Category: Christian Social Thought

Today at Ethika Politika, I caution against the sort of scapegoating that justifies ideologies at the expense of human effort:

Do you support capitalism? Socialism? Distributism? Something else? Wonderful. What does that look like among the mess of market forms that actually constitute the economy you participate in every day? Rather than criticizing those policies that fall short of your saintly ideal or align too closely with your Hitler, what ones constitute a first step in the right direction for you? And why? And what are the actual consequences, intended or otherwise, that may come about?

While there is a place for simply outlining one’s ideal, if we wish to actually do some good ourselves, we need to get our hands dirty in the mire of material reality. Gnostic scorn for the concrete and this-worldly boasts a broad road with a wide gate, but it is the narrow road of reality that leads to life; not only for ourselves, but for the common good; not just for this world, but for the kingdom of God.

In his recent book Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action), Jordan Ballor begins with a similar call: (more…)

French economist Thomas Piketty

This summer’s issue of The City, which includes an article by myself on Orthodoxy and ordered liberty, opens with a symposium of five articles on “The Question of Inequality.” These include two articles on Pope Francis, two on French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and one on the Bible.

Having recently written a two part article on the subject for the Library of Law & Liberty (here and here), I took copious notes as the topic is an ongoing subject of research.

In order to recommend the symposium to our readers here, who no doubt have interest in the topic, I compiled the following highlights:

Josiah Neeley, “What Does Bono Know That the Pope Doesn’t?”

Argentina is now the world’s only “formerly developed” country.

[E]ven in the United States a great deal of inequality is the result not of the heroic innovator but of government favoritism.

Donald Devine, “Does Pope Francis Hate Capitalism?”

[B]y 1910 … Argentina’s per capita Gross Domestic Product [was] number ten in the world.

Peron’s Argentina [in the mid-twentieth century] was perhaps the first comprehensive welfare state…. [And] the result has been a much poorer country.

The actual experience of markets [contra Pope Francis] is hardly autonomy. The U.S., one of the freer countries, has 300,000 regulations.

[B]etween 2005 and 2010 the total number of poor in the world actually fell by half a billion people as trickle down prosperity lifted millions from absolute destitution.

Today’s reality is the over-regulatory welfare state, not wild markets. (more…)

nuns on the busIf you were told by your doctor to lose weight, you’d likely do what most people do: exercise more and eat healthier food. Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak have a better plan in mind:

Step 1: Start a fitness blog, collecting the best arguments you can find against obesity.

Step 2: Comb the Bible, Pope Francis’ Tweets, and the work of your fellow bloggers, for the choicest quotes on the deadly sin of Gluttony. Then post them in the comments threads of every article that seems relevant — such as blatantly fattening recipes that foodies selfishly post on their blogs.

Step 3: Spend at least four hours on Facebook and Twitter each day, sharing links and memes on the importance of physical fitness. Post photos of celebrities who have fallen out of shape, with snarky comments about the likely effects on their health and their careers.

Step 4: Write your congressman, your senator, and the President about the need for national legislation restricting the use of high fructose corn syrup in foods, and healthier school lunches in public schools.

Step 5: Add witty pro-fitness bumper stickers to your car.

Step 6: Join an activist group that pickets restaurants which refuse to post calorie counts.

(more…)

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Texas Easter Prison Visit_6“If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars,” wonders Stephen H. Webb, “how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?” At First Things, Webb argues that revival of Christianity will only come when we reform America’s prisons:

Prisoners are test cases of how Christians deal with sinners in extremis. I don’t just mean that compassion for the imprisoned can serve as a corroboration of Christian charity, although that is surely true. I mean that the whole experience of imprisonment is absolutely central to the coherence and credibility of the Gospel message. How can captivity, a great biblical theme, have any meaning today if we treat incarceration as nothing more than “serving time”? How can salvation be proclaimed as the ultimate joy even in this life if we live in a society that continues punishing prisoners long after they have been released?

