Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up and the clouds drop down the dew: We yield thee hearty thanks and praise for the return of seed time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits, and for all other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people. And, we beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be all glory and honor, world without end. Amen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped “There is properly no history; only biography.” It’s a line that lends to exaggeration for effect but speaks to the centrality of narrative and story. One of the great books I had the pleasure of reading about in regards to our story of independence is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. It was fascinating to read about how a group of men came together to defend their property, way of life, and community against the British Crown. Fischer does a good job at pointing out how many of the leaders of the skirmish on the roads to Lexington and Concord were Christian ministers. Ministers were often the most educated in a community and the colonists looked to them first for leadership, especially in a situation so grave where the taking up of arms was considered.
One of the experiences that shaped me deeply in my appreciation for this country was living overseas in Egypt. When you see deep subjugation of people and heartbreaking poverty it humbles you and helps you appreciate the opportunities and blessings freedom can provide. Right now, there is understandably a lot of uncertainty about the future of this country. This includes our massive debt, economic health, prosperity, and certainly the moral order. One of the things I think I try to articulate through some of my writing and talks here at Acton is the importance of getting back to first principles. It is something all of us here at Acton are intentional about focusing on in the work we do. A great example is our discussion about the budget and the proper role of government. It is evident that as government intrusion grows it becomes even more clear that politics and politicians are unable to solve our national ills.
In speaking about America and the story of America, another book that has had a tremendous impact on me and really is an essential story for thinking about what it means to be an American is When Hell Was in Sessionby Admiral Jeremiah Denton. For some, his story may appear to be one that has faded with time or was more important in a Cold War context. But as Christians know, while believers wouldn’t willingly choose suffering, there is something powerful that happens to us in Christ when we suffer. Denton suffered brutal beatings and mental anguish during his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1965-1973. He had plenty of time to grow in his faith under his communist captors. Under those extreme circumstances, he also came to a deeper understanding about the foundations, ideals, and way of life he was defending as an American and why they were so valuable.
In the colonies during the Revolution a common cry was “There is no king, but King Jesus.” It was certainly a slap at the Crown, but it also showed the revolution was grounded in first principles and freedom flows from God and not from a monarchy, or human power. Scripture declares, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It of course refers to spiritual liberty and not political liberty. It’s ultimately a majestic reminder that through trials, breakdown of society, and all of our national despair on display so well in Washington and across this land, that our hope and grounding is found in Christ.
Many of the men, many of them not unlike us, afraid for their future and the direction of their colony, nervously huddled together on the Lexington and Concord road with muskets in hand to deliver the “shot heard ’round the world.” They understood that spiritual truth and that God was their hope and anchor. Edward Mote summed up the situation we all face well when he penned the hymn “My Hope is Built.” His simple words: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.
Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.
Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.
Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.
During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).
In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”
Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.
Ray’s post pointed to something that’s been bugging me about Jim Wallis’ “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. As with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign (“Transportation is a moral issue.” What isn’t these days?), Wallis’ campaign assumes the moral high ground by appropriating the Holy Name of Jesus Christ to advance his highly politicized, partisan advocacy. Jesus becomes an advertising slogan. And what is implicit here is that those who oppose Wallis are somehow at odds with the Gospel of Christ; those who agree with him are on Christ’s side and especially as it concerns “the least of these.”
But watch the video above and listen to the language of this MSNBC program host. What Wallis and his organization have done is give occasion for the use of Christ’s name for the most partisan, mocking and disrespectful purposes. Wallis should be ashamed of himself, but instead he lets this all pass so he can right away get to his simplistic talking points about “the budget as a moral document.” He arrogantly does this as the voice for the “faith community.”
Did I say simplistic? I should have added “dishonest” to my description of what Wallis is doing.
No serious person would take Wallis’ sound bites or the Sojourners campaign as a real help to understanding our nation’s grave budget and debt problems. In that respect, what Wallis is doing is aggravating a problem that has cried out for honest, bipartisan cooperation for many years. He makes inflammatory assertions about cuts to programs for nutrition, malarial bed nets, and the like, and generally raises false alarms about budget cutters abandoning “the most vulnerable.” Really? If this were true, it would cast those Christians on the other side of Wallis — those who honestly believe we need to do something serious about the budget and mounting debt — as haters of the poor. Look at the White House chart on the budget and show me where this abandonment is happening. Just the opposite.
And all these vague, unattributed assertions, like the bed nets. If you don’t see it the way Wallis sees it, you must be indifferent to children dying of malaria. Right? That’s insulting to say the least. How many mosquito nets flow into Africa annually? Where do they come from? What share of these is funded by U.S. taxpayers? Are they effective? We don’t get answers to these questions. Maybe Wallis should read this article in the left leaning Guardian newspaper that explains why “Mosquito nets can’t conquer malaria.” How is malaria defeated? Economic growth.
