Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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Just how zealous for justice ought Christians be? I admit that I’m always just a bit put off when folks describe the prime mission of Christians as pursuing justice in the world. Let’s not forget that the foundational Christian reality is forgiving love on the basis of the divine justice manifested on the cross.

Or as Luther puts it in his commentary on Romans (emphasis added),

This is the reason (if I may speak of myself) why even hearing the word “justice” nauseates me to the point that if someone robbed me, he would not bring me such grief. And yet the word is always sounding in the mouths of the lawyers. There is no race of men upon the earth who are more ignorant about this matter than the lawyers and the good-intentioners and the intellectuals. For I in myself and with many others have had the experience that when we were righteous, God laughed at us in our righteousness. And yet I have heard men who dared to say: “I know that I have righteousness, but God does not notice it.” That is true, but it is a righteousness only in one particular; but for this God cares nothing. Therefore the only complete righteousness is humility, which subjects everyone to everyone else and thus gives everything to everyone, as Christ says to John: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Thus in Dan. 3 Azariah confesses that he and his friends are at one and the same time suffering justly and yet are afflicted with evil, namely, at the hands of the wicked king. For even though he who acts does so unjustly, yet he does not do so to the person who suffers; for that person suffers justly. For by what legal right does the devil possess men? Or by what legal right does an evil hangman hang a thief? Certainly not in his own right, but by that of the judge. Thus men who glory in their own righteousness are unwilling to listen to the supreme Judge, but only to their own judgment, and because in respect to their victim they are innocent, they think that they really are innocent in every way.

Therefore since before God no one is righteous, absolutely no injustice can be done to a person by any other creature, even though he may have justice on his side. Thus all cause for contention is taken away from men. Therefore, to whomsoever an injury is done or an evil comes in return for his good actions, let him turn away his eyes from this evil and remember how great his own evil is in other respects, and then he will see how good the will of God is even in this evil which has come upon him; for this is what it means to be renewed in one’s mind and to be changed into another state of mind and to be wise in the things of God. Thus it is definite that Peter would not have glorified God if he had girded himself and gone where he wanted to go, even though he would not have walked a wicked path, but the highest road of righteousness. But after this road of his own righteousness was prohibited and he went where he did not want to go but where another wanted, then he glorified God. So also we cannot glorify God unless we do what we do not wish, even in the case of our own works of righteousness, indeed, particularly in the case of our own righteousness, our own counsels, or our own strength. And thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be His disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that the ethical norm in social ethics is “justice.” But out of sheer humility let’s not be too zealous for justice, at least not without consciously, intentionally, and systematically connecting it to divine love.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, June 12, 2009
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A great deal of focus in the midst of the economic downturn has been on “green” jobs, that sector of industry that focuses on renewable sources of energy and that, according to some pundits and politicians, heralds the future of American economic resurgence. Here in Michigan, the long-suffering canary in the country’s economic mineshaft, the state government has particularly focused on these “green” jobs as an alternative both to fossil fuels and to fossil fuel industries, including most notably the Big Three automakers.

Apart from the dangers, moral and otherwise, endemic to government officials picking winners, there’s a need to rethink this entire framework. Even if such predictions about the future of alternative and renewable energy sources are realistic, it’s highly doubtful that the businesses that produce these kinds of technologies will ever employ enough people to begin to replace the losses to the labor force following the various bankruptcies, selloffs, buyouts, and layoffs.

The lesson state officials ought to learn is one about fostering an economic environment that promotes diversification and sustainability through creative liberty, rather than being tied to any one (however hopeful) sector of the economy.

This lesson also has something to teach us about how to truly promote sustainable business. The jobs that are most usually called “green,” like the places that manufacture wind turbines or solar cells, are a tiny part of the economic picture. Instead of “green” jobs, we ought to focus on “greening” jobs, changing the way we do jobs that already exist.

