Posts tagged with: religion

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.

For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.

Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”

Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.

In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!

This past Sunday one of the songs in our worship service was the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Here’s the first stanza:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

If the new translation of Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, were to have a companion hymn, this might well be the perfect candidate.

“They were trying to blow me into heaven, but God wanted me on Earth.” – Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s courage, tenacity, and epic struggle for racial equality in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, is legendary. Birmingham, not so affectionately nicknamed “Bombingham” in the 1950s and 1960s for its propensity for racial acts of terror, named its airport after the famed American Civil Rights leader in 2008.

This account, which speaks to the madness in Birmingham during his pastorate at Bethel Baptist Church, is from his New York Times obituary page:

In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”

When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”

I remember learning about Rev. Shuttlesworth during my studies of the American Civil Rights Movement at Ole Miss and you just had to deeply admire his stubborn, but principled courage.

One aspect of his life that may be overshadowed in the tributes paid to him in some forums is that Rev. Shuttlesworth was a conservative Baptist with a conservative theology. Christ was at the center of his preaching. He would want his death to be celebrated. Rev. Shuttlesworth lived a life with little fear because of the confidence he had in the power of Christ. He believed that he too would rise to be with his Savior.

Looking back on Birmingham and the famed movement for justice and equality there he simply said, “We knew that once the light shined into darkness that darkness couldn’t hold us back.” Below is a moving tribute to the former civil rights leader and pastor:

I’m at the “Whole Life Discipleship: Integrating Faith, Economics, and Work” conference today at Regent University. As I have the opportunity today, I’ll blog (and tweet) some of the lectures. First up is Stephen Grabill of the Acton Institute, and here are some highlights:

He focused on three basic questions: What is political and economic freedom? How do we use Scripture in our approach to social life? What about natural law?

On the first: A Christian anthropology is anti-revolutionary in the sense of van Prinsterer and Kuyper. In this sense Groen was a protestant Lord Acton. The spirit of human autonomy manifest in the French Revolution is at odds with the spirit of Christ manifest in all areas of life.

On the second: The missing theological piece of the puzzle is that the Bible is only part of the revelation of that we need to get to concrete positions on various social questions. The distinction between special vs. general revelation is critical here, as is the place of natural law in relation to general revelation.

On the third: If we can figure out what to do with  natural law, we will have taken a critical first step in articulating a vigorous public theology. The natural law tradition acknowledges both special and general revelation. Natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation, and it’s one that we have to recover to connect faith and economics today.

I hope to update this post with more as the day progresses.

Update: The next session is a talk by Dr. Gerson Moreno-Riano of Regent University.

His lecture focuses on explicating the following question:

What is a humane economy, and how does this relate to enterprise and entrepreneurship?

First, he explores a theory of humane economics, rooted in a robust moral anthropology. Economics is a theory of human action, production, distribution, consumption. Economic action is fundamentally moral in nature, preferring some goods to others, some ends to others. Insufficiency is a natural, basic fact of human existence: every human being needs other human beings. Perhaps the chief tenet of the natural law is human insufficiency (assuming relations to neighbors and God). A humane economics is one that enshrines natural limits to economic activity, accepting the natural hierarchy of human goods, guarding against the commodification of everything.

Second, a culture of enterprise is to be understood as one promotes entrepreneurship.Empathy as an essential part of anthropology, is an essential part of enterprise at the heart of an economic system. Moral ecology (Novak) and culture address the climate of a person’s socialization, a person’s relation to others. Human beings are born needy and wanting. This reality of insufficiency must be recognized. Self-awareness calls human beings to recall their lowly state and contextualizes their expectations. The moral consequence is that there must be an empathetic orientation toward the other, focusing on the needs, the lack, of other people. Enterprise, the focus on innovative responses to human needs and wants, is therefore a moral consequence of empathy.

