Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Video: Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police across central Athens on Wednesday, smashing cars and hurling gasoline bombs during a nationwide labour protest against the government’s latest austerity measures. The former Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis was attacked by protesters outside a luxury hotel. He was escorted, bleeding from the scene as his attackers yelled “thieves” at him. Source: Russia Today

In the Greek daily Kathimerini, Alexis Papachelas writes:

There are no easy answers and, to make matters worse, we still have no idea about how the global crisis will affect Europe in early 2011.

The Greek government chose a course of treatment for the economy that is much like shock therapy, meaning that it tried to squeeze as many changes as possible into a short period of time.

If this strategy is successful, the government will have a strong card to play when it has to deal with its European peers and market forces in the case that debt restructuring is offered as a solution. If, however, the strategy fails, the shock therapy may turn into that extra bit of force that breaks the valve on the pressure cooker that is Greek society.

Read Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new essay on Public Discourse titled, “Socialism and Solidarity.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.

In today’s Acton Commentary I argue that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.”

I note some statistics that show that American Christians are increasingly looking beyond their local congregations and churches as outlets for their charitable giving, in spite of the fact that giving to religiously affiliated and religiously focused charities is increasing.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in large part Christians don’t trust their local congregations to spend the money in a way that is responsible and in accord with the Gospel mandate. They see other nonprofits and para-church organizations as doing the real work of Christian charity. I believe the key to reversing this perception is to revitalize and reform the office of deacon in the Christian church. This will help us in myriad ways, not least of which is properly dividing the labor, so to speak, between the responsibilities to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline, as well as to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Consider the words of the Twelve at the original institution of the diaconate:

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

I cite The Deacons Handbook: A Manual for Stewardship in the piece, and the insights from this book by Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef are worth examining in more detail. While the book is currently out of print, Christian’s Library Press is planning to release an updated second edition of The Deacons Handbook in 2011.

In the meantime, first editions of the The Elders Handbook and The Believers Handbook are available for purchase, and you can also check out a sample of The Deacons Handbook at Scribd.

With Berghoef and DeKoster I say, “Dream, deacon!”

And once you’ve given as you feel you should to your local congregation, please consider supporting the Acton Institute with your year-end gift.

Blog author: jwitt
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
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Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, December 13, 2010
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Jordan’s post on hunger raises a timely question, on a day when First Lady Michelle Obama was on hand to watch the president sign the $4.5 billion “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” at a Washington elementary school. Despite the media coverage and White House spin that points to this in part as a hunger fighting piece of legislation, the measure is really about obesity. Because in America, the real problem with food is superabundance and waste, not scarcity and hunger.

As Bloomberg noted today:

Almost 20 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds were considered obese in 2007-2008, according to a study by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese children are more likely to have health issues like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure according to the CDC.

A study published last year estimated the cost of treating obesity-related ailments in 2008 at $147 billion. The study, noted the Washington Post, “compared medical costs for normal-weight people to those for obese people, suggests that curbing the obesity epidemic is key not only to ensuring a healthier future for Americans, but also to reining in health costs.”

The Centers for Disease Control helpfully suggests that schools should be located “within walking distance of students’ homes and making it easier for people to get access to healthful foods.” Of course, these tips largely will be ignored, as will most other nanny state directives on eating healthy diets and exercising that have been around for decades. Walking to school? That’s what minivans are for.

Now, you can argue that poor people are consuming too much bad food. You can argue that government farm subsidies foster production of the wrong kinds of food. All that is debatable and subject to honest differences of opinions as to causes and solutions. What doesn’t seem obvious is that millions of Americans are going hungry. This is what we get constantly from the religious left and the U.S. hunger lobby, which sees expansive government welfare programs as the inevitable answer. (more…)

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”

Excerpt:

… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.

While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.

Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.

Read all of “Socialism and Solidarity” on the Public Discourse website.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 13, 2010
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In an otherwise fine piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks to increase efficiency, while at the same time improving service and the recognition of the dignity of those they serve, Bread for the World president David Beckmann uses the opportunity to throw a dose of pessimism into the mix.

“We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger,” said Beckmann, co-recipient of the 2010 World Food Prize. “Christian people need to change the politics of hunger as well.”

