Blog author: jspalink
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
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The 2008 Samaritan Award opens today! If you know of a great charity or non-profit organization that directly serves members of a vulnerable population and receives little to no government funding, please encourage them to apply. The grand prize is $10,000 and there are several smaller awards for runners-up.

From the Samaritan Award website:

This $10,000 grand prize is awarded once a year to an exceptional and privately funded nonprofit that fosters deep personal change in the individuals they serve. A comprehensive application makes a program eligible for the Award and enters it in the Samaritan Guide.

The Samaritan Guide encourages effective charity within the United States by providing information on nonprofits that are supported primarily by private donations. Every charity that applies for the Samaritan Award is included in the Samaritan Guide.

Apply Now for the Samaritan Award!

How do we evaluate taxes?

Ahhh, it’s spring! The weather is warming; the trees are blooming; and our minds turn inevitably toward taxes. In addition to filing our 1040’s in time for April 15th, the average worker (over 25 years old) has already lost an additional $2,000 this year to the federal government’s payroll (FICA) taxes on income.

At the state level, the Governor and the legislature just passed property tax reform. People are mildly irritated at the recent 16.7 percent increase in the sales tax rate on April 1st. But they’re looking forward to lower property tax bills in the future.

All of this begs the question: How should we evaluate taxes?

Economists answer this question with three criteria. (more…)

Over the last two days, Italians have been heading to the polls to select a new parliament and a new government. As I’ve already noted, despite its commitment to moral and ethical issues, the Catholic Church in Italy does not have a favorite political party.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Francis X. Rocca, a Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, wrote a very coherent op-ed on this delicate topic. Rocca says the Church is not impressed with the center-right candidate for prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and seems to be closer on social-economic issues to center-left Catholics, like Francesco Rutelli, the once and perhaps future mayor of Rome, and Opus Dei member and Senator Paola Binetti. He also recalls a past statement of then-Cardinal Ratzinger: “in many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine.”

The Italian religious-political situation is a bit complicated. There are some significant divergences between Italian center–left policies and Catholic social teaching that Rocca could have noted. In the administration of its national welfare policies, the center-left hardly respects the principle of subsidiarity. Center-left environmentalists are vehemently opposed to genetically-modified organisms, while the Church has supported the use of biotechnology to feed the poor. Finally the center-left has historically been opposed to giving Catholic schools tax exemptions.

But the most intriguing aspect of this campaign has nothing to do with any of the main candidates or parties. Despite his formerly communist roots, Giuliano Ferrara is probably the most classically liberal voice in Italy who is running on a single issue: a moratorium on abortion (Read this interesting profile of Ferrara in the New York Times). He has also promoted the popular movie “Juno”. Surprisingly enough, he has not found much support from some major Catholic institutions, as explained by journalist Sandro Magister. The Catholic establishment seems to think Ferrara should not have created a political party devoted solely to abortion, as the Italian pro-life movement has become a mostly cultural and popular one.

Because of Italy’s byzantine political system and customs, important issues are often neglected by the parties and hence left to fringe candidates. This is why many Italians are fed up with mainstream politics, and partly explains the country’s economic woes. It is nonsensical to think that important ethical matters should have no part in a political debate. If there is ever to be a morally serious, classically liberal movement in Italy, this will have to change.

On Friday April 11, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, featured a front-page article on the progress made in international development since Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967. The author of the article, Fr. Gian Paolo Salvini, S.J., is director of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica. He has a degree in economics and since he has lived in Brazil for many years, he has first-hand experience of development issues.

Salvini’s article is entitled “Incomplete Development” (“Uno sviluppo incompleto”) but his overall assessment of what has happened over the last 40 years is positive. He cites various statistics showing that “spectacular progress” has been made in terms of reducing absolute poverty. The number of people who have to live on less than one dollar a day has fallen from 29 to 18 per cent between 1990 and 2004. Also the data for longevity, child mortality and literacy show clear improvements.

Salvini identifies international trade as one of the key factors that has contributed to this trend. He is aware that progress has been uneven and that improvements in Asia have been far more marked than in Africa. This highlights that “the greatest success stories are due to the formula industrialize for exports”.

His most striking example to illustrate this point is that of South Korea. The fact that the country’s economic indicators were similar to those of Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1960s reflects the central importance of engaging with international trade: Korea’s achievement is largely due to its ability to export its manufacturing products to North America and Europe. This also explains why Dependency Theory, which was fashionable in the sixties and which advised developing countries to disengage with global trade, “is not taught anymore”.

The power of trade to transform poor countries is nowadays beyond doubt and Salvini notes that today it is often “the developing world which is asking for more free trade”, whereas Europe and the United States are obstructing the free flow of goods in agriculture.

