Archived Posts January 2012 - Page 4 of 4 | Acton PowerBlog

Last Friday, January 6, marked the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan river, the manifestation of the Trinity to those present, and the sanctification of the waters through their contact with God incarnate.

Every year this last aspect of the feast stands as a reminder of the Christian viewpoint of God’s concern for the world he created. Indeed, according to a hymn from the Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.”

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which, while all of nature was made for the use and care of humankind, the ultimate purpose of the material world is sacramental. As the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladamir Solovyov wrote, [M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.

This view contrasts with two rival views of ecology. One view, which continually crops up in popular culture, is that humans ultimately are doing more harm than good. Our efforts to master nature and use it for humanity’s benefit will cause its (and our) destruction someday. The second is the view against which the first is reacting. It is the modern view of a limitless use of natural resources with little concern for their preservation.

The vision given to us in Theophany is something else entirely. Through his baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters so that we might be sanctified by the waters of baptism. Water becomes a means by which humanity is perfected and the world as a whole reflects the glory of God to a greater degree.

In the Orthodox Church, this is not only true of the water, either. Bread and wine are used in the Eucharist, oil in Holy Unction and Chrismation (Confirmation), wood and gold and egg tempera paint in the making of holy icons, etc. The list goes on and on. The world is not meant to be left as is, nor is it meant to be carelessly depleted of its resources; it is meant to be spiritualized. It is a means and manifestation of divine grace and beauty.

How does this relate to economics? Economically, natural resources are material capital, and according to Vladimir Solovyov, we err if we seek to divorce them from their spiritual and moral purpose and make them independent, existing in and for themselves. He writes,

Alienation from the higher spiritual interests becomes inevitable as soon as the material side of human life is recognized to have an independent and unconditional value. One cannot serve two masters; and socialism naturally gives predominance to the principle under the banner of which the whole movement had originated, i.e. to the material principle. The domain of economic relations is entirely subordinated to it, and is recognised as the chief, the fundamental, the only real and decisive factor in the life of humanity. At this point the inner opposition between socialism and the bourgeois political economy disappears.

To misunderstand the material world, to fail to view it as the good creation of God with its own spiritual and moral purpose and, instead, to give it absolute value, ultimately leads to its degradation. It is, in fact, the definition of greed to value material things as something to be desired in and of themselves, apart from morality. The bourgeois that Solovyov criticizes are the type of people who act out of greed through manipulation of the market. The socialists, on the other hand, act out of greed through a call for revolution. Both, ultimately, make the same ecological error.

As Solovyov writes,

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

The Feast of Theophany, by contrast, calls Christians to adopt a higher, spiritual view of themselves and the world in which they live. And it is my contention that such a view is a far superior starting point for a Christian understanding of material capital. Anything less tends to degrade the world or ourselves.

For more on Vladimir Solovyov, check out the newest issue of Religion & Liberty.

Additionally, the Journal of Markets & Morality recently issued a Call for Publications on Orthodox Christian economic thought. Scholarly submissions on Vladimir Solovyov or Orthodox views of ecology would be welcome. View the full Call for Publications here.

For more on Orthodox Christianity and environmentalism, check out my post from last summer “Cosmos as Society.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 9, 2012
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Made-in-ChinaThe latest episode of This American Life follows the story of Mike Daisey and his investigation into the origins of Apple products, especially the iPhone which is “Made in China.”

What might the iPhone say if it could speak for itself? Ira Glass provides some answers to such a question in the opening moments of this episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” It’s illuminating that Daisey half-jokingly describes his devotion to Apple products in religious terms (this doesn’t prevent him from using the Lord’s name in cursory fashion, however).

Just like the pencil in Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil,” the iPhone is “a mystery,” one “taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril.”

There are many, many lessons to learn from the story of I, iPhone. One of these lessons has to do with the dignity of the various people who work together to invent, assemble, market, sell, and distribute such wonders. This is where This American Life largely focuses its energies in this episode.

