Posts tagged with: church

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 17, 2009

This Sunday I’ll be giving a talk at Fountain Street Church on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His unfinished Ethics is a tantalizing work, full of insights and conundrums. Here’s what he writes in the essay, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” with regard to the church’s engagement in social justice:

Who actually says that all worldly problems should and can be solved? Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and to God’s redemption. Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve. (The problem of the poor and the rich can never be solved in any other way than leaving it unsolved.)

This kind of perspective flies in the face of the arrogance of so much of the contemporary transformationalist social justice movement among Christians. It allows us to see the possibility that the brokenness of the world is not meant to be solved in the end by anything other than God’s own redemptive work in Jesus Christ. It provides a boundary against any kind of post-millennial triumphalism.

One of the charities my wife and I make a point to support is Compassion International. There are a great number of things that could be said about the work of this ministry. But I want to point out a piece by Tim Glenn, Compassion International’s U.S. Advocacy Director, called “Why We Can’t End Poverty.” In this post you’ll find none of the high-handed presumption that the only thing keeping us from “making poverty history” is our political will to do so: our governments just aren’t giving enough.

Instead, Glenn discusses the end of poverty within a framework that agrees with that presented by Bonhoeffer above. “I don’t think we’re called to end poverty. I do think we’re called to be obedient to God’s command,” writes Glenn. “I think God allows poverty so that His glory may be shown … through His people doing His work … obeying that command.”

Government is most surely a divinely-ordained reality, and a blessing that we must celebrate. But governments realize their task when they recognize their own divinely-ordained limits.

Government exists as a form of common grace to preserve the world for Christ’s coming, when the government as an order of preservation will give way to a divine monarchy (“Every knee will bow.”). In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the government is here to keep “open” the orders of the world for Christ.

But when government oversteps this mandate, it tyrannizes the other orders of preservation and undermines the basis for its own existence. It then becomes a force for destruction as much as for preservation.

In addition to strident debate and firm resolution in public affairs, satire is a powerful tool in calling the government to heed its limits. It is in this spirit that the following two items are offered.

First, “The Heaviest Element Known to Science.”

Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

And second,


As Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a basic task of the church is to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e. as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” In so doing, the church shows itself to be the state’s “most faithful servant.”

After all, pointing out the excesses, sins, and errors of another can be the most sublime act of love.

USA Today has an excellent assessment of the impact of faith-based charities in an October 7 piece titled “Faith-based groups man the front lines.” The gist of the article points out the obvious to those who are still recovering from devastating hurricanes, and that’s that religious charities understand and are committed to the long term need of hurricane victims.

As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have witnessed the commitment and work of Christian churches and charities perform life changing assistance to victims on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They are able to bypass bureaucracy, adding the all important human touch in not only helping rebuild totaled homes, but improve the foundation of one’s life. One of the clear contrasts of faith-based charities verse federal assistance is that it’s simply a lot less discriminating in who they can help. Additionally, they are much better equipped to make decisions on the ground or at the scene by meeting specific needs of those needing help. Instead of only saying “we can do this for you”, they can discern and meet the immediate need.

My father directed the relief efforts at his evangelical church in Pass Christian, Miss. At the church in Pass Christian they had an army of Mennonite, Amish, and evangelical volunteers from the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania. My dad estimated their labor time consisted of a conservative estimate of $1.3 million, and they donated just over a $1 million in equipment and supplies. This is all from one community in Pennsylvania which was based out of one fairly small church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Business leaders pitched in as well, as the employer of a construction company in that Pennsylvania community paid his workers through the relief effort.

There are thousands and thousands of inspirational stories from faith groups committed to hurricane relief efforts and this article captures just a couple of them. When you have churches and people driven and influenced by the Lord, there is literally no limit to their service and what they can accomplish. The USA Today article notes:

Shortly after the storm, [Julius] Moll was filling gas in his truck in a nearby town when a neighbor told him about Catholic Charities. The next day, Moll met with Catholic Charities officials who had set up a command post at Jean Lafitte’s Town Hall. They told him they would gut his mother’s house for free. Moll lowered his head and cried.

‘I was overwhelmed,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how people can come in and help you.’

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 25, 2008

The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I make the case that persecution of Chinese Christians has increased since the government’s preparation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Freedom House is really leading the way in compiling a wealth of information to substantiate China’s recent crack down on freedom and human rights.

