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

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

Jan van Hemessen - The Prodigal Son - WGA11358

Does this guy have anything to teach us about stewardship?


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

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

Writing in the Detroit News about the latest rash of shootings in the city (nine dead and 20 injured), Luther Keith asks, “Haven’t we been around this track before?” Yes, actually. He lays out a list of measures to address the crime problem including some predictable (police, gun buybacks, recreational programs) and, refreshingly, something more promising, more powerful: “Emphasize personal responsibility. It all comes down to choices — right ones and wrong ones, good ones and bad ones and the willingness not just to say “no more,” but the willingness to do something about it.”

Keith’s opinion piece appears on a day when the Drudge Report has linked stories about widespread gun mayhem in New York and Chicago over the Labor Day weekend. For decades, often after a tragic shooting involving the death or deaths of children, church leaders and community activists have taken to the streets to demand that something be done about crime and public disorder. Yet there are no quick fixes. This is the hard work of cultural change that takes years and years and cannot be accomplished with snap solutions from politicians. That’s because, as Anthony Bradley wrote in his Acton commentary on flash mob violence, the rot has gone deep:

An ailing American culture is responsible for this spectacle. In a society that does not value forming young people in the way of prudence, justice, courage, self-control, and the like, why should we be surprised that convenience stores are being robbed by youthful mobs? In a society that does not value private property and fosters a spirit of envy and class warfare through wealth redistribution, why should we be surprised that young people don’t value someone else’s property? Radical individualism and moral relativism define the ethics of our era and criminal flash mobs expose our progressive failure.

The Church does have an important role to play in effecting this cultural change, as an institution still at work in big cities dedicated to the shaping of a rightly ordered moral conscience and public virtue. Here’s a new video from FOCUS North America, the Orthodox Christian ministry to the poor. Its ReEngage program has created the “The Man Class” to help men understand what exactly it means to be a man, something not so obvious as it turns out. Here’s “Man Class” facilitator Rodney Knott:

In the absence of men that has occurred over the last 30 years, the definition of manhood has slowly eroded and been perverted. Let us be clear, this is not an indictment against the many single mothers who struggle mightily to raise their sons. But what we are expecting them to do is impossible.

There have never been any cultures, tribes or societies that have allowed or expected its women to train up their men. But that is exactly what is taking place in our society today. We are created male and female. We learn to be men and women. In the absence of teachers, how will we learn these lessons? It takes a man to teach a boy how to be a man.

Bravo, FOCUS.

James Hoffa put on quite a performance this weekend—first on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and then in Detroit at a Labor rally with President Obama. Also this weekend, President Biden revealed that the White House seems to have given up and decided America is already a “house divided,” with “barbarians at the gate” in the form of the Tea Party. Coverage of these incidents is available from whichever news outlet you trust, but there is one thing that CNN has probably missed: this weekend’s rhetoric is a vivid reminder that most labor organizations have moved far beyond their proper and defensible role.

Though “the condition of the working classes” is much different now than it was when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the document provides a strong justification of labor unions and their position in society. This is done in the context of a response to the advances of socialism on one hand and atheistic individualism on the other. It would be inflammatory, perhaps even violent, to identify the labor leaders of today with Leo’s socialists, and it would be a stretch to say that Hoffa & co. advocate state-owned means of production, but their contribution to political discourse is remarkably similar to Leo’s characterization of socialist tactics:

They are moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

So far as I can tell, requiring American companies with savings in the bank to spend that money hiring American workers is (1) robbery of the lawful possessors of those savings (which are not, by the way, buried in fields on corporate campuses) and (2) distortion of the functions of the State.

What I can’t find in Rerum Novarum is a justification for Hoffa’s insulting the mothers of Republican leaders. The “spirit of revolutionary change” which caused Leo to write the encyclical is not endorsed by it. (Video of Hoffa’s “remarks” here—strong language warning.)

As for Vice President Biden, he does seem to have read Pope Leo’s encyclical, or at least the part that says “perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” But he seems to have missed the sentence that follows:

Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold.

The Vice President’s careful maintenance of his wall of separation between faith and government is admirable.

Yesterday, five leading Republican candidates participated in the Palmetto Freedom Forum, a serious debate on constitutional principles. Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain answered questions from Tea Party congressmen Jim DeMint and Steve King, and Princeton professor Robert P. George.

National Review Online has gathered reactions to the debate from notable conservatives; Acton director of research Samuel Gregg and senior fellow Marvin Olasky are among them. Gregg’s take-away is that American politics is shifting in two ways: first, constitutional conservatism is now seen as a winning message, and candidates are unafraid to disavow progressivism as a whole; and second, issues, particularly economic ones, once on the margins of political debate are now up for discussion in the mainstream.

Here is the full text of Gregg’s response.

If there was any theme linking the responses to the questions posed by Senator DeMint, Congressman King, and Professor George to five of the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for president during today’s South Carolina debate, it was the need for America to return to its founding principles. Yes, there was substantive discussion of specific matters ranging from financial regulation to immigration. But again and again, most of the candidates articulated the principles—and subsequent policies—of constitutional conservation.

Politically this makes sense, because it helps to integrate American conservatism’s fiscal and social wings. But it also reflects many Americans’ consciousness that the last four years have seen an acceleration of a long drift away from the best of the American experiment. So whether it was different candidates quoting Jefferson at length, or Ron Paul and Robert George discussing the 14th Amendment’s finer details, evidence mounted that constitutional conservatism is going to be a major reference point for whoever ends up running against President Obama in 2012.