One of the strongest parallels between prisons and theology has to do with our conceptions of the afterlife. For example, many people treat the possibility of rehabilitation behind prison walls with the same skeptical indifference that even devout Catholics now bestow upon purgatory: We can’t even fathom how moral change happens, if at all, in either place, so we leave its remote possibility up to God. Cynicism at home breeds disbelief abroad. Nobody believes that isolation and humiliation reform criminals, just as nobody really believes that a cleansing fire burns away unconfessed sins in purgatory, yet without any plausible alternatives to humiliation or fire, the healing effect of punishment remains as mysterious for the Church as it does for the judicial system.

Read more . . .

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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City Summer 2014In the most recent issue of The City, I have an essay on Orthodoxy and ordered liberty. I argue that Orthodox theological anthropology, which distinguishes between the image and likeness of God and two forms of freedom corresponding to them, fits well with the classical understanding of ordered liberty.

In particular, I examine these freedoms with regards to the family, religious liberty, political liberty, and economic liberty, arguing that the Orthodox ascetic tradition has much to offer to modern Christian social thought with regards to how best to order the freedom we have by virtue of being created after the image of God toward that freedom from passion and sin that finds its fulfillment in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of interest to our readers here, with regards to economic liberty, I write,

We are created with a capacity for freedom, autexousio, to be used for the purpose of the moral freedom of theosis: eleutheria. Thus, just as we ought to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices to God (cf. Romans 12:1), so also we are to offer up God’s creation to him through our labor. God has given us the earth in order “to tend and keep it” in a paradis[ai]cal state (Genesis 2:15). Thus, acknowledging … our propensity for failure, we nevertheless have a duty to make of God’s creation what we can, imitating the creativity of God and exercising the dominion he gave us (Genesis 1:26).

We must, then, have liberty in society to freely cultivate the resources of the earth for the sake of the higher good of self-sacrificing love. Helen Rhee affirms in Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, the consistent patristic teaching of both the affirmation of private property rights and our moral duties to use our property for the good of others (what is known in the West as the “universal destination of goods”)….

You can read the full article online here.

And while you’re at it, take the time to subscribe to The City. It’s free and published in print and online three times a year. Subscribe here.

community-muralWhat is a “community?” What are the boundaries of a community or organization? And – most important – why is community important?

Andy Crouch, writer, musician and Acton University plenary speaker, says we need to ask and answer these questions. He begins his discussion with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods. While the decision was sound, Crouch says it speaks to something beyond the law:

It reminds us that fewer and fewer of our neighbors understand how religious organizations—and all communities smaller than the state—contribute to human flourishing and the common good.

One essential question in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was the extent to which a for-profit corporation can hold to a religious (in this case, Christian) identity. In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited approvingly the idea that for-profit groups “use labor to make a profit, rather than to perpetuate a religious-values-based mission.”

The words rather than are key. In Justice Ginsburg’s view, it seems, corporations cannot serve—or at least the law cannot recognize that they serve—any god other than Mammon. She articulated an equally small view of nonprofits when she wrote that “religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith.”

(more…)

get-your-hands-dirtyIn a review by Micah Watson of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) earlier this year at The Gospel Coalition, Watson described the book as “akin to a social event with heavy hors d’oevres served throughout the evening.”

There were, however, some offerings in this tapestry of tapas, so to speak, that Watson thought deserved an entree presentation. For instance, Watson wonders about distinguishing principle from prudence, a framework that runs throughout the book and broader Christian social thought. What distinguishes, for instance, the biblical view of marriage, abortion, and poverty and the various ways to respect these teachings in practice?

Thus, argues Watson,

Christians must often determine what the genuinely Christian position is in a given context, taking stands on particular issues and even legislation—as they did during the struggle to end racial segregation in the American civil rights movement or in affirming the Barmen Declaration in 1930s Germany. Exercising such discernment may or may not require identifying who is in and out of the tent, but it surely requires determining what moral stands constitute authentic Christian witness.

He goes on to observe that “a season of uncomfortable but necessary clarification will be necessary” in today’s world.

I’m happy to add a bit here to that season of clarification, or what might better be called a season of suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14), a season of searing away the dross from our life and witness, which is just another name for sanctification.

