Category: News and Events

I wrote a piece on the Church’s response to disaster relief in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty. The article for R&L is in part an extension of my commentary “Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity” after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. in May.

Being a Katrina evacuee myself, I returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a time after seminary and the devastation of so many things I was familiar with and had known was simply surreal. I even went along for some in home visits and I can tell you that listening to people and empathizing with their plight is just as important as any material and financial assistance. Perhaps more so, because when the shock wears away a malaise can set in if people believe that their circumstances will not change even if the financial help is there. This is how some Katrina survivors fell into a long term cycle of dependency because they saw no hope for a brighter day.

The wake of devastation tends to push many churches and volunteers towards an even more authentic ministry. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) video below says it all: “Speak from your heart. People don’t need platitudes or everything is going to be alright. They need honesty.”

Methodism’s founder was John Wesley and the denomination exploded out of the 18th century English revival and primarily in this country through circut riders who went anywhere and everywhere where souls were present. After his evangelical conversion in 1738, Wesley was banned from preaching in many English churches and many of the country’s religious leaders tried to stop him from preaching outside as well, charging him with trespassing on their parishes. His famous retort: “I look upon the whole world as my parish.” It is said that John Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles in his life to preach the gospel. Most of that was on horseback. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901 miles.

Methodism’s credibility shined because it was a church that rolled up its sleeves and reached out to the middle and lower classes. The marginalized and ‘least of these’ were reminded that their worth was infinite in Christ. George Whitefield, another 18th century Methodist revivalist, recorded just one illustration in his journal as an example when he preached to the rough and materially poor miners in Kingswood, England. Whitefield wrote in his journal : “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One coal miner told Whitefield, “We never knew anybody loved us.”

One thing I tried to highlight a little in my piece is that even now church agencies and ministries are still involved in the rebuilding and restoration after Hurricane Katrina. Next month will be the sixth anniversary of the hurricane. Long after cameras and the media sensation rolled in and out work is being done to transform lives and hearts. The Mennonite Disaster Service has been especially faithful when it comes to meeting the long term needs of disaster victims. They are living out these words by David Livingstone, the 19th century Scottish missionary to Africa, who asked, “If a commission by an earthly king is considered a honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”

The future of corn ethanol is up in the air, and while the Senate gave signs of repealing both the subsidy and the tariff on imported ethanol, the bill the repeal was attached to failed and Congress is back to square one in the ethanol debate. The uncertain future of corn ethanol has brought forth discussion on the possibility of importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

Before the U.S. begins importing ethanol from Brazil, a broad cost benefit analysis needs to be taken by the government to decide if it is actually a smart decision to begin importing and using sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

A concern of many critics of alternative fuels is whether or not alternative fuels can meet demand. According to the Energy Tribune, corn ethanol cannot meet U.S. demand whereas even the country turned all of its corn into ethanol only 6 percent of its total annual oil needs would be met.

This leaves ethanol supporters looking for another energy source to help close the gap. They may be looking no further than the sugar cane based ethanol produced in Brazil. However, even importing Brazilian ethanol will leave the U.S. looking for another energy resource.

In 2010 the U.S. consumed 138.6 billion gallons of gasoline and Brazil currently produces about 7.4 billion gallons of sugar cane based biofuels. Importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil while still consuming corn ethanol does not even get the U.S. close to meeting its energy demands especially when 75 percent of Brazil’s ethanol output is sold within its borders, and it experienced a shortage earlier this year.

And the simplistic answer to this problem, planting more sugar cane, may not be the best solution. The Brazilian government has been surprised by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Brazil’s space research institute, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest increased from 103 sq km in March and April 2010 to 593 sq km during the same period this year. This surprised the Brazilian government which reported that deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years when actually there was a 27 percent jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011. The biggest rise in deforestation was in Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil’s soybean harvest. However, what does that have to do with sugar cane causing deforestation?

A 2010 article by Foreign Policy explains how sugar cane based ethanol fosters “agricultural displacement” resulting in the deforestation of the rainforest:

Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” In a withering blow to Stephanes’s credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.

Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as “agricultural displacement.” Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.

The same article by Foreign Policy states that sugar cane crops have also led to the deforestation in the Atlantic rainforest.

