Category: Virtue

St. Basil the Great

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.

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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.

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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.

St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred at the jaws of wild beasts in the Roman colosseum sometime around 110 AD.

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…)

rileycooper1Sometimes we are not aware of the foolishness of our private speech until our words go public. This is one of the morals of the story of Philadelphia Eagle’s receiver Riley Cooper’s n-word slip. In a video taken at a Kenny Chesney concert in June, Cooper became frustrated that an African-American security guard would not allow him backstage. With a beer in his hand Cooper responded, “I will jump this fence and fight every n***ger here, bro.” Cooper’s gaffe serves as a wake-up call for all of us, now that the dust seems to have settled from the controversy, because Cooper almost lost his job because his private speech went public.

In an apologetic press conference, Cooper repeatedly expressed regret over his response to the security guard by saying that he was “ashamed and disgusted.” Cooper continued, “This is not the type of person I want to be portrayed as. This isn’t the type of person I am. I’m extremely sorry.” It may be too late to avoid negative perceptions in the eyes of many because of the way he said it. It was his gut response after being challenged by an African-American in authority. It was not forced nor thoughtfully contemplated. Cooper’s response was visceral, natural, and raw.

“I don’t use that term. I was raised better than that. I have a great mom and dad and they’re disgusted with my actions,” Cooper said with a self-loathing gaze. But for those of us in the African-American community, though Cooper may not realize it, it will be hard for many of us to believe him. Generally speaking, words that you do not have in your lexicon are not usually spoken when frustrated. In fact, when a person is angry, especially when alcohol lessens inhibitions, we often see a person’s true self. We see their heart.

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One of the unintended consequences of the church growth movement was the narrowing of an understanding of how Christianity contributes to the common good by reducing what Christians contribute to the local church. While the church remains vital for the moral formation of society, there are other aspects of human flourishing that require the development of other institutions as Andy Crouch recently explained at Christianity Today.

This reduction has been adopted in some platforms that currently promote church planting. This church planting emphasis, in some cases, has led to an atrophied historical understanding of the Christian tradition’s emphasis on seeking the peace of the city through multiple institutions like schools, hospitals, professional societies, etc. While many churches are being planted in America’s most “strategic” cities, there seems to be little interest in coupling church planting with the creating of Christian schools to provide alternative education opportunities for children trapped in substandard public schools.

Let’s take New York City as an example:

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13317570-indoor-crime-sceneEmily Badger at The Atlantic Wire posts a common sense story regarding the debate about whether or not the dispersing of poor people out of inner-city housing projects into suburban neighborhoods, through government housing voucher programs, increases crime rates. The article reflects recent research by Michael Lens, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA.

A growing stack of research now supports [the] hypothesis that housing vouchers do not in fact lead to crime. Lens has just added another study to that literature, published in the journal Urban Studies. He looked at crime and housing data in 215 cities between 1997 and 2008 – controlling for national and regional crime trends, demographic and income variables, employment rates and more – and found “virtually no relationship” between the prevalence of Housing Choice Voucher Program households and higher crime at the city level or in the suburbs. In previous research, Lens and colleagues had investigated the same question at the neighborhood level.

“Although communities with a higher prevalence of voucher households appear to be higher in crime,” Lens writes, “there is no evidence that this is due to voucher households increasing crime.”

Lens’ findings should not sound too surprising given the fact that poverty does not cause criminal behavior in the first place. In fact, immoral behavior has never been a function of class but a matter of moral fortitude. Granted, poverty most certainly introduces particular temptations (Prov 30:8) but so does wealth (Prov 22:16). Poor people do not have more moral limitations than those who are wealthy. To assume such is make human dignity a function of class and once we cross that road, the poor find themselves the victims of patronizing oppression.

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adderallWhen a culture values individualism as a virtue, it sends a message to young people that what really matters in life is your performance. To make matters worse, this performance pressure is coupled with the idea that unless you are on top, you just don’t matter. In fact, if you sprinkle in a little anxiety about being materially successful in life on top of individualism you have the recipe for moral compromise. This is exactly what is happening on high school and college campuses across the West. Just as athletes are known for taking performance enhancing drugs in high school and college, students are falling prey to taking performance enhancing drugs to increase their test scores.

College professors are opening up to the idea of drug testing students for the use of “smart drugs” before exams just as we might test athletes for steroids before a major competition. The Telegraph newspaper recently reported the following:

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aa-bookIn a sermon to the class of 1864, Williams College President Mark Hopkins addressed the intimate and inevitable relationship between character and destiny, “Settle it therefore, I pray you, my hearers, once and forever, that as your character is, so will your destiny be.”

Within the academy, this basic prescription for earthly happiness, says Lewis M. Andrews, reigned supreme for almost three centuries, from Harvard’s founding in 1636 until the early twentieth century.

The typical centerpiece of the moral curriculum was a seminar, taught by the college president, that took up most of the senior year for undergraduate students and was designed to show them how to apply their newly acquired knowledge within a Christian context. University presidents of all denominations focused on the importance of good character and the dangers of vice and immorality.

Problems that are now thought of, at least to some extent, as mental health conditions — depression, discouragement, fear, loneliness, self-doubt, addiction, anxiety — were viewed in large part as consequences of the moral character of the students. Pursuing vengeance will depress us; a willingness to tell white lies leaves us anxious; manipulating others makes us lonely; and guilt can only be assuaged through some form of amends or atonement. Conversely, the college presidents taught their students that the proper application of moral and spiritual principles would enable them to build character and lead emotionally fulfilled and happy lives. While these principles were consistent with Christian theology, and their teaching often drew from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, or the parables of Jesus, they were reinforced with similar observations by classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plotinus.

But students learned also that even though adherence to moral principles leads to real happiness, the immediate pleasures or advantages that come from compromising one’s values can blind us to how such actions often leave us miserable and unhappy in the end. Everybody is tempted to believe that some things are so worth having that unethical choices are justified to achieve them. By an act of great self-deception, the perceived gains overshadow the real losses.

Andrews explains how these university presidents were pioneers of what we would now call mental health care, and why the history of spiritually based therapy is largely unknown:

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AApretzelsWhen walking through an airport or shopping mall the aroma hits me before I even see the store. If happiness had a scent I suspect it would smell like Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels. From the first whiff my knees go weak and my brain tells me that I will never know joy again if I pass up this salted, buttery, baked goodness. They are so good that I fully expect St. Peter hands them out at the Pearly Gates.

While I’ve long loved Auntie Anne’s, I never knew the inspiring story of it’s founder. Anne Beiler, a former “black-car Amish” tells Fortune Magazine how virtue and trust helped her become a successful entrepreneur. (She expanded her baked good empire with a loan from a Mennonite chicken farmer who “loved what we wanted to do, and he gave us $1.5 million on a handshake.”)

Beiler says Auntie Anne’s is a modern-day business miracle that never should have happened.

I had no formal education, capital, or business plan. But we practiced what I call the three small P’s. We started with a purpose — counseling and helping people. We had a product that supported our purpose. Then we got the people to do it. The three small P’s, in that order, result in the big P — profit. If you stay true to your values and purpose, you will get to profit.

Here’s her advice for running a business:

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One of the consistent themes in Christian social teaching is the recognition that this world has both material and spiritual realities. As such, it is not only important that we think about the moral, political, and economic structures that contribute to set the stage for human flourishing but that we also pray for those who are suffering that they would be free to live out their callings as human persons made in God’s image.

The Friday weekly intercessory prayer from the The Book of Common Prayer from the Church of Ireland directs our attention to these populations.

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Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.