Category: Christian Social Thought

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, September 29, 2016
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While many Christians have undermined human liberty, says Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research for Acton, a new book of essays shows just how much of our contemporary freedom we owe to the Christian church, Christian thinkers, and Christian practice rather than liberals and liberalism.

Any discussion of freedom and Christianity quickly surfaces the numerous instances in which Christians have undermined human liberty. Reference is invariably made to the various Inquisitions, the witch trials conducted by Puritans, forced conversions, and other instances of intolerance.

A particular strength of this collection of essays is that none of the authors denies that Christians and Christian institutions have on many occasions violated the rightful freedoms of others. This frank acknowledgment, however, is accompanied by an argument that permeates many of the papers: that it was, for the most part, Christianity that provided the moral, theological, and cultural principles upon which Christians and others have drawn to condemn unjust coercion. In other words, people have relied, consciously or otherwise, on Christian resources to identify and correct violations of freedom, including those committed in the name of the Christian faith. This suggests that liberalism by itself did not—and perhaps never could—generate the conceptual tools needed for this type of critique.

Read more . . .

How should Christians address predatory lending that takes advantage of the poor when they are in dire straits? As I’ve argued before, I believe a helpful first step is to get churches and other faith-based organizations involved in providing short-term loans and financial counseling. But sometimes education and sacrificial generosity is not enough to solve the problem, and communities have to pursue other measures.

A prime example is found in Texas where several groups—including an alliance of Baptists and Catholics—worked to defend the poor against the payday loan industry. Deidox Films produced The Ordinance—a documentary which you can watch in its entirety below—that shows what can happen when churches, nonprofits, and individuals join together to protect the vulnerable.

“I have a simple hypothesis,” writes economist Tyler Cowen. “No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.”

Cowen believes this explains why people “get so teed off” at the media:

The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. You hold more of a grudge from the status slights than you get a positive and memorable charge from the status agreements.

In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.

In return you resent the media.

Cowen’s friend and fellow economist Arnold Kling made a similar claim earlier this summer about politics: “a major role of political ideology is to attempt to adjust the relative status of various groups.” One outcome of this is that,
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RatzingerIn a new article for Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at Acton, talks about the “Regensburg Address” and what it means 10 years later.  Benedict XVI’s speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006 “managed to identify the inner pathology that is corroding much of the world, how this malignancy emerged, and what can be done to address it.”

According to Gregg, this speech “showed how a collapse of faith in full-bodied conceptions of reason explains so much of our world’s evident disarray.” But the Roman Pontiff didn’t just pull this idea out of nowhere; this is a concept that has been long featured in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings.   Gregg goes on to explain:

For what is at stake, Ratzinger believes, is nothing less than humanity’s ability to know the truth. And if man is defined as not just the one who knows, but as the one who knows that he knows, any faltering in his confidence that human reason can know truth that is more than empirical not only leads to the dead ends of fideism or sentimentalism. It obliterates man’s very distinctiveness. At the same time, recovering this confidence in reason has never, for Ratzinger, been about turning the clock back to a pre-Enlightenment world. In many ways, it’s about saving modernity from itself by opening its mind to the full grandeur of reason and, ultimately, the First Cause from which all else proceeds.

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Today at Public Orthodoxy, the blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, I have an essay on the need for Orthodox theology to more seriously engage modern economic science. The argument would likely apply in some degree to other theological traditions as well.

I write,

Personal relationships and the monastic life have different norms than impersonal markets. This does not mean that markets have no norms, nor that the norms of markets should overrule any other concerns. But it does mean that if we wish for our economies to be more moral, whether we hail from the political right or left (or somewhere outside of that simplistic binary), we must first understand what they are and how they function.

In the article, I quote Peter Hill and John Lunn on this distinction, but it can be found in the work of Paul Heyne as well. For example, in his essay “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” citing a newspaper article about Mother Theresa (now officially recognized as a Roman Catholic saint as of this past Sunday), he wrote,

I shall conclude with two recent newspaper items. One is a short news item reporting that Mother Teresa was about to appeal to prevent the execution of a convicted California murderer. I don’t know whether she did appeal or not, but the newspaper said that she was going to call the Governor and say that this man should be forgiven because that is what Jesus would have done. Now I don’t want to get into the issue of capital punishment; I just want to point out that if Mother Teresa made that argument she was mixing different moralities. I choose Mother Teresa because I can’t think of a person for whom I have more respect; she is a far better person than I am. But forgiveness is appropriate only in face-to-face relations or for God. The criminal-justice system of the State of California is not God nor is it running a face-to-face society. A judge who forgives a convicted criminal is not a candidate for sainthood but for impeachment. The morality of large social spheres is simply different from the morality of face-to-face systems. Arguments against capital punishment must take those differences into account, and so must our arguments for revised economic policies.

This is a crucial distinction that I have come back to again and again, and one that I explore in more detail at Public Orthodoxy today. Read my full essay here.

Harvestor workingMany view Labor Day as a celebration of all forms of work. The origins of the holiday come from the labor union movement, which for some is not so laudable. This leads some free-market advocates to refer instead to “Capital Day.”

One might be tempted to respond as parents often do when kids ask why there is a separate Father’s or Mother’s Day but no “Kid’s Day.” The answer: Every day is Kid’s Day. Perhaps every day is Capital Day and it is worth singling out the particularly human element of a productive and free economy.

In his historic encyclical from thirty-five years ago, Pope John Paul II refused to allow the dynamic relationship between labor and capital to be a zero-sum, either/or binary. To do so, he thought, is to grant a basic (and flawed) argument of Marxism.

Thus John Paul II asserted the priority of the subjective value of labor, but connected that effort historically to bygone generations of laborers who came before and left behind a productive legacy. In this way, capital is really “the result of the historical heritage of human labour.”

He continues:

All the means of production, from the most primitive to the ultramodern ones-it is man that has gradually developed them: man’s experience and intellect. In this way there have appeared not only the simplest instruments for cultivating the earth but also, through adequate progress in science and technology, the more modern and complex ones: machines, factories, laboratories, and computers. Thus everything that is at the service of work, everything that in the present state of technology constitutes its ever more highly perfected “instrument”, is the result of work.

So do celebrate Labor Day, or Capital Day if you must, but don’t fall into the trap of pitting one against another as if either reality exists independently. And don’t forget the “man” in “manual labor.”

 Sold into slavery, Joseph is put in charge of Potiphar’s household. Potiphar “entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (Genesis 39:4-5 [NIV]).You may not recognize it, but this is one of the first mentions of both stewardship and economy in Scripture.

The word stewardship comes from the Greek word oikonomia, which refers to someone who manages a household and is the root of the English word “economy.” Joseph began by controlling a household and would eventually control the entire economy of Egypt. In all of history, there have been few stewards who gained the status and power of Joseph.

Stewardship is an important concept in the Bible, since we are stewards in God’s household, his economy of all things. Here are three things we should know about stewardship:
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