Economic globalization has lifted millions out of dire poverty and is an unparalelled engine of wealth creation. But, like other economic systems, it needs the moral framework that the Church provides to guide it as a humane force for good. Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, examines the role of faith in a rapidly globalizing world in this excerpt from his new Acton monograph.
I grew up in the South. I also grew up during the Jim Crow era. I asked a lot of questions and made a lot of white folks very angry when I did. I hated the “separate but equal” hypocrisy and I was never, in my heart of hearts, sympathetic with the illogic of racism as I knew it. As a teen I was called into the senior pastor’s office and told to stop spreading racial unrest among the youth of the church. I was threatened and reprimanded by an angry and imposing authority figure. I learned there were deep feelings about race in Memphis and I had better be careful.
With this background I watched the recent appearances of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Selma, Alabama, with more than passing interest. The significance of this particular Sunday of March 4, as many of you know, was the 42nd commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the day when Alabama state troopers beat civil rights marchers who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to enter the town of Selma in 1965. I entered the University of Alabama in the fall of 1967. The impact of that infamous date was huge on that campus. Only months before my entrance Governor George Wallace had boasted of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” while he stood in the door of the admissions office at the university, seeking to forbid the enrollment of our first two black students. I also stood with several black students on nasty occasions while they were verbally abused, and even pushed around, by racists. It was a bitter and ugly time but it was a time that needed change as well. I thank God for the Civil Rights movement and still regret that the white church did so little to help it back in the 1960s.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
In a plenary address a couple weeks back to the Evangelical Theological Society, law professor and journalist Hugh Hewitt spoke about the religious affiliation of political candidates and to what extent this should be considered in the public debate (Melinda at Stand To Reason summarizes and comments here). In advance of his forthcoming book, A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, Hewitt used Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as an example as to why evangelical Christians should not withhold their votes for a particular presidential candidate purely based on theological disagreement.
In the intervening time, the so-called “Mormon question” has received a great deal of media attention. (Hewitt says that yesterday was “a day of interviews about and with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.”) Here’s just one example, Time magazine’s story, “Can a Mormon be President? Why Mitt Romney will have to explain a faith that remains mysterious to many.”
A number of people, including Glenn Reynolds, have wondered about the potential hypocrisy in examining Romney’s Mormonism so closely, while apparently giving a free pass to politicians like Harry Reid. But for Hewitt, the appropriate treatment of a Mormon politician would look more like the reception Reid has gotten than the scrutiny that Romney has gotten.
Hewitt’s argument goes like this: if the long knives are brought out by Christians to attack Romney on the basis of his religious commitments, it won’t be long before secularists attack Christians on similar grounds. This is a sort of “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” argument, and it is one that is shared by “Evangelicals for Mitt,” who note that most of the objections to Romney’s fitness for the presidency are on theological matters that are “absolutely irrelevant to the presidency.”
David French of “Evangelicals for Mitt” does address one of the questions I had coming out of the Hewitt talk, which was whether Hewitt’s claims that the religious and theological commitments of candidates should be off-limits was true for practitioners of all religions (or even strands of individual religions). French writes, “Let me be clear: I am not saying that theology is never relevant. When theology dictates policy, it is fair and proper for a voter to take that theology into account.”
These are not the types of theological issues to which evangelicals are taking offense, however. Says French, “The questions we receive deal with the Mormon view of the Trinity, the Mormon doctrine of salvation, the Mormon view of the afterlife, etc. Not only are these questions not relevant to the presidency (though certainly relevant if the Governor were applying to be your pastor), by even attempting to inject them into the debate evangelicals play a dangerous game. Do we think we can reject a candidate for theological reasons and then cry foul if the media or political opponents attack our own theology?”
This distinction between theological positions that bear directly on matters of public policy and ones that do not may indeed be helpful in distinguishing when it is appropriate to discuss faith commitments ad hominem. It would certainly seem to distinguish Romney’s Mormonism from, say, an Islamo-fascist faith which would attempt to impose and enforce Sharia law with government coercion.
Moreover, disqualification of Romney simply on the basis of his Mormon faith is a mark of a theocratic tendency which holds that only Christians are fit to rule. An apocryphal saying attributed to Martin Luther is his expression that he would “rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” We’ll get to more of what Luther actually did say about Islam in a bit. But for the moment, let’s reflect on how this sentiment bears on the conversation.
The idea is essentially that the office of government can be rightly exercised by those who from the Christan perspective hold heretical theological views. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The state possesses its character as government independently of the Christian character of the persons who govern. There is government also among the heathen.”
Acknowledging this truth does not mean that it is of no consequence whether the politician is or is not a Christian. It may simply be of no political consequence. “Certainly the persons who exercise government ought also to accept belief in Jesus Christ, but the office of government remains independent of the religious decision,” says Bonhoeffer.
