In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine Jesus’s famous parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable after some people grumble about him eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors at the time had a bad reputation of unfair business practices and government ties. Yet, Jesus tells the parable of a man who left ninety-nine sheep to find the one that went missing in order to caution his detractors about marginalizing even these tax collectors.

In light of this, does the “we are the 99%” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which implicitly insinuates that anyone in the top 1 percent has gotten there unjustly, amount to shunning the lost sheep (and others) of our society today? Read this week’s Acton Commentary for more.

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Over at Patheos’ Black, White and Gray blog, where a group of Christian sociologists “share our observations and research and reflect on its meaning for Christian faith and practice,” Margarita A. Mooney writes about “Faith-Based Social Services: An Essential Part of American Civil Society.”

Many of the points she raises echo the principles of effective compassion that have long animated the Acton Institute’s engagement with welfare reform and social service. Be sure to check out the Hope Award program sponsored by WORLD magazine and the American Bible Society, which carries on this legacy of emphasizing effective compassion carried out by private faith-based organizations.

Mooney points out that long before the last few decades of welfare reform and faith-based initiatives at the federal level, faith-based social services were alive and vigorously engaged in charitable activity. As Mooney writes of the 1996 and 2002 federal efforts, “most research shows that these initiatives did little to change the size or focus on faith-based social services. Why? Because most of these faith-based social services existed long before recent federal programs, and because some of what religious organizations do best in social services focuses on deep personal transformations, goals best pursued without government support.”

She quotes Robert Wuthnow on the faith-based social service organization’s vision of the human person. For religious organizations, the human person is more than just a material being with material needs. As Marvin Olasky notes, this older model knew that “true philanthropy must take into account spiritual as well as physical needs.” On this, writes Wuthnow,

…the research that has been conducted among faith-based organizations, although quite sparse, suggests that it is probably their ability to forge encompassing whole-person, personally transforming relationships with clients that accounts for any special success they may have.

Mooney goes on to examine some compelling particular instances. All of this leads to the key question: “Aren’t there ways to allow government support for large faith-based organizations that neither lead to government support for proselytizing nor impede religious organizations from carrying out their missions as they define it?”

On this question, be sure to check out the review essay by David A. Wagner on Lew Daly’s book, God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “A Liberal ‘Welfare Conservative’ Boldly Explains Why Nineteenth-Century Popes Are Relevant to Twenty-First-Century Welfare Reform.”

Now up for your viewing pleasure, John O’Sullivan’s acceptance of our Faith & Freedom Award on behalf of Margaret Thatcher, and Rev. Robert Sirico’s remarks at the dinner. Mr. O’Sullivan, Lady Thatcher’s speechwriter and advisor, painted a warm, personal portrait of his former boss — at times he had us in stitches, and when he finished, we were all inspired. The dinner was given at the JW Marriott Hotel in Grand Rapids on October 20; if you couldn’t make it, enjoy the videos!

Glenn Barkan, retired dean of Aquinas College’s School of Arts and Sciences here in Grand Rapids, had a piece worth reading in the local paper over the weekend related the current trend (fad?) toward buying local. In “What’s the point of buying local?” Barkan cogently addresses three levels of the case for localism in a way that shows that the movement need not have the economic, environmental, or ethical high ground.

At the economic level, Barkan asks, “Does the local stuff taste better than the imported stuff?” This is essentially a question about competitive advantage. This is the economic idea that some locations, given geographic, cultural, or other features, are better places to produce certain things than other places. Try as one might, it is difficult to grow mangoes in Michigan.

But one of the arguments against large-scale (statewide, national, or global) trade is that there are large environmental consequences. To this point, Barkan writes, “Following this thread means that most decisions which in the past were made on a variety of criteria will now be made only upon the criteria of consuming resources in transportation. How can I keep my carbon footprint small? No more Swiss chocolate, Italian cheese or French wine. Is this what we want?” I think that is what many of the localists in fact do want. It is somehow immoral for me, living in Michigan, to consume mangoes grown in Mexico.

