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Are You an Athlete or a Spectator?

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Today at Ethika Politika, I caution against the sort of scapegoating that justifies ideologies at the expense of human effort:

Do you support capitalism? Socialism? Distributism? Something else? Wonderful. What does that look like among the mess of market forms that actually constitute the economy you participate in every day? Rather than criticizing those policies that fall short of your saintly ideal or align too closely with your Hitler, what ones constitute a first step in the right direction for you? And why? And what are the actual consequences, intended or otherwise, that may come about?

While there is a place for simply outlining one’s ideal, if we wish to actually do some good ourselves, we need to get our hands dirty in the mire of material reality. Gnostic scorn for the concrete and this-worldly boasts a broad road with a wide gate, but it is the narrow road of reality that leads to life; not only for ourselves, but for the common good; not just for this world, but for the kingdom of God.

In his recent book Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action), Jordan Ballor begins with a similar call:

The thesis that faith and works are intimately connected is not something novel or innovative. It is, rather, thoroughly biblical. But that is precisely why it is worth rehearsing, again and again. We tend to neglect those truths that do not suit us, and faithfulness to the biblical witness will simply not allow us to rest content in our error.

So first we need the right ideas. We need to experience the “renewing” of our minds so that we no longer “conform to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). But we also need the right motives, techniques, and wisdom to connect responsible Christian social thought and action. Good intentions are not enough, or as Etienne Gilson put it, “Piety is no substitute for technique.”

It’s a bit of an overgeneralization, but sometimes it seems to me that we are overfull with good ideas and intentions but impoverished when it comes to actual, effective action, i.e. “right motives, techniques, and wisdom.”

This is not really the case, thankfully. There are many wonderful Christians (and others) who give their time and effort, “the sweat of [their] face” (Genesis 3:19), toiling to love their neighbors in family life, daily work, or formal ministries, whatever their vocations may be.

Perhaps another way to put the question, then, is this: How does your understanding of Christian social thought account for the labor of those who get their hands dirty among the “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18) of daily life? And when you comment on the subject, are you like an athlete being interviewed after a great game or just a fan who spent the whole match as a spectator?

Lord knows, that’s a question I, at least, would do well to ask myself every day.

Read my full essay “Scapegoats of Christian Social Thought” at Ethika Politika here.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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