If you weren’t able to join us in person for the inaugural lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series, fear not: today, we’re pleased to present Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity” for our loyal PowerBlog readers. The lecture was delivered on February 3rd at the Waters Building here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In the wake of the disaster, many are looking back at Haiti’s history to see what has kept this nation in generations of economic despair. As the AP reports:
Two years ago, President Rene Preval implored the world to commit to long-term solutions for his nation, saying a “paradigm of charity” would not end cycles of poverty and disaster.
“Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization,” Preval declared.
Indeed, after the early days, weeks, and months following the disaster pass, the “paradigm of charity” needs to give way to the “paradigm of prosperity” if Haiti is to ever achieve its potential.
The ninth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The ninth and final leg of the journey took the bikers from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Jersey City, a total distance of 430 miles. By the end of tour, the riders had covered 3881 miles.
The “Shifting Gears” devotional contained a key biblical point in the day 57 entry. Reflecting on the separation from family members over the 9 weeks of the tour, hope was expressed that such an experience might “make us more aware of those who are constantly torn from their loved ones and remind us that the water of baptism is thicker than family blood.” As I concluded in a 2005 post, “The water of Christian baptism is thicker than the blood of natural flesh. ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.'” The reality of baptism sets upon a path of service to our neighbors. This is a good point of departure for discussing questions of poverty and prosperity.
A good deal of the devotional focuses on the particularities of the experience of riding a bike. This is fitting because the text was designed for use by the riders of the poverty tour. But a few weeks ago I discussed another kind of bike rider, Pastor Bike of China, who was imprisoned because of his bicycle-based evangelism.
The good news coming out of China this week is that Pastor Bike has been released. Praise God.
My concern in following the CRC Sea to Sea bike tour over the last months has focused on the relation of material poverty to spiritual poverty. This remains an open question for me regarding the social justice advocacy of the denomination. There is a real danger that the social justice focus of the Christian Reformed Church will lapse into a post-milllenialist form of the Social Gospel.
The texts and materials of the tour itself were a bit uneven on this. In the end I think the focus is rightly aimed at divine reality. But the prudential judgments about how material poverty relates to spiritual concerns remains under-developed. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he was effectively saying that until he comes again we will always have to deal with the realities of sin and imperfection.
But he gave us guidance as to how to live in the midst of this sinful reality: “You can help them any time you want.” The one lesson we should take from this tour is that there is a real and pervasive Christian responsibility to give to the relief of the poor in a way that addresses both material and spiritual realities. Give thoughtfully and prayerfully. But be sure to give. For a moving testimony on this, see “Auntie Anne’s Pretzels founder cites personal faith, Bible verses as reasons to give.”
Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico was invited to deliver the Krieble Lecture at the 31st Annual Heritage Foundation Resource Bank Meeting on April 24 in Atlanta. His talk ranged widely over “the simple idea of human liberty” and what is required to preserve it.
“People live off of a legacy of the past and all too many people find themselves incapable of defending the heritage of Western civilization,” Rev. Sirico said in his lecture. “Each day people assume that prosperity is just part and parcel of the natural law. Wasn’t it always so?”
The Heritage Foundation’s Annual Resource Bank Meeting gathers more than 500 think tank executives, public interest lawyers, policy experts, and elected officials from around the world to discuss issues, strategies, and methods for advancing free market, limited government public policies. The Resource Bank is also conducted in partnership with groups such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, State Policy Network, and World Taxpayers Associations.
Listen to an audio recording of Rev. Sirico’s Krieble Lecture here.
Given the Bible’s many warnings about the danger presented by wealth, specifically the temptation to no longer rely on God and his providential care, that probably isn’t surprising. But what might be more surprising is that “the United States, the wealthiest nation, was ‘most notably’ an exception, scoring higher in religiosity than those in Europe. The level of religiosity in the United States was found to be similar to less economically developed countries such as Mexico. Americans tend to be more religious than the publics of other affluent nations, the survey stated.”
But what upsets the seeming iron law connecting wealth to irreligion?
If wealth is less of an idol in the United States than elsewhere, it’s due in large part to the penetration of the Gospel message into people’s hearts and minds. An example of this message is clearly evident in a recent CT column by John Piper, “Gutsy Guilt.”
Piper takes apart the myth of prosperous comfort that Satan propagates. Piper writes with regard to sexual sin, perhaps the most difficult class of sins to conquer, “The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.”
Material prosperity can be an occasion not only to stop relying on God for the provision of earthly goods, but can also be an opiate that dulls our awareness of even greater grace, the gift of justification. “Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication,” writes Piper.
Here we hear echoes of Martin Luther: “At once a righteous one and a sinner! Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”
If the Pew survey is reliable, it speaks greatly to the cause of Christ in America that great wealth has not resulted in the level of apostasy and practical atheism present in other countries. Only when rightly and appropriately valued does wealth occupy a morally praiseworthy place in the world, as a means of glorifying God through service to our neighbor.
Folks like John Piper and Craig Gross (whose efforts in an anti-pornography ministry is profiled at length here) have done a great deal to keep American Christianity from accommodating sexual guilt that lies unforgiven in cultural appeasement. We are of course and by no means blameless or perfect, and our “success” relative to other countries is less important than our failure relative to God’s demands of holiness.
But what these things do show is that the Gospel and the extent to which God remains a vital reality in the lives of people does matter greatly in this world, not least of which in how it affects the way we relate to the culture around us and begin to use penultimate things rightly.
This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.
“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Layrd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”
Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”
But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.
Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.
Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.
Thus, says Augustine,
there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).
Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,
A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).
Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.
Mark Whitehouse reported in the September 25th issue of the Wall Street Journal that the living standards of average Americans will have to be adjusted downward in coming years because a larger share of our national debt is going to debt-service. He writes,
That means Americans will have to work harder to maintain the same living standards—or cut back sharply to pay down the debt.” Catherine Mann, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics notes, “Our net international obligations are coming home to roost. It’s as if on our personal MasterCards we have run up large obligations and never had to make personal payments. You can’t believe that is going to last forever.
I am not a professional economist but such news makes me wonder how we will really handle these things as a nation when the spend-spend-spend spigot is finally turned off. The pay day is coming, maybe sooner than later. Our prosperity is always one really bad cycle from a serious implosion and then the country will either adjust corporately, and grow stronger morally and spiritually, or it will begin to break down in ways that could be alarming over the long term. Let us pray that we learn how to adjust sooner than later. Churches that spend so much on themselves, and their upwardly mobile lifestyles, should take note. The kingdom calls for sacrifice and frugality, not lavish expenditures on empire building.
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."