The second aspect of the debate worth underscoring is how issues once considered marginal to mainstream politics are becoming central. It’s no longer just Ron Paul talking about the need for sound money. The economic downturn and the failure of interventionist policies have turned the Fed and fiat money into live issues that no conservative candidate for office can ignore. Ben Bernanke—you’re on notice.

“Work gives meaning to life: It is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”

–Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, 2d ed. (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).

Yesterday I was interviewed by WoodTV8 on a story about a controversial billboard near downtown Grand Rapids that reads, “You don’t need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live.” The billboard is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. My reaction is that the billboard can be a positive because it serves as a conversation starter about a relationship with the Lord and what the meaning of true love and true hope is all about.

When I was an undergraduate student at Ole Miss, I had a religion professor who seemed to be a strong proponent of Buddhism. I believe she was a fair professor and was not trying to indoctrinate anybody into converting, but the class and the studying of other religions called me to study and think deeply about my own faith. The class prompted me to read the Gospels and Scripture closely, which was ultimately a first step into a calling to seminary. Likewise, the billboard may give Christian families and believers a chance to ask the deep questions of what they believe and why they believe. Furthermore, a bland nominal Christianity is no preparation for the difficulties and trials of this world and it is essential to move beyond that.

I’d also like to expand beyond the edited comments from the news report and offer a fuller response about hope and faith. One thing that is apparent today about many skeptics and atheists is that they are very evangelistic. Unlike the past, they are very aggressive about gaining converts and are often reactionary to any faith or religion expressed in culture. In many cases this brand of atheism mirrors a sort of reactionary Christian fundamentalism when it comes to responding to culture.

In a 2007 Weekly Standard piece, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield summed up the the new aggressive atheist tactic this way,

Atheism isn’t what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for “organized religion” extends now to the individual believer’s faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It’s just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.

For the Christian, when it comes to hope, care, living, and love, the believer knows that ultimately all those attributes are grounded in Christ. In contrast, the hope of the unbeliever is a hope in the things of themselves and of this world. The believer on the other hand knows that the hope of this world is ultimately a vain, withering, and disappointing hope. But the hope provided by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is an anticipation that does not only not disappoint (Romans 1:5) but is triumphant. The resurrection of Christ is so essential to our future hope that Augustine declared, “In Christ’s death, death died. The fulness of of life swallowed up death; death was absorbed in the body of Christ.” John Calvin added about Christ, “Such is the nature of his rule, that he shares with us all that he has received from the Father. Now he arms and equips us with his power, and adorns us with his beauty and magnificence, and enriches us with his wealth.”

As we travel life’s highway, the believer can be assured that God is still on his throne and that those that are hid in Christ are heirs to his glory. If vain and confusing props on the side of the road can help remind us to think and converse in a deeper manner about all that we are promised and will receive by his marvelous grace, then ultimately it is beneficial. When one studies the Gospel story and is rooted in what the Apostle Paul calls “the fulness of Christ,” there is an assurance and confidence the world cannot steal from you.

Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).

In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.

[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate

Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.

But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.

Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.

Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.

Domitrovic goes on:

The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…

And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:

By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Amendment must never be taken for granted.

Political discourse and news media have been consumed of late by talk of debt, spending, and recession, but meanwhile the educational freedom movement has been making real progress. State legislatures across the country are giving a green light to vouchers and tax incentives that will in the future pay impressive dividends in the form of better educated students and more efficient schools.

Read the rest of the commentary here.

Since its inception, the Journal of Markets & Morality has encouraged critical engagement between the disciplines of moral theology and economics. In the past, the vast majority of our contributors have focused on Protestant and Roman Catholic social thought applied to economics, with a few significant exceptions. Among the traditions often underrepresented, Orthodox Christianity has received meager attention despite its ever-growing presence and ever-increasing interest in the West.

This call for publication is an effort to address this lacuna by engaging such a rich and long-standing tradition. Submissions are welcomed in a variety of forms: they could be historical, critically engaging the thought and context of one or more particular figures influenced by the Orthodox Christian tradition (such as Vladimir Solovyov, Sergey Bulgakov, Nicholas Berdyaev, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or assess the impact of significant events in the history of the Orthodox Church; they could be exegetical, seeking to carefully interpret often perplexing texts of various writers or to bring to the fore the economic thought of various official documents such as The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church or various Patriarchal encyclicals from any of the Orthodox Patriarchates; they could be comparative, comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between Orthodox economic thought and other Christian traditions; or they could be constructive, seeking to synthesize the thought of various writers and documents into a coherent and relevant whole or seeking to creatively engage economic problems and their popular solutions from the point of view of Orthodox theology and anthropology.

For example, is Vladimir Solovyov’s critique of abstract individualism and collectivism in The Justification of the Good an Orthodox analogue or precursor to economic personalism? How economically tenable are Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s various ecological, social, and economic statements? To what extent does The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church encourage a freer and more virtuous society? Does Orthodox theology significantly engage the natural law tradition? Could the economic thought of sometimes not-so-Orthodox writers of the Eastern tradition be improved upon by being adapted to a more historically Orthodox perspective? Given the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, to what extent can one form Orthodox social and economic thought based upon the historic canons and councils of the Church?

In addition to articles, the Journal of Markets & Morality also welcomes translation proposals for our Scholia and Status Quaestionis sections, early modern or premodern texts for the former and more recent texts of the last few centuries for the latter, preferably those which have never before been translated into English. Indeed, to this day our only Orthodox contribution to the Journal has been a translation of Sergey Bulgakov’s “The National Economy and the Religious Personality” by Krassen Stanchev for our Status Quaestionis section, Volume 11, Issue 1 (Spring 2008).

For more information, or to submit a paper or translation proposal, see our submission guidelines.

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year—in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.