Category: Christian Social Thought

I recently posted some thoughts at The Power Blog on “God’s Problem With Centralized Power”, which took a macro view of what I believe to be God’s clear disdain for mankind pursuing their own ends instead of His articulated purposes when it comes to how we organize ourselves communally. This time I want to highlight a specific, micro-level example of that same general idea.

The story of Israel’s demand for a king in I Samuel 8 contains so many relevant, interesting nuggets of insight that I’ve broken it into two parts. This first post will cover verses 1-9; the second one (on Monday) will explore verses 10-22.

When the elders of Israel come to Samuel on behalf of their people to ask for a king to lead them, the decentralized governing system of “judges” had largely been in place since the Hebrew people’s return from exile in Egypt (some 400 years). What the people were asking for was a massive break with a God-ordained system and time-tested tradition. It marks a major shift in the history of God’s chosen people and, truly, the history of God’s plan for salvation. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, November 21, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, Elyse Buffenbarger weighs in on violence and voyeurism in The Hunger Games:

Flipping between reality television and footage of the war in Iraq, Susan Collins was inspired to pen The Hunger Games. The dystopian young adult trilogy has been a runaway success both of page and screen: book sales number in the tens of millions, and in 2012, the first film took in nearly $700 million worldwide. (The next film, Catching Fire, releases tomorrow.)

Initially, I resisted the books for fear they were too violent — but then, at the urging of friends, family, and coworkers (all of whom I believed to have respectable taste), I devoured them in a weekend, and my husband did the same. The Hunger Games are literary alchemy, a breathless amalgam of all the tropes I loved as a child: romance, survival, and the poster child for strong female protagonists, Katniss Everdeen. When the first film came out, my husband and I rushed to the multiplex.

Collins’ trilogy provides, at turns, masterful commentary on class disparity and violent voyeurism: Katniss and her companions excoriate the citizens of the Capitol for their decadence and rabid consumption of the Games. (Their disdain was contagious: for weeks after reading the books, I found myself asking, “Would someone from the Capitol do this?” before doing or saying anything.)

But while watching the films, my husband and I felt uneasy. This discomfort ran deeper than the typical distaste any reader feels when watching a beloved book adapted for the screen. Watching children slaughter each other was very different than reading about it.

Her concerns immediately reminded me of St. Augustine’s critique of cathartic entertainment in his Confessions: (more…)

2721jonesjpg_00000001935Even though the author of this essay in Catholic World Report is careful to make distinctions, this would seem to be the choice: Thomas Aquinas or Ron Paul. It is, in fact, how the indispensable Real Clear Religion website framed the debate this morning.

To compare a religion with an intellectual and moral tradition that goes back thousands of years with a quasi-political movement that is more known for what it is against than what is for is worse than comparing apples and oranges. Yet the Catholic view of the world does seem to be in tension with one that values freedom most of all and pleads agnostic on other important issues. Brian Jones focuses on three areas of disagreement: 1) the necessity of government, 2) law as moral pedagogy and 3) the proper order of politics.

Having studied both economics and political philosophy as well as worked in the field of Catholic social teaching for the Holy See, I’m more than a bit interested in the matter. I readily admit to having libertarian instincts and preferences in economics, while also believing in the primacy of the political in a social order that has a supernatural end. Jones puts it well when he writes, “In Catholicism, there is always the realization that in order for politics to be itself, and accomplish what it is meant to in accord with man’s nature as a social and political animal, it must point to that which is ultimately not political.”