Another lesson has to do with the lessons about global trade and interdependence. In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster leads us through a thought experiment, in this case having to do with “I, Chair.”

As seeds multiply themselves into harvest, so work flowers into civilization. The second harvest parallels the first: Civilization,
like the fertile fields, yields far more in return on our efforts than our particular jobs put in.

Verify that a moment by taking a casual look around the room in which you are now sitting. Just how long would it have taken you to make, piece by piece, the things you can lay eyes on?

Let’s look together.

That chair you are lounging in? Could you have made it for yourself? Well, I suppose so, if we mean just the chair!

Perhaps you did in fact go out to buy the wood, the nails, the glue, the stuffing, the springs—and put it all together. But if by making the chair we mean assembling each part from scratch, that’s quite another matter. How do we get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber, and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, a lifetime or two to make one chair! We are physically unable, it is obvious, to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting — to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.

There’s much more to unpack just from these two lessons, of course.

How much of our expectations about the conditions of workers are simply culturally hegemonic forms of colonialism? Don’t Americans tend to assume that the ideal is immediately possible? What about the difficult choices that actually face workers in other countries in their concrete situations?

On these kinds of choices, consider Nicholas Kristof’s “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop” (Kristof is also heard from in this episode of This American Life): “We in the West mostly despise sweatshops as exploiters of the poor, while the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities.”

As we listen to Daisey’s story, our natural instinct is revulsion. We certainly wouldn’t want to live and work that way. And even apart from concerns about cultural colonialism, Daisey documents real abuses that ought to make both consumers and producers reassess how things are done.

And so what might it mean for someone else to have the opportunity to work their way out of such situations, to have more choices than the binary options of industrial manufacturing and subsistence farming (or starving), and to have these opportunities not merely individually but corporately?

What might true compassion, which places us within the context of the other person in their concrete situations, mean in these kinds of settings?

Blog author: jballor
Friday, January 6, 2012
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In last week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the food truck phenomenon in US cities, sometimes called a “craze.”

In the companion blog post, “Food Trucks and First Steps,” I refer to Milton Friedman’s observation that there is a difference between being pro-market and pro-business. Art Carden has more on this over at Forbes.

As I note in the piece, the fight over food trucks is not just the stuff of big cities. The Carolina Journal has been following for some time the various dimensions of the political fights over food trucks in North Carolina, in both Raleigh and around the state.

One of the pieces of particular interest shows how political lobbyists for established businesses, in this case restaurants, can use legislation and regulations to squeeze out competition. But as Sara Burrows writes in “Regulations Hinder Food Truck Ministries,” these actions have negative impacts on faith ministries that would otherwise be helping to put people to work and getting them off the government aid rolls.

As Pastor Michael King says,

“But it’s obvious there is not a will in government to help the folks that don’t have jobs to create their own jobs,” he said. “They talk about wanting to create jobs. But it appears the folks they’re concerned about are only those who can go to the bank and borrow a bunch of money and put money in the ground.

“We don’t want them to be on government assistance,” he continued. “But the government is putting these rules in place and forcing the people to go on government assistance. How are you going to bring down government spending if you are putting rules in place so even if people want to create a job for themselves, they can’t?”

Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Research Director Samuel Gregg were interviewed for a LifeSiteNews.com article about a decision by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Tulsa to rely strictly on private donations for its work. Reporter Ben Johnson observed that the policy shift “stands in stark contrast to most of the benevolent institution’s other affiliates. Catholic Charities around the country received $1 billion from the government, approximately two-thirds of their funding.” Johnson:

Some critics believe only foregoing government funds altogether will prevent the state from coercing religious organizations to violate their faith. “What Catholic Charities of Tulsa is doing is showing the way forward for Catholics and other Christians who want to be faithful to the ancient Church’s age-old moral teachings, and who want to assist those in need without compromising the truth of the Gospel,” wrote Dr. Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, in a statement e-mailed to LifeSiteNews.com.