Against his claims of abandoning the poor, Wallis harps on defense spending. Again, this is a dishonest diversion. Defense spending is not the main problem as this chart vividly shows (HT: Heritage Foundation).
Should defense spending be treated as a sacred cow? No. Is there waste in the defense budget? Undoubtedly. But let’s not make vague assertions about children going hungry because of redundant or unneeded military programs.
What’s more, Wallis seems to be impervious to the fact that spending on welfare and War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure. His use of anecdote and selectively trivial factoids serves as a smokescreen for this reality. Is is possible that government nutrition programs might be wasteful or redundant? He doesn’t seem to be aware of that possibility. In a recent report on duplication in government programs, the GAO said this about nutrition programs:
Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. [But] not enough is known about the effectiveness of many of these programs. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the 18 programs— including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP—is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs’ goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied.
Reality gets complicated. Talking points are easier. Writing in 2005, Washington Post columnist George Will described how a freshman Sen. Barack Obama used a string of “old banalities” to attack the Bush administration for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. Will wrote:
[Obama] included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.
At least Obama had the decency not to invoke the name of the Lord. As for the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, the “faith community” hasn’t been spared that.
Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.
Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.
There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.
As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.
Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”
Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:
The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:
The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.
Last night a band of hearty travelers braved the first snow of the season here in Grand Rapids (and the attendant slick and dangerous roads) to hear Dr. John H. Armstrong speak at the November/December Acton on Tap, “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Dr. Armstrong is founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College.
Armstrong spent some time discussing the thesis of his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. A recurring theme was the phrase coined by Timothy George, “ecumenism in the trenches,” which is sometimes how we describe what we do here at Acton. The basic point of Armstrong’s book is that Christians must be able to come together to work in concrete ways in order to be an effective and faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the culture and the world.
As Peter writes, we are to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Undoubtedly this call to live “good lives” means showing love to other people, “especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).
Armstrong also discussed the threat that ideology poses to unity in Christ. He defines ideology as “visionary theorizing, or to a systematic body of concepts, especially regarding human culture or life. I have in mind not only a body of systematic concepts but particularly the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program of some type.” This understanding of ideology coheres perfectly with the critique of liberationist ideology in the ecumenical movement in my book, Ecumenical Babel.
The night concluded with a salient quote from Russell Kirk about the dangers of ideology. Kirk writes,
We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of Christian revolution. Most of the men and women who use such language undoubtedly mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (an insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.
As Armstrong notes, Kirk’s comment about Cromwell displays his ardent Catholicism, but it also stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of ideology and utopian thinking.
Later on in his essay, “Promises and Perils of Christian Politics,” published in the 1980s, Kirk points explicitly to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches for places (among many others) where this “insane conjunction” is displayed.
Today is Election Day in the United States, and here’s a fitting prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who hast created us in thine own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last week I linked to Joe Carter’s On the Square piece, “What the Market Economy Needs to be Moral,” challenging his view that we need a “third way.” He has since clarified his position, and noted that what he wants is not really an alternative to the market economy but an alternative grounding, view of, and justification for the market economy. This is a position with which I wholeheartedly concur.
Today I want to highlight something else from Carter’s helpful piece. Carter first cites an anecdote from Andy Morriss:
One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so—markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.
Carter then goes on to note:
This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, why do we expect God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle”? The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.
These two quotes bring out one of the most intriguing points in Carter’s piece. The point is that we are to appreciate the market for what it is, a God-given institution in which human beings created in his image relate to one another for the betterment not only of themselves but also of each other.
Think about the implications of Morriss’ anecdote for a moment.
God works through human means…this is his regular or normal way of acting in the world, through secondary causes including human action. We need not always pray for miraculous healing, but rather that God empower skilled doctors and nurses to heal us. We need not always pray that manna fall from heaven, but rather that God enable farmers to farm.
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
So, in the case of the sheep who gave Christ something to eat when he was hungry, we find that
God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …
wholesale or retail foods,
kitchens or restaurants,
food transportation or the mass production of food items,
manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.
DeKoster goes on to outline similar lists for those who regularly provide water to satisfy the thirst of others and those who provide clothing for those in need. These three are representative, he says.
The Lord’s choice of the kinds of services that are instanced in the parable is carefully calculated to comprehend a vast number of the jobs of humankind. The parable is about the work needed to provide the sinews of civilization. Doing such work, the Lord says, is serving his purposes in history, and in exchange he rewards workers far beyond their input with all the abundance of culture’s storehouse.
As I’ve noted previously, this view of work is transformative for how we approach views of wealth and poverty. We begin to finally be able to see work not just as a way to get a paycheck, but as the way God has ordained for us to truly serve others and thereby to serve Him as well.
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.
If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).
Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”
Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”
It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.
What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”
But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.