Category: News and Events

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
By

From “The Origin of Russian Communism” by Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev (published by Geoffrey Bles, 1937):

Marxism is not only a doctrine of historical and economic materialism, concerned with the complete dependence of man on economics, it is also a doctrine of deliverance, of the messianic vocation of the proletariat, of the future perfect society in which man will not be dependent on economics, of the power and victory of man over the irrational forces of nature and society. There is the soul of Marxism, not in its economic determinism.

In a capitalist society man is completely determined, and that refers to the past. The complete dependence of man upon economics can be explained as a sin of the past. But the future is otherwise; man can be freed from slavery. And the active agent which frees humanity from slavery and establishes the best life, is the proletariat.

To it are ascribed messianic attributes, to it are transferred the attributes of the chosen people of God; it is the new Israel. This is a secularization of the ancient Hebrew messianic consciousness. The lever with which it will be possible to turn the world upside down has been found. And there Marx’s materialism turns into extreme idealism.

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 9, 2009
By

From the opening page of Lester DeKoster’s Communism and Christian Faith (1962):

For the mysterious dynamic of history resides in man’s choice of gods. In the service of his god — or gods (they may be legion) — a man expends his energies, commits his sacrifices, devotes his life. And history is made. Understand Communism, then, as a religion; or miss the secret of its power! Grasp the nature of this new faith, and discern in contrast to it the God who alone can oppose its onward march; or misapprehend the character of the contest in which mankind is engaged, and misconceive our own historic task.

Excerpts from remarks delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2009:

Twenty years ago today, a growing tide of men and women in Eastern Europe and northern Asia were shaking off the miasma that had led so many to imagine that central economic planning could work. The socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe—accepted as ontological realities whose existence could not be questioned—were, well, being questioned.

On November 4th, 1989, a million anti-Communist demonstrators took to the street in East Berlin. Three days later the entire East German Politburo resigned. In short order — the sort of event that television journalists live for — a hole appeared in the Berlin Wall, a hole big enough for hope to pour through. The East German borders opened and by Christmas, thousands were dancing atop the dead body of the Leviathan wall, that hideous symbol, tearing at it with bare hands, champagne bottles, hammer and sickles—anything that was available.

How could we in the West have tolerated that Wall in Germany for so long? From our perspective today it is obvious that the wall would eventually fall, but remember that in 1987 when Ronald Reagan called upon Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the international media either ignored his words or criticized them as the simplistic bravado of a Hollywood cowboy. The President’s own advisors were divided, with his National Security Adviser, Colin Powell, objecting to what Reagan planned to say.

It was only after 1989 that President Reagan’s words became iconic. Reagan understood something that many of the Beltway experts had somehow forgotten or never learned — there is, in the human heart, an innate thirst for liberty. I suppose this is so because it is so closely tied to our very nature as creatures fashioned in the image of a free, rational and creative God: We thirst for freedom because we are created for, and called to, freedom and its complement, personal responsibility.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Communism, was a great triumph, but the danger has been and remains that this grand victory some 20 years ago will render complacent the free peoples of the West. The threat today is not a physical wall through the heart of Berlin but walls no mason ever dreamed about or touched.

The American founders understood this: They warned that freedom cannot long endure without virtue, without vigilance. Because our choices are those to be made by intelligent beings who were designed by Intelligence, these choices are not the result of mere instincts like those of animals. They are choices, furthermore, that should be appropriate to creatures whose beginning is purposeful and not random, oriented to the truth of all things.

And that is the scandal of the Berlin Wall — and every barrier like it against liberty. Some are great and others are small, some obvious and others discreet — yet all of them seek to wall us off from our own humanity, to alienate us from the very part of ourselves that cannot be slotted into some planner’s tidy equations, or reduced to the arithmetic of animal appetite.

We are blessed not to live behind walls that would force us to swim shark infested waters, or race through border guard crossings to the sound of bullets striking all around us. And yet the planners, those builders of walls, haven’t given up planning, haven’t given up laying brick upon brick upon brick.