Well. So what if “we can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger”? Does that mean that we have to make governmental lobbying our primary focus? How about using the opportunity to praise best practices and improvements in the way food banks are run? How about talking about the important and indispensable role that food banks play?

It might just be that framing the problem as political by definition minimizes the role that private charity and local giving play. The emphasis all too easily becomes one of lobbying and advocacy rather than taking practical steps to address hunger in local contexts.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. But I think we can see right where the “politics of hunger” mindset leads. Here’s an example from my local area: “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason.”

Here in West Michigan local food bank officials point not to decrease in demand or need, but instead toward “increased state food assistance and accessibility.”

While local food banks are seeing their usage numbers decline, “We have continued to set records every month (for the food assistance program) for the past 18 months, said Edward Woods, communications director for the state Department of Human Services (DHS). “Recovery funds (federal stimulus) did increase the amount of food assistance by nearly 14 percent.”

If changing the politics of hunger means that fewer people use food banks and food pantries in favor of government welfare then I have no interest in changing the politics of hunger. Instead I want to see hunger de-politicized.

All too often discussion about charitable causes end up downplaying direct charitable giving and activity with calls for political activism and advocacy. Jim Wallis, for instance, has said “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Instead of talking about what food banks can’t do and what Christians can’t do, I like the observation from Ron Sider about the untapped potential of Christians to act on their own through their own institutions without resorting to government advocacy.

Sider says, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Obviously evangelism shouldn’t be a “leftover” priority, but you get the point. Christians and churches can and should do more, and calls to change the “politics” of hunger, poverty, and a host of other issues let us off the hook too easily.

Over the years Religion & Liberty has compiled a lot of interview gems and first class content for our readers. The new issue, now available online, highlights some of that content, with new material as well. This double issue is an Acton 20th Anniversary tribute with an interview with John Armstrong as well as a collection from some of our best interviews. Regarding the compiled collection, the responses selected represent a range of timeless truths of the Gospel, the importance of human liberty, and the importance of religion and moral formation in society.

There are three book reviews in the issue. Bruce Edward Walker has written a review of Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. Jordan Ballor reviews Carl Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. A main theme from Trueman’s book is that “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Ballor offers up a clear concise analysis of Trueman’s arguments. I reviewed Richard Reinsch’s book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. The book was an excellent reminder that there must be more to conservatism than just free-markets and limited government. And in the review I noted:

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is, at its core, within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Among the content from our archives to celebrate our anniversary is a piece about Lord Acton by James C. Holland. No Acton anniversary would be complete without something pertaining to Lord Acton. The other article from the archives “Views of Wealth in the Bible and Ancient World” by Scott Rae was originally published in the 2002 November and December issue of Religion & Liberty.

The issue also features an excerpt from Work: The Meaning of Your Life – A Christian Perspective by Lester DeKoster. The book has been newly made available in the second edition by Christian’s Library Press.

There is more content in the issue, so check out all the articles and content online. The biggest challenge on this anniversary project was making decisions about what was going to be included in the issue. Still, there was a lot of great material that had to be excluded only because of space. Thank you for reading, and you can always read and search all of our issues here. Stay tuned for future issues of Religion & Liberty in 2011. We will be kicking off the first two issues with new interviews of two very well known and influential theologians and Church thinkers.

Madeleine L’Engle, in a 1986 essay, “What May I Expect from My Church?”

And that is what I want my church to speak out about: the Gospel, the Good News. Then I will be given criteria to use in thinking about such issues as abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation. It is impossible to listen tot he Gospel week after week and turn my back on the social issues confronting me today. But what I hope for is guidance, not legislation.

L’Engle wrote these words referring to the Episcopal Church, but I echo precisely these sentiments in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s social witness in Ecumenical Babel. What we need is moral guidance and formation from the church, not, as I put it, attempts “to make arbitrary conclusions morally binding.”

In some cases that may be too much to expect, but it ought not be too much to hope for from our churches.

Acton On The AirDr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research at the Acton Institute, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon to discuss his recent Acton Commentary and Pope Benedict XVI’s book Light of the World. You can listen by using the audio player below.

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