Fr. Robert Sirico, the president of Acton, agrees. “I think we need to separate the giving from the mechanism of the state,” he said. “There’s the threat that he who drinks the king’s wine sings the king’s song.” Deacon Sartorius shares that concern. “It’s natural to want to please the one who is providing the money for your program,” he said.

[ … ]

Dr. Gregg predicted other religious charities will soon rely exclusively on private donors. “It won’t be long before other Catholic charitable work throughout the United States and abroad will head down the same path – either because more Catholics will see the good sense embodied by the Tulsa example, or because they will be forced to by governments seeking to impose the agenda of secularist relativism upon Catholic and other Christian organizations.”

Read “Catholic Charity Rejects Gov’t Funding to Maintain Religious Liberty” by Ben Johnson on LifeSiteNews.com

Also see “Catholic Charities forgoes government funding, stays true to values” by Bill Sherman in Tulsa World (Dec. 17).

On the National Catholic Register, Kathryn Jean Lopez takes a look at the strong finish by Rick Santorum in the Iowa Caucuses. She writes that the candidate’s dead heat finish with Mitt Romney marks “the emergence of a different kind of Catholic candidate in American politics, one who refuses to give up the fight on social justice — substantively and rhetorically — in practice and linguistics.” Lopez interviews Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg, who observes that “where Santorum adds something distinctive to present economic debates is his willingness to envelop them in substantive moral arguments.”

Gregg suggests that the candidate harkens back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights about democracy in America. Toqueville, he told Lopez, was “among the first to sound warnings about democracy’s potential for sliding into the soft despotism that results when citizens start voting for those politicians who promise to use the government to give them whatever they want, while politicians deliver — provided the citizens do whatever the government says is necessary to meet everyone’s wishes (such as radically diminish economic freedoms). Welcome to the moral-economic disaster otherwise known as the European Union.”

Read more analysis from Samuel Gregg in “Veteran Pol Santorum Emerges From Iowa With a Timely Message” by Kathryn Jean Lopez on the National Catholic Register.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
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Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photography by shakko

Over at the Sojourners blog, Harry C. Kiely boldly considers whether the Occupy movement can be considered “the New Pentecost.” However, there are a myriad of problems with his comparison.

First and most importantly, from a Christian point of view, there already has been a “New Pentecost.” It is found in Acts 2. The Christian Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Jewish Pentecost. The giving of the Law (which the Jewish Pentecost commemorates) found its fulfillment in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church to write the Law on the hearts of God’s people (see Jeremiah 31:33). Thus, for Kiely to proclaim the Occupy movement a New Pentecost is to already fail to understand what he is attempting to describe.

The theological flubs do not end there, unfortunately. He goes on to write,

In Acts, the emergence of new power occurred when the “gossip” about the Resurrection became a life-empowering message that transcended all lingual differences: “each heard in his own language.” Likewise in Occupy Wall Street: in the development of a new means of communication, people of diverse backgrounds both spoke and heard in a common language. It was, indeed, a New Pentecost.

Apparently the Holy Spirit of God was a “new power” that emerged from “the ‘gossip’ about the Resurrection” and is analogous to the iPhone.

He continues,

Deprived of loud speaker technology, for example, they invented a more human method of broadcast. Because they lacked appointed or elected leaders, the newly evolved community devised ways of organizing. In contrast to Wall Street methodology, the newly resurrected human community shared their food and goods with one another.

Actually, people in the ancient world did have “loud speaker technology”: they called them amphitheaters. As for the supposedly “more human method of broadcast” that “they invented,” I would love to hear how the disciples, in fact, “invented” the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Kiely’s claim that “they lacked appointed or elected leaders” overlooks the fact that the Apostles were appointed by Christ himself (see Matthew 10:1-4), and, in fact, immediately before the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples had just deliberated over who would fill Judas Iscariot’s office in the Church and chose Matthias to be his replacement (see Acts 1:12-26).