I’m not talking about some secret conspiracy. I’m talking about more mundane things — mundane because they have so long been with us, mundane because—at least until recently — they grew so very gradually, the brick upon brick, the little and now not so little walls rising all around us, innocuously labeled “the mixed economy.”

These walls come in the guise of stimulus packages that distort our markets and our knowledge, that steal away a bit of your future and that of your children by inflationary polices and transgenerational tax liabilities; walls that discourage our charitable impulse and restrict entrepreneurial courage, that encourage fiscal irresponsibility and punish thrift; that encourage vice and envy, that sacrifice liberty for security and, in the devil’s bargain, lose them both.

Last year I noted the frustration and bewilderment that many were experiencing, especially those who believe in and have fought to build the free and virtuous society, a frustration and bewilderment at what we were seeing around us. That was a short time before a whole new political atmosphere took hold. Since then we have seen this breathtaking lurch toward greater centralized planning and redistribution turn into what to many of us feels like a runaway locomotive: Government banks, government mortgage companies, government automobile companies, government healthcare, government religious charities. And all of this is just a warm up for an appropriation of the entire energy sector—cap and trade. Cap and smother would come closer to the truth.

We are compelled to confront the danger of the political-economic scales tipping from productivity to dependency, from business to bureaucracy, from energy to envy, from trade to tariffs, and from creativity and courage to corporate-government collusion, collectivism and cowardice—where more people in society live, not off the noble work of their own hands, but out of the largess of the statist trough.

We might be weary of the struggle, fatigued and discouraged—amazed that people around us just don’t seem to “get it.”

And we would have cause for such pessimism.

Then I remember the years leading up to 1989. The people who brought that victory about were not defeatist or compliant.

A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reaching from the frozen tundra of the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England, Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a rough and crude Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a workers’ revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, John Paul II, who on his appearance on the world stage bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face to face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.

It is a remarkable testament to the human thirst for freedom under such hardship and against such odds—in the midst of deprivation and with guns pointed at them—all they were able to achieve, these mothers and fathers of freedom. Their example calls us not to acquiesce to the softer, more insidious and seductive tyranny of our own time, but to redouble our efforts.

Their example also calls us to remember what too many of us today have forgotten: We are beings with a destiny both in and beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom.

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Acton adjunct scholar and sometime PowerBlog contributor Eric Schansberg links to a bit of background to Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate provided by Anthony Dolan, Reagan’s head speechwriter, in today’s WSJ.

Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg GatePeter Robinson is credited with the famous utterance, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In his remarks at this year’s Acton Institute Annual Dinner, Rev. Robert A. Sirico recalled that President Reagan’s challenge was derided by the world’s media at the time. As Dolan writes, in this speech it was thought that Reagan “would embarrass himself and the country by asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was going to be there for decades.” It wasn’t until the Wall fell a mere two years later that the prescience of Reagan’s challenge was validated.

For more on presidential speechwriters, check out the Podium Pundits blog, which “brings together former presidential speechwriters, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, to analyze and comment on major speeches, messaging strategy, and the business of communications.” Also be sure to check out Ray Nothstine’s reflections on this same anniversary from two years ago, in which he relates the views of another Acton Annual Dinner speaker, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar.

Cardus’ Robert Joustra rightly pillories “fair trade” along with the logic of foreign aid in a challenging article, “Fair Trade and Dead Aid: ‘My Voice Can’t Compete with an Electric Guitar.'”

Joustra’s point of departure is sound: “The aid model is not working, and no large-scale cash infusion or debt forgiveness scheme is going to make it suddenly start working. The fair trade brand is too small-scale and ultimately regressive.”

Unfortunately, though, Joustra’s well-placed critique of the fair trade movement underestimates the scope of the movement’s vision. With regard to coffee, for instance, Global Exchange has called for “a total transformation of the coffee industry, so that all coffee sold in this country should be Fair Trade Certified.”

