Archived Posts 2011 - Page 55 of 56 | Acton PowerBlog

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

This is the Acton Commentary for January 12.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” wrote French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. “If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.” Could this organizing spirit hold the potential to transform the nation’s health care?

With the House in Republican hands, it appears that the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be at least in part modified. Undoing the most ill-considered pieces of the bill would be good, but the need for reform remains. Americans’ dissatisfaction with the existing system gave impetus to change in the first place; going back to the status quo ante is not advisable.

As is often the case, a crucial aspect of health policy reform is recognition that government policy, no matter how brilliant, cannot solve all of our problems. For example, one vital step on the path toward a healthier America is reigniting a sense of personal responsibility for health-affecting decisions. Policymakers can promote but not ensure progress toward this goal. The recent successes of some small town initiatives demonstrate how voluntary associations can play an important role.

Nevada City, Calif., resident Carole Carson created the Nevada County Meltdown to encourage and assist people in her community who wished to lose weight. Working from her own experience of the necessity of support from family and friends, Carson and fellow organizer Mike Carville set up a contest where teams competed to shed pounds.

The whole community backed the effort. Health professionals offered services such as blood pressure checks. Restaurants implemented low-calorie menus. Groups organized walks and other fitness activities. Healthy living became a common goal, its benefits extending beyond physical wellbeing. “The most important thing about it,” observed one participant, “was that it was such a fabulous community thing.”

Other towns that imitated Nevada City’s program achieved similarly edifying results. In Fossil, Ore., some weight loss contestants’ health improved so dramatically that they were able to avoid pending orthopedic surgery and discontinue insulin shots for diabetes.

The medical costs of obesity amounted to $147 billion in 2008, according to one study. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes consume 75 percent of the more than $2 trillion that Americans spend on health care. Many of these diseases, writes Dr. Donald Condit in A Prescription for Health Care Reform, are “influenced by modifiable risk factors.” Lifestyle changes that prevent or reverse such conditions are critical to reining in health care spending, not to mention improving the quality of life for those who are affected. The trick is motivating people to change.

Some government programs might help, but the more effective approach is the one taken by these communities, because it is based on a realistic understanding of human nature. “We’re social animals,” Carson says. “We have a profound impact on each other—for good or ill.”

This impact is most profound when it does not occur through compulsion of one sort or another (as government programs usually do) but when it employs a subtler array of social influences. When family members, friends, co-workers, and community leaders promote a cause or, better yet, demonstrate in their own lives the benefits of living a certain way, we are encouraged and potentially persuaded to emulate their actions. When we are compelled to do something, our natural reaction is to seek ways to circumvent requirements. When we are persuaded, we view the decision, the effort—and the accomplishment—as our own.

The experience of one man in the town of Albert Lea, Minn., confirms the range of benefits possible when a community unifies around the mission of health. After he joined a neighborhood walking team, he pulled out of depression, lost weight, and went off his diabetes medication. “It wasn’t just the walking,” a town official says. “It was the caring.”

This kind of health care reform can’t be orchestrated by policy experts in Washington. Yet it would go a long way toward solving the systemic problems that have proved so nettlesome to lawmakers, whose search for solutions usually overlooks the potential inherent in every village and neighborhood in America.

Tom Oden


In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.

I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.

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Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?

Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.

There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.

I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.

The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.

What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.

When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.

You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?

Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.

There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.

I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.

The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.

We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.

Patriarch Kirill gives an emphatic “no” in a TV interview. He points to the catastrophe of the Bolshevik Revolution and what followed. Here’s a snip from Interfax:

“And then everything was broken. Eventually with great efforts, including terror, high economic indicators were reached,” the Patriarch said explaining further collapse of the USSR with the fact that the “backbone of national life was destroyed” in years of revolution.

“Today our life is worse not because we are Orthodox, but because we ruined our country and spiritual foundation of our life two times during one century. Protestant countries live better not because they are Protestant, but because these countries have not been at war, they developed their economy staying in rather favorable conditions,” the Patriarch summed up and wished so that God “gives us reason to save our political, social stability and develop ourselves both spiritually and economically.”

More at “Patriarch Kirill disapproves of those who say Orthodoxy is a reason of Russia’s economic lag.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 13, 2011
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Mark Hanlon of Compassion International writes about his experience related to the place of local churches in relief work. Contrary to the belief of some that relief and development groups “couldn’t rely on churches to do the work they needed to do in the third world. They claimed that the needed expertise and skill sets simply weren’t there,” Hanlon writes,

In my three decades of experience in developing nations with Compassion International, I have witnessed the opposite. In the midst of chaos and fear, it is local churches — rooted in the neighborhoods and anchored on the side streets — that are actually some of the most efficient, most compassionate delivery systems available.