Jimmy Lai, who was featured in The Call of the Entrepreneur, has a great quote on the makeup of China’s moral failings and its relation to the Olympics. I included his words in my commentary. Lai says:

When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing, China will show the world its physical strength, but also its moral poverty. This is unavoidable because the Olympics are more than just a sporting event; they are an expression of the human drive for greatness in all pursuits.

I also cited an excellent piece in The Washington Post titled “Beijing Curbs Religious Rights.” This article offers a more detailed perspective on specific crackdowns by the government on house churches in China’s capital city.

The fourth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fourth leg of the journey took the bikers from Salt Lake City to Denver, a total distance of 478 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional at the beginning of this week focuses especially on the relationship of the church to culture. On day 22, the devotion notes that the “crucial pillars of civilization–education, family, government, and science–are in a state of decline and disrepair.” This may seem like a strange claim given all that humans have been able to accomplish over the last century or so. But if you look at the moral center of all these pursuits (for no human endeavor is “value” free), then the claim begins to make some sense.

Take, for example, the prayer from day 22, which focuses on gambling and the state of Utah’s position, which “forbids gambling and casinos.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on a symptom of the lifelessness of modern society when he wrote,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Similarly, the day 22 devotion observes “that today’s culture, including the church, has sunk into a passionless routine.”

And in the same way, the day 23 devotion examines the ambivalent relationship between church and culture, although it ends on a rather optimistic note: “A hundred years ago biking was a Sabbath sin. Now our whole troupe bikes to church Sunday mornings. We, like the land, are being redeemed.” Even so, a consistent theme of critique towards destructive aspects of modern life is present throughout these devotions. As the day 13 devotion concludes, “Constant busyness is not godliness.”

The overall focus of the bike tour is poverty. To get involved in charities that effectively integrate faith and compassion, visit the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide. Be sure to check out the charities working in Colorado. Denver, the destination at the end of week 4, is home to two previous Samaritan Award honorees, “Providence Homes” (2004) and “Joshua Station” (2007).

With the United Methodist General Conference only weeks away, Bristol House just released Taking Back The United Methodist Church. Tooley is the United Methodist Action Director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and has been a passionate advocate for theological integrity and reform within United Methodism for two decades. The book provides an excellent overview of some of the most egregious separation of some United Methodist leaders from Christian Scripture and traditions, including an all out embrace of a contradiction of sexual norms, and stale 1960′s liberal political philosophies. It’s an equally strong account at chronicling the renewal efforts within the Church at large, and the fruit of these efforts.

Tooley goes into detail about Bishop J. Joseph Sprague’s denial of the full and eternal deity of Jesus Christ. Sprague is now retired, formally the Bishop of Northern Illinois. He also provides snippets from a thoughtful response from a newly elected Bishop of Florida at the time, Timothy W. Whitaker. Whitaker was almost alone among the Bishops in criticizing Sprague, calling him “a person of deep faith,” whose comments at Iliff School of Theology on Christology were “incoherent.” Whitaker criticized Sprague for contradicting the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Christ as “eternally begotten of the Father.” Whitaker himself wondered in his critique, if Sprague had fallen into the ancient heresy of adoptionism, which is a denial of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Sprague also denied essential beliefs such as the virgin birth, a physical resurrection, and substitutionary atonement.

Bishop Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Conference also criticized Sprague. Additionally, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says the responsibility of a bishop is to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret the faith evangelically and prophetically.” Sprague was never truly held to account for his teachings by the United Methodist Church, but it did open a much needed conversation and validation of the nature and character of Christ. Sprague is , “The most vocal prominent active liberal bishop in Protestantism today,” Tooley declared. Sprague responded by denying that he was liberal, saying, “I consider myself a radical.”

Tooley also discusses radically heretical conferences at United Methodist Seminaries across the country, where the divinity and character of Christ is openly mocked. Other conferences adoringly worshiped feminist gods, and exalted other outrageous forms of religious pluralism, and strongly embraced pro-abortion measures. (more…)

Over recent weeks a great deal of controversy has been swirling in Michigan over allegations of an affair between Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty. Lower courts have approved the release of text messages between the two that would seem to belie the sworn testimony of Kilpatrick and Beatty, and an appeal is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate John McCain came under media scrutiny following a NYT piece that raised questions about the nature of his relationship with a lobbyist. These are just two of the most recent instances of high-profile political figures being embroiled in allegations of immoral conduct (AP reporter Libby Quaid gives a rundown of the reaction of a number of the spouses in recent instances).

