Archived Posts 2011 - Page 2 of 80 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Earlier this year Michael Kruse put out a request for suggestions for inclusion in a Commissioning Service for Human Vocation. This Advent season it struck me that the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” or, “The Carol of the Drum,” is rich in vocational theology.

The little drummer boy has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh, no gift “fit to give a King,” so instead he plays his “best for him” on his drum.

The little drummer boy drumming his best is what makes baby Jesus smile. I like to think that each of his children doing his or her best in their daily work, whether drumming or otherwise, makes grown-up Jesus smile, too. What else, in the end, do we have to bring him but what gifts he has given us already? And what else do we have to show him but that we have been faithful with those gifts, playing our “best for him”?

The Canadian teen Sean Quigley has shown the timelessly relevant nature of this carol in an updated version, which has garnered some significant media attention south of the border as well. (For those of you with Spotify, you can check out the version from the Von Trapp family here.)

Says Quigley, “I want to be able to create music as a career and influence people.”

As Abraham Kuyper elaborates in Wisdom & Wonder, music making is an area of cultural creativity that can have significant blessings on individuals and peoples: “The player or singer translates what you yourself can barely stammer, and does so in rich and fulsome chords, and your soul feels liberated.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 22, 2011

Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Dolphus Weary has a remarkable story to tell and certainly very few can add as much insight on the issue of poverty as he does. When you read the interview, now available online in the Fall 2011 R&L, or especially his book I Ain’t Comin’ Back, you realize leaving Mississippi was his one ambition, but God called him back in order to give his life and training for the “least of these.” One of the things Weary likes to ask is “Are you going into a mission field or are you running away from a mission field?” It’s a great question we should all ask ourselves.

Historian Mark Summers returns to offer another piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Last issue, Summers penned “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.” In this this issue he has written an article focusing on Northern Catholics and the Catholic Church during the conflict.

David Deavel has offered a very timely review of Mitch Pearlstein’s, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein focuses on the 33 percent rather than the one percent. Deavel observes:

This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call ‘family fragmentation,’ start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.

I reviewed the new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. by Carl T. Bogus. This book, written by a self-described liberal, is critical of Buckley but works at achieving fairness. If you want to read a comparison of two very different biographies of Buckley, I also reviewed Lee Edwards sympathetic biography of Buckley in the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty.

The Russian philosopher and writer Vladimir Solovyov is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure this issue. Dylan Pahman has already profiled this piece on the PowerBlog so check out his comments here.

There is more content in the issue and the next interview in R&L will be with Reformation scholar and Refo500 director Herman Selderhuis.

Finally, I just want to say learning from Dolphus Weary’s story was a spiritually enlightening experience. I read his book in one night in preparation for the interview and he is truly humble. While Weary offers a lot of insight, I believe his greatest strength is teaching and leading through example. It’s no wonder many ministries have tried to replicate what he has done and now does in Mississippi. There is something to be said for somebody who remains tied to their roots and is proud of where they come from, especially if where they come from may look hopeless by the world’s standards.

Mats Tunehag has written a blog highlighting the increased popularity and momentum of business as mission throughout the world. He cites an example that probably would not be the first to come to your mind, but is someone we are very familiar with here at Acton. Lady Margaret Thatcher was the recipient of this year’s Faith and Freedom Award. Mr. John O’Sullivan, who accepted the award on her behalf, described it as one that befits Lady Thatcher’s accomplishments in office and following as she tirelessly worked to advance the cause of faith and liberty.

Two things from the blog strike me as significant. One, Lady Thatcher’s remarks quoted in the blog come from 1988. This was well ahead of the current popularity and acceptance of business as mission in Christian circles. Second, is the response made by Jonathan Thornton mentioning Lord Griffiths of Ffastforach as a speech writer for Lady Thatcher. Lord Griffiths has spoken at Acton events and written a monograph. His influence upon economic matters is not insignificant.

For further reading on the topic of Business As Mission, please consider Work: The Meaning Of Your Life by Lester DeKoster and Our Souls At Work, edited by Mark Russell. Russell’s book is listed as the #1 resource from the Work As Worship conference held in Dallas this past November.

Painting by Ivan Kramskoi

Reflecting on the state of Russian philosophy among the intelligentsia of his day (the sectarian, Russian intellectuals “artificially isolated from national life”), Nikolai Berdiaev wrote in 1909,

There seemed every reason to acknowledge Vladimir Solov’ev as our national philosopher and to create a national philosophical tradition around him…. The philosophy of any European country could take pride in a Solov’ev.

That, however, was not the case. Why not? Berdiaev continues,

But the Russian intelligentsia neither read him nor knew him and did not regard him as one of their own. Solov’ev’s philosophy is profound and original, but it does not substantiate socialism. It is alien to both Populism and Marxism and cannot conveniently be turned into a weapon for the struggle against autocracy. Therefore, he did not furnish the intelligentsia with a suitable “world-view”….

The life and thought of Vladimir Solovyov are not easy to simply and accurately assess, but one thing is certain: as Berdiaev notes, “Solov’ev’s philosophy… does not substantiate socialism.”