The logic of fair trade in fact requires such wholescale paradigm shifts. But Joustra critiques the movement in part because it does not, on his view, represent the needed “long-term substantive critiques of the global social and political architecture.”

Joustra conclude that “as long as our consciences are salved by feel-good coffee branding and knee-jerk check writing campaigns, we won’t take the hard look we need at the architecture of global capitalism and bring about the social innovation that is necessary for genuine architectonic reformation.”

The problem with fair trade is not that it is not a comprehensive alternative to so-called global capitalism. It is that undermines the proper functioning of the market by artificially manipulating the price mechanism, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences, some of which Joustra notes, promoting “unprofitable work, and subsidizing unprofitable and undiversified economies.”

The critical questions that remain for Joustra and others are these: Does the proposed architectonic alternative to the current system properly value the role of markets or not? Do the corporatist and governmental abuses of “global capitalism” (e.g. subsidies, price fixing, and so on) need to be addressed, or are the philosophies of fair trade and aid not sufficiently communitarian? Is the basic problem free trade and liberal economic globalization itself or the distortions thereof?

Update: Robert Joustra cogently addresses my questions. His answers, in part:

First, I believe capitalism, particularly coupled with the rule of law in a culture of virtue and long-term’ism, is a sound economic system. But our capitalism has degraded to an obsession with utilitarian short-term materialism. Some are apt to blame the system, but consumerism is nothing new – the scale which modernity enables us to practice it on is. That can entice us to be overly critical of the system which facilitates it, but I remain convinced that the deep “sites” of resistance to global consumerism are not our politics or our institutions, but our homes, churches and grocery stores. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture and our culture is saturated with short-term materialism.

I find very little with which to quibble in these answers. Read the whole thing.

Machiavelli’s succinct and semi-diabolical advice to the prince is one of the most enduring works of political philosophy in the world. This man, writing in a time roughly contemporaneous with the Reformation, was less concerned with seeking the will of God than with winning at all costs. I wrote about him in my book The End of Secularism.

He is famous for advising the prince that it is important to appear honest, humane, religious, faithful, and charitable, but that it is equally important the prince be ready to abandon any of those attributes when opportunity presents itself. The prince should not worry about whether he will gain a bad reputation for deception, because, as Machiavelli suggests, there are always ordinary people willing to be deceived and the world is FULL of ordinary people.

The primary thrust of the book is advice about how to gain principalities and to maintain control of them. Many things work to a prince’s advantage, such as traditions of servitude and customs that reinforce the reign of a prince. But there is one thing that puts sand in the princely engine and grinds things to a halt. That thing is a tradition of liberty. If a people are accustomed to liberty, Machiavelli writes, then they will never stop trying to regain it. Even if they haven’t had it for a hundred years, the ancestral memory of liberty will be overpoweringly strong. It may be so strong that no manipulative device of the prince will be able to defeat it and he may have no other option than to destroy such a city.

Might I suggest to you that on Tuesday night we saw Americans in New Jersey and Virginia issue notice that they are not prepared to trade their liberty for hyper-statism and that they are not ready to become Europeans, always more subservient to the state than we have been, instead of free citizens of a great republic? The tradition of liberty is one of the greatest weapons we have in this struggle.

When William F. Buckley thought about the possible triumph of the United States in the Cold War, he imagined that American children would someday be thankful that “the blood of their fathers ran strong.” Let our blood, too, run strong with the cherished memory of our past and present liberty.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
By

The Dave Ramsey Show appears on Fox Business Network and is also available for live streaming via Hulu.

In last Thursday’s episode (at about the 18:00 mark), a Twitter follower of @ramseyshow asked, “I want to start giving. How do I find the right charity for me and how do I find out if the charity is legit?”

Dave’s short answer: “You have to spend time on it.” He expands a bit, but that’s a great starting point. You need to develop a personal relationship of accountability with charities that you support. Dave goes on to describe his personal giving patterns, which include giving to only a few charities, but doing so “lavishly.”