He goes on to relate some of the details about Compassion’s work in Haiti following the earthquake last year.

He concludes:

The faithful, hard-working, often unheralded heroes of the Haiti crisis are the ones who were there before the 7.1 earthquake and who will be there for generations after.

They are the local Christian churches — the most efficient, most compassionate delivery systems you may never have heard of.

For more on the response of development and aid groups to the Haiti disaster, see “One Year Report On Transparency of Relief Groups Responding to 2010 Haiti Earthquake” from the Disaster Accountability Project.

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These are just a few ways the Stewardship Council is providing the most helpful Biblical stewardship resources for the global and mobile Church.

It is sometimes remarked in response to my treatment of the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and now World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in my book Ecumenical Babel that the Accra document is not really a confession at all. It says itself, after all, that it is a confession, but “not meaning a classical doctrinal confession, because the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cannot make such a confession, but to show the necessity and urgency of an active response to the challenges of our time and the call of Debrecen.”

Rather than being a confession in some technical ecclesiastical sense, then, it is better understood as a declaration, or even still a “conversation,” as it was dubbed by a commenter at one of my talks on the Accra Confession. My response to this is that I am in favor of a discussion, a dialogue, and a conversation about the Reformed faith, economics, and globalization, but if you actually read the Accra Confession, it is a document that shuts down conversation rather than fostering it. It draws lines between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, just as any Christian confession does. Having already determined the rightness or wrongness of particular views, it forces one to take sides. There’s little room for authentic “conversation” in that kind of a rhetorical context.

Indeed, I would say the dominant interpretive context of the Accra Confession within ecumenical circles is precisely as a confession, “to respond in a confessional manner, that is, to take a faith stance regarding current global economic injustices and ecological destruction.” In his article, “The Historical Context of the Accra Confession,” Averell Rust exemplifies this perspective perfectly. Rust traces the background of the process toward the Accra Confession, dubbed the processus confessionis, and contends, “The debate on whether the ‘integrity of our faith is at stake’ has moved beyond an ethical discussion to a theological one. It proceeded to the call for a status confessionis/processus confessionis.” It is essential to note that the Debrecen call to which the Accra Confession explicitly links itself was a call for WARC churches “to work towards the formulation of a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice in the whole household of God and reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future.”

It is worth exploring conference proceedings published in vol. 65, issue no. 1 of Hervormde Teologiese Studies (2009), which generally reflect a similar assessment. A notable exception is Hans-Wilfried Haase’s “Theological Remarks on the Accra Confession,” which criticizes the confession on a number of salient points. He concludes that the rhetorical stance of the document “becomes a problem, however, when some possible actions take on the quality of a confession and people who, for various reasons cannot agree with those actions, are then excluded from the confession.” Or as I have claimed, a particular wholesale rejection of economic globalization should not become an article of the Reformed faith.

From the Jan. 5 Acton News & Commentary. This is an edited excerpt of “Health-Care Counter-Reform,” a longer piece Dr. Condit wrote for the November 2010 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, published by the Catholic Medical Association. For more on this important issue, see the Acton special report on Christians and Health Care. Dr. Condit is also the author of the 2009 Acton monograph, A Prescription for Health Care Reform, available in the Book Shoppe.

Obamacare and the Threat to Human Dignity

By Dr. Donald P. Condit

Since President Obama signed the Patient Protection Act into law in March 2010, the acrimonious debate on this far-reaching legislation has persisted. For many, the concerns over the Obama administration’s health care reform effort are based on both moral and fiscal grounds. Now, with House Republicans scheduling a vote to repeal “Obamacare” in the days ahead, the debate is once again ratcheting up.

Perceived threats to the sanctity of life have been at the heart of moral objections to the new law. Despite a March 2010 executive order elaborating the Patient Protection Act’s “Consistency with Longstanding Restrictions on the Use of Federal Funds for Abortion,” many pro-life advocates fear a judicial order could reverse long-standing Hyde amendment restrictions on the use of federal tax dollars for abortion. Impending Medicare insolvency and the Patient Protection Act’s establishment of an “independent payment advisory board” to address treatment effectiveness and cost suggest bureaucratic restrictions on the horizon for medical care of the elderly and disabled.

The objections made on fiscal grounds are serious. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama voiced concern for 47 million Americans without health insurance. More recently, supporters of this legislation focused on 32 million Americans, with 15 million immigrants and others left out of the equation, yet still requiring care in United States emergency rooms. The Patient Protection Act increases eligibility for Medicaid recipients, yet state budgets are severely strained with their current underfunded medical obligations. Moreover, doctors struggle to provide health-care access to Medicaid patients when reimbursed below the overhead costs of delivering care.

