This morning at Acton University I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Edd Noell, “Origins of Economics: The Scriptures and Early Church Fathers.” I have briefly examined one ancient Christian perspective on wealth in the past (here), but Dr. Noell’s survey today was far more expansive. For the benefit of PowerBlog readers, I would like to reflect on some of the major themes of his talk here as a sort of preview of what one could expect once the audio is available for sale. (more…)
This country suffers no shortage of heroic tales. For the Union soldier who served under Ulysses S. Grant, there certainly was no greater leader. Often referred to by detractors as “a butcher” for the wake of Union dead left after his victories, he took the fight to the Confederacy. After the Wilderness campaign in 1864, where 17,000 Union soldiers died in just a few days, Grant unlike all the Union generals before him refused to lick the Federal wounds and retreat across the Rapidan River to resupply and reorganize. Instead Grant famously turned his massive columns not North, but South towards the heart of the Confederacy. Towards Richmond. Those that have studied the Civil War are familiar with the iconic story, as war whoops, hat waving, and wild cheering echoed across the forest. There was no doubt that The Army of the Potomac, which had suffered a barrage of whippings by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, was under new leadership.
It was moments like this, and not Grant’s largely unspectacular two terms as president, where one can understand why his funeral procession was seven miles long. Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelin Flood is not a book about his time as commander of the Union or president, but the fascinating and heroic tale of his race against time to publish his memoirs and save his family from financial ruin.
In 1884, Grant was embroiled in one of the first famous Ponzi schemes on Wall Street, and his son’s partner at Grant & Ward, an investing firm, bankrupted the company and fled. Grant and his entire family was wiped out. Grant wrote his niece, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.” He was personally embarrassed having lent his name and prestige to the company. Doubtless many assumed it was on firm footing with the hero of the Union watching over it. In reality, Grant had little knowledge of the day to day operations of the firm.
Soon after the scandal, Grant was diagnosed with terminal mouth and throat cancer. He was said to partake in an average of 20 – 25 cigars a day. He rushed to write his personal memoirs of the Civil War. Before his financial destruction, he was on record as having little desire to write his own account of the war. Grant eventually settled on an agreement with his friend Mark Twain that would give his widow Julia 75 percent of the profit of the book sales.
As he toiled away with his pen, sometimes writing as many as 25 – 50 pages a day, The New York Times and publications across the country offered daily updates on Grant’s condition. His suffering was immense. His throat had to be constantly swabbed with cocaine to relieve the pain. As the illness progressed, it literally began to suffocate him and he would often wake at night in a panic, trying to gasp for air. Just swallowing was especially agonizing.
Grant received an abundance of personal letters and well wishes from North and South. He felt his illness was helping to further heal the sectional divide and noted as much. The author notes Grant was especially touched by a letter by A.M. Arnold from Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Arnold wrote:
I hope that you will allow one, who, when but a boy, laid down his arms at Appomattox and gave his allegiance to the Union, to express his warmest sympathy for you in your hour of affliction. Dear General, I have watched your movements from the hour you gave me my horse and sword and told me to go home and “assist in making a crop” – I have been proud to see the nation do you honor . . .
May the God who overlooked you in battle and who has brought you this far give you grace to meet whatever He has in store for you. And may He restore you to health & friends is the fervent prayer of one who at 15 years of age entered the lists against you and accepted the magnanimous terms you accorded us at Appomattox.
Grant had his share of well wishers in the South because of the respect he showed for General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant also later intervened on Lee’s behalf when President Andrew Johnson and others in the federal government wanted to arrest Lee and have him tried and hung for treason.
Grant, a lifelong Methodist, was not particularly known for devoutness. Nearing death he spent more time with his Methodist pastor and was baptized for the first time in his life. Flood suggests that Grant may have at times kept his pastor at arms distance because he thought he might have been being used by the clergyman so the minister could cement his own notoriety as Grant’s pastor. Grant refused public communion near his death, writing his pastor:
I would only be too happy to do so if I felt myself fully worthy. I have a feeling in regard to taking the sacriment [sic] that no worse sin can be committed than to take it unworthily. I would prefer therefore not to take it, but to have the funeral services performed when I am gone.
As Grant declined he was moved to a cabin in upstate New York where the climate better suited his illness and suffering throat. He sat on the porch working feverishly to complete his memoirs. Former generals and military men paid their last respects, and Grant mostly communicated through notes by now. Well wishers often walked by his cabin and if they were fortunate Grant would tip his cap to them or raise a hand. One minister upon seeing Grant writing on his porch while suffering in such agony expressed that the image was “the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”
Grant died three days after completing his memoirs in 1885. He dedicated the publication to the “American soldier and sailor.” When it was suggested that maybe he should change the dedication so that it read “the Union soldier and sailor,” he declined. The healing of the nation was always on Grant’s mind and at the conclusion his optimism shined as he stated his belief that the healing would continue. As Grant peacefully departed this life, his son stopped the clock at 8:08. The hand of the clock still remains fixed on that time in the cottage where Grant passed away. The cottage is Wilton, NY is heavily visited today and is an enduring symbol of Grant’s courageous life and death.
The well wishes poured in for one of the most beloved leaders in American history. Church bells across the country chimed 63 times, one for each year of Grant’s life. The former Confederate General James P. Longstreet called him “the soul of honor,” adding that Grant “was the highest type of manhood America has produced.”
While his funeral was epic affair of state, it clashed with the humility that Grant would cast in his memoirs. Often memoirs of great generals or statesmen are puffed up affairs, but Grant’s work would be forever known as a chronicle that praised the men around him, with the attention focused not on himself but the battles and conflict. The chronicles avoided flowery speech and was straightforward and honest, much like many of the fellow Midwesterners Grant led. Flood has written a powerful story and helps the reader to see why Grant was so loved even through faults and poor choices. It could be easily said that no American in the 19th Century was more admired than Grant and did more to save the country.
I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.
What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?
The latest issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2008) features a contribution from me, “Bonhoeffer in America—A Review Essay.” Using the rubric of Bonhoeffer’s two trips to America in 1930-31 and 1939, I examine his reception in the United States and the broader English-speaking world via a number of recent texts by and about the German theologian.
Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church recognized Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr, the first recognition of its kind for that denomination.
One of the books I consider in the review essay is Craig Slane’s excellent study, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment. One of the nice things about this book is its attention to the historical development of martyrdom and suffering as a phenomenon in the Christian church, as well as the focus on bringing their significance to bear in the modern West.
Also forthcoming from me in the more distant future is a contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present on the assassination plot of July 20, 1944, related to the work of the resistance circle of which Bonhoeffer was a part.
A feature film, Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise is due out next February and “is based on the July 20 Plot of German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler.” (An interview with Ralph Winter, who produced previous films by Valkyrie director Bryan Singer, appears in the Autumn 2005 issue of Religion & Liberty.)
PowerBlog: You talk about the history of the faith and tradition in your book a great deal. What do North American evangelicals stand to gain from examining more closely their own history and traditions? In what sense ought Protestantism be understood as “catholic”? Part of that great Christian tradition has to do with the witnesses to the faith, which you survey in the book. What do the concepts of martyrdom and suffering have to do with a Western context where most Christians live comfortably and without the threat of persecution?
Colson: “All true Christians confess the creed: we believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church. Protestantism of course distinguishes itself from the Roman Church doctrine, but regards itself as part of the one body of Christ, one holy catholic apostolic church.
It is crucial that Christians understand history and tradition. Just look at how America was founded in the midst of a Great Awakening led by George Whitfield, who had been greatly influenced by the Wesley Awakening and by Wesley himself. Look at the role of Jonathan Edwards, not only in shaping the early structures of American society but in producing some of the great writings that is part of our own heritage, both as Americans and as Christians. The Encyclopedia Britannica said that Edwards was the greatest mind produced in the western hemisphere. We also need to understand the history of revivalism and how it profoundly affected the shaping of American society and culture. Christianity’s role in bringing educational institutions to the new world is indispensable.
On the subject of martyrdom and suffering, we’ve had some, but precious little. We’ve lived in a largely contained and protected environment. And that may be one of the reasons why secularism is advancing so rapidly even in the church.”
Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour, along with all of the other Q&As to come. Next up today: The Dawn Treader. Also, be sure to raise questions in the comments section below. The word is that Chuck will be answering some of the questions raised in the comments throughout the blog tour. (Be sure to comment and raise questions at other stops on the tour, if you find the topics raised there to be of more interest.)
Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 2 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the second pair. References are to page numbers.
- A summary and introduction to the series of sermons: “The parable of Lazarus was of extraordinary benefit to us, both rich and poor, teaching the latter to bear their poverty with equanimity, and not allowing the former to be proud of their wealth. It taught us by example that the most pitiable person of all is the one who lives in luxury and shares his goods with nobody” (57).
- Those who are involved in worldly affairs are not exempt from studying the Scriptures: “What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them [monks]. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those who are involved in many occupations” (58).
- The redemptiveness of punishment: “For punishment is not evil, but sin is evil. The latter separates us from God, but the former leads us towards God, and dissolves his anger” (65).
- Suffering in one form or another is unavoidable in this life: “So if human beings do not persecute us, yet the devil makes war on us. We need great wisdom and perseverance, to keep sober and watchful in prayer, not to desire others’ property, but to distribute our goods to the needy, to reject and repudiate all luxury, whether of clothing or table, to avoid avarice, drunkenness, and slander, to control our tongue and keep from disorderly clamor…to abstain from shameful or witty talk” (68).
- The question of the theodicy of suffering is raised: “‘But why,’ someone asks, ‘are some punished here, but others only hereafter and not at all here?’ Why? Because if all were punished here, we would all have perished, for we are all subject to penalties. On the other hand, if no one were punished here, most people would become too careless, and many would say there is no providence” (71).
- The right view of suffering: “In summary, every punishment if it happens to sinners, reduces the burden of sin, but if it happens to the righteous, makes their souls more splendid. A great benefit comes to each of them from tribulation, provided that they bear it with thanksgiving; for this is what is required” (73).
- Why the theodicy of suffering is important: “Nothing tends so much to disturb and scandalize the majority of people as the fact that rich people living in wickedness enjoy good fortune while righteous people living with virtue are driven to extreme poverty and endure a multitude of other troubles even worse than poverty. But this parable is sufficient to provide the remedies, self-control for the rich and consolation for the poor” (82).
- On corruption and the conscience: “But the court of conscience cannot yield to any of these influences. Whether you give bribes, or flatter, or threaten, or do anything else, this court will bring forth a just judgment against your sinful intentions. He who commits sin himself condemns himself even if no one else accuses him” (88).
The pro-assisted suicide movement always couches its argument in terms of “compassion” and “choice,” downplays the word “suicide,” and breezily dismiss any counter arguments about the (very real) slippery slope that will accompany the legalization of the practice. For example, here’s a section from the FAQ of the Compassion and Choices website:
The slippery slope argument hypothesizes that legal aid in dying will lead to forced euthanasia. Slippery slopes are precarious situations that one step logically necessitates subsequent steps. This does not define aid in dying, which is always dependent upon one individual. That said, we recognize that any law is subject to abuse, which is why the Oregon law and other proposed legislation have built-in safeguards.
The breezy dismissals are a little harder to swallow when reality looks like this:
Prosecutors are calling for tougher regulations on Switzerland’s assisted suicide clinics after uncovering evidence that some of the foreign clients they help to die are simply depressed rather than suffering incurable pain.
The clinics, which attract hundreds of foreigners, including Britons, every year, have been accused of failing to carry out proper investigations into whether patients meet the requirements of Switzerland’s right-to-die laws.
In some cases, foreign clients are being given drugs to commit suicide within hours of their arrival, which critics say leaves doctors and psychologists unable to conduct a detailed assessment or to provide appropriate counselling.
Let’s face facts: when you deny that human life has intrinsic value from start to finish, and substitute the idea of “quality of life” as the sole determining factor as to whether someone can live or take their own life, you’re marching full tilt down a path that leads to people killing themselves to avoid the pain of a completely treatable condition – and worse.
Assisted suicide crusader Dr. Jack Kevorkian is out of prison as of this morning. For a good recap on who Kevorkian is, what he proposes for society, and just how creepy the man really is, I encourage you to check out Wesley Smith’s article at National Review Online. A sample:
…most of Kevorkian’s “patients” were not terminally ill, but disabled and depressed. Several weren’t even sick, according to their autopsies. Moreover, Kevorkian never attempted to treat any of the 130 or so persons who traveled to Michigan to be hooked up to his suicide machines to die either by drug overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning.
And as for compassion — forget about it. Kevorkian was never in the killing business to alleviate unbearable suffering. Indeed, over the course of decades he repeatedly explained his ultimate goals in professional journals and in his 1991 book, Prescription Medicide. As Jack Kevorkian articulately expresses it himself, compassion had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Kevorkian’s adulthood obsession has been to perform live human experimentation on people he was killing.
No doubt this event will bring the issue of physician assisted suicide to the forefront of our national dialogue for a time. I added my two cents to this debate almost two years ago and I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said:
We hear a lot in our society about the importance of “death with dignity.” Often this phrase is used in the promotion of physician-assisted suicide by people who argue that those with terminal illnesses should have the right to “hasten their death” in the face of suffering. In so arguing, however, advocates of assisted suicide reinforce the idea that those who suffer have no intrinsic value as human beings that would cause society to favor sustaining their life; and as a result they strip those who suffer of any dignity at all. They seem to say that the terminally sick and aged have no inherent dignity – but it can be earned by choosing suicide.
The assisted suicide movement – like so many well-meaning “compassionate” efforts – fails because it does not recognize the inherent worth of every man, woman, and child. Dignity and value are not commodities that rise and fall on some moral market in response to the fluctuations of human frailty. They are intrinsic to what we are as humans. They are a part of our very nature, as real a part of us as the blood that flows in our veins.
These thoughts come to mind as I read of the passing of Dame Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern Hospice movement. Her life’s work has allowed countless individuals to face the end of their life with some amount of physical comfort, often in their own home surrounded by their loved ones. There is a profound truth at the core of the movement that she founded: that dignity in death comes not through the act of dying, but through the act of living one’s life to the fullest until death.
You can read the full post here.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, my grandmother, and the other friends and loved ones now departed who demonstrated to me – in the midst of their suffering – the true nature of dignity at life’s end.
More: Jordan Ballor sent along links to three commentaries written by Rev. Robert Sirico in 1996 and 1998 on the topic of Dr. Kevorkian’s activities; they’re all well worth a read as well:
- How About a Debate, Dr. Kevorkian? (October 26, 1996): “I am challenging Jack Kevorkian to a formal debate on assisted suicide. I’d like this debate to go beyond the legality or illegality of his practice, and even beyond the facts of the many cases of suicide in which he has assisted. These are the areas most critics concentrate on, whereas he and I both know that real issue here is the morality or immorality of the ‘right-to-die’ position itself, and the ethical implications of assisting people in exercising this supposed right.”
- Kevorkian’s Moral Lapse in Right to Die (December 1, 1996): “The faxed response from Geoffrey Feiger reads: ‘”‘Keep your religious nose out of medical affairs,” says Dr. Kevorkian and me.’ I take from this that Dr. Kevorkian thinks people of faith–and 95 percent of Americans describe themselves as such–have nothing to contribute to the subject of medical ethics.”
- Terminal TV (November 25, 1998): “What the man actually wants to legalize, it is now apparent, is the untrammeled right to pull the trigger on anyone he deems ready to die anyway – a step from ‘assisted suicide’ to outright medical homicide, an action that violates every code of medical ethics.”
In preparing for the paper I’m giving this week on Bonhoeffer’s views of church and state, I ran across the following quotes, which nicely illustrate his view of the gospel and its relation to alleviation of social oppression and suffering. In his essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” he writes,
It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.
But even more important than feeding the hungry is the spiritual bread of the gospel. The physical bread derives its importance, in fact, from its value in “preparing the way” for the reception of the gospel. Giving mere bread is a penultimate thing.
Thus he writes, “Preparing the way is indeed a matter of concrete intervention in the visible world, as concrete and visible as hunger and nourishment. Nevertheless, everything depends on this action being a spiritual reality, since what is finally at stake is not the reform of worldly conditions but the coming of Christ.”
This coheres pretty well with a traditional view of the social responsibility of the Church as an important, albeit secondary, aspect of gospel proclamation. Richard Baxter once wrote,
Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul.
It seems to me that Bonhoeffer and Baxter are in close agreement on these issues, in contradistinction to the so-called “social gospel,” which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.