Posts tagged with: stewardship

Rebecca Hagelin of the Heritage Foundation picks up on my thoughts on consumerism and capitalism and expands on them helpfully in a Townhall.com column.

We should all take her observations about stewardship to heart. I have been a student and a leader of Crown Financial Ministries curriculum, and during my time at Calvin Seminary was even part of a study group to suggest revisions of the curriculum to better reflect Reformed theological sensitivities. I’ve also recently gone through one of Dave Ramsey’s books.

If you’re struggling with debt and controlling your spending, invest your time in one of these or another practical and biblically-grounded guides to responsible financial stewardship.

And speaking of stewardship, participants in this year’s Acton University get the privilege of hearing Dr. Scott Preissler, who is Eklund Professor and Chair of Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s giving a talk on “Stewardship and Charitable Giving.” Acton’s own Stephen Grabill is giving a lecture titled “A Theology of Stewardship.” And as his ActonU bio states, you should keep your eyes peeled in coming months for the forthcoming Stewardship Resource Bible: ESV, of which Dr. Grabill is the general editor.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
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In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).

Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.

Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.

This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.

My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).

According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).

In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.

Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:

State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.

We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”

The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.

But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.

With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.

Alan Donagan, the moral philosopher, in his text The Theory of Morality reflects upon Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make mankind in our image…”). This text can be seen, he writes,

as an affirmation that the earth and all that is on it exist for the sake of the rational beings who live in it; that is, for the sake of man. Yet mankind at large, like any limited human society, is a partnership of the living with the dead and the unborn. The right of the living to use the earth does not entitle them to despoil it. They must respect those who come after them, and not their contemporaries only.

It’s a good thing to remember, and not just with respect to the care of the earth as specifically concerns the environment, but with stewardship of other things, such as oure shared culture, religious doctrine and tradition, and as Dr. J. and others have written recently, fiscal and monetary responsibilities.

Many of us have yet to finalize plans for our Christmas decorating this year. If you haven’t yet decided what kind of tree to put up, consider the truly environmentally-friendly choice: cutting down a live tree.

While that might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, the fact is that the alignment of consumer demand for live trees combines with the environmental interest in growing them to create a powerful alliance.

“Buying a real Christmas tree is the next ‘green decision’ the public can make,” said Mike Bondi, University of Oregon Environmental Science professor. “In fact, a real tree is the safest choice since the tree is helpful to the environment from the time it is planted right up to the recycling process.”

This isn’t your only ‘green’ option this year.

Industry trade groups are also touting live trees as the next “green” thing, including special labeling for trees grown in a particular way. Gayla Hansen, Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association president, says that when you buy a live tree, typically “you’re helping independently owned, family farms.” One way to ensure that there will be lots of evergreen trees grown around this country for years to come is to have a booming and consistent consumer demand for such trees.

This is a clear case of fiscal incentive combining with an environmental interest to create a synergy of economic and ecologic good. We have good reason to think, therefore, that economic and environmental concerns shouldn’t be viewed as polar opposites, but rather complementary aspects of the same basic issue.

A Norfolk Island Pine.

While a live tree is maturing, it takes in CO2 and produces oxygen, in addition to providing natural wildlife habitat. And when the Christmas season ends, trees can be easily mulched or composted (HT: The Evangelical Ecologist).

You might even choose to buy a tree that you can re-plant after its indoor use is finished. When I lived in Virginia where the climate was more temperate than here in Michigan, my mother and I often would reuse a Norfolk Island Pine (which admittedly sometimes looked like a Charlie Brown tree).

When there is reliable consumer demand for a product, there is additional incentive to motivate producers to have a sustainable source to meet that demand. That’s as true for Christmas trees as it is for African Blackwood (a preferred source for many woodwind instruments, including the bagpipe).

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 4, 2007
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The Free Exchange blog at Economist.com (HT) concludes a long and thoughtful post on fair trade, specifically in response to this recent NYT article, “Fair Trade in Bloom,” by wondering:

And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.

Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.

These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.

To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.

But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.

You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.

The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.

For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 21, 2007
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The PowerBlog’s own Don Bosch is attending the Let’s Tend the Garden evangelical environmental conference this week. He’s liveblogging at his own habitat, and will cross-post and update us here as opportunity permits.

He writes to me briefly that there are “lots of Christian environmental leaders (Rich Cizik is here, along with Rusty Pritchard, Floresta, A Rocha, etc) and also secular groups (Sierra Club).”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
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The relation of the creation account and the narrative of the flood in Genesis is a complex one. One of these linkages comes in the similarities of the mandates set forth by God in both accounts.

The sixteenth-century reformer Wolfgang Musculus identifies three mandates in the creation account (in addition to the specific prescription regarding the tree of life). The first of these is the procreation mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number.” The second is the dominion mandate, flowing from the first: “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” The third mandate relates to sustenance of life: “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”

Musculus notes that each of these elements are reiterated in the flood account. God says to Noah, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” He also says, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” And finally God says, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

In this recapitulation the procreation mandate seems unchanged. The dominion mandate seems to be marked now by a relationship of antipathy, characterized “fear and dread” rather than benevolence. And thirdly, God expands the provision of human sustenance beyond plants to include eating of animals.

I’d like to focus on this third point, while noting that the change of the relationship noted in the second point is no doubt related to the inclusion of animals as fit for human consumption. Animals would have reason to fear being eaten now, for instance.

There’s been a great deal of reflection on the meaning of God’s adjustment of the creation mandate to include animals as the source of human food. Some commentators have focused on the need for the new human family to have ready sources of protein and nutrients that might not otherwise be available in the post-diluvian world. Related to this, if it’s true, as many vegetarians would have us believe that eating meat is unhealthy, it may be a way for God to ensure that the human lifespan would be limited: “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

As I’ve noted in another context, the expansion of the food mandate to include animals is a reflection of the comprehensive corruption of the Fall. Sin has marred the created harmony of the relationship between humans and animals.

Here, however, I’d like to speculate on another aspect of the extension of this mandate to include animals. Given the nature of fallen humankind, focused on inordinate and idolatrous self-love (cor curvum se, as Anselm puts it), God may be testifying to the fallen-ness of the human/animal relationship and simultaneously providing incentive for fallen humanity to take an active and interested role in stewardship of the animal kingdom.

By linking human survival to dependence on animals for food, God has set in place a relationship that will tend to mirror, if even in a fallen and imperfect way, the original responsibility of human beings to exercise stewardship and dominion over the created order. Human beings now have a basic motivation from self-interest from survival to economic prosperity to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

As many economic observers have noted, a key way to ensure survival of a species is to commodify that species for human consumption in one form or another. There is no lack of cows in America primarily because there is an economic motivation for farmers to keep sustainable herds to meet consumer demand.

There is of course no guarantee that unbounded greed and short-sightedness will short-circuit the economically-savvy self-interest that manifests itself in sustaining a reliable and long-term source of animal products. For a case in point, see Eric Dolin’s new book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (interviews here and here, reviewed here). While the whaling industry provided foundational means for economic development in colonial New England, it was a lack of perspective that allowed these populations to be hunted near extinction (see the case of the right whale, for instance).

The key here is note that enlightened self-interest, as opposed to base and short-sighted greed, manifests itself in an impulse to protect sustainable sources of animal products. In this way economic development and the protection of species are not in fundamental opposition, as so many environmentalists have construed laws like the Endangered Species Act.

What do you call titans of industry who influence governmental regulation to provide them with tax and subsidy incentives to make a business venture profitable?

They used to be called robber barons…now apparently they’re “eco-millionaires.” The NYT piece gives a brief overview of four such figures:

Bruce Khouri “did not found Solar Integrated until 2001 once tax and subsidy incentives made the market more attractive.”

