Over at Mere Comments, and following up on this week’s Acton Commentary, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” I discuss some reasons why Christian giving doesn’t end there.

It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.

Blog author: jballor
Saturday, December 18, 2010

In this week’s “Two Minute Warning,” Chuck Colson shows that “work is something we are all called to do, using our gifts to God’s glory.”

Work: The Meaning of Your LifeAs a special offer this week, the Colson Center is giving away complimentary copies of Lester DeKoster’s little classic on this subject, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective from Christian’s Library Press. Be sure to sign up at the Colson Center website for your free copy, and order a copy or two for important people in your life who could use some perspective on the importance of their work to God.

Where we serve others through our work we are serving God. That is the central insight of DeKoster’s book. He writes that “a right view of work becomes the key to a satisfying life, as it now looks to me. And whenever, and wherever, I see people working—at any kind of work, such as head or hand, blue-collar or white-collar, trade or profession—I want to shout out the good news: This gives meaning to your life! Right here! Right now!”

See also, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”

With the country insolvent, and streets filled with violent protests, the Church of Greece is now pointing fingers at the country’s political leadership and international “creditors” (who have just ponied up another 2.5 billion euros for the bailout). Yet Greece, the Holy Synod says, is “under occupation” by lenders, who have moved in because the politicians “undermined the real interests of the country and its people.”

Here’s a report from the Athens Now site, which attributed the statement to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. (more…)

Here’s a final and brief follow-up to the discussion about the loss of faith in institutions over recent decades. We might observe that the increase in charitable giving to religious organizations amidst declines in charitable giving overall might show that at least there is not a corresponding loss of faith by religious people in charitable institutions. This is the implication, in fact, at least for institutions other than local churches.

Overall, though, it does seem clear that “big charity” is suffering from loss of faith as much as big government, big business, and big religion (here’s some 2008 data from Brookings).

So during the recession both overall faith in and giving to charitable institutions has declined. But this isn’t the case either for religious charities or for religious givers.

People of faith continue to be faithful in giving to those institutions that they judge to be faithful in their own callings. And within that context, if you have found the Acton Institute to have been a good steward of its mandate over the last year (and the last 20 years as come to the conclusion of our anniversary year), please consider making a contribution in support of the mission of the Acton Institute to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 16, 2010

In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

Brooks and Wehner:

… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.

What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.

Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.

A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.

Read the full article on The American.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 16, 2010

In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.

Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”

But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.

Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.

There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.

As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.

Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”

Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.

On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:

The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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

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.