Who Should Pay?

The perception among consumers of third-party responsibility for health, including payment for health-care resource consumption, is the major factor for unsustainable escalation of medical spending in the United States. Yet the Patient Protection Act augments third-party authority and threatens doctor-patient relationship autonomy, by increasing responsibility of government and employers for health care. Patients and physicians will face increasing involvement of third parties in decision making in exam rooms and at the bedside. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, January 10, 2011
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Catching up on some recent Acton commentaries. We welcome a new writer, John Addison Teevan, who is director of the Prison Extension Program at Grace College. He also teaches economics and Bible courses at the Winona Lake, Ind., school. This column was published Dec. 29. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.

A Tithe for Uncle Sam

By John Addision Teevan

Political leaders talk as if the money Americans keep (not paid in taxes) belongs to the government and that our keeping money they could tax is an actual cost to them. This kind of distorted thinking has led us into the fiscal irresponsibility that threatens to destroy our country.

It is, of course, fair to say that there are many exemptions that, if eliminated, could bring in more tax revenue. But Congress prefers a tax code of convoluted exemptions and tax breaks that they create and sustain to keep various interest groups coming to their offices. Taxpayers love breaks such as the homeowners’ exemption that allows taxpayers who itemize to deduct their mortgage interest. Although paying less in taxes is in general a good thing, all such exemptions confuse the process, contribute to an impossibly intricate tax code and keep lawyers, accountants and tax prep software companies prospering. The amount we spend on tax preparation in terms of actual cost and time wasted compared to a simplified tax code is worth billions.

The most extreme example of the fallacious notion that government has a right to its citizens’ money is the idea is that the cost to the government of not taxing the disposable income of all Americans at 100 percent is $11.5 trillion (as if we’d bother working if we faced a 100 percent tax rate). Economist Arthur Laffer noted that the government might collect little in taxes if the tax rates were either very low or very high, because in the latter case Americans would adjust their income according to tax incentives. Government officials unfortunately tend not to think in terms of incentives but of rules and therefore assume, contrary to Laffer’s findings, that higher tax rates always bring in more revenue.

Taken to its conclusion, this thinking leads tragically to socialism. If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people. One small faction that I read about in an Ohio paper wants Uncle Sam to hire all unemployed people and then print the money to pay them. This childish scheme is really a variation of the more respectable idea that tax cuts “cost” the government in the same way that spending on defense or health care does.

The foolishness of the concept can be illustrated by analogy with a church. Imagine a congregation of 100 families with a budget that reflected an estimated tithe on $65,000 average family income. Using government thinking, the church budget could be $650,000 (10 percent of 100 x $65,000), even if the actual offerings to the church were only $300,000. This is based on the fairly reasonable idea that the people owe their church 10 percent of their income.

Here’s how government budget thinking might work in that church.

Budget: $650,000. Expenses: charitable relief for church members: $350,000 (54 percent), staff: $150,000 (22 percent), building expenses: $50,000 (8 percent), ministry expenses: $50,000 (8 percent); debt retirement: $50,000 (8 percent).

What is that $350,000 for ‘charitable’ relief for church members? That is the part of the tithe that the members should have given to the church, but did not. Rather than ignore it, the church would reckon it as both income and expense even though not a single dollar changed hands. Government thinking sees any foregone revenue as an expense so that the largest item in this budget is the (fictional) $350,000 expense as if the church spent that money on its own parishioners.

As it stands, the federal government appears to be incapable of balancing income and spending. Right now it is collecting about 16 percent of GDP in taxes and spending well above 20 percent, creating an immense government borrowing gap. Many politicians’ proposed solution is to demand that the existing tax regime be repealed in favor of higher rates; we can’t “afford” the lower rates, they argue. In an economic downturn, however, raising taxes is a surefire way to suppress recovery.

Addressing the spending side of the budget equation is politically painful, no doubt, but it is unavoidable. America faces difficult challenges as we try to grow out of the recession. Having the government think soberly about its tax income and budget expenses would be a good start.

I took some issue with a quote from an otherwise fine piece about food banks in the December issue of Christianity Today. So let me follow-up with a recommendation without reservation for this profile of the work of the Big Reach Center of Hope in the current issue of CT by Nicole Russell, “A God-Sized Food Bank.”

Big Reach is “a food pantry and distribution center situated in a town so small it’s an unincorporated dot on the Ohio map. But its reach is indeed big: The center, which serves five counties, has provided food and clothing to nearly 150,000 individuals since its inauspicious opening in 2004, including 70,000 individuals in 2010 alone, making it one of Ohio’s biggest food pantries.”