Back to Luther. (more…)
The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 3 of 3 follows below (series index).
War and Peace
I will conclude with a brief word about Bonhoeffer and pacifism, given the ongoing claims about Bonhoeffer’s ethical commitment to the practice of nonviolence.[i] First, it should be noted, with Clifford J. Green, that it is invalid to talk about Bonhoeffer as advocating a principled pacifism, since “‘Pacifism’ for Bonhoeffer did not mean adopting nonviolence as an absolute principle in all circumstances. His ethic was not an ethic of principles.”[ii] (more…)
The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 2 of 3 follows below (series index).
Relationship between Church and State
It must first be noted that Bonhoeffer’s conception of mandates was a statement about the ontological ordering of God’s rule in the world, not a particular statement about the precise form that rule would or should take in any given context. Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “government” as a divine mandate and “state” as a particular form of that mandate help us get at this difference. (more…)
The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 1 of 3 follows below (series index).
Bonhoeffer on Church and State
by Jordan J. Ballor
Ever since his untimely death in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work have gone through a variety of appraisals and reappraisals in the succeeding scholarship. The fragmentary and partial nature of his Ethics manuscripts, as well as the attention paid to other works, such as his Letters and Papers from Prison, combined to leave his mature ethical work relatively ill-treated. This necessarily had effects on the overall reception of Bonhoeffer’s theology, as the pervasively concrete orientation of his dogmatic theology makes understanding his ethical thought indispensable to gaining a comprehensive view of his theological approach.
With the work over the last decade, especially by the International Bonhoeffer Society, to bring authoritative critical translations of his entire corpus into English, we are currently experiencing an increase in the quality and quantity of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s theology in English-speaking countries.[i] It is in this spirit of increasing critical engagement with Bonhoeffer’s thought that I offer this paper.
A brief comment is in order about the treatment of Bonhoeffer’s views on “Church” and “State.” We will note some of the potential for us to be misled by the use of this second term, “State,” in particular later. But at this point, I want to simply observe that while these two realities usually occupy places in what we call “social ethics,” Bonhoeffer himself would have probably resisted such categorization. One overriding emphasis of his life-long ethical thought was unity and wholeness, something which he felt was undermined by an artificial separation between personal and social ethics. Bonhoeffer always contends that institutions or social realities are at their core made up of individual persons who each have their own moral duties. Here’s a representative quote: “Human beings are indivisible wholes, not only as individuals in both their person and work, but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong.”[ii]
My own approach in addressing the topics of Church and State in Bonhoeffer’s thought is justified, not only because of the prominence of these two themes in his thinking, but because they occupy distinct and unique positions within his mature ethical framework. We begin with a brief sketch of this framework. (more…)
In preparing for the paper I’m giving this week on Bonhoeffer’s views of church and state, I ran across the following quotes, which nicely illustrate his view of the gospel and its relation to alleviation of social oppression and suffering. In his essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” he writes,
It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.
But even more important than feeding the hungry is the spiritual bread of the gospel. The physical bread derives its importance, in fact, from its value in “preparing the way” for the reception of the gospel. Giving mere bread is a penultimate thing.
Thus he writes, “Preparing the way is indeed a matter of concrete intervention in the visible world, as concrete and visible as hunger and nourishment. Nevertheless, everything depends on this action being a spiritual reality, since what is finally at stake is not the reform of worldly conditions but the coming of Christ.”
This coheres pretty well with a traditional view of the social responsibility of the Church as an important, albeit secondary, aspect of gospel proclamation. Richard Baxter once wrote,
Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul.
It seems to me that Bonhoeffer and Baxter are in close agreement on these issues, in contradistinction to the so-called “social gospel,” which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.
The only way that culture can be truly changed, in terms of the gospel, is by movements of the Spirit that are birthed in congregational life. The Christian Right thinks that it can alter culture by direct partisan political pressure led by media personalities and tried-and-true techniques. They could not be more sadly mistaken. The failure of this approach is self-evident over the course of the past six years. The late missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin understood this well when he concluded:
“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 232-233).
This is another reason why revival and mission are intimately related. We need awakening to see and hear the leading of God again and we need a missional perspective in order to reach the culture around us with the good news.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty,” I look at the concept of minimum wage legislation from the perspective of the employer/employee relationship.
In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul sets down a moral principle: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But Paul’s words seem also to imply the opposite positive principle, something like, “If you will work, you should eat.”
Even so, I argue, it does not follow that the government should be the guarantor of this reality. Drawing in part on the thought of Abraham Kuyper, I find that “the civil government has a role in justly and fairly enforcing the contractual relationship between employer and employee. It does not, however, have the absolute right to determine the specific nature of this relationship in any and all circumstances.”