In the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty, Vladimir Solovyov is profiled in the “In the Liberal Tradition” section. According to the article,

The thought world of Solovyov’s Russia, especially among the upper class of society, contained extremes of atheistic materialism which he set himself against in much of his work, finding favor and criticism in nearly all sectors of Russian society.

He was a man of strong moral and spiritual conviction, and as a consequence, he believed socialism to be “an antithesis” to the Christian faith, writing against it with biting criticism that the Marxist intelligentsia of his day, and afterward, simply could not bear.

Anyone interested may read the full article at our website.

If any scholars may be reading, I would also like to draw attention to a recent call for publications on Orthodox Christian social and economic thought for the Journal of Markets & Morality. Submissions on Solovyov, among others, would be welcome.

The quotes from Nikolai Berdiaev in this post above are taken from his essay “Philosophical Verity and Intelligentsia Truth” in the volume Vekhi, which can be found here.

Blog author: jwitt
Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.

First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.

A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.

King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.

The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.

Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:

Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.

Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.

Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.

Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …

The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.

What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.

I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.

Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.

In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.

The Detroit News ran my piece on Christians, churches, and the Occupy movement today, “Protests, pews not always linked.” One of the reactions to the piece rightly noted that I did not fill out in detail what “the moral and spiritual formation necessary to be faithful followers of Christ every day in their productive service to others” looks like. Another comment at Patheos worries that my advice might leave Christians “complicit with structural injustice.”

One of the important implications of the Christian imperative to occupy the world in all its various calling is the necessity to engage institutions critically and constructively. This is what I was driving at in juxtaposing the views of Chaplin and Fujimura, for instance. But again, what that institutional engagement looks like is left indeterminate.

On this score I’ll cite Michael Novak: “It is not those who say ‘The poor! The poor’ who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who actually put in place an economic system that helps the poor no longer to be poor.” Such economic systems require a variety of institutions, including governmental, profit-oriented, charitable, voluntary, and faith-based.

I’ve been working on putting together a collection of stories from my grandfather. One of these stories is set at Michigan State University in October in the late 60’s. There was an anti-war demonstration happening, which he describes:

A makeshift stage was set in front of Beaumont Tower at the center of campus and bull horns and tinny microphones battled for the attentions of the crowds. The audience numbered in the tens of thousands. The “freaks” were at it again. On stage were individuals whose message was “kill the pigs,” “take this place over,” and “stop the war.” Musicians with peace symbols painted on their guitars sang of disobedience and mayhem. The “pigs” kept a watchful eye from a distance hoping and praying that violence did not break out.

But what happened next is truly interesting:

A gray haired gentleman in a business suit and necktie made his way to the edge of the stage. He stood transfixed by the scene around him. At last he mounted the stage and spoke briefly with the one who currently held the microphone. I recognized him as John Apple, Ph.D., a renowned professor of social science. Dr. Apple took the microphone and turned to face the milling throng. To my amazement a hush fell over the entire scene and only the voice of Dr. Apple could be heard. He cleared his throat and thus spoke the most deadly prophesy I have ever heard.

The professor’s short speech to the protesters was the following:

Ladies and gentlemen! Your ideals are noble! You are MARSHMALLOWS hurling yourselves against a brick wall! You are wasting your energy by throwing yourselves uselessly at the administration! A MARSHMALLOW CAN destroy a brick wall! A MARSHMALLOW can destroy a brick wall from INSIDE! Do you wish to destroy the administration? BECOME THE ADMINISTRATION! Become the presidents of universities! Become the law makers of this country! Destroy the administration FROM WITHIN!

If well-formed Christians don’t occupy our institutions, others most certainly will. And as my grandfather observes, we are today reaping the consequences of those occupiers of various educational and governmental institutions over the last forty years. For what’s happening today at Michigan State University, check out “Despite strong Occupy Lansing movement, Occupy MSU fails to gain momentum.”

In just the few days since my piece first appeared last week, however, it seems that the question of how churches ought to engage the Occupy protests has taken on a more definite shape. In the case of Trinity Church in Manhattan, when the Occupiers’ “interest in setting up an organizing camp on vacant Trinity property at Canal Street and Avenue of the Americas” was met with denial from church officials, “The Occupy Wall Street forces then directed their skills at the church: They took their arguments to the streets. In familiar fashion, police officers converged on the area, standing around the perimeter.”

The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper of Trinity Church reacted to what followed, trespassing on church property: “O.W.S. protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years…. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours.”

Ecumenical News International (ENI) reports that Episcopal clergy were among those arrested in the Occupiers’ attempt to take over Duarte Park:

A retired Episcopal Church bishop and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested on 17 December after they entered a fenced property owned by historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan as part of an event to mark the three-month anniversary of the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Livestream video showed George Packard, former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence and dropping to the ground inside the property, called Duarte Park. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island (New York), Episcopal News Service (ENS) reports.

The full story appears below. But it’s clear that Trinity Church and so many other churches in cities where Occupy protests have occurred find themselves being forced to take sides. And its also clear that the Occupiers are no respecters of persons and property. If you are not for them, you must be against them and be ready for the consequences. Ready to cling to your guns and religion, anyone?