But towards the end of the article, Salvini raises a more critical point regarding achievements in international development. He says that in contrast to absolute poverty, relative poverty is increasing: “The distance between those who are doing well and those doing badly, or to put it better, those who are doing well and those who are doing less well is growing.”

Salvini does not provide any data to illustrate this point and his assertion is, in fact, questionable. At the Populorum Progressio conference organized by Istituto Acton in Rome in February, Prof. Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, specifically addressed the issue of relative poverty:

We should recognise that relative poverty has decreased during the process of globalisation .… Most dramatically, the gap between countries that have recently seen rapid growth and those countries that have been relatively well off for many decades has narrowed significantly … Whilst European Union countries, the US, the UK and Japan grow well below the world average (indeed disposable incomes are broadly stagnant across much of the developed world), over half the world’s population now lives in 40 countries that are growing at more than 7% per year. Development is happening and is benefiting huge numbers of previously-poor people.

Salvini may be referring to an increase in income inequality within countries but in that case he is not looking at poverty in terms of human needs and real deprivations, but as compared to an abstract “ideal”.

Reducing income inequality may seem like a noble aspiration, but it is of minor importance. Prioritizing the alleviation of relative poverty would yield the absurd situation where society as a whole is made poorer only to make it more equal. A desire for greater equality should not justify giving up the real and tangible benefits globalization has brought the poor over the last couple of decades.

This piece brought tears to my eyes…(not the commercial)

All that stuff we’ve heard about global warming being unquestionably responsible for more frequent devastating hurricanes? About how the devastation we saw after Hurricane Katrina would soon be the norm? Yeah, not so much:

One of the most influential scientists behind the theory that global warming has intensified recent hurricane activity says he will reconsider his stand.

The hurricane expert, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this week unveiled a novel technique for predicting hurricane activity. The new work suggests that, even in a dramatically warming world, hurricane frequency and intensity may not substantially rise during the next two centuries.

The research, appearing in the March issue of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is all the more remarkable coming from Emanuel, a highly visible leader in his field and long an ardent proponent of a link between global warming and much stronger hurricanes.

Lessons to learn (again) from this:

  1. Our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere isn’t anywhere near complete.
  2. Therefore, the “consensus” that we often hear about on the potential effects of climate change isn’t necessarily correct.
  3. As such, we should be wary of those who propose drastic responses to a “crisis” that we simply do not fully understand.

Dr. Jay Richards has noted many times that there are four questions we should ask about climate change before we implement any policy in response to it. You can hear him talk about those questions next Thursday here in Grand Rapids. Check that link for more information.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 11, 2008
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Late last month I argued that recipients of the federal government’s stimulus package “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing.” Now other voices are giving similar advice, recommending saving rather than spending.

Rick Haglund, a Michigan business columnist for the Grand Rapids Press, notes that “Some saving measures can go a little too far, though. I recently heard a personal financial consultant say people can save by no longer buying that cup of coffee and newspaper on the way to work.”

“Give up the coffee, but please, please keep buying the paper. The newspaper business is in a terrible financial state,” he writes. Haglund thinks that newspapers are more important to the country than coffee…a debatable proposition. Coffee, not oil, might well be the lifeblood of American enterprise.

But the economic status of newspaper publishing is in a strange place. I’ve been getting the weekend paper for a year or so, and when I renewed I received a call from the paper just to tell me that I’d be getting the rest of the week for free (a good thing too, or I would have missed Haglund’s column).

It reminded me of getting a postcard in the mail from the government telling me to expect a rebate…no notice necessary, just send the free stuff and the money. I don’t think it cost the Grand Rapids Press millions of dollars to make the phone calls, though (it cost the feds $42 million to mail out those inane little rebate notices).

In any case, it makes more sense for many newspapers to give their issues away to get a boost in circulation numbers than it does to count on the income from subscriptions. I also recently saw one of the narrowest daily newspapers I had ever seen last weekend, part of the trend to cut printing costs. (I can’t complain too much, though, since the Port Huron Times Herald has published more than one of my commentaries. Keep up the good work!)

Of course, some folks, like Betty J. Mazur, are going to do just what the government wants them to do with the money. “I’m going to buy new clothing with my check,” she said. (The piece linked above is in part about how it is necessary to file federal taxes for 2007 in order to get the 2008 rebate. Marketplace discusses that, and also debunks some myths about the rebate, here.)

Oh, and don’t forget to blame conservative theology for the credit crisis. After all, it seems as if adherents to so-called “conservative” theology don’t save as much as they ought.

How any decent sociologist could have this reaction is beyond me: “Keister was surprised that when demographic factors — such as education, age and race — were held as constant, religion still proved to be an influential factor in wealth accumulation” (emphasis added).