Throughout the commentary, I address some of the concerns raised in an interview conducted by Faithful America, a weblog associated with the National Council of Churches. Faithful America talked with man named Dan, who gave his experiences of working for and living on the minimum wage. A transcript copy of the interview is pasted in below the jump (the audio is available here). (more…)
Jack Black stars as the title character in this campy salute to Lucha Libre, or freestyle wrestling, a hallmark of popular Latin culture. In Nacho Libre, Black’s character begins as the lowly Ignacio, an orphan who grew up at a Catholic mission, and who has now become one of the mission brothers. Ever since his youth, Ignacio has dreamed of becoming a luchador, a flamboyant and famous wrestler.
Instead, Ignacio serves at the mission, caring for a new generation of needy orphans. When Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera) arrives to be the orphans’ new teacher, Ignacio has even more incentive to become successful and wealthy so that he can impress the attractive young nun. Thus, Ignacio’s motives are not entirely pure, and indeed, he must keep his burgeoning young wrestling career a secret, because Lucha Libre is condemned by the Catholic mission.
Lucha Libre, it seems, is seen as a form of idolatry, as the wrestlers seek only praise and wealth for themselves. Indeed, Ignacio’s interaction with the luchadores confirms this, as Ramses, who Ignacio acknowledges is “the best,” turns out to be a less than charitable figure.
But Ignacio will not be denied his destiny, and so he dons the persona of Nacho Libre once a week to wrestle with his tag team partner Esqueleto, well-played by Hຜtor Jiménez. The pair are rather inept wrestlers, but are such lovable losers that they become crowd favorites and are well-paid despite their incompetence. But this is not enough for Nacho, who has visions, perhaps delusions, of greatness. He wants to win.
Ignacio’s desire to reach his own destiny can been seen as a response to his perceived calling in life, otherwise known as his vocation, an idea which has a rich tradition in Christian theology. Vocation is literally “a calling,” and it is clear that Ignacio’s desire to become a luchador has been deeply implanted with him since his youth.
The dramatic tension enters into the equation because of the Church’s disapproval of Ignacio’s dream profession. This speaks to the difficulty faced when a person is convinced of a calling that is in an industry that is wholly condemned by ecclesiastical authorities. To be sure, there are some professions in which it is impossible to be both a Christian and remain in that line of work. But perhaps, thinks Ignacio, wrestling is not one of them. He can see some clear good that luchadores might do, not the least of which is in providing hopeless orphans a positive role model.
Is Ignacio’s perceived calling merely his own vain self-seeking ambition or a legitimate vocation from God? In some ways, Ignacio’s efforts can be seen as done by one who seeks to reform the Church’s understanding of this worldly profession. In this way Ignacio/Nacho acts as a more mundane and contemporary analogue to the more famous reforms advocated by Martin Luther in the sixteenth-century. When Luther left the Augustinian monastery and the celibate priesthood, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it was a “return from the cloister to the world,” and “the worst blow the world had suffered since the early days of Christianity.” To be sure, Ignacio’s attempts at reform are far less dramatic and consequential, but we can see a parallel in the effort to carve out some validity for the Christian pursuit of a secular calling.
But it is only when Ignacio comes to the realization that his calling is not simply about his own edification but the service of others that he enjoys a measure of wrestling success. Ignacio’s epiphany seems to truly come home as he acts out a Jonah-like trek into the wilderness, constructing a makeshift shelter on the edge of the village after his wrestling exploits are exposed and he is ejected from the monastery (see Jonah 4:5).
This illustrates another truth about the Christian concept of vocation, in that this calling is in every case a calling to serve others rather than simply yourself. In this sense Bonhoeffer also writes, “Only in so far as the Christian’s secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification.” At first Ignacio’s selfish ambitions overshadow his desire to do good for the orphans and the mission, but his calling to serve is finally affirmed by the Church when he makes it clear that he is intent on sacrificing and serving the best interests of the orphans.
Those viewers who are fans of Jack Black will not be disappointed, as the movie in large part serves as a vehicle for his brand of dynamic and madly physical comedic stylings. The film is directed by Jared Hess, made famous by his direction of the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Nacho Libre shares some of the same quirkiness of dialogue as the previous film, although it is not quite so charming and entertaining the second time around. Some of the scenes do not noticeably advance the plot, and seem more like excuses for Jack Black to be entertaining than to fit seamlessly into the flow of the film.
Even so, Nacho Libre is an entertaining movie, although fans of Jack Black and those at least familiar with Lucha Libre will have much more to enjoy. In the end, Nacho Libre rates as not a quarter, nor a half, nor a full, but rather a three-quarter nelson (3 out of 4 arms).
This post has been crossposted to Blogcritics.org.