Saturday, February 7, 2009

Public Policy From the Pulpit

Ok, I'm going to talk about something here that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I'm going to talk about it precisely because it makes me uncomfortable, since the the uncomfortability is itself an interesting phenomenon.

My church--which, don't get me wrong, is an excellent one, and is led by some people who take their roles as Shepherds of the Flock very seriously--is having a big push right now along the lines of what could be called "social justice". Now, I hate the term "social justice", because of the way it has been captured and utilized by the political Left to mean all of: A) Redistributive tax and spend policy, B) Lax law enforcement, C) Stigmatization of business and wealth-producing activities, and D) Lack of economic freedoms.

But the point that our preacher has been making, and it is a valid one, is this: when Jesus actually walked the earth, proclaiming the Good News about God's forgiveness and exhorting his followers to live holy lives, many, many of his commands had to do with taking care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the prisoners. The old cliche about Jesus attempting to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" is a true one, and comes through particularly strongly in the book of Luke, which we're now studying. The entire book is filled with teachings like:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh...

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep...
Throughout the book, poverty is associated with goodness, and wealth is associated with sinfulness. And this association, very explicit in the book of Luke, has become part of the worldview of Christianity ever since. Sure, there have been some very rich and powerful Christians, and the Church has for much of the last two thousand years been a very influential, powerful, and rich institution. (I've seen many of the great Cathedrals of Europe with my own eyes, including the Sistine Chapel with its magnificent ceiling. You don't build any of that stuff unless you have some buku bucks floating around.) And yet the association of poverty and weakness with virtue still remained. Priests, monks, and nuns still took vows of poverty; and even today, there's something unseemly about the very concept of a wealthy evangelist.

As a personal note, this aspect of Christianity shows up in my own name. The surname "Power" is an Irish name of Anglo-Norman origin, originally spelled "Poer" or "Paor", and actually means "poor"--as a mark of virtue, as in "poor in spirit".

And yet, there's still a tension within Christianity. There are many, many scriptures throughout the Bible, both Old Testament (book of Proverbs in particular) and New Testament (book of Luke) that talk about money, and talk about the work--the industriousness--that creates the wealth. If one makes a good-faith attempt to live one's life and manage one's affairs according to what the Bible teaches, one will become industrious, not a sluggard; one will attempt to redeem the time we have been given by God, by not wasting it, but using it for productive purposes; one will avoid debt; one will avoid schemes for dishonest gain; one will be slow to expend money on non-necessities, but generous when it comes to caring for the poor and donating to worthy causes. One will manage his finances with the idea that everything he has is actually God's, with him being a mere steward.

The funny thing about this Biblical view of money management--and the source of the tension I mention above--is that this kind of lifestyle tends to improve the physical well-being of both the person who engages in it, and of everyone else around him. America is a wealthy nation for many reasons, but one big one is the fact that so many of our ancestors--especially the Puritans--brought with them what has been termed the Protestant Work Ethic, which includes the idea that all our labor is done for the Glory of God, and the idea that we must redeem all the time he gives us. An entire society of people who live like that do tend to become materially prosperous. Now, this isn't necessarily the intention of the Biblical concept of money management, and one can point to plenty of counterexamples--cases where acceptance of Christ led otherwise wealthy people into a life of poverty and persecution. I'm certainly no fan of the so-called "health and wealth" Gospel, the idea that God Wants Me To Be Wealthy. God may call me some day to suffer and die for the faith, as Christ did. And Christ was by no means wealthy himself. Still, this doesn't eliminate the fact that when ordinary people order their affairs along Judeo-Christian principles, they tend to start doing the kinds of things that build prosperity....

...Whereupon Christ tells us, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry."

So: if you do everything right, if work hard, if you limit your consumption and save what you make for the hard times ahead, if you avoid "get-rich-quick" schemes and invest wisely, as the first two stewards in the Parable of the Talents did, then... you become prosperous, and receive warnings that you have already received your reward, and will someday be hungry. Woe unto you.

Rather harsh, no? Of course, I think there's a reason Christ gives this warning. There are temptations that attack the pride of those of us who do everything right, precisely because we did everything right. Hey, I did everything right! I made the sacrifices, and did the work, and now I'm just enjoying the fruits of my labor. This stuff is mine, I tell you; I earned it.


