Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 1 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the first pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 1:

  • There is danger in luxury: “In this way luxury often leads to forgetfulness. As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God (27).”

  • Our use of earthly and natural goods must be oriented toward higher and spiritual goods. Another way of saying this is that our desires and consumption must be rightly ordered: “…let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to leave. At the beginning life was not made for eating, but eating for life. But we, as if we had come into the world for this purpose, spend everything for eating” (27-28).
  • It is a natural and perhaps unavoidable feature of human nature to compare our situation with others: “the sight of another person in good fortune laid on him [Lazarus] an extra burden of anguish, not because he was envious or wicked, but because we all naturally perceive our own misfortunes more acutely by comparison with others’ prosperity” (30).
  • “You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them” (36-37).

Sermon 2:

  • A non-material definition of wealth and poverty: “We ought to consider this definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance” (40).

  • Using one of his favorite metaphors, Chrysostom compares life to the drama acted on the stage. Wealth, luxury, and the trappings of affluence are temporary and transient: “…when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” (47).
  • There are sins of omission and sins of commission. We have negative duties as well as positive duties. We can act justly in one sense while acting unlovingly, and therefore sinning, in another sense: “Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those he has wronged?” (49) This latter point is an argument from the lesser to the greater, showing that in some sense sins of commission are judged to be more weighty than those of omission.
  • Whence comes the responsibility to share our wealth? From a sense of stewardship and the absolute sovereignty of God: “By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (49).
  • How do we manifest responsible stewardship? “Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend less than what you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you” (50).
  • What duties are incumbent upon us in our giving? Should we be liberal and promiscuous in our charity? Chrysostom argues the affirmative: “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need” (52).
  • But don’t we have a responsibility to give only to those who deserve it? On the one hand, no, for gracious giving is by its very nature unmerited: “Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy” (52).
  • But if we must talk of desert, Chrysostom urges us to see that “need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further” (53). In this we image the grace of God, to give liberally as his gifts have been given to us, who do not deserve them.
  • Don’t the needs of the poor, even as construed by Chrysostom, go beyond the realm of the material?

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

The great hymn writer Charles Wesley was born three hundred years ago in 1707. Wesley has sometimes been referred to as the forgotten Wesley, because of brother John Wesley’s profound organizational skills that launched the American Methodist movement.

Wesley is of course known for being a writer and composer of some of the most beautiful hymns, O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing, And Can It Be That I Should Gain, Christ The Lord Is Risen Today and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, among others. In fact, Wesley penned thousands of hymns used by numerous Christian denominations today. The Wesley brothers in fact were dry and legalistic Anglican Ministers before their conversion to an Evangelical Christianity, which emphasized salvation by faith and a deep assurance of salvation. The Wesley’s were influenced heavily by the Moravians and following their influence Charles wrote in his journal upon his conversion,

I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ… I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith… I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness … yet confident of Christ’s protection.

Charles and his brother followed George Whitefield’s lead in preaching outdoors to reach the masses and shepherded England’s 18th century spiritual revival.

This September, Liverpool Hope University will hold a conference titled “An Eighteenth-century Evangelical for Today: A Tercentenary Celebration of the life and ministry of Charles Wesley.” There will be plenty of discussion concerning Wesley’s historical impact as well as his relevance to the Church today.

One of Wesley’s influences is the rich theological teaching in his timeless music. Wesley, like Martin Luther, believed hymns were a method for teaching theology. This aspect of his ministry is greatly contrasted with some of the contemporary praise music which lacks theological depth and truth. But the haunting beauty of his works is maybe his greatest contribution as a Christian leader who writes about an experiential faith. His well known hymn And Can It Be That I Should Gain followed shortly after his Evangelical conversion:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused the quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is considering the addition of the Belhar Confession to its set of doctrinal standards, which currently include the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) and Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dordt).

The Social Justice Club at Calvin Seminary, the pastoral school for the denomination, is sponsoring a blog to discuss the Belhar Confession, to “have the student body of the Seminary become leaders in this discussion.”

The consideration of the Belhar Confession comes at the request of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which has asked the CRC to “consider the Belhar and respond to it.”

The Social Justice Club’s blog notes that “no confession has been added to our present three for nearly four hundred years.” The CRC has modified the text of the Reformed confessions at various points, however, such that the CRC and the RCA, which ostensibly share the same confessional standards, cannot include the text of the Heidelberg Catechism in a new jointly-published hymnal, “because the two denominations use different versions.”

The CRC also has a contemporary testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” which occupies a position below that of the formally-recognized confessions.

The basis for considering the Belhar Confession is that the CRC does not have a confession that addresses race relations and reconciliation. Here’s a relevant section from the contemporary testimony,

We grieve that the church which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope, and spans all time, place, race, and language has become a broken communion in a broken world.

When we struggle for the purity of the church and for the righteousness God demands, we pray for saintly courage.

When our pride or blindness blocks the unity of God’s household, we seek forgiveness.

