In today’s Acton Commentary, “Debt and the Birth Dearth,” I examine the interrelationship between demographics, economics, and morality, especially within the context of America’s current public debt crisis.
I conclude by pointing to the spiritual nature of our “debts”:
Jesus taught Christians to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we do not renew and reform our culture along the lines suggested here, a renewal that must be led by Christians acting as agents of transformative grace, the debts for which we must pray forgiveness will be far weightier than those incurred by the federal government.
In a primary sense, of course, all of our debts, sins, and transgressions are more than we can afford to make recompense for. This is why the atoning work of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, is of fundamental importance.
But this reality doesn’t remove our responsibility to respond to God’s saving grace in thankfulness and in “fear and trembling.” Instead Christ’s work makes our even meager attempts at faithfulness possible and meaningful.
The Heidelberg Catechism describes this daily conversion of the Christian, the turning away from sin and toward Christ, in terms of death and life, mortification and vivification. This “mortification of the old man” is a dying-to-self, “a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” Vivification, by contrast, is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”
A critical part of this “joy of heart in God, through Christ,” must manifest itself in the celebration of God’s gift of life itself. This includes promoting faithful procreation and parenting, and as Russell Moore has argued so well, promoting a culture of adoption.
Luther famously described parenthood as a sacred calling.
Preaching on “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522, Luther said:
Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”
A wife too should regard her duties in the same light, as she suckles the child, rocks and bathes it, and cares for it in other ways; and as she busies herself with other duties and renders help and obedience to her husband. These are truly golden and noble works. This is also how to comfort and encourage a woman in the pangs of childbirth, not by repeating St. Margaret legends and other silly old wives’ tales but by speaking thus, “Dear Grete, remember that you are a woman, and that this work of God in you is pleasing to him. Trust joyfully in his will, and let him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child. Should it mean your death, then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in subservience to God. If you were not a woman you should now wish to be one for the sake of this very work alone, that you might thus gloriously suffer and even die in the performance of God’s work and will. For here you have the word of God, who so created you and implanted within you this extremity.” Tell me, is not this indeed (as Solomon says [Prov. 18:22]) “to obtain favor from the Lord,” even in the midst of such extremity?
Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.
[Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther's Works, Vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 39-41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).]
Thus Christians, in celebrating life, marriage, family, and children, must risk being worldly derision and ridicule, relying on heavenly wisdom rather than the devil’s foolishness.
Thrift almost seems like a lost virtue among much of our governing class. It is also true of the general population. We don’t have to just look at our staggering public debt, but consumer credit card debt tells the story too. In a past post on the virtue of thrift, Jordan Ballor reminds us that “thrift is one of the things that separates civilized capitalism from savage consumerism.”
When I worked for U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in Mississippi, we had a lot of second-hand office equipment. The boss was always serious about saving tax dollars. I know there are still representatives out there that take thrift seriously. However, we should also let the illustration provided by Amity Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge over at National Review sink in, especially given some of the lavish entertainment we hear about in Washington:
For Coolidge, no savings was too small to overlook. Recently William Jenney, the archivist for the state of Vermont at the Coolidge homestead, pulled out for me an old looseleaf notebook. It contained the White House housekeeper’s journal of outlays for White House entertainment. The White House, even then, received tens of thousands of visitors a year; the Coolidges hosted Col. Charles Lindbergh and Ignacy Padereweski, the pianist and politician. There were many days when Coolidge shook 2,000 hands. But he also kept an eye on the budget. For 1926, the housekeeper itemized each purchase for each event; the total was $11,667.10. For 1927 she managed to get the amount down to $9,116.39. The president reviewed this and wrote her a note: “To Miss Riley, very fine improvement.”
Shlaes, who has a forthcoming book on Calvin Coolidge coming out soon, was interviewed in Religion & Liberty’s 2009 fall issue. She discusses her book The Forgotten Man and the Great Depression in the interview.
I have also touched on Coolidge on the PowerBlog. In a post titled “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” I linked to a great recording on Coolidge talking about the cost of government spending. Have a listen:
Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, William McGurn looks at some of the root causes of the catastrophic decline of the city of Detroit. Census information released last week showed the city — once the fifth largest in America and a place which had such awe-inspiring industrial might that President Roosevelt labeled it the Arsenal of Democracy — had lost more than 25 percent of its population in the last decade. Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910 (two years after Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced). The city, vasts stretches of which are depopulated, is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
As McGurn points out, much of Detroit’s problems are of its own making. There was no tsunami or hurricane to blame. He quotes Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on the cultural factors that have contributed to the city’s demise:
Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.
“Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on,” says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “It’s been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city.”
Another way of putting it is this: Unlike New Orleans and Japan, the ruin we see in Detroit is entirely man-made.
