Archived Posts September 2010 | Acton PowerBlog

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I remember German reunification and reflect on its relevance for the present.

Twenty years ago this Sunday, East and West Germany reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern history. Communism in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites had collapsed; the oppressed nations of Europe rejoined the “free world.”

My generation was the last to straddle the two worlds, pre- and post-Soviet Union. When I was in elementary and high school, fear of atomic annihilation was real. The USSR was the great, looming adversary on the world stage. Debate over the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” was the ominous focus of international policy discussions.

Read the rest here.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

Robert Joustra, writing on the website of the Canadian think tank Cardus, has published a thoughtful review of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. The reviewer understands that when,

… controversial social science infiltrates ecclesial confessions, twin dangers emerge: compromising the integrity of the Gospel, and splitting the church on political and economic issues. Ecumenical superstructures claiming to speak with ecclesial authority on technical matters worry me, even when technical experts are enlisted. The point is not just that expertise can be limited in these cases—it’s that different institutions have differing spheres of authority and competency.

How, then, should the church speak? Ballor provides good signposts by talking about churches preaching justice, rather than prescribing policy. The environment, for example, must be stewarded and protected, certainly. But does that specifically mean cap and trade or renewable energy investment? Should the church as denomination really have an opinion on these particular issues? Wouldn’t such an opinion violate its own sphere of authority and uncomfortably blur lines with the task of government and public policy? Accountability on principles is one thing; policy advocacy is quite another.

Joustra weighs in none too soon. Over the past few days, Christian ecumenical organizations have been busy issuing press releases and official statements in and around and following the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which took place in New York on Sept. 20-22.

Typical of the language employed by the ecumenical-industrial complex (Jordan’s apt phrase) are these lines from a letter sent by World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

In pursuit of just trade, churches have specifically called for international regulations to end agricultural import dumping which has displaced and impoverished millions of small farmers. Just trade also means addressing declining terms of trade faced by developing countries by establishing international commodity agreements setting stable base prices for products.

[ … ]

Insofar as nation-states have the responsibility for upholding peoples’ economic, social and cultural rights, the MDG Review Summit must put in place binding mechanisms and accountability frameworks to ensure that commitments are met and the maximum of resources are made available for the MDGs.

You would think from reading this that ending global poverty was simply a matter of the UN master minds “regulating” the global economy and dumping more money into the MDG programs. Fortunately, no such power is vested in the UN.

Read the Joustra review. He warns that “a tyrannizing ecumenical agenda fashioned from all-too-controversial political and economic assumptions stands to do more harm than good.” Is it too much to hope that Ecumenical Babel gets a reading at the UN or WCC?

Via TechDirt:

…a judge has tossed out the wiretapping claims pointing out that there was no expectation of privacy out in public.

“Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public,” the judge wrote. “When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.”

There’s more here and here on the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

Carl Trueman has a lengthy reflection and asks some pertinent and pressing questions on the nature of work and human intellectual development.

Recalling his job at a factory as a young man in the 1980s, Trueman writes concerning those who were still at their positions on the line when he had moved on:

Their work possessed no intrinsic dignity: it was unskilled, repetitive, poorly paid, and provided no sense of achievement. Yes, it gave them a wage; but not a wage that provided for anything more then the bare necessities of life plus a few packs of cigarettes and some cheap booze on a Friday or Saturday night. And it raised questions in my mind to which, more than twenty years on, I have still not found answers.

First, how does the church enable those in such jobs to find God-given satisfaction? It is oh-so-easy for those of us who have jobs which we enjoy doing to talk about `the dignity of labour’ when the labour we have has, in a sense, its own intrinsic dignity. But what of the labour that does not have such dignity in and of itself? Which is monotonous, unskilled, boring, poorly paid, and which slowly but surely bleeds any last vestige of creativity and spontaneity out from the veins? The obvious answer is, of course, to find such dignity in extrinsic factors, supremely in doing everything to the glory of God. But, let’s face it, it is a whole lot easier to do an enjoyable job to the glory of God than to sweep the factory floor day after day to the same.

Read the whole thing. There are more pressing observations and questions throughout.

But to at least point to the beginning of an answer, I’d refer to what Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write regarding work as the basic form of stewardship:

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

I think this insight is accurate regardless of the nature of the work itself, whether our job is inherently repetitive and mundane, or exhilarating and stimulating. If you want a look at how workers have infused their seemingly undignified work with dignity, check out the episode of Undercover Boss that focuses on Waste Management.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, September 27, 2010

The Colson Center for Christian Worldview is preparing to release a new study DVD this fall titled, Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics. The DVD is designed as a resource for small-group studies and features leading thinkers who explore the need for ethical behavior in the marketplace, public square, political life and other areas. Hosts Brit Hume, Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George and a distinguished panel — including Acton’s Rev. Robert Sirico and Michael Miller — undertake a six-part exploration of ethics before a live student audience in Princeton, N.J.

The panel, students and interviewed guests will examine and discuss the following questions over six 30-minute sessions:

— How did we get into this mess?
— Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?
— If we know what is right, can we do it?
— What does it mean to be human?
— Ethics in the Market Place
— Ethics in Public Life

Panelists and guests include:

— Donovan Campbell, Chuck Colson, Doug DeVos, Joni Eareckson Tada, Dr. Robert George, Jim Grant, Dr. Chris Hook, Brit Hume, Alveda King, Dr. David Miller, Michael Miller, Eric Pillmore, Dr. Neil Plantinga, Dr. Scott Rae, Bob Rowling, Dr. Stan Samenow, Fr. Robert Sirico, Ben Stein, Glenn Sunshine, Dr. Ken Swan.

Doing the Right Thing is a joint project between the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Lansdowne, Va., and The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Acton On TapIf you couldn’t make it to Derby Station in East Grand Rapids last night, there are a couple of things you should know. First of all, you missed a great event and some good conversation. Secondly, you need not worry: we recorded it, and you can listen to David Michael Phelps’ presentation on Art, Patrimony, and Cultural Investment via the audio player below.

The bad news is that I was planning to post a little video clip for your enjoyment, but for some reason beyond my ability to understand after too much time spent struggling with computers and such, it’s not working. Which is a bummer, considering that it was a video of Dave inciting the audience to sing a bluegrass tune. The best I can do for you at this point is a quick little screengrab with the promise that I’m going to troubleshoot this thing into submission at the earliest possible opportunity.

Regardless, the audio is below; enjoy, and make plans to join us at Derby Station next time!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

David Michael Phelps - 9.21.10

David Phelps, Chorusmaster