There are still many unintended consequences and factors the United States needs to take into account before importing sugar cane based ethanol. CNNMoney published an article stating that, “Some experts say the Brazilian formula gets even less gas mileage than its corn ethanol counterpart, which itself gets lower mileage generally than gasoline.” Furthermore, biofuels will have an adverse effect on food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuels will absorb 13 percent of global coarse grain production, 15 percent of vegetable oil, and some 30 percent of sugar by 2020. Again, what is more important, food or fuel? How are the poor and vulnerable expected to purchase food when it is being shipped to prosperous countries for fuel?

Just like corn based ethanol, sugar cane based ethanol also has its consequences. Experts continue to debate whether sugar cane based ethanol is a viable option. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, policy makers need to take a pragmatic approach when discussing the energy future of the U.S.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the annual conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and expressed particular concern over rising food prices and the instability of the global food market. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the pope issued this challenge: “The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”

Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg has done much to illuminate those structural causes and their effects on the agricultural capacity of developing countries. In an interview with EWTN two months ago, he talked about two of the most important drivers of high food prices: farm subsidies and energy costs.

“All the subsidies that go into agriculture—through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies—have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” said Dr. Gregg. African farmers cannot compete with their counterparts in the first world who are able to sell their produce at artificially low prices, and so developing countries end up turning away from food production. In the long run, this decrease in supply causes prices to rise.

Energy prices also affect the cost of food: the more a farmer pays for gasoline, the more he has to recoup from the sale of his crops. Again, market imbalances are causing prices to rise—OPEC, the cartel that controls a substantial amount of the world’s crude oil, determines its supply, and so “there’s a disparity between supply and demand,” Dr. Gregg explained. “OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices”

U.S. energy policy is also to blame: from drilling moratoriums to ethanol subsidies, the federal government has effectively introduced inefficiency to energy markets.

Developing countries must be allowed to produce food without being undercut by Western protectionism and too-costly energy. When free markets are hindered, the poor suffer most.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

Wayne Grudem

Religion & Liberty’s spring issue featuring an interview with evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem is now available online. Grudem’s new book is Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan 2010). It’s a great reference and I have already made use of it for a couple commentaries and PowerBlog posts here at Acton. “I am arguing in the book that it is a spiritually good thing and it is pleasing to God when Christians can influence government for good,” Grudem declared in the interview.

“The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast”
is a piece I wrote for this issue focusing on the faith community’s response to the tornadoes in the South, Joplin, Mo, and Hurricane Katrina. Pastor Randy Gariss of Joplin and Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa, Ala. were extremely generous with their time and helped to shape this article. Below is an excerpt from the article on Pastor Gariss’s thoughts on the response:

‘The churches are far better about getting out of their buildings now,’ said Randy Gariss, pastor of College Heights Church in Joplin. ‘Before it was more of a bunker mentality with some churches because of the cultural wars, but so many more churches are building relationships with the whole community.’

David Paul Deavel offers an excellent review of Daniel J. Mahoney’s, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order in the issue. The title of his review is “Saving Liberalism from Itself” and in the review he declares:

Under modernity, Mahoney argues, liberty is too often reduced to ‘a vague and empty affirmation of equality and individual and collective autonomy’ that ‘is inevitably destructive of those ‘contents of life’—religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship—that enrich human existence and give meaning and purpose to human freedom.’

“Debt, Finance, and Catholics” is a piece authored by Sam Gregg. Rev. Robert Sirico offers “The Church’s Social Teaching is One Consistent Body of Thought.”

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is Richard John Neuhaus. I met Neuhaus on Capital Hill when I was working at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He was very close to a philosophy professor of mine at seminary and Neuhaus was very familiar with Asbury Theological Seminary, where I was a student at the time. I specifically remembered he knew a lot about John Wesley and the 18th Century evangelical revival in England.

Nuehaus had a real pastoral heart to go along with his sharp mind and he seemed to have an encouraging word for everybody. “Wealth and Whimsy: On Economic Creativity” is an excellent essay from 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus that is certainly worth the read. There is more content in this issue so please check it out and if you ever wish to share any ideas or provide feedback on Religion & Liberty feel free to offer that in the comment section below.

Update: Thanks to Adam Forrest for linking the Grudem interview on the Zondervan blog.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains  morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.

Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Moneyed Yuppies. Source: Hipster Christianity

An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against

…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.

Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:

…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.

As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.

So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:

Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.

The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.

In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says,

Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.

Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).

I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ,

My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)

Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.