Pedro Moura Costa says he “saw the carbon market could be big business and the Kyoto Protocol confirmed my views.”

According to David Scaysbrook, “tax breaks, subsidies and emissions caps had prompted even more conservative investors ‘to finally move off their perch.'”

And “Neil Eckert, chief executive of Climate Exchange, which runs the main European exchange for carbon trading, has shares worth about 18 million pounds ($36 million). He is also non-executive chairman of Trading Emissions and Econergy, both involved in emission-cutting projects and generating revenue from carbon credits.”

More here on how not only individual investors but also nations are cashing in on artificially-created carbon schemes.

An op-ed in today’s NYT by James E. McWilliams, “Food That Travels Well,” articulates some of the suspicions I’ve had about the whole “eat local” phenomenon.

It seems to me that duplicating the kind of infrastructure necessary to sustain a great variety of food production every hundred miles or so is grossly inefficient. Now some researchers in New Zealand have crunched some numbers that seem to support that analysis:

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

McWilliams closes with some compelling questions about stewardship of the environment, food production, and trade:

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 3 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the third and final pair. The first four sermons dealt directly with Chrysostom’s exegesis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. These latter two sermons were given on different occasions. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 6:

  • The sermon comes after an earthquake has hit the community: “Have you seen the mortality of the human race? When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?” (97)

  • Chrysostom searches out the source and cause of the disaster: “So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin, the mother of punishment” (101).
  • Chrysostom reiterates a theme from the previous sermons. We are not to judge someone as fortunate based only on their external condition: “In the same way, imagine two sinners, one being punished, the other not being punished. Do no say, this one is lucky because he is rich, he strips orphans of their property, and he oppresses widows. Apparently he is not ill, he has a good reputation in spite of his thefts, he enjoys honor and authority, he does not endure any of the troubles which afflict mankind—no fever, no paralysis, nor any other disease—a chorus of children surrounds him, his old age is comfortable; but you should grieve most for him, because he is indeed ill and receives no treatment” (102).
  • The varieties of sinners characterized as beasts rather than men: “You see, you should not examine his nature but his character, not his appearance but his disposition; and not his disposition only, but investigate his whole way of life. If he loves the poor, he is a human being; but if he is wholly involved in commerce, he is an oak tree. If he has a savage temper, he is a lion; if he is rapacious, he is a wolf; if he is deceitful, he is a cobra. You should say, ‘I am looking for a human being; why have you shown me a beast instead of a man?’ Learn what really is the virtue of a human being, and do not be confused” (107-8).
  • Chrysostom concludes by examining Abraham’s words that Lazarus received the evil that he was due in this life, and the rich man received the rewards he was due. Chrysostom understands this to mean that the evil man has done at least some good, and therefore is rewarded in this life, while the good man has done at least some evil, and therefore is punished in this life.

Sermon 7:

  • A condemnation of worldliness: “For those who are eager to go to the races and the other satanic spectacles, who have no care for self-control and give no thought for virtue, who wish to behave recklessly, who yield themselves to luxury and gluttony, who spend themselves every day in madness and frenzy for money, who strain after the things of the present life—these people walk by the wide gate and the easy road. But when they go farther along, and gather a great burden of sins for themselves, when they are all spent and come to the end of the road, they are no longer able to go any farther, because they are pressed tightly by the narrowness of the road and burdened by the weight of their sins so that they cannot go through” (129).

  • Riches are a blessing and a temptation: “Do not call these things good without qualification, O man, bearing in mind that they are given by the Master in order that by enjoying them in due proportion we may have sustenance for our life and may overcome the weakness of our bodies; but the truly good things are something else. None of these things is good, not luxury, not wealth, not expensive clothing; they have only the name of goodness. Why do I say that they have only the name? They often indeed cause our destruction, when we use them improperly. Wealth will be good for its possessor if he does not spend it only on luxury, or on strong drink and harmful pleasures; if he enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then wealth is a good thing. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and other profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the deep pit” (136-37).

Next week: 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.