“That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

This has been a bad week for the public image of the United States. The negative impressions are well deserved; one can only hope, though without a great deal of confidence, that the events now well publicized will be the occasion of some serious soul-searching. Secret Service agents having a very busy time with Columbian prostitutes; American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of suicide bomb carriers and (perhaps) slain combatants. Not the stuff the land of the free and home of the brave ought to be posting on the shingle at the front door.

In both cases Washington officials were quick to point out that this is not who we are, not what we are about, not consistent with our values. I believe they genuinely believed what they were saying. I’m not so sure that what they said and believed was entirely true. There is a very real and quite legitimate question about whether these acts were really far off the mark we currently aim at in our culture, by default if not by intent.

Both the Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State) and Leon Panetta (Defense) are part of a generation that takes a given moral order for granted, whether or not their actual beliefs adequately account for or uphold that given order. According to that order, some actions are just plain, self-evidently wrong; and the actions that have made the recent headlines fall very clearly within the category of the forbidden. They are disturbing actions, in one case because, while prostitution is certainly nothing new, employing prostitutes while engaged in the doing of the country’s business in a foreign land obviously disrespects one’s fellow citizens, let alone one’s own family members; in the other case, the actions seem so heinous that many of us cannot comprehend anyone thinking it, let alone doing it and documenting it. It’s not the stuff we would expect anyone to treasure for home viewing in their later years.

But much has happened to undermine the assumptions on which Clinton, Panetta, and the entire generation they are part of, uncritically relied. And the failure of that generation (my own) to think through and validate the moral law with sound reasoning has led to the virtual demise of even its most basic ideas of decency, civility, and discipline of both self and offspring. When the only virtue remaining is a badly warped sense of tolerance, we mistakenly and tragically lose the power to draw lines other than by political force. And among the first to take advantage of this void was the entertainment industry, which continued to push the boundaries with ever weakening resistance. The result has been music, movies, games, and conversation about the same which devalues decency, civility, and discipline. And now we face the generation which such an approach has spawned, and we find ourselves in disgust, yet with no recourse other than to lament.

I am going to venture an opinion an opinion here against which some readers may well scoff, bristle, or rail. It seems plausible, however, to lay some of the responsibility for our moral situation at the feet of a political agenda which includes the leveling of the religious landscape. That is, when a governmental position is adopted, as undoubtedly and avowedly has been done, holding all faiths to be of equal value, it actually holds none of them to be truly worthwhile. And in so doing, it has removed any constraint against on the (im)moral impulses of its citizens other than those imposed by law. This serves the government well in that it allows no room for other lords than itself. If that is too strong a statement, consider the real meaning of religious freedom, including the freedom of grounding morality in a transcendent reality, when government itself defines religion, as the current president has done. It does so in order to control and shape citizens in its own image.

But if the truth about mankind includes a fallen nature along with our undeniable wealth of potential for creativity, watch out for what we create and the purposes for which we do it. And I submit we are reaping the consequences. Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

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What Did John (Wesley) Say About It?

Nothing like ending a two-week hiatus from the blog with a controversy. And controversy there will be on the matter of economics, fairness, and justice. I think (hope) a fair-minded person would conclude several things from the discussion following the previous post. Let’s see if I can get agreement on this much:
1. There is an unequal distribution of wealth in the world and within our own nation.
2. The Bible is aware of the poverty of some people and the wealth of others. It condemns neither person because of their wealth or poverty, nor does it find those estates to be the source of their respective virtue.
3. When sloth is the cause of poverty, it is a deserved condition and one that is just; but not all poverty is so induced. When wealth is gained by unjust means it is a blight upon all and will bring oppression to any land; but not all wealth is unjustly acquired.
4. The hand is never to be closed toward the poor. And scripture does not restrict this message to the super rich.
5. Generational poverty is something which concerns God; hence, the Jubilee provisions by which land and other collateral was to be returned, so that fresh starts could be made.

How these observations and principles, which could obviously be expanded, are to be instantiated in today’s world is a difficult matter to discern, but it cannot be totally ignored simply because it is difficult. In trying to do so, we do not turn to a secular government. (This is something I thought I clearly did not advocate, yet some respondents assumed the contrary.) The government has no interest in discerning the message of scripture unless it can be turned to the state’s advantage for its own purposes. Someone mentioned John Wesley in the comments exchanged. I’d like to reference his formula for a just economics, independent of the state but under the guidance of the church.

The formula Wesley gave was simple and straight-forward: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. On one hand, it is simply an expansion on the apostle’s encouragement to work with our hands so that we may have something to share with those in need. It goes farther than Eph. 5:28, however, in suggesting that there is a diligence with which one should go about making every possible effort to gain as much as one can gain, to use one’s given capacities fully in order to accumulate not just a little extra for a rainy day, but an abundance. That much sounds like any generic encouragement to put nose to grindstone and make hay while the sun shines (lots of good old sayings come to mind–and that’s the point).

But unlike the secular version of success, Wesley’s formula encourages the saving of what can reasonably be saved. This is not an economic stimulus package, geared toward spending and consuming so that others have something to produce for our further consumption, enjoyment, and comfort. Quite the opposite. He encouraged frugality, eschewed ostentation, and preached the value of saving what has been earned through all that hard work. No building of bigger barns, moving to higher-end neighborhoods, or otherwise displaying what one has accumulated. Then when the time and occasion would move one to do so, one should give all one can give in order to meet the needs of others, spread the gospel of Christ, and enter into the very character of God, who so loved that He gave. And gives.

That’s not a message we’ll hear from either party’s platform between now and November. Unfortunately, it is also one we will hear little of from our pulpits and “Christian” television. But it is one we should take to heart, not as a weapon with which to beat one another within the household of faith, but with which to challenge and encourage one another toward good works. I’m not an economist; but I wonder whether the church of Jesus will be bold enough to take its cues from its own story, knowing the end toward which it is focused, and allow those who are economists to speak to the wind.

Is Wesley’s formula too simplistic, too unworkable, or just too challenging for double-minded Christians?

Rich, Poor, Fairness, and the Bible

Back to work. And what better way to restart the blogging than to fill a request from a former student? Who can resist an opening like “I wonder what my former theology professor would say about this”?

The issue is one of growing concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has to do with the growing disparity of income between the very wealthy and the rest. But this particular round in the on-going battle began with an interview of Rick Warren, whose considerable presence on the evangelical stage was further enhanced a few years ago by his book The Purpose-Driven Life. The following line in the interview struck a nerve with at least one reader:

There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The Rev. Susan Russell, pastor of All Saints Church in Pasadena, responded through an open letter in the Huffington Post, the gist of which cited Matthew 20 as demonstrating that everyone should indeed be paid the same wage. That response prompted the former student’s curiosity as to what I thought, to which the reply was that I thought both parties were seriously wrong, and that more would follow. This is the “more,” though I know full well that it will not satisfy the desire for a full-blown position on wealth and poverty to which Christians ought to subscribe.

I don’t think many biblical exegetes would suggest what Rev. Russell does regarding the parable of Jesus, in which workers hired at various points throughout the day all received the identical compensation for their labors. For one obvious feature, the issue is not the difference in the type of work done but in the length of time the different parties engaged in the labor. More fundamentally, Jesus was in no way making a statement about how things ought to be handled on the farm, much less the factory or broader marketplace; he was making statements about spiritual pride of place and privilege, turning prevailing assumptions about deserving God’s favor on their head. In order to make this into a text about compensating everyone equally regardless of their contribution, one must bring a lot of preconceived ideas to the reading.

But what about Rick Warren’s statement? Certainly, he is correct about the numerous mentions of poverty and just treatment of those in that position. But it seems to me that the real issue is obscured by asking the question of what fairness entails (a “fair” enough question) in the way he does it. Moving from the very legitimate question of fairness to the incendiary discussion of wealth redistribution changes everything; it’s an emotionally charged term, and I think he knows it. It has the effect of saying “we know you don’t want that—nobody would want that,” and using it to predispose anyone listening to accept the rest of what he will say as necessary to avoid the evils of wealth redistribution.

Let’s think about this for a moment. I suspect that what he really has in mind is government enforced redistribution; that, indeed, could cause significant problems on a number of levels. But that’s not what was said. The fact is that every transaction we engage in is a redistribution of wealth. And over time, the tendency is for more of the wealth to end up in fewer hands, which raises the question of whether the transactions were fairly structured to begin with. If you have experienced a real estate settlement, and actually analyzed all of what you were paying for, you would have serious questions about how fair the redistribution really was; but the only recourse would be to end the transaction without gaining the property. Are prices for many of the things we purchase on a routine basis fairly set? Whether they are or are not, it is a redistribution.

Here are some not-so-new statistics. Every indication is that the current ones would be even more stark than these from a few years ago:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Data such as these are not to be unexpected in a world of sinful, self-absorbed people. That’s why some form of redistribution was envisioned for us by God. Though never fully practiced, the Jubilee principle nonetheless acknowledges the need for fresh starts, including the release of bonded workers, and the forgiveness of debts. It is God’s plan of (dare we say) redistribution. And while the government is a poor candidate for enacting/enforcing/interpreting its version of the provisions, it would be in the best interest of Christian thinkers and leaders to provide leadership in helping us to think better about how we might care for one another in fair and just ways which neither encourage sloth nor punish industry. Christians cannot in good conscience simply give endorsement to political and economic models which do either of these.

What do you think? What does this suggest about our political priorities?

What Makes Business “Christian”?

I’m going to do a few posts on creation next week—no, not creation as in the story of origins, but as in the part we play in creating things as bearers of the divine image.

But before beginning those posts I want to ask simply what makes a business a Christian business. It’s a straight-forward question, but just to get things started, here are a few possible answers, which readers may embrace and defend or reject; alternative proposals or combinations and nuances are also encouraged. So let’s begin.

A. A Christian business is one which is owned/operated by a Christian person or persons. This answer is more about the claim to Christian identity on the part of the owner(s) than about anything dealing with the business itself. It might be defended by pointing to ones’ identity in Christ, which makes anything one does Christian by extension.

B. A Christian business is one which displays Christian symbols in advertizing, on the premises of the business operations, on the product, or in any other publicly recognizable way. This makes the case very clearly that what we do is an offering to the Lord, who provides for all things.

C. A Christian business is one which operates on principles drawn from the Bible. These principles may or may not be prominently displayed, but are nonetheless diligently promoted in the company’s culture.

D. A Christian business is one in which specifically Christian products are made. Whether pencils or vans, they are designed specifically with a Christian consumer in mind.

E. A Christian business is one wich is used primarily as a vehicle for witnessing; it provides opportunity to share the gospel, and does so by opening doors which might otherwise be closed to the one(s) who operate the business.

That’s a short list, and it leaves many things unaddressed, but it’s only intended as a conversation starter. An additional question to consider is whether you make a concerted effort to make purchases of goods and services from Christian businesses, or whether that form of selectivity should be encouraged.

Waiting to hear from you.

On Being Nice and Being Right

Where have all the nice guys and gals gone? They seem to have disappeared. At one time it was not necessarily a compliment to refer to someone in such terms; it was the sort of thing one might say about someone who was not distinguished in any way, but had also managed to avoid giving any particular offense. The result is a nice, as in unremarkable, person. But how often do we hear of someone being admiringly referred to as a nice person, one whose manner of being is such that it stands out for its consideration of others, its unrelenting search for something good to say about a person others would just as soon dismiss? It’s the sort of person U2 sings about: “Grace finds goodness in everything.”

They certainly are not found on tv, though once they were. For all of the bashing 1950s and early 60s shows have taken, there were nice people on virtually all of them, from June Cleaver to Ben Cartwright. See any of them on “Desperate Housewives”? Even the main characters of today’s shows always seem to have an edge about them, one that encourages us from getting too close because of a dangerous personality quirk or thinly veiled troubled past. Nice people are harder to find, maybe because we have this tendency to prove the flaws in anyone presented as a candidate for the title. It’s almost as though one should apologize for being referred to as such, hastening to point out the flaws which disqualify them from holding it. And we all know what happens to good guys in politics. Where do we turn to find lawmakers like Senators Simon and Brooks these days? It’s little wonder that scoring points with the cameras and microphones counts far less than compromising and actually legislating. Woe be to the candidate who doesn’t have swarms of operatives digging up dirt and innuendo on his or her opponent. Again, soundness of positions and proposals is secondary.

Maybe we can find the nice people in the churches of our land. And, indeed, there are many there who might fit the description. Yet I sense that many of them are so in spite of, not because of the leadership of many of our more prominent spokespersons and influence peddlers. In what might be termed the power centers of many a Christian movement or organization, the need to distinguish one’s interpretation, goal, or cause from the plethora of similar ones provides powerful temptation to leave behind the thought that Jesus might want us to actually consider kindness, gentleness, and peace as qualities worth cultivating. Some of the same sort of dirt-digging which we despise in politics happens in churches that need to point out all the obvious errors of others, leaving the listener to conclude that only here will the truth be found.

Don’t misunderstand. Niceness is insufficient for the furtherance of the gospel and its leavening effect in a culture and its call to a rather broken world to seek wholeness in Christ. Niceness in itself does not redeem. There is a real Christ among the various and variously limited presentations of his nature and his continuing ministry in the world; and we should be diligently seeking the real thing. But I suspect rather strongly that this real thing is found equally in the doing as in the seeking. In other words, we cannot—absolutely cannot—get the right answer without being concerned about “doing” the very kind of life He told us to live. And most of us would do well to begin that with a simple commitment to be nice in a very unkind world. Maybe someone might actually ask us what’s up with that; and we’ll be able to tell them what we think is right.

Sometimes “Thanks” Isn’t Enough

Giving thanks for good things received is a good practice to establish. It recognizes that one is dependent upon the efforts, gifts, and sacrifices of others; it builds the soul by accepting the fact that we need other people, humbling ourselves in the process. Saying thanks says we cannot repay everything done for us. It grants value and dignity to the one who has given or acted on our behalf. One memory I’ll always have goes back to my college days at Penn State, where I was running across the campus, taking every conceivable short-cut in order to arrive at Rec Hall by tip-off time for a basketball game. My route took me through a building where the door was being approached by a female student supporting herself with braced crutches. She stopped—and held the door for me. That was humbling indeed, and I had to stop long enough to give thanks. Not nearly long enough.

Today I pause from the theological, philosophical and sometimes political ideas generally filling this page. I do so to say thanks, knowing it isn’t nearly enough to scratch the surface of the debt. Today my parents, Eugene and Elsie, celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary. Sixty-three. Yes, I know it isn’t any kind of record, but it is noteworthy nonetheless; and I write this not only in their honor, but in honor of all other couples of similar standing, whose contributions to the communities we live in will not be accounted by donations or inscribed on memorials. Instead, they will be found, for those who take the time and care to look, in the fabric of communities themselves. They are the ones who did not take the easy way out, who thought their children’s success to be worthy of every sacrifice they needed to make, whose investments consisted of love, care, character, and faith.

We seriously undervalue the models of marriage in the culture. In the church, we look (in true biblicist fashion) for the perfect scriptural definitions and guidance to create Christian marriages. We overlook how much this ignores what actually is given in terms of the few marriages of which we get a glimpse in the Bible itself. Do we really want to use Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rebecca, or maybe Judah and—oh, wait, that was his daughter-in-law, or David and . . . as our models? Do we realize that virtually every instance of a “real” family in the Bible was an instance we would immediately recognize as dysfunctional? But we do gain insight into how to do it better from scripture; not just the text of scripture, however, but from them only as the principles are inculcated into a real husband and wife, raising real kids with real challenges. Challenges like serious illness, even death; challenges like loss of work, growing desires of the children to do more things in more places, dangers of wrong associations, balancing school, church, social and other legitimate demands.

That’s what it was like for my parents. I have three brothers, and three sisters, one of whom was lost to us at the age of seven after a short, excruciating illness. The one thing we never lost sight of, in spite of anything and everything life threw at us, was faith. Not words of faith, but the real thing expressed in all the little things—such as the little stacks of coins we would each be given to contribute to different offerings to be received at church, all lined up on a table for us as we headed for the door, ready to pile into the car (before seat belts and most other standard safety measures we are all well accustomed to now) for another trip to the country church in Hosensack.

Neither Mom nor Dad had an opportunity to go to college. They did, however, value our education, even though the income was insufficient to provide the funds for us to attend. Yet all of us did receive some sort of post-secondary education. The influence spread by their children and grandchildren is quite far-reaching considering their humble beginnings as age nineteen, when vows were exchanged. A pastor, two teachers, a professor, and business owner, and a commercial artist among the children. The next generation is well underway in similar pursuits. The number of people touched through them is staggering, and does not include the many other lives that have passed through that little country church since we all moved on.

I just want to say thanks. And I ant to encourage anyone who reads this to consider making the uplifting and recognition of all like my parents, who quietly, yet faithfully, make it possible for others to believe that God really does do things with people who trust Him.

Time to Finalize the Divorce?

I know, it’s a radical suggestion. And it is fraught with difficult side issues and entanglements which make it a hazardous direction by any account. Children, inheritance, estates, custody, property, visitation rights, medical guardianship, and probably a lot of other matters would have to be accounted for. But maybe it’s time to begin the conversation (one which has in fact already begun in some circles).

The divorce I am thinking of is not one between two people, but between the church and the state as that relationship pertains to the legalization of marriage. Is it time for the church to have nothing further to do with what state-sanctioned marriage proceedings? Neither the state nor the broader culture seem to have little knowledge of and even less concern for what Christian marriage is; and maybe it is time for the church to claim its ground, at least among its own people. This idea is, to be sure, prompted by the news this week that Maryland has become the eighth state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. There is little short of divine intervention that will keep that number from growing rapidly in short order.

On one hand, it is perhaps of little concern to those who do not walk in this way; no one says a person must marry one of the same sex. But on the other, it may well come about soon that anyone authorized by the state to legally sanction any marriage may be required to do so for whatever is declared by the state to be a marriage; and that will have ever more fading resemblances to Christian marriage. Odd, isn’t it? A rapidly increasing number of heterosexual couples eschews marriage for simple, convenient co-habitation, while same-sex couples want increasingly to opt in to what is by all accounts a fading institution. And on the other side of the courthouse, where marriages are legally de-sanctioned via divorce, we have mountainous evidence that the permanence assumed by Christians to be part of the substance of marriage is a sham at best and a rejected idea at worst.

It is enticing to say that Christian churches should have their own ceremonies, independent of the state, whose legal recognition a couple could seek independently if they wish. It is no longer a matter significantly noted by the community that a couple living in the neighborhood is or is not legally married. Such a drastic step should only be taken, however, after a thorough teaching of the ontology of marriage. Yes, that’s a philosophical term. It refers to the belief that marriage is not a nominal matter—something that only exists because we have given a name to it, a name with which we can interchange shapes and meanings. Instead, we believe it to be grounded in God and revealed to us through general as well as special revelation. The latter is plainly given in the earliest portions of the Bible, continuously reaffirmed throughout its unfolding story; the former is witnessed to by the virtual universality of male-female marriage through all manner of cultures, notwithstanding the many differences in roles and expectations. If there is an ontological reality to marriage, we can call something else by the name all we want; it does not make it so.

Perhaps there are good and sufficient reasons for the state to grant legal recognition to unions of same-sex persons. I am not fully convinced, particularly in light of the diminishing respect for marriage among the general population. But there are good reasons for Christians in particular to distinguish these from holy matrimony.

These thoughts are just beginning to gain some traction in my own thinking; I’m not sure where they will end up. What are your thoughts?