“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?

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?

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?

What to Do with the Thumb? Thoughts on The Sandusky Scandal

Yes, this is a different sort of post, though it does fit in with the stated purpose of the blog–interpeting events through Christian narrative. But it is also prompted by what strike me as troubling and conflicted cries in the wake of announcements coming from Harrisburg about events at Penn State University.

Let me set this out in the beginning for the benefit of those readers who do not know me personally. I am a Penn State grad and proud of it; it is, ironically to some, the place where my faith was freed to think. I am a life member of the Alumni Association and currently of part of the Nittany Lion Club. I have followed its football fortunes and misfortunes, including the times it was robbed of national championships. I have been to most of the home games over the past eight seasons and even joined journeyed to the Rose Bowl a couple of years ago. So no pretensions of total objectivity here.

Now the hard part. What do I do with my thumb? You know, the opposable appendages that separate humans from other species. We use them for a wide variety of purposes, many of which make life as we know it possible. Aside from making and using tools of all kinds, however, we also seem to employ the thumb as a signal of our reactions, dispositions, and feelings. For instance, there is the familiar up or down to indicate approval or disapproval, most famously tied to the saving or taking of the life of a defeated gladiator. There’s the placing of this wonderful appendage on the nose, accompanied by a wave of the remaining portion of the hand to indicate disrespect or dismissal; and then there’s the upward extended thumb thrust over the shoulder in baseball, indicating “you’re out!”

What is common among the above is what such uses of the thumb indicate about another factor that sets us apart from mere animals–the making and expressing of moral judgments. In our supposedly more advanced society, we all sit in the emperor’s box and react to any situation our arena called television brings before us. We’re all enlightened individuals, all qualified to make judgments on all sorts of cases in which we have no more personal involvement than an emperor with a gladiatorial match. We see ourselves as having the right or even the duty of casting the thumb in one direction or another, even when we are hopelessly ill-informed or uninformed about the matter at hand.

Witness the frenzy–no other word will do–over the Jerry Sandusky allegations. I say allegations not because I do not think there is substance behind them (I’d love to have reasonable doubt here), but because we have this “innocent until proven guilty” mantra guiding our courts. That same mantra, of course, is a total farce when it comes to the individual judgments we somehow feel obligated to pass. We do not wait for proof; we settle for any unconfirmed report that supports our subjective preference for what we want to be the case. We thumb the nose at actual deliberation over collected, tangible facts. That’s understandable with regard to Sandusky; less so when trying to weigh the actions or inactions of those who came upon knowledge of the incidents.

None of us really knows who said what to whom and when they said it. We make our speculation according to previously formed opinions regarding the people involved, then filter in or out any pieces of rumor/gossip/evidence/opinion that will support this reading, and then we will put our thumb in the air accordingly. For many, it is difficult to accept a contrary verdict even when all the facts become known. Let us not forget that whatever culpability anyone at Penn State has in the handling of this case, it was precipitated by one man’s heinous actions. That man was not a university employee, i.e., not a member of the coaching staff, having left the team three years earlier (a fact conspicuously missing from NBC’s report on the Nightly News today, Nov. 8). One of those actions was witnessed by someone then a graduate assistant to Joe Paterno; he has since been added to the fulltime staff. He reported to Paterno, who reported to the Athletic Director, following the chain of command specifically spelled out in policy manuals. Apparently, the report went nowhere from there for some time.

The question that has overwhelmed everything else in this case has been whether Joe Paterno did enough; wasn’t there was a moral obligation, a higher standard he ought to have followed? This is where it gets sticky. Who is in charge of administering the higher standard? What does it entail? What are the penalties appropriate for failing to follow it, or for following it partially? How are we to know? Who does the reporting of whether or not it has been met? Again, I don’t know what Paterno was told or what he reported–and neither do any of the rest of us. But I do know that thumbs have been flying nonetheless.

What about others involved, especially those who knew and did not report to police as required by law? I don’t know; let’s wait and find out. Nothing is gained and much is potentially lost if rashness born out of disgust rules the day.