So does that make me suspect on Catholic AND libertarian grounds? Or can I coherently believe in free markets and the truth about God and man as taught by the Church? Catholic teaching thankfully does not require its adherents to share the same opinions on prudential matters. I know this may seem like a cop-out to the more strictly (harshly?) principled, but it also happens to better reflect the realities of the messy world we live in. Or am I alone in this view?

lincolnOver at the Liberty Law Blog, Daniel Dreisbach looks at Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and how it “reverberates with biblical rhythms, phrases, and themes.” He writes that Lincoln was “well acquainted with the English Bible – specifically the King James Bible. Those who knew him best reported that Lincoln had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the sacred text and was known to commit lengthy passages to memory.” Excerpt from Dreisbach’s essay:

No political figure in American history was more fluent in biblical language or adept in appropriating the distinct cadences and vernacular of the King James Bible than Abraham Lincoln. He routinely incorporated into his political prose direct quotations from and allusions to the Bible, as well as a diction resembling the distinctive language of the Jacobean Bible. He often appropriated the Bible and bible-like rhetoric to give authority, moral gravity, and solemnity to his political statements. The Gettysburg Address, perhaps better than any other example of political rhetoric, illustrates how a gifted communicator borrowed language merely resembling the King James Bible to great rhetorical effect. The address contains no direct biblical quotations; however, there are few clauses that do not echo the cadences, phrases, and themes of the King James Bible.

The address begins: “Four score and seven years ago.” Although not an actual biblical quotation, this formulation resembles the psalmist’s familiar calculation, as rendered in the King James Bible, for a man’s “threescore and ten” years of life on earth (Psalm 90:10). From the opening phrase, Lincoln put his audience in a biblical frame of mind.

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images“In a cynical age that tends to glorify ‘startups’ and celebrate anti-institutional suspicion, faith in institutions will sound dated, stodgy, old-fashioned, even (gasp) ‘conservative.’,” says James K.A. Smith. “Christians who are eager to be progressive, hip, relevant, and creative tend to buy into such anti-institutionalism, thus mirroring and mimicking wider cultural trends. . . And yet those same Christians are rightly concerned about “the common good.”

But here’s the thing: if you’re really passionate about fostering the common good, then you should resist anti-institutionalism. Because institutions are ways to love our neighbours. Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight. Institutions are the way we get a handle on concrete realities and address different aspects of creaturely existence. Institutions will sometimes be scaffolds to support the weak; sometimes they function as fences to protect the vulnerable; in other cases, institutions are the springboards that enable us to pursue new innovation. Even though they can become corrupt and stand in need of reform, institutions themselves are not the enemy.

Indeed, injustice is often bound up with the erosion of societal institutions. For example, Nicholas Kristof’s reporting from Africa constantly observes that tyrants and warlords flourish precisely in those places where their rogue armies are the only durable institutions, preying upon the absence of any other institutions that might resist.

The destruction of institutions actually makes room for injustice. You might say that the devil also believes in institutions, which is precisely why his minions are often so deviously patient and persistent in their goal of eroding them. You can imagine Screwtape writing to Wormwood with a key piece of advice: “Evil triumphs in just such a vacuum, so patiently chip away at the institutions of civil society. We’ll reap the rewards later.”

Read more . . .

Creation Heart ManToday at Ethika Politika, Alfred Kentigern Siewers reviews Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, Acton’s recent Orthodox Christian social thought monograph by Fr. Michael Butler and Prof. Andrew Morriss. Siewers offers a nuanced and critical review, being well-read in the literature himself, and ultimately welcomes the monograph as a missing voice in the broader conversation of Orthodox Christianity and creation care.

Siewers writes,

[I]n its introductory opening chapter, the authors clearly set forth their objection to what they see as a “deep left bias” in the increasingly growing library of literature on Orthodox Christian approaches to nature. Specifically, they bemoan the following: what they see as a lack of policy prescriptions drawn directly from Orthodox tradition; “the subordination of the Tradition to preexisting political or environmental agenda”; a tendency of such writings to be overly critical of Western society; and impractical policy recommendations. In this it criticizes some of the environmental statements of Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as of the post-communist Russian Orthodox Synod, but runs the risk of falling into its own critique.

Its emphases and discussion tend toward a particular kind of American conservative perspective, with an emphasis on free markets, rather than a more paleo-conservative concern about modernity along neo-agrarian lines, or the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy with its “Red Tory” approach. More esoteric but creative approaches—such as geo-libertarianism and anarcho-monarchism—also aren’t considered, although the monograph does in a needed way open discussion further on alternatives to statist approaches and details how the latter work against the kind of spiritual transfiguration required in Orthodox cosmic theology.