We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces to do his work, and that he blesses us still with joy, new members, and surprising evidences of unity.

We commit ourselves to seeking and expressing the oneness of all who follow Jesus.

I would think too that the relevant section of the Apostles’ Creed, as exposited by the Heidelberg Catechism, would be the clause on “the holy catholic church.”

Do Reformed churches need “a strong confession on race relations” beyond what is offered in these, and perhaps other, sections? There is a strong Protestant tradition, including that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Baxter, that would contend that any such confession must begin with the confession of our sins.

Speaking of a status confessionis, what about some other documents, such as the Barmen Declaration? Are the Barmen and the Belhar statements so contextually-situated and particular that they are unfit for status as more generally-relevant confessions?

Cuban–American author Humberto Fontova has a new book out titled, Exposing The Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. Che worship is something I have been fascinated with for quite some time, especially among the young Americans who are hyper consumers. Investor’s Business Daily ran an interview of Fontova concerning his new book on July 10 and here are some essential quotes by Fontova from the interview.

“My dad doesn’t like to take orders. There’s this myth that anyone leaving Fidel Castro’s revolution had to be a millionaire, a gangster or a crook. All he wanted was to not be a slave.”

“Cuba in 1961 had 6.3 million people. According to Freedom House, 500,000 Cubans have passed through Cuba’s prison systems, proportionately more than went through Stalin’s Gulag. At one time in 1961, 350,000 Cubans (were) jailed for political crimes and 1 out of 18 Cubans was a political prisoner.”

“He had an arrogant nature. I interviewed people who visited him and tried to save their sons from firing squad executions without trial. He liked to toy with them. He liked to pick up the phone in front of weeping mothers and bark out, “Execute the Fernandez boy right now!”

“They have big notions, especially the young kids who see Che as a hero — that he is a revolutionary, that he fought “The Man.” No, sir, I say, he was “The Man” that rebellious people fought against. You got it completely backwards.”

The disinformation out there about Che is staggering. Che was unsuccessful leading Marxist revolutions in Africa and Latin America, so much so Fidel Castro sent him on a suicide mission. He was a tyrant and murderer. And even one book against one tyrant and murder is a book against all of them.

Religious Cubans also suffer from the oppression of a hostile regime just 90 miles from the American shore. If the Che t-shirt culture reminds of us anything it’s the fact and sadness of the billions of people who live under totalitarian oppression are often forgotten. Unfortunately the evil Stalinist – Che ideology is not just forgotten but knowingly and sometimes unknowingly propped up by copycat consumers. In fact the National Council of Churches and other like minded organizations have defended and propped up Castro’s Cuba.

In contrast Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said, “We must stand with the oppressed rather than their oppressors and defend human dignity by supporting those who toil for freedom.”

The New York Times today ran an Associated Press story reporting that teenage sex rates have hit a new low. This is good news. The teenage birth-rate has hit a record low as well.

In 2005, 47 percent of high school students — 6.7 million — reported having had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. The rate of those who reported having had sex had remained the same since 2003.

Of those who reported having had sex during a three-month period in 2005, 63 percent — about 9 million — said they used condoms. That is an increase from the 46 percent reported in 1991.

The teenage birth rate in 2005, the report said, was 21 per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 17 — an all-time low. The rate in 1991 was 39 births per 1,000 teenagers.

However, there may be other factors that mask the fact that teenage sexual activity hasn’t really changed at all.

(1) Teenage birth rates are lower because more and more teens have easy access to abortion and birth-control. There is no social stigma assigned to being a sexually active or pregnant teenager and baby-boomer parents have no scruples about encouraging abortion and birth-control for kids, unlike any other generation of parents in American history. This is a moral problem.

(2) Teens have redefined what constitutes as sex. While the rates of intercourse may have declined the study leaves unanswered questions about the rates of other forms of sexual activity including oral sex, pornography, etc. “Hooking up” can include all sorts of sexual activity that is not specifically intercourse. The myth, of course, is that only intercourse negatively affects teenagers psychological, emotionally, and spiritually.

The Washington Post reports that nearly half of all teens engage in oral sex.

The story touts school sex education as responsible for the decline. While this may be good rhetoric, sex education in school does not reduce teen pregnancy. In the 1970s, when sex education began, the pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-old females rose from 68 per thousand in 1970 to 96 per thousand in 1980. With sex education teenage birth rates rose 29 percent between 1970 and 1984.

The key determiners of sexual health for teens includes two basic elements: (1) spiritual and moral formation about the nature and function of sex in God’s design that enhances love and human dignity, and (2) loving, parental involvement in openly discussing sexuality and laying down morally-grounded expectations that communicate clearly what is in the best interest of the child in the long-run. If our nation had more of this teen sex rates would decline precipitously.

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier). The parenthetical references below are to page numbers.

  • The poor have a responsibility to give as they are able. Working together to assist the poor is advisable: “Nevertheless, give what you can; God asks for nothing above your powers. You can give a loaf yourself, another will give a cup of wine, another clothing; thus one man’s hardship will be relieved by your combined aid” (131).

  • But even one family can make a huge difference: “The flow from one river-source brings richness to many a spreading plain; so the wealth of one household is enough to preserve multitudes of the poor, if only a grudging uncharitable heart does not fall like a stone to block the passage and thwart the stream” (132).
  • An argument for equal shares: “All things belong to God, the Father of us and them. We are all of the same stock, all brothers. And when men are brothers, the best and most equitable thing is that they should inherit equal portions. The second best is that even if one or two take the greater part, the others should have at least their own share” (133).

Next week: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty.

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier).

  • The basis for our responsibility to help others is our shared human nature, the identity as created in the image of God: “We must, then, open the doors to all the poor and all those who are victims of disasters, whatever the causes may be, since we have been told to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:12). And since we are human beings, we must pay our debt of goodness to our fellow human beings, whatever the cause of their plight: orphanhood, exile, cruelty of the master, rashness of those who govern, inhumanity of tax-collectors, brutality of blood-thirsty bandits, greediness of thieves, confiscation or shipwreck” (6).

  • A prayer of supplication: “May God preserve me from being rich while they are indigent, from enjoying robust health if I do not try to cure their diseases, from eating good food, clothing myself well and resting in my home if I do not share with them a piece of my bread and give them, in the measure of my abilities, part of my clothes and if I do not welcome them into my home” (19).
  • The true natural and primal state of human beings is freedom and plenty: “Freedom and wealth were the only law; true poverty and slavery are its transgressions” (25).
  • Our task is to look at this primal state as normative, rather than the state of human society as marred by sin: “You, however, look at the primitive equality, not at the later distinction, not at the law of the powerful, but at the law of the Creator. Help, as much as you can, nature; honor the primitive freedom; respect yourself; cover the dishonor of your family; assist those who are sick and aid those who are needy” (26).
Michael Miller at ALS

“Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer.” – Ronald W. Reagan, Moscow State University 1988.

Today I attended my first Acton Lecture Series event which featured Michael Miller, Acton’s Director of Programs and Education. I felt very blessed somebody is speaking my language for a change.

I included this quote from our former president because Miller touched on the subject of Christians believing that all life has inherent value. This was contrasted with the totalitarian understanding of relativism, which stands in opposition to the belief in absolute truth. Miller even noted how totalitarianism seeks “men and women with blank slates – because they can be shaped.” A classic example in my mind would be the Khmer Rouge “Year Zero” campaign which tried to end the ideas of religion and private property ruthlessly.

A couple of great quotes I wrote down of Miller’s concerning the Church vs. the power of the state are:

“The Church by definition limits the state.”

“If you are under God’s authority the state is automatically limited.”

One would easily be aware of in this context of the power of some of the spiritual leaders in the fight against totalitarianism such as John Paul II, Whitaker Chambers, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The central theme of Miller’s argument: “Freedom and tolerance can only be sustained in a society where a robust commitment to truth exists.”

This may have been one of the greatest strengths of some of the above mentioned leaders. I think one of the qualities President Reagan embodied in terms of the presidency was raising the moral language and arguments against totalitarianism.

What was so powerful concerning the lecture was Miller’s warning of the extreme dangers of an absence of truth, and the slide towards what he called a “thinly veiled totalitarianism.” He also noted, “We defend the weak through commitment to truth and justice.”

He offered the audience a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is good because its people are good.” One can easily see the dangers Miller warned against that have emerged, especially in the last 40-50 years. He noted the secularization of Europe and the emerging secularization of our own country. I remember being criticized in seminary for “Constantinianism” for writing about the emergence of democracy out of Western Christianity and the Presbyterian form of church government.

Very importantly Miller also noted that scores of young people have rebelled against the “whatever” culture. He mentioned the many young Roman Catholics and Protestants who have committed their lives to a deeper purpose and especially the truth of The Greatest Story Ever Told. I am now fortunate to work beside and with many of these people.

Here’s a new NBER working paper, “Why are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation,” by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl.

Here’s the abstract:

The perception that immigration adversely affects crime rates led to legislation in the 1990s that particularly increased punishment of criminal aliens. In fact, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born – on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives. More recently arrived immigrants have the lowest relative incarceration rates, and this difference increased from 1980 to 2000. We examine whether the improvement in immigrants’ relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Our evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native. Immigrants who were already in the country reduced their relative institutionalization probability over the decades; and the newly arrived immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly unlikely to be involved in criminal activity, consistent with increasingly positive selection along this dimension.

Some Christian churches are joining the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization that vows to “protect immigrants against unjust deportation.” But what about the laws of the land? Brooke Levitske looks at the highly charged immigration issue and concludes that “the New Sanctuary Movement’s lawbreaking solution is neither a prudent civic response nor a necessary act of compassion.”

Read the complete commentary here.