Category: Bible and Theology

One of the inspirations for my little book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, was the incisive and insightful critique of the ecumenical movement from the Princeton theological ethicist Paul Ramsey.

Ramsey’s book, Who Speaks for the Church? A Critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society, has a wealth of both theoretical and concrete reflections on the nature of ecumenical social witness and the relationship between church and society.

He concludes the book with a section titled, “The Church and the Magistrate,” in which he provides some direct comments on the way in which the church can actively be of service to the political authorities. This task is of great importance for the institutional church, but it must be done in such a way that the unique responsibilities of the church and the state are not conflated, and in a way that respects the conscience and individual responsibility of the Christian in civil service.

Thus, writes Ramsey, “If the churches have any special wisdom to offer here, it is in cultivating the political ethos of a nation and informing the conscience of the statesman. The church’s business is not policy formation. That is the awesome responsibility of magistrates (and of churchmen along with other citizens in their nonecclesiastical capacities).”

The role of the church, therefore, is to inform rather than to prescribe in specific detail. “It is not the church’s business to recommend but only to clarify the grounds upon which the statesman must put forth his own particular decree,” argues Ramsey. “Christian political ethics cannot say what should or must be done but only what may be done. It can only try to make sure that false doctrine does not unnecessarily trammel policy choices or preclude decisions that might better shape and govern events.”

And in a prophetic statement that indicts the contemporary fascination with “social justice” (which so often conflates the concept with love), Ramsey writes, “Christians should be speaking more about order as a terminal political value along with justice, without the naïve assumption that these are bound to go together without weight given to both.” Just how much do you hear about “social order” from those campaigning so vociferously for a particular form of “social justice”?

Ramsey’s book is well worth reading. If you can pick up a used copy somewhere, do so and count yourself as having found a bargain.

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

On his recently launched Ambiguorum Blogis site, Fr. Michael Butler is reviewing Elizabeth Theokritoff’s Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Fr. Michael, who joined us for Acton University 2010, examines the author’s exhausted earth meme, beginning with this quote from the book:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (Theokritoff, p. 21).

Fr. Michael comments:

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (Theokritoff, p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

Fr. Michael has been a priest in the Orthodox Church in America for more than 15 years in Michigan and Ohio. See his bio and scholarly interests here. And put him on your blog roll and newsreader today.

In an audio commentary produced for Ave Maria Radio and Catholic Exchange, Paul Kengor says it is “incumbent among Catholics to learn more about this blessed concept of subsidiarity.” As part of this education, he recommends “The Principle of Subsidiarity” by David A. Bosnich in Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly.

Here’s some of what Kengor, a professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, had to say:

I’m convinced, from study after study, and years of observing public policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society, that addressing poverty in the narrow federal, collectivist way preached by modern progressives—in the language of “social justice”—is counter-productive, fostering rather than lessening dependency.

In fact, the long experience of economies shows that those titled toward collectivism—to a single central government—become so unproductive and lacking in prosperity that they can’t produce the very wealth that progressives want to redistribute in the first place. That’s the self-defeating danger that social-justice engineers face as they shift private charity to a federal collective.

Listen to Kengor’s audio commentary, “Subsidiarity Over Social Justice,” and access the transcript, at Catholic Exchange.

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.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

(more…)

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).
(more…)

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.