Indeed, in the end the work is Orthodox and not libertarian, excellent in its rich outline of both patristic writings and a variety of contemporary scholars as well as the writings and lives of holy saints and elders (across a spectrum of approaches and views). For example, the authors do also positively address ideas of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Russian Synod, in a tradition that relies not on papal leadership but on conciliarity.

Read more . . .

conservative liberalCarl E. Olson, in an editorial entitled “Catholicism and the Convenience of Empty Labels,” says that many who write and discuss all things Catholic get lost in “fabricated conflicts” which lack context. Pope Francis, depending on who is speaking, is a darling of the “liberals” or a stalwart “conservative.”

Suffice to say, the die has been cast for many journalists, and thus for their readers, when it comes to framing stories about the good Pope Francis and the evil “right-wingers” who oppose him. It’s not that some writers go to elaborate and sophisticated lengths to make dubious connections and render outrageous assertions; rather, they often demonstrate an intellectual laziness that is alarming and a crude simplicity that is exasperating, at best.

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AYN RANDThere once was a time when I was enamored by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. An émigré from the Soviet Union, the influential novelist and founder of Objectivism had an enthusiasm for market capitalism and a hatred of communism that I found entrancing. I discovered her two major philosophical novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in my early years in college as I was beginning to wake from my enchantment with liberalism. I was instantly hooked.

Rand’s ideas were intriguing, yet she harbored sentiments that made it difficult for a young Christian to accept. She was an atheist who despised altruism and preached the “virtue of selfishness.” She believed that rational self-interest was the greatest good and sang the praises of egoism.

In retrospect, it appears obvious that any attempt to reconcile these ideas with my orthodox evangelicalism was destined to fail. Still, I thought there might be something to the philosophy and was particularly intrigued by her defense of capitalism. My understanding of our economic system was a rather immature, though, and I failed to recognize that Rand had an almost complete misunderstanding of capitalism. She confused self-interest with selfishness.
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Tea-Party-Catholic-196x300Tea Party Catholic, the latest book by Acton’s Director of Research Sam Gregg, continues to garner attention. Fr. Gregory Jensen, at his Koinonia blog, reviews Gregg’s work in light of the experience of Orthodox Christians in the U.S.

For the American Orthodox Christian, patriotism, “the love of the true good of one’s country” is the core of the Church vocation relative to the larger culture. We cannot evangelize, as I’ve said before, those we don’t know, but we don’t truly know those we don’t love. Additionally, American Orthodox Christians can’t makes a lasting contribution to the Church in the Middle East, Greece, Eastern Europe or Russia if we don’t love those true and lasting goods that inform the American Experiment at its best. This doesn’t mean we are called to export American democracy. (more…)

Class struggle. Racially-charged rhetoric. Anti-capitalist diatribes. Sounds like the lineup to a “Fantasy Diversity” team from a sociology professor at Wellesley College, right?

Alas, I’m merely referring to the controversy surrounding ex-Miami Dolphins players Jonathan Martin (black) and Richie Incognito (white).  For those who haven’t been paying attention – and thank your lucky stars that you haven’t – Martin left the team for personal reasons and his fellow offensive lineman Incognito was released by the Dolphins for allegedly being the bully who broke the spirit of the younger Martin.

I’m not here interested in solving the intra-team dynamics of a professional football team (comprised of giant men who willingly smash into each other for a living), but instead wanted to share with you a very telling quote from the media’s coverage of this story.

It comes from a sports “journalist” (term used loosely) named Jason Whitlock who works for ESPN. Mr. Whitlock is no stranger to controversy or inflammatory remarks, having made many of his own through the years via his columns and various radio shows. On Tuesday’s episode of The Tony Kornheiser Show on ESPN 980 (out of Washington D.C.), Whitlock was asked by Kornheiser to explain why the Dolphins players would want to harass and “cannibalize” a promising young player like Martin when they need all the help they can get on the actual football field.

Jason’s response?

“Because that’s what we do in America. That’s what capitalism does. It’s preys upon the weak.”

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