What makes this a subject for this blog is our cherished “right” to wield the thumb on such matters. It seems to me that Jesus had something to say about how we judge others. Read carefully here. This is not a statement regarding the rightness or wrongness of any individual’s decisions in this matter. That will be plain enough in due time, just as it is already plain that Sandusky’s actions were reprehensible. We’re aware that they are horribly wrong. But especially when it comes to passing sentence on the other individuals, we need to step back. The university extended to a non-profit organization dedicated to giving assistance to underprivileged kids the use of university facilities. It did not have to do that. Thumbs up. In so doing, it unwittingly gave opportunity for something else to happen; and even after the initial report, access continued for Sandusky. Thumbs way down.

As for Paterno, it is deeply grieving to me that so many people are ready to cast him out with no regard to his service to Penn State on many levels. How many times has he earned an upward thumb? To think that he would be cast out before the facts are all sorted is unconscionable.

But here’s my real point in writing on this subject: why do we insist on wielding the thumb of judgment–not just on what should be done in a specific case, but on the people involved themselves? We are complicated beings, each of us operating with a unique set of circumstances and hurts, successes and failures, holes in our hearts, and wounds in our psyches which will never be apparent to anyone. Even Sandusky. That’s what sin does. It worms in, sets up shop, and explodes into a large mess of collateral damage, never being limited in the scope or extent of its victimizing. Here it may well destroy the work and contributions of several men, tarnish a university, bring to naught a long-standing reputation, and rob many people of their sense of pride and identity in Penn State. And that is all in addition to what takes place in the lives of the boys who were violated in the first place, whose pain we know to be of a sort that tends to foster repeating the same crimes on others later in life. I hate sin. I’m reminded of that in these past days.

I also recognize sin in me, knowing that were things a little different I could easily have become one deserving the hatred of others and the judgment of God. That fact alone is teaching me to put my thumb in my pocket. And pray.

“‘Cuz I Said So”

The recent issue of Philosophy Now is devoted to a debate about morality–not about what constitutes morality, but about whether or not there really is such a thing. The debate, however, has only two sides: those who champion relative morality and those who believe morality itself to be a fiction. The latter group is further divided by its views on whether or not the fiction is useful. Note the clever title for the issue: “W(h)ither Morality?”

There are those of us who might argue that there is indeed an inevitable withering of morality when it is seen to be entirely relative. Yes, we comprehend it only in part and from limited perspectives; but to believe that there exist only the perspectives and nothing behind them is a road to nihilism. If morality is essentially a fiction, much else goes “nighty-night” along with it. Not just “mundane” things such as with whom and when one might have sex, but the very notion of “appropriate” as well. Appropriate to what? Something that is preferred; but why should anything be preferred? Why do we have preferences at all? Preferences seem to me to be inextricably tied to purposes. We prefer what promotes our purposes to those things which destroy them. But purposes themselves are aimed at some ultimate end, even if that end is completely time bound.

What of justice? In a non-moral universe there should be no courts or law enforcement; there should be no accounting to be done by Charlie Sheen, Bernie Madoff, or 9/11 terrorists or Middle East dictators. But such accounting is exactly what everyone demands–not just because they arbitrarily prefer it, but because something very basic to human nature cries out when human dignity (another casualty, I’m afraid) is continually thwarted.

One strongly suspects that such pronouncements as the fictionality of morality can only be posited by tenured ivory tower academics who leave their notions at the office when they go home. It is difficult to imagine that they allow any behavior whatsoever from their children; but to enforce restraint is to shape in a certain direction which is presumably thought to be better than the alternatives. It is even more difficult to imagine them having teenage daughters and not caring about the intentions and attitudes of the young males whose attention has been captured. In either case, as soon as the offspring involved ask the inevitable question of “why?” in response to the parental directives, there is nothing to say except what we’ve all said at some point, knowing it to be inadequate: “because I said so.”

Perhaps more to come on the subject, including a more detailed look at the arguments–or would that not be preferable to the readers? Or maybe I’ll do it just because I said so.