But aside from the fact that I haven't quite squared this circle in my head yet (and if you have, please explain in the comments), there's something else that makes me a little uncomfortable about our church's current focus.

There are many temptations that can affect an entire church. One of these temptations, which seems to be pretty common in the modern Western world, is to start to focus so heavily on "social issues" that the spiritual teachings become neglected. It is certainly true that Christ had a tremendous care for the poor, and he intended us to do something about this.

But Christ--and later, the apostles--gave many other commands to us, as well. We are to be holy in our actions, in our thoughts and deeds. We are to carry ourselves as Children of God, and that involves keeping a close eye on our personal lives, and our personal ethics, and our relationships. We need to work to live upright, ethical, righteous lives.

Additionally, Christ gave us the mission to bring other people to Him. One of the hardest teachings in the Bible is summed in Christ's words, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." That puts a tremendous duty on us Christians.

Now, it's pretty obvious that these three aspects of the Christian mission--the concern for social issues and the poor, the concern for our own holiness, and the desire to lead others to Christ, are entirely compatible with each other, and indeed work best together. And yet--here's the source of my discomfort--in modern churches, for more than the last century and a half, there's been an increasing tendency to focus on the first of these missions, and to downplay or even ignore the other two.

Most of the so-called Mainstream Protestant denominations have gone down that road. They are increasingly all about caring for the poor, and cleaning up the neighborhoods, and Building a Better Society; but their focus on the other two missions--especially the outreach to "the lost"--has been waning. There's a sense that the mainstream Protestant denominations--the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and even some of the Quaker congregations--have been moving this direction for some time. I've read on several Catholic blogs that there are tendencies like that in various Roman Catholic dioceses as well--which, generally, the bloggers in question aren't particularly happy about.

What you wind up with when this happens is a Church that has become little more than a social activist organization with a vaguely spiritual focus. And the key word there is "vaguely"; often times the doctrines of these churches start to atrophy; the idea seems to be that if you care for your neighbor enough, God is all right with you. The doctrine of sin, that we were doomed to hell without the salvation Christ provided, often weakens over time as a denomination goes down this road. The doctrine of Christ being The Way similarly weakens. Ethical teachings become watered down; the congregants are no longer taught to be holy because Christ is holy, or that they are to be dead to sin.

The funny thing about this is that churches that go this route eventually have this way of dying out. Once the doctrine is gone, once the teachings on sin and salvation and all that other religious stuff has been shunted aside as not relevant in the modern world, once the church becomes primarily an activist organization, well... its reason for existing has gone away, too. The church by this point has abandoned the only one task that it, and it alone, can do properly. There are plenty of other politically activist organizations out there that don't ask you to sit in the pews every Sunday while they preach at you; if all you're interested in is achieving Social Justice through the political process, then these other non-religious organizations are much more focused on-task.

And the so-called "Mainstream Protestant" denominations today are a fraction of the size that they were just a few decades ago. Meanwhile the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists--which have retained the doctrines of sin and salvation, and the idea that we have a personal duty to live holy lives in accordance with the will of God, have been growing by leaps and bounds.

So with all this said, when the preacher at my church stands up and says, "We need to begin focusing more on issues of Social Justice, like Jesus did..." well, I must confess that the alarm bells start to go off in my head. This is how it all begins, I say in my rather suspicious heart of hearts....

And to make it worse, our preacher--who is a very wise man, I should add, and who is a keen observer of our culture and of human nature--will occasionally say things about economics or politics that just stick in my craw. During this series of lessons on Luke for example, on numerous occasions he has thrown comments into his sermons on how our capitalist system is oppressing the poor, in ways that Jesus would immediately condemn if he were here. (Note, he throws these comments in tangentially--they aren't the core of his lessons, which tend to be very good).

Now, I have no doubt that Jesus would have harsh words for many of us were he to come walk among us again today; and he might even say that we are oppressing the poor through the way we act and the way we handle our money. But I doubt he would condemn the economic system we use; he would condemn what's in our hearts. The thing about the free market, is that--precisely because it is free--it does what we, through our free choice, cause it to do. If we behave wisely and compassionately, this fact will be reflected in market conditions. If we behave in greedy and untrustworthy ways, this fact will be reflected in market conditions as well. So when there are poor people living in a free market system, it is almost always because of the decisions that someone--they, or someone else--has freely made. And it is these decisions, that we freely make based on what's in our hearts, that Jesus would (if necessary) condemn.