Finally, the role of entrepreneurs in an entreprise culture must be explored. in a humane economic system. To support human flourishing a culture of enterprise  must have a holistic account of human insufficiency, the principle that human beings have unattainable non-economic needs, as well as attainable economic needs. Entrepreneurs have a critical social role in addressing the latter: attainable economic needs. Since these needs are so variable, actual embodiments of entrepreneurship are equally variable. There are many different kinds of entrepreneurs, focused on many different kinds of goods. Creativity, however, seems to be one of the characteristic features of entrepreneurship. Only when entrepreneurs become wisdom-lovers, and wisdom-lovers become entrepreneurs, can we hope to move to a culture of enterprise that promotes a humane economics.

Further reading: Gerson Moreno-Riano, “Democracy, Humane Economics, and a Culture of Enterprise,” Journal of Markets & Morality 13, no. 1 (Spring 2010).

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
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Occupy Wall Street?

On the Sojourners blog, Shane Claiborne marks the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi by absurdly wondering if “he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.” This follows the practice of shrinking Jesus Christ and various saints of the church down to pocket size (What Would Jesus Cut?) in order to fit them into whatever pet political project is at hand, in this case the Occupy Wall Street antics. Not the whole saint in the context of history, mind you, which could be inconvenient, but a happy little Smurf-Saint you can use to practice ventriloquism.

This causes all sorts of problems (most of them apparently unrecognized) for Claiborne as he attempts to cast St Francis as a fellow activist standing against Christian “extremists” who, among other sins, “bless bombs” and “baptize Wall Street.” This is anachronistic in the extreme but nevertheless it needs to be pointed out that the saint’s embrace of poverty and his care for the poor was not based on, as Claiborne claims, his status as “one of the first critics of capitalism.” St Francis lived and worked and prayed as he did out of a total commitment to the greatest commandment — to love God and love the neighbor.

Claiborne gets me to wondering: What would the Wall Street rabble demanding an end to the market economy make of St Francis and his deep devotion to orthodox Christian belief (he was one of those dogmatic Roman Catholics, don’t you know?), and all that involves? How many of the anarchists stretched out on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan with their smart phones and iPods could tell you what a feast day is and how it’s celebrated? An entry in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia notes that St Francis drew his strength from “his intimate union with Jesus in the Holy Communion” not mobilizing Ivy League undergrads protesting their mounting student loan debts. Later in life, the saint was known for “an ungrudging submission to what constituted ecclesiastical authority.” Quite the revolutionary.

Claiborne recounts the journey St Francis made in 1219 to Egypt where crusaders were battling “Saracens.” Yes, he was sickened by the carnage and brutality he witnessed there and worked as a peacemaker to both sides. But the saint made his journey to convert Muslims to Christianity. Is that Claiborne’s model of ecumenical outreach?

Read the absurdly fantastic demands of the Occupy Wall Street crowd including free college education, multi-trillion dollar government spending programs, living wages for all, and the like. You wonder: Who is really worshiping Mammon here? Their program is devoid of any spiritual value. It is a political manifesto, imbued with grievance and aimed at plunder.

Love for the neighbor? Not if you’re one of those neighbors working on Wall Street — or Main Street for that matter. The protesters should listen to the saint’s words:

And all the brothers should beware that they do not slander or engage in disputes; rather, they should strive to keep silence whenever God gives them [such] grace. Nor should they quarrel among themselves or with others, but they should strive to respond humbly, saying: I am a useless servant. And they should not become angry, since everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and he who has said to his brother ‘Raqa’ shall be liable to the Council; whoever has said ‘fool’ shall be liable to the fires of hell (Mt. 5:22). And they should love one another, as the Lord says: This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 15:12). And let them express the love which they have for one another by their deeds, as the Apostle says: Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18). And they should slander no one. Let them not murmur nor detract from others, for it is written: Gossips and detractors are detestable to God (Rom. 1:29-30). And let them be modest, by showing meekness toward everyone (cf. Tit. 3:2). Let them not judge or condemn. And as the Lord says, they should not take notice of the little defects of others. Rather they should reflect much more on their own in the bitterness of their soul. And let them strive to enter through the narrow gate, for the Lord says: Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life; and there are few who find it (Mt. 7:14).”

Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.

Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?

In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”

The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
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Preacher of the prosperity gospel and swindler of poor Brazilians Bishop Edir Macedo was charged last week with embezzeling hundreds of millions of dollars from his Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Until I read about the case (h/t Get Religion), I didn’t realize that the prosperity gospel had much of a foothold outside American Pentecostal traditions. It makes perfect sense though that it should be the heir to liberation theology in Latin America.

The Catholic Church fought back against the false anthropology of liberation theology, and it is no longer the problem in South America that it was, but preachers like Macedo have stepped in to deliver the same old message to the continent’s poor: that their poverty and the injustice in their lives are the primary concern of Christian religion. This is a debasement of the Gospel, and it is theft — those who are taken in by the prosperity gospel are deprived of the fullness of Revelation.

As it turns out, they’re also defrauded. Macedo, whose estimated worth is higher than two billion dollars (at least for now…), seems to have stolen more directly from his flock, preying upon them in a way that liberation theologians never did.

On the other hand, we have the Acton approach to poverty, which is one of empowerment, and which has its sure basis in human nature. In order to vanquish poverty, a society must create wealth — economics is not the zero-sum game of Marxist theory, nor is Macedo’s collection plate a high-return investment opportunity. Economic growth comes only from the productive work of men and women whose work is, in the words of Rev. Robert A. Sirico, “akin to God’s creative activity as we read it in the book of Genesis.”

This vocation is marginalized by liberation theology and the prosperity gospel, which tell their followers that the end of work is a paycheck, and that can be got in other ways too — by class warfare or by manna from heaven. The terribly cruelty is that these lies perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

In this week’s Acton News & Commentary, Rev. Gregory Jensen observes that religious communities on both the left and the right can agree that government budgets are “moral documents.” He then offers a novel suggestion for closing budget gaps while offering clergy an opportunity to show solidarity with the poor. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.

Time to End Clergy Tax Breaks?

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Unless you are a member of the clergy or involved with the finances of a church or temple, you probably don’t know that since 1921 the federal government has subsidized a congregation’s remuneration of its pastor. This happens through the extension of a housing or “parsonage allowance” that makes it possible for an ordained member of the clergy to live “tax-free in a home owned by his or her religious organization or receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home if the congregation approves.” Originally, this was meant as a way of helping “minimize taxes on clergy members, whose compensation was often meager.”

Recent court cases have extended “the parsonage allowance to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned either by the religious organization or the clergy member. However unintentionally, in doing this the courts may have opened “the door for the allowance to be applied to multiple homes used by leaders of wealthier ministries.” Among those concerned about the possibility that this will lead to abuse or an unjust situation is Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). “It’s fair to question,” he says “why a clergy member needs a tax-free allowance for more than one home, and whether tax-exempt churches should subsidize millionaire ministers” (Tax Break for Clergy Questioned).

Yes, there will no doubt be those who abuse the system but when is this not the case? Religion plays a key role in maintaining a free and virtuous society, and an argument can be made that subsidies, such as the housing allowance or non-profit status for religious ministries, are a good thing for society lowering as they do the cost of maintaining a diverse range of religious communities which, in the aggregate, have a positive social effect.

The recently issued document “A Circle of Protection” rightly points out that “Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices.” Christians from both the political left and right can, and should, agree with this. Likewise, I think it would be difficult for me, or any Christian, to deny that “It is the vocation and obligation of the church to speak and act on behalf of those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” Nor would I, or any thoughtful Christian, deny that such a witness is essential part of “our calling” and that we must “strive to be faithful in carrying out this mission.”

Where some Christians might disagree is with their contention that the federal budget must give a “moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.” Others, like those involved with Christians for a Sustainable Economy, have done a very good job of criticizing the document’s equating support for government programs with support for people so I won’t repeat those criticisms here. I would however like to make a more general point.