How might this distinction between principle and prudence work out in particular cases?
(more…)

Accra Confession 2004The Accra Confession, a document arising out of the Reformed ecumenical movement, was promulgated ten years ago. At the time, Rev. Jerry Zandstra and I wrote with some rather harsh criticisms of the document.

In the meanwhile, the original group that organized the Accra Confession, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, merged with a smaller ecumenical group, the Reformed Ecumenical Council, to create the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). At the Uniting General Council held at Calvin College in 2010, where the status of the Accra Confession for the new movement was to be determined, the Acton Institute distributed a packet of material, including a book-length engagement with the Accra Confession and the larger mainline ecumenical movement’s economic witness.

In Ecumenical Babel I devote a full chapter to the Accra Confession as perhaps the most imbalanced and skewed of all the mainline ecumenical documents on economic justice. For other critical engagements of the Accra Confession, I recommend Stan du Plessis, “How Can You Be a Christian and an Economist? The Meaning of the Accra Declaration for Today,” and Roland Hoksbergen, “The Global Economy, Injustice, and the Church: On Being Reformed in Today’s World.”

There are a number of celebratory posts recognizing the anniversary of the confession at places like Ecclesio, and for a critical engagement of Ecumenical Babel you can read an essay by Christopher Dorn in Perspectives. (Ecumenical Babel was also reviewed for CommentCalvin Theological Journal, Journal of Markets & MoralityJournal of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Journal of Ecumenical Studies. I respond at some length to Dorn’s essay in my latest book, Get Your Hands Dirty.)

The World Communion of Reformed Churches purports to represent 80 million Christians of 229 member denominations in 108 countries. An ecumenical group of this significance and diversity can do better than the Accra Confession in its social witness, and after ten years, it must do better.

This summer during Acton University, I had the opportunity to be part of a recording for Moody Radio’s Up for Debate program, which has just recently been posted online. The subject for discussion was “Can Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians Learn from Each Other?”

The participants were Jay Richards (Roman Catholic), Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics and a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, John Stonestreet (Evangelical), Fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and me (Orthodox), an Acton research associate and assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

In answer to the question of the show, the short answer that we all seemed to come to was, yes, we do have a lot to learn from one another. Our talk ranged from issues of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church to the current discussion in the public square over same-sex marriage.

Head over to Moody Radio to listen to the program here.

Earlier this month, I wrote a two part article for the Library of Law & Liberty, critiquing the uncritical condemnation of income inequality by world religious leaders.

In part 1, I pointed out that “while the Pope, the Patriarch, the Dalai Lama, and others are right about the increase in [global income] inequality, they are wrong to conclude that this causes global poverty—the latter is demonstrably on the decline. And that, I would add, is a good thing.”

F. A. Hayek

In part 2, drawing on the work of F. A. Hayek, I noted, “As societies learn to use their resources ‘more effectively and for new purposes,’ the cost of manufacturing luxury goods decreases, making them affordable to new markets of the middle class and, eventually, even for the poor.” I continue, “Such inequality not only accompanies the very economic progress that lifts the poor out of poverty, it is one essential factor that makes that progress possible.”

We may add to this two more ways in which focusing solely on income inequality can be misleading from article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Nicholas Eberstadt: increased equality in lifespan and education. He writes,

Given the close correspondence between life expectancy and the Gini index for age at death, we can be confident that the world-wide explosion in life expectancy over the past century has been accompanied by a monumental narrowing of world-wide differences in length of life. When a population’s life expectancy rises from 30 to 70, the Gini index drops by almost two-thirds—from well over 0.5 to well under 0.2.

This survival revolution—and the narrowing of inequalities in humanity’s life chances—is an epochal advance in the human condition. Since healthy life expectancy seems to track closely with overall life expectancy, a revolutionary reduction in health inequality may also have occurred over the past century. Improvements in global mortality for the poor have contributed to the very “economic inequality” so many now decry. This is another reason such measures can be deceiving.

The spread and distribution of education has had a similar impact. In 1950 roughly half of the world’s adults—and the overwhelming majority of the men and women from low-income regions—had never been exposed to schooling. By 2010 unschooled men and women 15 and older account for a mere one-seventh of the world’s adults, and about one-in-six from developing areas. (more…)