Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, March 4, 2011

My first reaction to “What Would Jesus Cut?” is that it tends to reduce Christ to a distributor of material goods through government programs. Jesus is not a budget overseer or a dispenser of government largesse. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has already countered this accusation with his own post saying, “We haven’t been trying to get Jesus to be the head of any budget committee, or think that he would ever want that job!”

But still, to use Christ as an example of a legislator writing budgetary law is facile when we recognize Christ as the fulfillment of the law (Romans 10:4). It reduces and trivializes Christ at a time when there is already too much theological confusion about the person, nature, and mission of Christ in this country. And while Christ certainly relates and guides us on the day to day questions as we work to uplift the social witness, this practice reduces the Word of Life to moralism when done in a frivolous manner.

As for how we help the poor, as we are commanded to do as Christians, we shouldn’t confuse the Kingdom of Christ with the power and agenda of the state. Evangelicalism, and proclamation of the person of Christ should not be reduced to baptizing and sanctifying the budget.

In October 2009, I wrote “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” agreeing with Jim Wallis that budgets are moral documents, but focusing rather on the immorality of chaining a nightmare of debt to future Americans. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, waxes eloquent on budget morality, too. He offered this sound byte in an address just last week to the National Religious Broadcasters Association in Nashville:

It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.

I also agree with Jordan Ballor here and here in his aptly written remarks about the similar “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis.”

Wallis, who is a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” has a very disappointing record when it comes to fiscal responsibility. He is on record of already opposing social security reform, welfare reform in the 1990s, slowing the rate of growth of government spending in the 90s, and even checking the rate of growth for SCHIP, as my 2007 commentary points out.

I wore “What Would Jesus Do” apparel for a short time during the fad, and obviously it is good to ask WWJD. But I stopped wearing it when I realized that I already knew what Christ would do, and I should be asking myself deeper questions about what I am really doing to magnify my relationship with Christ and my witness to others.

I think that is what bothers me with “What Would Jesus Cut?” It’s a reduction of the witness of Christ, with no greater context of his redemptive mission. This is a flaw of some, but not all, on both the religious right and religious left. There is a danger in over-politicizing the name of Jesus in the public square, especially when the Church in America is crying out for sound Biblical doctrine. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and to continually reinsert him into the budget debate, which are clearly prudential arguments, shrinks his real power and authority.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is interviewed by Joan Frawley Desmond, a reporter for National Catholic Register, in today’s paper:

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, suggested that the bishops’ response to the union protests marked a new era of episcopal leadership and a more nuanced understanding of economic realities in the United States.

He noted that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had sought to reorient an overly politicized approach to social justice concerns and that new Catholic leaders had responded to this new direction. “Politics is not the governing hermeneutic of the Church,” said Father Sirico, “but for many years politics was the whole paradigm through which everything was seen.”

But he also suggested the Wisconsin bishops’ stance implicitly acknowledged “the changing reality of the American Catholic population as a whole. “The only sector of union membership that is growing is public unions,” he said. “That is highly problematic from a Catholic point of view, because these public unions publicly favor abortion rights and ‘gay marriage’ and seek to undercut the Church’s agenda on social questions.”

Full article here.

On, Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Rev. Robert A. Sirico about various bishops’ statements concerning the budget battles and labor union protests in Wisconsin:

Kathryn Jean Lopez: The archbishop of Milwaukee issued a letter a few days ago on the rights of workers, noting that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Does that mean he is on the side of Democratic lawmakers who are hiding out on the job?

Fr. Robert Sirico: There are many commentators who would like us to think so, but Archbishop Listecki was simply outlining the Church’s teaching on the rights and dignity of workers (and all people for that matter, because after all, it’s not just employees who are “workers”) as well as his pastoral concern for the people involved in a very contentious debate. The archbishop knows very well the clear warning given to unions by Pope John Paul II to the effect that unions need to avoid partisan political identification.

Lopez: What’s the most important message of his letter?

Fr. Sirico: First and foremost, the Archbishop is a pastor and has many people within his flock who are torn on both sides of this divisive issue. From what I can tell, he is simply attempting to calm the waters, remind people of their mutual dignity, yet without taking sides. In all but the most extreme cases of industrial disputes, that’s exactly what a Catholic bishop should do.

Lopez: Thursday morning a press release went out from the Catholic bishops’ conference in Washington seconding what Archbishop Listecki had to say. Does this make it look like the Church in some way is all about the protesters in Madison and opposed to the governor?

Fr. Sirico: I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of the statement that came from Bishop Blair. On the one hand he wants to express his (and the Bishops’ Conference’s) solidarity with a fellow-bishop trying to guide his flock in a difficult situation. That is entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I can see how some might think it gives the impression that Archbishop Listecki has taken sides in the debate, which he and his spokesman said he has not.

Lopez: Does Bishop Robert Morlino’s letter on “fairness” provide the most clear moral guidance about what’s going on in Madison?

Fr. Sirico: Bishop Morlino, as the bishop of the diocese in which all this is going on, has given us a model of clarity of the role of a bishop in an admittedly volatile situation. In a letter published in his own diocesan newspaper, and modestly noting that he is only addressing the people in his diocese, Bishop Morlino clearly states that he and the Wisconsin bishops are neutral, and yet walks his people thought how one might think about the matter.

Lopez: Morlino wrote “I simply want to point out how a well-informed conscience might work through the dilemma which the situation poses.”

Fr. Sirico: This really demonstrates the respect that Bishop Morlino has for his own people. He helps them to inform their consciences and provides a model how to come to a conclusion on the matter without going beyond his role as a teacher of the Catholic faith.

Much more here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From Abraham Kuyper’s opening address to the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, The Problem of Poverty:

The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.

Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.

This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”

Following up on this week’s musings related to the local church, I’ve posted some thoughts on the idea of “The Church as Social Network” over at Mere Comments.

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.