Anyone who works in business will tell you that at a certain point of production it is far more lucrative to eliminate $1 of waste than to gain $1 in sales. The eliminated waste goes straight to the bottom line, while the increased sales brings along all kinds of overhead that cuts into profits. As part of a recent feature titled “Work Reinvented,” Forbes reporter David Whelan described how many employees are taking the challenge of the economic downturn as an opportunity to “reinvent” their jobs. As Whelan writes,

Technology–computers and teleconferencing equipment, that is–makes fixed employment in a fixed place less necessary. Economics makes it less available. With chronic instability comes a shift in loyalty from the company to one’s own calling, skills and personal life.

Technological advancement, economic conditions, and environmental concerns might combine to create the perfect storm for the reformation of many kinds of jobs. For some, including a few profiled in Whelan’s report, this might mean an increase in telecommuting (although then again, perhaps not). For others it might mean job sharing, opening up their own business, or negotiating different compensation packages. An added benefit of this kind of innovative flexibility might be curbing of the transitory nature of today’s employment scene. There’s no way real way to enjoy human community when young and middle-aged professionals are moving every 2 to 3 years.

But in terms of political economy, our policies ought to be focused on the broader picture of “greening” a diverse landscape of jobs rather than subsidizing a narrow strip of “green” jobs.

Upon Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a number of voices on the Christian and religious blogosphere wondered about the absence of press attention to the religious makeup of the court. The new court’s makeup, whether or not Sotomayor is ultimately confirmed, is historic. As Terry Mattingly wrote at GetReligion, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “prepare for more headlines about Catholics taking over our nation’s legal discourse.”

A few days later World’s Mickey McLean took note of the issue, and about that same time (after the “early” reports gave way to a bit more in-depth coverage), the mainstream press began to ask of Sotomayor, “Is She Catholic? Does It Matter?”

Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote the following (HT):

My trained and focused eye — trained to do “sightings” of public religion in the various media, including the internet, and focused on the chosen subject of the week — has been seeking evidence of anti-Catholicism among mainline Protestant and Evangelical leaders, in the form of expressions of worry and prejudice. Unless between Saturday (when I write) and Monday (when readers read) some surprise occurs, public controversies over her appointment will not yet have attracted the voice of any non-Catholic bishops, moderators, denominational presidents, church-body newspapers, or representative columnists.

I hope my piece appearing today on the First Things website doesn’t qualify as “evidence of anti-Catholicism,” so much as a critique of the state of contemporary Protestant moral, legal, and political thinking. Sotomayor’s appointment and the resulting Roman Catholic supermajority on the court ought to be met with some ambivalence among Evangelical Protestants. On the one hand, the bulk of Roman Catholic judges on the court are those most likely to be aligned with traditional Christian moral, legal, and political perspectives, historically shared by Catholics and Protestants alike.

On the other hand, the fact that half of all the Roman Catholics who have ever served will be serving simultaneously, and the fact that there will be only one Protestant on the court, does say something about the declining influence and vigor of Protestantism in the public square. That ought to be cause for concern and worry among Protestants. And that’s the point of departure for my First Things “On the Square” essay, “Sotomayor, Roman Catholic Supremacy, and Protestant Approaches to Law.”

In a time of changes and reform in institutions one wonders if reform is truly necessary.   Oskari Juurikkala addresses this lingering thought and answers that, yes, reform is truly necessary but it needs to be rooted in true good and our faith in God.  Juurikkala states:

Institutions matter, but they do so in a way that differs from the reformist vision. According to Aquinas, human laws have two basic functions: to coordinate and to educate. But not to coordinate the maximization of gross domestic product, nor to educate in marketing and finance. Law – all law – should be at the service of the true good, helping us to know, love and serve the Lord, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In order to achieve necessary reform we must be educated in virtues.  However, we can not look to government to be the educator.  Juurikkala argues we must look beyond government when seeking an education in virtues:

But government is not the primary educator in virtue. That is the turf of families, churches, and other social institutions. The proper task of government is to assist those other institutions, when necessary, by coordinating their organization and appropriately channeling resources and energies to their support. This is the principle of subsidiarity.

It is our families, churches, and social institutions that we bring the necessary reform, not a growing government.  Read the commentary on the Acton Website and comment on it here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
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One of President Obama’s campaign promises was health care reform, and he is now trying to follow through. Last year I looked at the respective candidates’ health care proposals in light of Catholic social teaching. In the midst of a national debate on health policy, it is time to revisit the issue.