In addition to misunderstanding the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, Kiely also misunderstands the Occupy movement, which, despite some criticisms I may have for it, to its credit has never claimed to be a religious awakening of any sort. Indeed, no one in my generation would view it that way, whether they are for or against it. As one commentator (“Crazywulf”) wrote,

Please…please…please…… while whole heartedly supporting Occupy, I don’t believe anyone involved have actually been chosen by our saviour to be part of His inner circle… I know that wasn’t the intention of the author (or I hope it wasn’t)  but it could come off that way….

By contrast, after having completed his comparison, Kiely concludes with, perhaps, the most “Dominionist” statement I have ever read:

Emerging out of the New Pentecost [i.e. Occupy] is the promise of a New Creation that will transcend the endless, hollow, self-destructive promises of raging empires.

Yikes.

At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)

Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)

So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”

On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”

But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”

Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:

Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.

So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.

Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,

the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.

And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”

I opened my recent Patheos piece on Christians and the “Occupy” protests by noting the proclivity for some leaders to seek cultural relevance by uncritically embracing political movements and trends. This shows that it is a common temptation to allow worldly perspectives and ideologies to determine the shape of our faith rather than the other way around.

A good example of this uncritical stance toward the Occupy movement appears in a Marketplace report from last week, “Preaching the Occupy gospel — or not.” As Mitchell Hartman introduces Rev. Chuck Currie, “Forgive me for what is quite possibly blaspheming, but to hear some preachers from the pulpit these days, you’d think the arrival of Occupy Wall Street is tantamount to the Second Coming.” Currie goes on to, in Harman’s words, draw “a direct scriptural line from the Old Testament… to Occupy.” (One of the commenters on my Patheos piece likewise draws a direct line from the parable of the Good Samaritan to a moral obligation for Christians to engage in Occupy protests.)

For more on the chaplains of the protest movement, check out this NYT piece.

In the meantime, you should also read this more measured response to the Occupy movement at RELEVANT magazine by Alex Marshall. Alex outlines two important ways the church can act positively in engaging the Occupiers, including recognizing that “the Church has the opportunity to act as a ‘laboratory’ for experimenting in solutions to society’s problems.”

Or as Jesus puts it, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Reflecting on the GOP presidential campaigns and the Iowa caucus, Joseph Knippenberg has voiced serious concern on the First Things blog regarding the compatibility of Ron Paul’s libertarianism with traditional Christian social and political thought. As this race continues, this may be a question of fundamental importance, and I expect to see more Christians engaging this issue in the days and months to come.

Indeed, as Journal of Markets & Morality (JMM) executive editor Jordan Ballor has noted in his editorial for the most recent issue (14.2), the importance of this question is also highlighted by “the recent denial of a proposal for a master’s program in Austrian economics at Loyola University New Orleans [that] was in part attributed to ‘specific conflicts … between Catholic social teaching and the Austrian view of government, unions, taxations, human life and the place of Christianity in the public sector.'” Clearly, Loyola University New Orleans has already answered the question of compatibility with a strong no.

In light of the pressing need for a thoughtful and educated engagement of this question, I am pleased to note that the upcoming issue of JMM also features a debate in our “Controversy” section between Daniel Finn, Anthony Santelli, and John Mueller over the question: “Does libertarianism tempt some Catholics to stray from Catholic social thought?” The contributors represent an interesting spectrum of viewpoints on the issue and argue their stances with candor and conviction.

If you or your school or institution is not currently subscribed to JMM, this timely controversy is yet another reason to do so. For more information on how to subscribe, visit our website here.

CLPWe are pleased to give a 30% discount off of Christian’s Library Press books at the Acton Book Shop for a limited time for those who follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. If you already follow us, please send us a direct message on Twitter and we will send you the discount code (those who “like” us on Facebook can see the code automatically!).

This discount will allow you to purchase such books as Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace In Science & Art for a special price, but for a limited time only, through January 31. You can browse all of the eligible Christian’s Library Press offerings at the Acton Book Shop.