What these kinds of considerations lead to is the moral claim that, in Barkan’s case, for instance, “I have some sort of moral obligation to buy Granny Smith apples from Michigan, and not from Washington.” To this Barkan responds that one mark of moral calculation is discerning where needs really lie: “If I had to choose between making a purchase which provided an income for a very needy family in Alabama, or a less needy family in Kent County, I think I would choose the former.” And better yet, given the relative wealth of even the poor in America on a global scale, we might say that poor workers in the developing world need trade more than the relatively poor in America.

An article in the Spring issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality makes the implications of these kinds of considerations quite well. In “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect,” Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow write in the context of wealth redistribution, “a lower-middle-class worker by Massachusetts standards may be a net beneficiary of income redistribution at the Commonwealth definition of society but is likely to be a net contributor at the national definition. They most certainly would lose the vast majority of their income if the world were used as the definition of society.”

The payoff for Barkan is that “a soul is a soul. Whether it is a Kent county soul, or one from California, or Ghana. I choose to have my purchasing decision do the most good for the most needy. Regardless of localism.”

Or as economist Victor Claar put it, “we should treat people as people, no matter where they happen to live. We are all created in the image of God. I find it distressing that we protect relatively affluent Americans when we should give everybody an opportunity to do something they can do well, at a low cost, in a high quality way.”

A person’s a person, no matter how far.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 24, 2011
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Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up and the clouds drop down the dew: We yield thee hearty thanks and praise for the return of seed time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits, and for all other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people. And, we beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost be all glory and honor, world without end. Amen.

“Thanksgivings for the Natural Order,” Book of Common Prayer

Blog author: mhornak
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Last week, the Acton Institute Programs Department launched registration for an exciting project called AU Online.  If you haven’t already visited the website, I encourage you to do so!

AU Online is an internet-based educational resource for exploring the intellectual foundations of freedom and virtue.  It is designed to offer the Acton community another way to experience the first class content and interaction of an Acton sponsored event while at home, at the office, or at school.

We’re currently accepting registrations for the four-part pilot series that covers the foundational lectures that you’d normally attend at any AU or Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences.  The Foundational Series is scheduled to run twice a week, Dec. 6-15 at 4:00 p.m. EST.

Interested in participating, but not sure that you can rearrange your schedule to make the time-frame work well for you?  No problem.  Anyone who registers for the series will have access to recordings of the lectures that will be posted directly to the Foundational Series course page after each session.

Whether you are an alumnus of Acton programming or are just getting to know us, AU Online is a great resource to take advantage of to further your education and engagement with important topics and relevant issues.  Visit AU Online for more information and please contact me at mhornak@acton.org if you have any questions.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Blue Laws and Black Friday,” I argue that the increasing encroachment of commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving are best seen as questions of morality and the limits of the economic sphere of existence. The remedy for such issues is best sought at the level of relationship (between consumer and retailer, for instance, as well as employer and employee) rather than at the level of legal remedy, as in the case of blue laws.

In an interesting side note, the state of Massachusetts still has blue laws on the books that prevent employees from working before midnight on Thanksgiving Day. The Boston Globe editorializes that “the blue laws are creating nothing but inconvenience; many stores adjust by simply opening at 12:30 a.m. instead of midnight. Workers still come in – but half an hour deeper into the night.”

One rejoinder concerning the relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is that those who have to work on Thursday ought to be thankful to have a job at all, particularly in these times of economic hardship. This is certainly true, but I don’t think this means that employees simply have to silently accept whatever their employer demands of them. As I’ve said, the remedy for this moral problem is best sought in the context of the complex web of relationships between employees, employers, and customers. And we need not derogate the true blessing that work is to say that it ought to have its limits. It seems to me that the widespread impingement of non-essential commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving probably crosses these limits, at least in some cases.

All of this means that customers need to be more aware of what their shopping habits and practices demand of businesses. And some companies might realize that the moral demand in certain cases might mean not giving customers what they want (e.g. opening at midnight on Thanksgiving). A salutary example of this kind of response is found in the folks at Hobby Lobby, who have never operated on Sunday.

