citizens.”

“Germans had to learn through a painful history that good government is the responsibility of all citizens. Protestant Germans in their majority took a long time to understand that this was also what their Christian faith demanded of them,” Schäuble told a 1200-strong ecumenical congregation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

The ENI piece specifically cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy, whose climax was reached in the Stauffenberg assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer certainly does have a great deal to teach us about social engagement, as his deep reflections on the nature of social life, from his first theological dissertation (Sanctorum Communio), to his reflections on communal life together at the theological seminary in Finkenwalde, to his Ethics.

What we see in Bonhoeffer, and what I try to communicate in my use of his work in the concluding sections of Ecumenical Babel, is a balanced approach that does not allow for secularization between church life and work life, for instance. But neither does it allow for the opposite error, the substitution of social activism for the Gospel proclamation itself.

This is the risk that Lutheran social engagement has faced over the last few decades, and the trap into which the LWF has often fallen. I pray that the invocation of the prayer for our “daily bread” at this gathering in Stuttgart will take up a balanced approach to work and wealth. But as I show in Ecumenical Babel, there is little precedent in recent history to suggest such balance.

Today marks the opening of the 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held this time in Stuttgart. Today is also the 66th anniversary of the failed Stauffenberg assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.

There will be much more on the LWF assembly and it social witness in the coming days. The assembly’s theme is, “Give us today our daily bread,” and the meeting promises to focus on hunger issues. I’ll be paying special attention to the engagement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was involved in the Stauffenberg plot, with the ecumenical movement in the 1930s and what we can learn about it today.

Follow along here on the PowerBlog. But for a basic primer on recent LWF pronouncements, in the context of the broader ecumenical witness, be sure to check out my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Read an ENI piece on the opening of the assembly after the break.
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In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.

Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.

He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.

Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:

Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.

The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”

This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.

The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:

I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.

The NYT Freakonomics blog notes that the Fair Trade movement does not exist independently of the laws of economics:

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.

This is a huge problem for Fair Trade. Essentially, to be successful, it must, as I have stated in the past, “argue for a complete standardization of its price-fixing methods.”

Fair TradeThis gets at the paradox of religious support for Fair Trade. It makes those who argue so vociferously against “consumption” as an evil, something that feeds the Big Ag “devil” (to use the Freakonomics blog’s terminology), instead rather promote and endorse consumerism of another kind: Fair Trade consumerism.

That’s how you get to the point of mainline denominations pushing Fair Trade commodities (like coffee) in the church narthex and small groups, like moneychangers in the temple courtyard.

The Freakonomics post is lengthy and worthy of attention. But for a more comprehensive discussion of Fair Trade, be sure to check out the new monograph in the Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics series, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

In this book, Henderson State University economics professor Victor Claar examines the case of coffee in particular, and relates that in his

past place of worship, dedicated parishioners freely gave of their time and talents throughout the year to serve the retailing, advertising, and distribution efforts of Equal Exchange. Those parishioners who had taken on the ministry of fair trade coffee advertised frequently in the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter—at no charge, of course. They also operated a coffee cart that was open for business between and after Sunday services, and they took great care to stock up on extra-special goodies in anticipation of gift-giving occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. They carefully maintained their inventory on hand, placing
orders with Equal Exchange when stocks were getting low. Of course, Equal Exchange was the only coffee served during coffee hour, where an Equal Exchange sign was prominently displayed to remind everyone that ours was a congregation that cared about the poor.

Claar concludes presciently: “In any other setting but a church, the message would be clear: If you enjoyed today’s free sample, be sure to pick some up on your way out to savor at home all week long.”

Order your copy of Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution today.