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The devastation in Haiti is heartbreaking. For most of us, it is far too easy to be distracted from the tremendous need right now in Haiti because of our own daily circumstances. In many ways I reacted similarly to Jordan Ballor when he confessed he initially thought reports of the earthquake had to be exaggerated. I say that because I was living in Cairo, Egypt when they had a 5.8 earthquake in 1992. The earthquake caused destruction to some buildings in the older part of the city, and the fatalities grew to over 500. While the loss of life was tragic in itself, for most people life did not change in Cairo. CNN at the time was broadcasting widespread destruction and fatalities in Cairo in front of the few buildings that were totally demolished. This reporting caused my mom to panic who was visiting Turkey at the time and other relatives in the United States were left scrambling trying to contact my family in Egypt.

Amid the devastation, chaos, and suffering the good news we see, and there is not a lot, is the U.S. involvement in Haiti. Many pronouncements today focus upon the supposed havoc our country wrecks around the globe, but no other country has ever proved to be more responsive, compassionate, and giving than this country when moved by suffering. It’s a comforting testimony to the character, faith, and compassion of so many Americans. Another blessing for Haiti will be the long term assistance and stability Haiti will receive, with so much of it coming from faith based relief efforts. See my post dealing with the exceptional service faith based groups and churches have provided for victims of Katrina. While governmental agencies largely botched much of the Katrina relief effort, it was church groups and agencies who were the first responders with shelter, water, and hot meals. This was the case in my former neighborhood on the Mississippi Seacoast. Many of those faith groups are still actively involved there as they are committed to long term rebuilding efforts.

One greatly needed federal body of assistance for Haiti is the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. military is simply the greatest in the world and the security they can provide for a country that is plagued by poverty, lawlessness, and corruption is critical. The Marines have a unique and catchy unofficial motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.” The U.S. Armed forces will be a great friend for Haiti, as they have been before in recent history. Sometimes people forget the immense problems with aid distribution when there is no rule of law and rampant corruption in a country. In an upcoming Religion & Liberty interview with Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute, she will also powerfully remind us about the severe obstacles of trying to transform human rights without morally challenging the corrupt and tyrannical leaders who violate those rights.

The American Christian missionary community in Haiti is substantial, largely because the needs there are so severe. This was the case long before this horrific earthquake; it will be even more so now. Please continue to pray for the protection and work of missionaries in Haiti and support them financially. Many local churches already support ministries in Haiti as well. We know they have the ability to make a tremendous impact. Find out what your local church is doing to help, and find out how you can help them. Some other good news that will emerge from this suffering will be the wonderful testimonies of compassion in the name of the Gospel. As is the case in so many tragedies, many of the best people in Haiti providing comfort will be those specifically called there by the king of Kings.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”

The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.

A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.

The video for the first chapter — Rethinking Social Justice: Getting to the Root of the Problem — sets the framework for the entire series of lessons. The question: What are the “real roots of poverty and social breakdown.”

On the Web site, Heritage has also posted bonus interview footage from experts featured in Seek Social Justice that is really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).

Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.

Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.

Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.

When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor
in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.

The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):

The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.

We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.

Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Big Picture blog has some remarkable images from the last 48 hours in Haiti (warning: there are disturbing images among the collections).

In the wake of the disaster, many are looking back at Haiti’s history to see what has kept this nation in generations of economic despair. As the AP reports:

Two years ago, President Rene Preval implored the world to commit to long-term solutions for his nation, saying a “paradigm of charity” would not end cycles of poverty and disaster.

“Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization,” Preval declared.

Indeed, after the early days, weeks, and months following the disaster pass, the “paradigm of charity” needs to give way to the “paradigm of prosperity” if Haiti is to ever achieve its potential.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Thursday, January 14, 2010

If you are looking for a Christian relief organization working in Haiti, let me recommend WFR Relief, located in Louisiana. Led by Don Yelton, WFR has a solid track record for effective compassion in times of disaster, having “provided humanitarian aid and disaster relief in 50 countries since 1981.” They distinguished themselves, for instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

An article about Yelton and WFR is here. WFR’s donation page is here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 14, 2010

I have to admit that my first few reactions to the news of an earthquake in the Caribbean weren’t especially charitable. I thought first that the scale of the reports had to be exaggerated, that things couldn’t be as bad as the media was breathlessly reporting. Then I wondered how long it would take for the environmental movement to make use of the disaster to advance their agenda. Neither of these reactions are particularly noble on my part, obviously. Blame it on my dispositional skepticism, I suppose.

But by all accounts, the human toll in Haiti after the earthquake is vast. In a world of digital media and on-demand news reporting, we can oftentimes see instantaneous first-hand accounts of these kinds of events. Here’s a kind of informal poll for PowerBlog readers: are you planning on donating specifically to address the need resulting from the earthquake in Haiti? And if so, which agencies or charities are you specifically supporting?