The recent case of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal comes to mind. Prominent Michigan businessman and political activist Peter Secchia reportedly linked the Kilpatrick scandal to Clinton.

At an Economics Club luncheon earlier this month,

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Secchia managed a swipe at Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former President Bill Clinton. Starting with his back to the crowd, he turned quickly to face the podium. “I did not have text with that woman,” he said, pointing at himself with both thumbs.

While particular occasions can be easily used for partisan jokes and finger-pointing, the questions of immoral actions by public servants cut across both aisles and through the annals of history.

Moreover, these kinds of allegations (and actions) are really no laughing matter (indeed, the reaction among conservatives to the NYT story has been anything but jovial). The accusations alone can be powerful enough to destroy lives, marriages, families, and careers.

In a penetrating essay on the Kilpatrick affair, David Hess compares the consequences of alleged marital infidelity between elected government officials and corporate CEOs. He makes a strong case that there is a double-standard, with the more stringent line being taken not in politics but instead in the private sector.

He writes of the comparative consequences for a CEO: “A steadily declining share price? The board of directors will give you a second chance. An ethical violation that does not have an immediate, direct impact on company performance? A resignation is expected as soon as possible.”

Hess examines both the internal (e.g. setting organizational values) and external (e.g. loss of consumer confidence) reasons for this moral “high ground” among both for-profit and non-profit corporations and organizations. He looks in particular at the cases of Mark Everson, former chief executive of the American Red Cross, and Harry Stonecipher, former chief executive of Boeing.

Hess’ analysis bears out upon reflection. Just consider in recent memory how many politicians in office have survived sexual scandals. Larry Craig is still a United States senator, but Ted Haggard was rather ignominiously dismissed as head of the NAE and a mega-church in Colorado Springs.

This, too, makes some sense. That oldest non-profit of them all, the church, has had some pretty stringent requirements for leadership since its very inception, such as being “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable,” and so on. I wouldn’t want to make the correlative claim that instances of sexual immorality are less common among Christians than the general populace, or among the church’s leaders than other public figures.

But, as Hess claims, it seems pretty clear that there is a different standard of judgment for such things, and that the higher standard applies not in the case of political figures but rather among business, church, and community leaders (perhaps sports figures like Kobe Bryant being an exception).

It’s also the case that calling out political figures on their infidelities has historically been a dangerous calling, but one that the church’s prophetic responsibility embraces.

The pertinent question seems to me to be not why the market and the church typically hold their leaders to such high standards, but rather why citizens and voters don’t do the same for the government. Apathy? Secularism? Something else?

This summer I’m working on developing the syllabus for a class that I’ll be helping to lead in the Fall. The course will focus on readings in social ethics, with a general theme on church and culture, and a particular theme on church and poverty.

I’ll be reading through the selections on this particular theme over the next few weeks. I’d like to post the readings for the week that I’ll be going through, so that you can read along if you like. I’ll post my responses, observations, and questions as separate posts throughout the week, as starters for discussions that we can pursue in the comment threads if you so desire.

I’ll do my best to summarize works that may not be available or for those who aren’t able for whatever reason to engage the primary sources directly. Where available online, I’ll include links to the primary sources. Otherwise, the sources can only be found in print (this information is available upon request…some of them may be hard to find, and I’ll note those in the relevant post).

The readings will progress in roughly historical order. For this first week of readings, let’s look at:

  1. Cyprian of Carthage, On Works and Alms

  2. Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?
  3. Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor
  4. Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor

Week 2:

  1. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3).

Week 3:

  1. Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19.

Week 4:

  1. Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59; Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15.

Week 5:

  1. Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3) (London, 1682; repr. 1830).

Week 6:

  1. John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

Week 7:

  1. Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty.

Week 8:

  1. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis.

    To conclude this survey of a series of texts on the church and poverty, we’ll be looking at this piece from Rauschenbusch. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and a new centenary edition has been released this month by HarperSanFrancisco and includes responses to each chapter from figures such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.