Amazing, just amazing. Can you dare admit that religious beliefs really do influence behavior?

Keister says a typical “conservative Protestant” might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches. I guess they’ve forgotten what John Wesley said.

With the United Methodist General Conference only weeks away, Bristol House just released Taking Back The United Methodist Church. Tooley is the United Methodist Action Director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and has been a passionate advocate for theological integrity and reform within United Methodism for two decades. The book provides an excellent overview of some of the most egregious separation of some United Methodist leaders from Christian Scripture and traditions, including an all out embrace of a contradiction of sexual norms, and stale 1960’s liberal political philosophies. It’s an equally strong account at chronicling the renewal efforts within the Church at large, and the fruit of these efforts.

Tooley goes into detail about Bishop J. Joseph Sprague’s denial of the full and eternal deity of Jesus Christ. Sprague is now retired, formally the Bishop of Northern Illinois. He also provides snippets from a thoughtful response from a newly elected Bishop of Florida at the time, Timothy W. Whitaker. Whitaker was almost alone among the Bishops in criticizing Sprague, calling him “a person of deep faith,” whose comments at Iliff School of Theology on Christology were “incoherent.” Whitaker criticized Sprague for contradicting the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Christ as “eternally begotten of the Father.” Whitaker himself wondered in his critique, if Sprague had fallen into the ancient heresy of adoptionism, which is a denial of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Sprague also denied essential beliefs such as the virgin birth, a physical resurrection, and substitutionary atonement.

Bishop Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Conference also criticized Sprague. Additionally, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says the responsibility of a bishop is to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret the faith evangelically and prophetically.” Sprague was never truly held to account for his teachings by the United Methodist Church, but it did open a much needed conversation and validation of the nature and character of Christ. Sprague is , “The most vocal prominent active liberal bishop in Protestantism today,” Tooley declared. Sprague responded by denying that he was liberal, saying, “I consider myself a radical.”

Tooley also discusses radically heretical conferences at United Methodist Seminaries across the country, where the divinity and character of Christ is openly mocked. Other conferences adoringly worshiped feminist gods, and exalted other outrageous forms of religious pluralism, and strongly embraced pro-abortion measures. (more…)

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

“How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray,
when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?”

A statue memorializing Bonhoeffer as a martyr stands on the West Front of Westminster Abbey.

Born on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began his theological education in 1923 to the mild surprise of his upper middle-class family. Following what he would later call a sort of conversion experience, Bonhoeffer intensified his focus on contemporary theological problems facing the church. With the ascendancy of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s, Bonhoeffer was among the first of the German theologians to perceive the pervasiveness and significance of the looming threat.

When the pro-Nazi German Christian party won the church elections in the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer quickly opposed the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s consistent and committed resistance to the Nazi regime included his support for and pastoral participation in the Confessing Church along with other prominent Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller. His resistance also lent new depths to his intricate association with the broader ecumenical movement.

When the effectiveness of the Confessing Church’s opposition to Hitler was blunted and his efforts to bring the moral authority of the ecumenical movement to bear met with failure, Bonhoeffer became involved with the so-called Abwehr conspiracy, which was intended to assassinate Hitler and end the war.

After imprisonment for his role in the escape of Jews to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was implicated in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. At the age of 39, he was hanged by the SS at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the liberation of the area under Allied troops.

In the weeks and months before his death, Bonhoeffer meditated at length upon the text of Jeremiah 45, which promises both suffering and deliverance to God’s people. Bonhoeffer understood suffering and persecution to be a mark of true discipleship. In his famous text Nachfolge (ET: The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer wrote that “the Church knows that the world is still seeking for someone to bear its sufferings, and so, as it follows Christ, suffering becomes the Church’s lot too and bearing it, is borne up by Christ.”

Bonhoeffer’s death has been passed on through the account of the concentration camp’s physician, who said, “I saw pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.” This account is included by Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, reappearing again and again in the literature about Bonhoeffer.

But journalist and theologian Uwe Siemon-Netto writes of an even more chilling truth, “Apparently the doctor made up this tale in order to avoid punishment later in a war crimes trial. Joergen L.F. Mogensen, a Danish diplomat imprisoned in Flossenbürg, denied the existence of a scaffold or gallows in that camp. Mogensen is certain that Bonhoeffer’s life ended in the same ghastly way as his two Abwehr superiors, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris and Maj. Gen. Hans Oster.”

Siemon-Netto continues, “They were slowly strangled to death by a rope snapping up and down from a flexible iron hook that had been sunk into a wall. When they lost consciousness, they were revived so that the procedure could be repeated over and over again. The man who revived them was evidently none other than the camp doctor, Mogensen believes.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testament to his commitment to the Christian faith and his ardent opposition to the absolutism and idolatry of Nazi Germany.