A number of the signatories of “A Circle of Protection” are ordained clergy and/or representatives of various Christian denominations or ministries. Many, and I dare say most, probably benefit personally from the federal housing allowance for clergy. Because they work for religious denominations that are also non-profit corporations, they benefit institutionally from what, in a slightly different context, might be called corporate welfare.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with either the clergy housing allowance or a ministry having non-profit status. As I said above, religious institutions play an important and essential role in fostering a free and virtuous society.

Nor am I calling into question the sincerity of anyone’s faith. But I am mindful of the admonition that we “do no injustice in judgment” by being “partial to the poor” or holding in “honor the person of the mighty.” We are instead to be “righteousness” in our judgments (Lev 19:15, NKJV). I wonder whether or not under such a standard a Christian community can “be faithful in carrying out” its “mission” to speak for those in material need while at the same time accepting for themselves preferential treatment under the tax code. In light of these considerations, perhaps those clergy who are advocating for more government spending would do their share for this cause by voluntarily—and very publicly—returning to the U.S. Treasury an amount equal to their parsonage allowance. Annually.

The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia and is a contributor to the Acton PowerBlog and the American Orthodox Institute’s Observer.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Work and Prayer: Of Coins, Sheep, and Men,” I explore what the parable of the Prodigal Son (when read in conjunction with the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) has to teach us about stewardship:

Reading these three stories together teaches us many things about the nature of God’s love for us, such that when we were lost, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). But the stories also provide models for how we should relate to the different aspects of God’s created order, from the material, to the animal, to the human. In each kind of relationship, humans have a definite role to play. In some cases we are called to work actively to achieve God’s purposes in the world. In other cases, out of respect for human freedom and individual sovereignty, we have to engage in active searching for the lost things of this world by less direct means.

Jan van Hemessen - The Prodigal Son - WGA11358

Does this guy have anything to teach us about stewardship?


The Parable of the Lost Son has been the subject of popularization and cultural expression throughout the centuries (see, for instance, Tissot’s set of paintings on “The Prodigal Son in Modern Life”). In recent decades, films like Legends of the Fall (1994) have drawn at least partial inspiration from the story. In this week’s commentary, I don’t have space to treat the case of the elder brother adequately, but Andrée Seu draws parallels between the elder brother in the 1994 film and the tale of the Prodigal Son.

I also draw on C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Work and Prayer,” which appears in the collection of essays, God in the Dock.

The state of religious liberty around the world is poor, according a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion. Doug Bandow breaks down the report over at The American Spectator—his piece is titled “A World Spinning Backward.”

Two years ago, Pew reported that 70 percent of humanity suffered from either government persecution of or social hostility to religion.

That trend is growing. According to Pew’s new study, “more than 2.2 billion people—about a third of the world’s population—live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. About 1% live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities are decreasing.”

And in a finding that reminds one of Old Testament and Roman persecutions,

Pew noted that “restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they more often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.”

Blasphemy prosecutions have become notorious in Pakistan. These laws began with the British, were strengthened by a military dictator seeking religious support, and now are disproportionately used against Christians, often to settle property or other disputes. Muslims who urge reform of the laws are at risk. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was vocal in his criticism of the blasphemy statute and was murdered in January.

So Bandow asks, “What is responsible for this alarming trend?”

One finding suggests an unusual form of global polarization. Authoritarian states are growing more repressive while liberal nations are growing freer.

But while the America remains the most religiously free region in the world, social oppression is breaking out even in Western democratic nations…. Pew found that “Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009.

Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia (where religious-oriented terrorism is on the rise), Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Italy are all guilty of backsliding. Bandow’s conclusion ought to be taken seriously:

Only one thing is certain: liberty is both rare and precious. Unfortunately, people in much of the world are free in neither their personal nor their political lives…. History obviously has more than its share of surprises left for us.

The First Amendment must never be taken for granted.