One of the best resources out there on the subject is the report from the Catholic Medical Association’s Health Care Task Force, published in the Linacre Quarterly in 2005. The CMA is genuinely committed to the principles of the social teaching, including access to basic health care for all, but recognizes that any reform toward that goal must take into account economic reality, must be cognizant of the drawbacks of further government expansion into this area, and must preserve the rights of conscience of religious medical providers and patients.

A good, brief, and more recent treatment is Jeff Mirus’s reflection on the subject at CatholicCulture.org.

Last but not least, Acton’s contribution to the debate has just been printed and is now available online: A Prescription for Health Care Reform, the latest in our Christian Social Thought Series. Physician Donald Condit outlines the principles of the social teaching, assesses the problems in American health care, and points toward fruitful avenues of reform.

What happens with health care policy will likely have major economic and moral ramifications for decades to come. It’s vital that we disseminate sound ideas such as those contained in these resources.

I had occasion to ask a leader in a denominational global relief agency today whether he had seen any decline in North American interest in addressing international poverty, given the recent economic downturn. He said that he had among some of the major foundations and donors, who were being inundated with more local requests for funds (food banks, and so on). But he also said that among most mid-level and smaller givers, they were matching if not exceeding previous patterns of giving.

When I asked him to elaborate about why he thought this might be, he said that in times of challenge and crisis, those of us in the first “third” of the economic world are able to often gain better insight into just how advantaged we are. What if you were faced with a debilitating illness or unemployment in a country that doesn’t have the resources available in the United States? It’s a truism that economic instability affects those with the least amount of financial cushion.

This explanation dovetails nicely with what has turned up in the research of Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow. In an interview with CT editor David Neff about his new book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Wuthnow says in part about the possible outcomes of the economic crisis,

It’s very likely that some churches are going to be saying that being involved on the other side of the world is a nice extra, but we can’t afford it right now. We have to focus on the needs at home. Hopefully that won’t be the only response, because when the world economy goes into a slump, people at the poorest end of the spectrum are usually the ones who suffer most, and therefore the giving and relief efforts are needed all the more.

Certainly some churches will “scale back,” as Wuthnow says. But other individuals and churches will keep the scales balanced, so to speak, or perhaps even “scale up.” A great deal of the difference seems to do with the kinds of relationships that are cultivated between all the parties involved.

A classroom of elementary children learn what the bailout is really all about. Submitted in Right.org’s $27,599 anti-bailout video competition. This one was a student project done on a shoestring budget.

For those among us who do not follow the particularities of United Nations programs and declarations, apart from birthdays and anniversaries June 5 might pass every year without much special notice. But every year since 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme has set aside June 5 to observe World Environment Day (WED), designed to be “one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action.”

On this WED, we pause to look at another vehicle for promotion of the environmental worldview, the recent remake of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). In last year’s iteration of the 1951 sci-fi classic, Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, an alien visitor who takes on the body of a human being in order to determine the best way to engage the situation on planet Earth. [Spoilers after the jump...]


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Blog author: rnothstine
Thursday, June 4, 2009
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chanceLieutenant Colonel Mike Strobl began his 2004 essay “Taking Chance” by saying, “Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.”

HBO turned Strobl’s essay into an emotional film about the journey of Chance’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to his home in Dubois, Wyoming. Taking Chance is excellent at depicting the dignity, honor, and respect involved with the preparation and transport of an individual in the military who have been killed in action. Every military KIA is given a military escort that accompanies the remains of the deceased to their final resting place.

In the film Lt. Col. Strobl is played by actor Kevin Bacon. Bacon does a tremendous job playing a U.S. Marine officer who exudes leadership and professionalism. Normally senior officers don’t serve as escorts, but for reasons explained in the film Lt. Col Strobl volunteers to serve as the escort for the all too young 19 year old Private First Class Chance Phelps, who was later promoted to Lance Corporal posthumously.