Read “A Requiem for Detroit” in the Wall Street Journal.
Over at CNN, Bob Greene has an opinion piece titled “4-star general, 5-star grace.” In it, he retells the story of how White House aide Valerie Jarret confused Four-star Army General Peter Chiarelli for a waiter. Greene said:
Graciousness can pay priceless dividends. And it doesn’t cost a thing. You may have heard the story about what happened between White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Four-star Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli at a recent Washington dinner. As reported by the website Daily Caller, Jarrett, a longtime Chicago friend of President Obama, was seated at the dinner when a general — later identified as Chiarelli, the No. 2-ranking general in the U.S. Army hierarchy, who was also a guest at the gathering — walked behind her. Chiarelli was in full dress uniform. Jarrett, apparently only seeing Chiarelli’s striped uniform pants, thought that he was a waiter. She asked him to get her a glass of wine. She was said to be mortified as soon as she realized her mistake, and who wouldn’t be? But the instructive part of this tale is what Chiarelli did next. Rather than take offense, or try to make Jarrett feel small for her blunder, the general, in good humor, went and poured her a glass of wine. It was evident that he wanted to defuse the awkward moment, and to let Jarrett know that she should not feel embarrassed.
I suppose the story in and of itself says something about a town that makes a big deal out of the general’s actions. General Chiarelli may not have even felt as if his character was out of the ordinary. I wonder if I would be wrong in saying that these are the type of social graces that were once very common and are still common in many homes and communities. I also once heard a friend remark that “in New York City it’s about how much money you make, Los Angeles is about what you look like, and Washington D.C. is all about who you know.” You get the point.
When I was in college, sometimes I would notice the chancellor walking around campus with a bag picking up trash. I remember cynically wondering if he was doing it so everybody could see him. Maybe I just thought that because I found myself disagreeing with him a lot. And then one day I had to get up early on the weekend, and sure enough, there was the chancellor picking up trash before the sun was even up. It was the worst possible time to try and impress anybody with his actions.
I reviewed Joker One on the PowerBlog a couple of years ago. It is an excellent book and it is essentially about servant leadership and the greater love principle (John 15:13). I commented at the time, which is still true, that the book taught me more about leadership than all my seminary classes on leadership.
The general’s actions serve as a good conversation starter for leading with humility. It also serves as a nice contrast to Senator Barbara Boxer’s attitude on Capital Hill in 2009:
There is a great 18th century hymn “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” by William Williams. It is, of course, well known today, but the last verse is missing from most modern hymnals. I don’t really know why it is often omitted because it seems most appropriate today. Especially during the Lenten season, it is a powerful reminder of the type of leaders Christians should be. The last verse speaks to the very self-centered and vain world we inhabit:
Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
We have all heard the phrase, “water is essential for life,” and we all understand its importance. Many of us are blessed to have instant access to clean, sanitary water. However, World Water Day, which recently took place on March 22, sought to raise awareness of the current water crisis.
According to the World Health Organization and Water for Life, in 2005 more than 1 billion people were faced with little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. About 3,900 children die each day due to harmful water.
Furthermore, the water crisis isn’t going to be solved overnight especially when one takes into account the lack of fresh water for a growing population. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, 97.5 percent of all water is salt water and only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Of that 2.5 percent, nearly 70 percent is frozen in icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland, and less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use—this includes water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and underground services shallow enough to be tapped.
In addition, the demand to feed an ever increasing population can be seen in the use of water by the agriculture industry. According to the same study by the University of Michigan, agriculture is responsible for 87 percent of the total amount of water used globally. Farming in Asia utilizes 86 percent of its total water use, in North and Central America the number is much lower at 49 percent, and Europe’s agriculture industry consumes 38 percent of its total water use. However, before the agriculture industry is criticized for its high intake of water, it must be remembered that water is a necessity for growing food and raising livestock which are essential—just like water—to sustaining life.
Besides the daunting numbers of those suffering from lack of water, recent events have caused many to demand action in solving the global water crisis. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Movement Towards Socialism Party, emerged as the leader in a movement demanding a resolution from the United Nations to block the sale of public services to private companies, and in 2008, Ecuador’s constitution gave rights to nature. These actions have raised cause for concern and debate from many who are apprehensive of an ever expanding government and U.N.
It is without question that action must be taken to alleviate the problems. The University of Michigan study also predicts that by 2025 we may be consuming 70 percent of the world’s total accessible renewable water supply (we currently utilize 30 percent). A big picture approach is needed to solving the global water crisis as well as an understanding of the role government must play without creating an inefficient unproductive solution.
Over the next few weeks I will be presenting a faith-based analysis to the global water crisis while also bringing to light different economic and social related issues.