One of my favorite charities of first resort, International Aid, closed up shop amidst the economic downturn last year (Update: A commenter notes that International Aid is still making international shipments and actively working in Haiti). My family and I support a child in the Dominican Republic through Compassion International, which is currently accepting donations aimed specifically for Haiti. (I haven’t heard much about the impact on that other nation sharing the island with Haiti, incidentally. Relative to Haiti, of course, the Dominican Republic is markedly more economically stable.)

Put some specific suggestions in the comments for other PowerBlog readers to consider. Do you use denominational ministries, stand-alone aid agencies, something else, or nothing at all? There are the typical guides to disaster giving, which often point to large groups like the Red Cross, to whom my fundamental skepticism also applies.

One curious response has been to send outdated sports apparel to devastated areas.

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

Over the past five years, many conservatives and religiously-inclined people have been turning to the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton as part of an effort to rethink the nature of economic life. Both these figures wrote about many other things than economics – and some would say that, for all their insights as Christian apologists, economics was never their strong point. Indeed many of their economic writings were heavily criticized when they were initially published in Britain and the United States. Here is an example of one such critique that appeared when Belloc’s The Servile State was first published under an American imprint in 1947. It repays close reading.

From Mises Daily: Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto by Garet Garrett.

Having proved by logic that capitalism, socialism and collectivism all tend inevitably to bring the servile state to pass, Belloc comes to speak of the solution and there his distributive state fails him. The way back to that state of society in which ownership of “the springs of life” shall be happily universal is a road of appalling difficulties. They are perhaps insurmountable. Suppose you think of doing it boldly, as to say, “all shall own,” instead of saying, as the collectivists would, “none shall own.” Very good. But by what scale of justice shall this new ownership be apportioned among the people? What will the people do with it? How would you keep the many from selling it back to the few?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “From the Lead Frying Pan into the Toxic Fire,” I examine some of the fallout from the lead paint fiasco of 2007. Last month RC2 Corp. settled the civil penalty for violating a federal lead paint ban.

But in the wake of subsequent federal action, I examine two unintended consequences. First, new federal regulations are posing an unsustainable burden on some small businesses, forcing them to make very hard choices about whether to keep their operations domestically. Second, faced with concerns about lead, some manufacturers have turned to potentially more dangerous materials, such as cadmium.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been charged with a huge task in all this. My main hope is that there is time taken for more serious and sustained reflection about the consequences, both intended and unintended, from these kinds of regulatory moves. We need reflective action more than we need quick action. The market will take care of the latter on its own.

All of which brings to mind the holiday season, and this classic skit from SNL:

Thomas P.M. Barnett has written a good, concise, piece on the consolidation and deepening of globalization, specifically Wal-Mart’s tapping into local producers in developing countries. (HT: Real Clear World)

As far as I can tell, there are no Wal-Mart’s in Italy, but having spent the last three weeks at my parents’ home in Flint, Michigan and shopping at places like Wal-Mart and Target, I can clearly see how far behind the curve Italy is.

While family-run boutiques and the slow-food movement have many things to recommend for body and soul, they simply can’t operate at anywhere near the same level of efficiency. Religious leaders can help us understand and better cope with these changes if they regularly read pieces like Barnett’s.

For a fuller picture of the world today, however, the economic perspective does not suffice. I arrived in Michigan just before the failed attempt by a Nigerian trained in Yemen to blow up a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. This near-miss and Anne Applebaum’s piece on the growing international jihadist elite remind us the globalization also includes expanding networks of Islamist hatred and violence, which religious leaders must, indeed are most responsible for, addressing with the utmost seriousness and urgency, even though this is a battle that will be fought for generations.

What’s needed is not just understanding and empathy for “the other” as university intellectuals would have it, but argument and counterargument, as Applebaum says. There is too much going on in the world and too much at stake for well-intentioned believers to remain on the sidelines.

A friendly reminder that registration is currently open for the 2010 Acton University (AU), which will take place on June 15-18 in Grand Rapids, Mich. This year’s distinguished international faculty will once again guide participants through an expanded curriculum, offering even greater depth of exploration into the intellectual foundations of a free society.

For four days each June in Grand Rapids, the Acton Institute convenes an ecumenical conference of 400 pastors, seminarians, educators, non-profit managers, business people and philanthropists from more than 50 countries. Here, people of faith gather to integrate and better articulate faith and free enterprise, entrepreneurship, sound public policy, and effective leadership at the local church and community level. With this week of AU fellowship and discourse, participants build a theological and economic infrastructure for the work of restoring and defending hope and dignity to people around the world.

Space and scholarship funds are limited – so get a move on! Please visit www.acton.org/actonu where you will find the online registration form along with complete conference information. If you have any questions, please contact Kara Eagle, Acton’s Education Initiatives Manager, at keagle@acton.org or at 616.454.3080. We hope to see you in June!

In the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the ensuing controversy over the Obama Administration’s handling both of the pre-attack intelligence and the post-attack response, Neil Cavuto invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on his show to discuss how President Obama might go about exercising proper leadership and accountability in his address to the nation last night. The clip from Your World with Neil Cavuto follows: