Amsterdam’s Red Light District is infamous for its open prostitution. Now, though, it’s being used to raise awareness that what you see may not be what you believe it to be.
For Labor Day weekend, Peggy Noonan wrote a column pointing to the critical connection between the spiritual value of work and the moral strength of our culture. But as Greg Forster notes, her “search for a beacon of hope that can point us back toward the dignity of work, she neglects the church in favor of less promising possibilities.”
In her column, she argues that to restore dignity and hope to our culture, we need politicians who celebrate – sincerely, not as a focus-group-tested messaging gimmick – the extraordinary possibilities of work, enterprise, and entrepreneurship to transform our lives and our culture for the better. I think she’s right that politicians who did that would be a positive cultural force. However, turning to politicians as our primary cultural hope is a mistake.
As Willard pointed out, the very fact that we mostly turn to politicians to tell us what the good life is – and to provide it for us – is itself a sign that we’ve turned away from God. We will never get away from catastrophic political conflict as long as people turn mainly to politicians when they seek hope. Government has an important social role to play, of course, and not just in forbidding force and fraud – libertarianism is as much a false hope as socialism. But “the American character” will never recover until we look to pastors as our primary guides and teachers in building a culture (which includes the economic system) that provides hope, dignity, and flourishing.
Noonan herself laments that “the old priests used to say” that “to work is to pray.” Why then does she now look only for politicians to say it? Are there no more pastors? Are today’s pastors incapable of saying it, mired in a truncated vision of their role in our lives, permanently stricken with prophetic laryngitis? Or is it that we no longer believe pastors matter?
The topic of mankind’s “dominion” over God’s created order is one that has been misunderstood by entire generations of Americans in the last half century. Many conscientious people of faith worry that the traditional Judeo-Christian values system in the West has dropped the ball when it comes to the environment and our usage of natural resources. While there are more than a few grains of truth in these charges, the emotional appeal of being on the side of Mother Nature can take its intellectual (and eventually, moral) toll on even the most sincere of Believers.
Let’s take a quick look at what Scripture has to say about all of this.
The concept of the American Dream can cause a fair amount of tension within the church, says Drew Cleveland. Some have gone as far as to make the American Dream a concept against which the church ought to be opposed:
The concern that this dream can be misused is not wholly invalid. Even Smith acknowledges that “this dream easily slides towards idolatry,” and yes, it is often true that a good thing can become an object of worship if not enjoyed in moderation. For many affluent and educated Americans, including some Christians, the American Dream is a materialistic desire for not only a job, a family, and a house with the white picket fence, but also a beach house, two SUVS, exotic vacations, big-screen TVs, the latest fashions, $5 lattes, etc. It is easy to see why other Christians oppose this perversion of the American Dream, which simply promotes the acquisition of treasures on earth or social privilege solely for self-glorification. But many of those who still long for the best of the American Dream are the marginal, the poor, the working class – those for whom education, steady work, and home ownership are life-long goals.
A recent story from Catholic News Service highlights an interesting encounter between markets and monasticism, a subject that I have commented on before, this time centered around the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia:
The monks in Norcia initially were known for their liturgical ministry, particularly sharing their chanted prayers in Latin online – http://osbnorcia.org/blog – with people around the world.
But following the Rule of St. Benedict means both prayer and manual labor, with a strong emphasis on the monks earning their own keep.
After just a year of brewing and selling their beer in the monastery gift shop and through restaurants in Norcia, financial self-sufficiency seems within reach, and the monks are talking expansion.
“We didn’t expect it to be so enormously successful,” said Fr. Cassian Folsom, the U.S. Benedictine who founded the community in 1998 and serves as its prior. “There’s been a huge response, and our production can’t keep up with the demand and the demand continues to grow.”
Beer brewing has been a traditional ministry of the Church for ages, going back to a time when water was unsafe to drink without first boiling it. The brewing process, as well as the alcohol, happens to purify the water from any harmful bacteria. This led St. Arnold of Metz (d. 640) to proclaim, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world!” I’ll drink to that.
While prayer and liturgy still come first at St. Benedict’s, the brothers have also found that the division labor — once referred to as “economic cooperation” — can also be a spiritual good:
Fr. Basil Nixen, the novice [brew]master, said the beer enterprise has raised the morale of the monks and reinforces their sense of community because all the monks are called on to help with some aspect of producing, bottling, distributing and selling the beer.
In addition to financial sustainability and koinonia, the brewing also has the goal of introducing more people to the life of faith:
“Here in Norcia, we’re at a very important place for evangelization” because so many tourists and pilgrims come through the town, he said. “We’re continually sharing with others our life, above all the liturgy.
“People come to the monastery for the beer,” he said, but they leave realizing God brought them to Norcia to meet him.
That’s the conclusion Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, has come to. The surrogacy business in India is booming. While statistics are hard to come by, according to one estimate, surrogacy brings in more than $2 billion a year to India. That does not translate to much money for the surrogate mothers, however. Women are paid about $8,000 for their medical expenses and having a baby. However, since it is typically poor women, many of whom are illiterate, that are targeted for surrogacy, many sign contracts they do not understand. India has few laws governing surrogacy, so the women have little or no rights. It is a situation ripe for abuse. (more…)
Today at Ethika Politika, I examine a few rules of prudent stewardship that follow from the teachings of the Cappadocian fathers on poverty, almsgiving, and fasting. One of the great challenges in this area today is how best to live out in our present context the statement of St. Basil the Great that “the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”
In particular, I highlight these three guidelines to help guide prudent practices:
[W]e must be wary of simplistic, one-sided policy proposals when life itself is, in reality, far more varied and complex.
It is not enough to have the right principles or the best intentions; we must also take the time to wade through the mess of conflicting studies and statistics, as well as the lessons of history, to discern what truly “works” — what makes compassion both effective and dignifying rather than mere moralizing sentiment, ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
The standard for determining what is “overabundance,” especially given a context where we enjoy great wealth but also face a high cost of living, is the conscience … and our sensitivity to it often depends upon our degree of spiritual formation.
The whole article can be found here.
Also, for a fuller treatment of the principles upon which these guidelines rely, be sure to read Fr. Philip LeMasters’ article “The Cappadocian Fathers on Almsgiving and Fasting” here.
In eleven states in the union, welfare pays more than the average pretax first-year wage for a teacher. In thirty-nines states, it pays more than the starting wage for a secretary. And, in the three most generous states a person on welfare can take home more money than an entry-level computer programmer.
Those are just some of the eye-opening and distressing findings in a new study by Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes of the Cato Institute on the “work versus welfare tradeoff.”
“Welfare benefits continue to outpace the income that most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the balance between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years,” say Tanner and Hughes. “The current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work. Welfare currently pays more than a minimum-wage job in 35 states, even after accounting for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and in 13 states it pays more than $15 per hour.”
What do Doug Wilson, William Evans, and I have in common? We’re all puzzled by the intramural attention D.G. Hart and Carl Trueman are paying to Tim Keller, Abraham Kuyper, and the “problem” of “transformationalism.” Trueman links Hart while raising concerns:
I was struck by [Hart's] account of Abraham Kuyper. Here was a (probable) genius and (definite) workaholic who had at his personal disposal a university, a newspaper and a denomination, and also held the highest political office in his land. We might also throw in to the mix that he did this at a time when European culture was far more sympathetic to broadly Christian concerns than that of the USA today. And Kuyper failed to affect any lasting transformation of society. Just visit Amsterdam today, if you can bear the pornographic filth even in those areas where the lights are not all red.
Trueman referencing the failure of Kuyper having a lasting “transforming” influence in contemporary Amsterdam seems to ignore the profound cultural and religious shifts in the Netherlands during and following World War II. Purdue University’s Jennifer L. Foray helps us understand some of these shifts in her recent article, “An Old Empire In A New Order: The Global Designs Of The Dutch Nazi Party, 1931–1942″ in the journal European History Quarterly. One would be hard pressed to assume that Kuyper’s influence could neutralize or supercede the effects of World War II in Dutch society in light of how the war affected Christianity in Western Europe in general. The University of Utah’s John G. Francis is also helpful in the 1992 article, “The Evolving Regulatory Structure Of European Church-State Relationships” published in the Journal of Church and State in understanding those shifts. There’s simply more to the story than Kuyper circa 1905 and Amsterdam in 2013.
In her historical study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, Helen Rhee offers the following interesting historical tidbit with regards to how early Christians were able to minister to their imprisoned brothers and sisters who awaited martyrdom:
Bribing the prison guards, which must have cost a certain amount, features frequently enough in the Christian texts. The impressive visiting privileges and hospitality Ignatius [d. 110] enjoyed at Philadelphia and Smyrna with the local Christians and the delegations from three other churches were likely gained by bribery as well…. It apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians; rather, it constituted a necessary part of supporting the prisoners since it enabled the churches to maintain contact with them (and thus to tend to their needs) and allowed the guards to be more favorably disposed to the Christians. Thus the Didascalia (19) … ordered the community members to spare no efforts to procure both nourishment for the condemned Christian prisoner and bribes for the guards so that everything possible might be done for his or her relief.
For those who are curious, the text from the Didascalia, a third century Christian community manual, reads as follows:
You shall not turn away your eyes from a Christian who for the name of God and for His faith and love is condemned to the games, or to the beasts, or to the mines; but of your labour and of the sweat of your face do you send to him for nourishment, and for a payment to the soldiers that guard him, that he may have relief and that care may be taken of him, so that your blessed brother be not utterly afflicted. [italics mine]
While Rhee notes that bribery “apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians” in the early Church, no doubt readers today may not so easily approve of the above direction to make provision for bribing guards. How might we better understand this anomaly? What measure of prudence guided this practice? (more…)