Three days ago I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, for Acton’s conference at Strathmore University. Driving about the city the last few days, I have been amazed by the number of small-medium businesses located in the kiosks along streets. These simple, tin/wood structures are bustling with enterprising and entrepreneurial souls working hard to better their lives and those of others.
With such diligent and enthusiastic people, why is Kenya such a poor country?
In discussions with students and staff at Strathmore, I have heard many stories outlining the significant problems with law, property, and inter-tribal (low non-kin) trust. You wonder:
• How can a country thrive when officials do not equally distribute justice? Where bribes and connections determine legal decisions?
• How can an entrepreneur access the necessary start-up capital for his business when he is considered a squatter in the home he built because he cannot access a title to the land?
• How can local or foreign investors expand their businesses when they are not members of a certain tribe and so are not well trusted?
These are the struggles, not only of Kenya, but of the developing world. These are the problems that need to be addressed in order to have a strong market economy that has the power to reduce poverty world-wide. These are some of the many questions asked and discussed at today’s conference titled Economic and Cultural Transformation: Breaking the Shackles of Poverty.
More than 170 people attended this conference, co-sponsored by Strathmore’s Governance Centre. We heard the speakers discuss both the theory and the practice of moving out of poverty through enterprise. By building up the institutions of rule of law, private property, and a culture of trust, the creative power of individuals is able to be unleashed and drive innovation and business. A new mindset is needed – not to rely on big government or foreign aid, but upon the many entrepreneurs who create wealth and help countries rise out of poverty.
Also see the article “Involve People in the Poverty Fight” by Antoinette Kankindi and Tom Odhiambo of the Strathmore Centre which appeared in yesterday’s Nairobi Star.
Update (3/25): The Standard reports on the conference. Read “Top economists urge African States to support enterprises.”
In his recent lecture “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity,” Rev. Robert Sirico reminded us that “We should not minimize the demands of the scripture but we should embrace them.” The quote was in context of caring for the vulnerable among us. He also talked about the need to be wholly devoted to the Lord despite the distractions of technology and prosperity in our midst.
At the same time, Rev. Sirico also admonished religious figures who offered superficial exegetical statements condemning all wealth. A great example being a topic I previously covered on the PowerBlog, “The What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. In my devotional reading this week, I came across a very appropriate quote by 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs. The words compliment the pastoral tone Rev. Sirico set during the lecture, and reminds us just how woefully inadequate superficial pronouncements are when it comes to the gospel call. Burroughs words are below:
Suppose a man had great wealth only a few years ago, and now it is all gone-I would only ask this man, When you had your wealth, in what did you reckon the good of that wealth to consist? A carnal heart would say, Anybody might know that: it brought me in so much a year, and I could have the best fare, and be a man of repute in the place where I live, and men regarded what I said; I might be clothed as I would, and lay up portions for my children: the good of my wealth consisted in this. Now such a man never came into the school of Christ to know in what the good of an estate consisted, so no marvel if he is disquieted when he has lost his estate. But when a Christian, who has been in the school of Christ, and has been instructed in the art of contentment, has some wealth, he thinks, In that I have wealth above my brethren, I have an opportunity to serve God the better, and I enjoy a great deal of God’s mercy conveyed to my soul through the creature, and hereby I am enabled to do a great deal of good: in this I reckon the good of my wealth. And now that God has taken this away from me, if he will be pleased to make up the enjoyment of himself some other way, will call me to honor him by suffering, and if I may do God as much service now by suffering, that is, by showing forth the grace of his Spirit in my sufferings as I did in prosperity, I have as much of God as I had before. So if I may be led to God in my low condition, as much as I was in my prosperous condition, I have as much comfort and contentment as I had before. – Jeremiah Burroughs, from his book Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment
Jordan Ballor, research fellow at the Acton Institute, will be a panelist at the American Enterprise Institute’s event “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old” on Wednesday, April 20. The event runs from 6-8 pm at the Wohlstetter Conference Center in Washington (1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036). The panel will be discussing and fielding questions on America’s long-term budget crisis and “The Call for Intergenerational Justice.”
Ballor has been very active in both topics. He recently wrote a commentary titled “Back to Budget Basics” and engaged in a discussion with Gideon Strauss, CEO of The Center for Public Justice and co-author of “The Call for Intergenerational Justice,” on The Call. Audio from the discussion can be found here.
If you plan to attend the event please be sure to register. The American Enterprise Institute will also be broadcasting live footage of the event for those who are unable to make it. To register for the event, find out more information, or to watch the event live on April 20th please click here.
It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.
James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”
In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.
As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.
Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.
Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.
VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.
The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”
Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”
Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.
As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.