Their reasoning goes like this: “We have chosen to close on the day most widely recognized as a day of rest, in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family. This has not been an easy decision for Hobby Lobby because we realize that this decision may cost us financially. Yet we also realize that there are things more important than profits. This is a matter of principle for our company owner and officers.”

It’s wonderful when we don’t need laws to tell us what’s the right thing to do.

We are excited about our friend, Byron Borger at Hearts & Minds Books, carrying Wisdom & Wonder, “the long-awaited, freshly-translated, newly-produced, collection of newspaper pieces that Dr. Kuyper wrote so many years ago.” This book is a part of the larger “common grace” work that we are in the process of translating. We hope to have Volume 1 available by Fall 2012. Click here for more information on the Kuyper Translation Project.

Nicholas Woltersdorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology of Yale University describes Wisdom and Wonder as “an eloquent theological antidote to the anti-intellectualist and anti-artistic impulses that infect so much of the contemporary church….Though Kuyper wrote these words more than one hundred years ago, they have lost none of their bite and relevance.”

Mike Wittmer, professor of theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary says, “American evangelicals are deeply influenced by Neo-Calvinist authors who stand on the shoulders of Abraham Kuyper. Thanks to Acton Institute and Kuyper College, we are now able to drink large gulps straight from the man himself. Wisdom & Wonder is essential reading for all of us who aspire to live well in God’s world, and these lectures on science and art are a particularly relevant place to begin. Nothing is more hotly contested and confused than these two areas of culture, and nothing stands in greater need of Kuyper’s biblical tension between creation and fall and between common and particular grace. Kuyper’s deft handling of these worldview themes proves once again that sometimes the way forward begins with a glance back.”

Check out Byron’s site here and purchase this important new work at a discounted cost.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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In a recent BBC article, Sean Coughlan reports a novel idea from Oxford academic Will Crouch,

He argues that someone becoming an investment banker could create sufficient wealth to make philanthropic donations that could make a bigger difference than someone choosing to work in a “moral” career such as an aid charity.

Indeed, there seems to be an ever increasing suspicion, even among Christians, that certain career paths are per se more moral than others. However, as Fr. Robert Sirico writes in The Entrepreneurial Vocation,

Every person created in the image of God has been given certain natural abilities that God desires to be cultivated and treated as good gifts. If the gift happens to be an inclination for business, stock trading, or investment banking, the religious community should not condemn the person merely on account of his or her profession.

This is unfortunate, to say the least. Crouch argues that if more ethically inclined individuals would pursue careers in banking, for example, they would significantly increase the resources at their disposal to help those in need. According to Crouch,

The direct benefit a single aid worker can produce is limited, whereas the philanthropic banker’s donations might indirectly help 10 times as many people.

Using some basic, ball-park calculations, he estimates that “an ethically inclined banker who donated half their income could save 10,000 lives” throughout their working lifetime. What might be the difference in our neighborhoods, country, and world if more charitably inclined people were open to business related careers? Certainly, it is not everyone’s gift, and there is nothing wrong or deficient about being a social worker, for example, but perhaps there are some who have avoided such a path, such a calling, simply because of an unfair stigma.

Will Crouch offers a different perspective:

We are calling on people to be like Robin Hood, but by earning the money rather than stealing it.

A novel idea, if you ask me.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Over at the Economix blog, University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mullin takes another look at some of the recent poverty numbers. He notes the traditional interpretation, that “the safety net did a great job: For every seven people who would have fallen into poverty, the social safety net caught six.”

But another interpretation might have a bit more going for it, actually, and fits in line with my previous analogy between a safety net as a trampoline vs. a foam pit:

Another interpretation is that the safety net has taken away incentives and serves as a penalty for earning incomes above the poverty line. For every seven persons who let their market income fall below the poverty line, only one of them will have to bear the consequence of a poverty living standard. The other six will have a living standard above poverty.

Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.

The conclusion ought to be that policies that provide incentives for people to not seek out work as vigorously as they otherwise might, even if such incentives are unintended consequences, are morally suspect and economically questionable.