One of the real moving parts of the film has to do with Strobl’s encounters with the civilians he meets along the way as he accompanies the fallen Marine whose remains travel in the cargo hold of a commercial flight. Many of the civilians just want to pass their sympathies on to the family and let them know that people are thinking about and praying for them. Still others want Strobel to know what the military has meant to them or want to share with them some sort of experience that has touched them. A particularly moving scene is when a Northwest flight attendant hands Strobel a crucifix for him to keep that obviously is a possession that means a lot to her. Strobel passes it on to Chance’s mother who places it on the top of his casket before burial.

Another moving scene from the film comes early on as the hands and feet of Chance are being meticulously washed at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. This evokes an excellent piece that Chris Jones wrote for Esquire Magazine in May 2008 titled, “The Things That Carried Him.” The article by Jones is a descriptive account of what happens during the final homecoming for one Army Sargent. In his piece Jones also wrote generally about the intimacy and honor for those who prepare the remains of the fallen:

Karen Giles tells a story about another young airman, who was polishing the brass on a dead soldier’s uniform jacket. He was using a little tool, a kind of buffer, to make sure that every button shined. A visitor complimented him on his attention to detail. ‘The family will really appreciate what you’re doing,’ the visitor said. But the airman replied, ‘Oh, no, sir, the family won’t know about this.’ The airman told him that the family had requested that their son be cremated, and just a short while later, he was.

Interestingly, if the story in this film was to happen right now instead of 2004 it would be remarkably different. As of Jan 1, 2007 the Holly Provision, a part of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, changed the law when it comes to how the remains of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines killed in the line of duty are transported to their final resting place. The Department of Defense must use a military transport plane or charter flights because of the concerns raised about proper respect. Remains can no longer be transported by a commercial carrier.

There is little dialogue in this film, and part of the allure of the film is the pageantry the military provides for its fallen. It almost has to be a film with considerably less dialogue to keep the focus on Chance’s sacrifice and journey home. The slow salute is very moving and well executed by any U.S. Marine in their dress blues, and is very emotional in this film.

While this HBO portrayal is ultimately about Chance Phelps and his heroic sacrifice it emphasizes several other important points. When Strobel meets a Marine veteran from the Korean War who came to pay his respects to Chance, we see the camaraderie and special bond between fellow Marines no matter the age, rank, or theater of service. Marines love and cherish their traditions and their accomplishments on the field of battle. The famed nickname for Marines is “Devil Dog,” a moniker of respect they earned by defeating a war hardened and entrenched German enemy at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. The Germans on the front lines sent dispatches to their headquarters saying the Marines fought like “hounds from hell.”

The courage, tradition, and fighting spirit of the Marines today shows just how dedicated they are to the principles that made our country free. When my own brother was in Iraq with the Marines and I was living in D.C. a few years ago, I decided to go to Arlington National Cemetery. Just months before I had remembered reading a special report about the fresh graves from Iraq and Afghanistan in section 60.

I felt like I should pay my respects since I was mostly just enjoying a warm D.C. summer. As I walked through the headstones the newness of it all was very haunting, some just buried days before. Flowers, teddy bears, letters, and pictures adorned section 60. This section is tucked away from the notable attractions and graves tourists visit at the cemetery. There was an eerie stillness and quietness there. And then I saw a picture of a very attractive young girl against one particular headstone. I read the name and date and realized the girl in the picture was buried below me. She was only eighteen and killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the Army. It’s times like that when war is just too overwhelming and heartbreaking for those even somewhat distanced from it. I believe that is why Taking Chance is a film worth watching, it also celebrates a nation that often struggles to show just how thankful they are of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

My essay on the Constitution, judicial activism and the “living document” trope is here at The American Spectator. Here’s one passage:

This brings us to the central irony. The very people most inclined to gush about our “living Constitution” treat it like a Mr. Potato Head:

Ooh, states rights. Let’s pop that off and replace it with a metastasizing Commerce Clause. Oh, and look here in my pocket. A constitutional right to redefine the age-old institution of marriage. Oh and let’s tack this one on, too — a constitutional right to kill a half born baby and throw whatever’s left in the garbage. If anyone complains, we’ll call it “the constitutional right to privacy.”

It’s time to pause and take the living-document metaphor seriously. Living things have an internal logic, have functional constraints. They aren’t endlessly malleable. You can’t replace grandpa’s liver with a second heart just because you think livers are passé — unless you intend to kill grandpa.