There are some tools available to help you find the right charity. The standard places to go to get financial information about charities are GuideStar and Charity Navigator. You can get some basic data at these sites, including access to 990 financial forms, for free. The Acton Institute has worked to develop a complementary tool focusing on faith-based nonprofits that rely on private dollars called The Samaritan Guide.

WORLD Magazine recently announced the winner of its own inaugural Hope Award for Effective Compassion, Forgiven Ministry of Taylorsville, N.C., “through which volunteers from local churches create days of reconciliation and forgiveness for more than 1,000 inmates, children, and families.” Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky, WORLD’s editor-in-chief, discussed the three finalists for the award in the latest WORLD Forum podcast (Nov. 3).

In an appearance last month on Huckabee, Olasky described the idea of compassionate conservatism: “The concept of compassionate conservatism is that the people in their neighborhoods know best what their neighborhoods need,” Olasky said. “If you had $500 that you could decide how to spend to fight poverty in some way, rather than sending it to Washington, would you know of a group in your own neighborhood that could use the money more effectively than Washington could? So, why do we keep sending the money to Washington in the hope that a little bit of it will trickle back in?”

Light for the CityIn connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.

“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.

And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.

Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
By

Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

––––

Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I offered a commentary related to his recently closed environmental symposium in New Orleans. He said this:

For if all life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it … no one doubts that there is a connection and balance among all things animate and inanimate on this third planet from the Sun, and that there is a cost or benefit whenever we tamper with that balance.

Words pleasing to the ear, perhaps. But the Patriarch’s environmental ethic has a hollow core. Writing on the blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I have shown how for nearly 20 years Bartholomew has issued equivocations and evasions on the Orthodox Church’s clear teaching on the sanctity of life. And it goes on. This is from his 2008 book, “Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today” (p. 150):

I also encounter many and diverse issues related to the sanctity of life from birth through death. Those issues range from sensitive matters of sexuality to highly controversial questions like the death penalty. In all such social and moral issues, it is not one or another position that the Orthodox Church seeks to promote in a defensive spirit. Indeed, we would normally refrain from expounding a single rigidly defined dogma on social and moral challenges. Rather, it is the sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, that the Church at all times seeks to underline.

In stark contrast to this statement, see the Russian Orthodox Church’s clear and unambiguous position in its statement on the Orthodox Church and Society:

The Church has always considered it her duty to protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, namely, unborn children. Under no circumstances the Orthodox Church can bless abortion.

Of course, the hollow core of Bartholomew’s environmental ethic leaves the Green Patriarch’s ministry open to all sorts of anti-human vulnerabilities. As Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse, president of AOI, has written in response:

Perhaps the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarch’s] equivocations on abortion explains the affinity with the alarmism of progressive environmentalism. The alarmism is essentially misanthropic (mis-anthropos — hate man); it views the human person as spoiler, rather than part, of the environment. (The language of stewardship is used in progressive apologetics, but the definition of the term is reserved for those who hold to progressive cultural prescriptions.) Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the misanthropic theme in broader philosophical terms back in 1979: The Great Liberal Death Wish.

Reducing the value of a person to private opinion means that man has no more value than an animal, and viewing man as mere animal is a descent into madness. Human rights activist Wesley J. Smith rightly discerns the barbarous end of this thinking and calls for a new ethic of “human exceptionalism” in Orthodox Advocate For “Human Exceptionalism”. Hopefully other human rights activists will take heed.

Having wrapped up his environmental program, Bartholomew is now preparing for a round of briefings in Washington with Democratic Party leaders and a meeting with President Obama that is being arranged by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. CAP is also co-sponsoring a speech by Bartholomew with Georgetown University on Nov. 3.

Read A patriarch who, ‘generally speaking, respects human life’ on the Observer blog at AOI.

A bit of background. (more…)