And even when the economic system was oppressive--and remember, Jesus and the apostles lived under an empire that had widespread slavery--they didn't actually come out and denounce the system. The apostle Paul told the slaves to obey their masters as though they were obeying God. And he told the slave owners to treat their slaves fairly, not harshly, remembering that they have a heavenly Master to whom they must answer. In fact, one of Paul's letters, which became the New Testament book of Philemon, was a note to a Christian slave owner on how to treat one of his slaves who had run away, converted to Christianity, and then decided to return.

Note that there was no explicit denunciation of the economic system, even though pretty much everyone can agree that it was oppressive by any rational measure. Jesus and the apostles were interested in what went on in our hearts, and in the actions that flowed from them.

But when you declare that "the capitalist system is oppressing the poor", it suggests that the way to fix such a problem is to scrap the "capitalist system" and replace it with some other kind of system. The trouble here is that this does absolutely nothing about what's in our hearts; all it does, is it replaces one set of economic regulations with another, and puts a different set of people in charge. And there's absolutely no guarantee that the new system will be any better at fixing people's hearts and minds than the one you scrapped. That's not what economic systems are designed to do!

At least in a free market, if you want to be successful you have to meet other people's needs in some way, so that they freely decide to give you their business. Under a more socialistic system, all you have to do to be "successful" is to get the right regulator or legislator to like you enough, regardless of whether you're producing anything of value. There is nothing inherently more moral about the latter system than the former. Morality is something that stems from our hearts and our actions, not the kind of "system" we belong to.


So, I've been a little uncomfortable lately during sermon and class time at church. Some of this is because we are genuinely covering challenging material, and Jesus' words were intended to "afflict the comfortable". And part of it is that the subject matter is almost inevitably dipping into matters of politics and economics, and I'm not so sure that the political and economic prescriptions I'm hearing are actually good ones. Too many churches have gotten sidetracked by going down that road, to the point where they start debating what industries and countries they can and cannot invest their pension funds in--while their pews become progressively emptier and emptier.

Of course, I need to say outright that I know our preacher and our church leadership well enough to be confident they aren't trying to de-emphasize the other parts of our mission. They are definitely attempting to present the Social Justice part of the Gospel in the context of holy living before God, and in the context of our commission to reach out to those who aren't yet saved.

Still, I rather find myself wishing that our brief, occasional Sunday-morning forays into economics and politics weren't actually happening. With the way politics and the economy have been going lately, I would that our church was actually more of a sanctuary from politics and economics....


Tonya Power said...

You know, I consider that kind of discomfort to be useful. It gets you thinking about why you are uncomfortable. Once you are doing that, you can figure out what the issues are and come to some conclusions about what these uncomfortable things mean to you and how you need to react to them.

Our society is obsessed with politics and economics right now, so it makes sense that it is being addressed in the churches. One of my pet peeves is how little Christians evaluate how they are influenced by their culture. I consider such challenging talk refreshing. I would probably tackle several more sacred cows that would make even our preacher a little uncomfortable. I would want to point out assumptions that our society makes, and that most Christians go along with, without so much as a thought.

However, I have decided that straight out denunciation of these things by me would not change peoples views except to make them think that I'm an extremist in my views. I have noticed more receptivity to my views if I don't make a big deal but speak matter of factly about my choices in my life, based on my convictions. I still get disbelieving stares. But, at least I gave them some food for thought, that might make a difference down the road.

Politics and Economics are hot issues for you. They are less so for me. I recommend dealing with the uncomfortable feeling in productive ways. Such as in honing your understanding of the issues, so that you can express your views logically, thoroughly, and eloquently. That way, you might win some people over to your way of thinking.

Arby said...

Share your thoughts with your pastor.

Roger Z said...

People are strangely happy with biting the hand that feeds them. I think when people criticize capitalism, there's an unrealized assumption in their critique that we were either a) generally better off before free markets came to be or b) would be better off if they went away. There's no evidence for either- name one economic system that has produced more widely-shared wealth than capitalism. There isn't. Morever, I don't think people realize the relationship between free markets and other freedoms that we cherish, such as freedom of speech and religion. These are not separable. Totalitarians understand that. We take too much of our freedom (and wealth) here for granted to understand it ourselves.

Anyway, I don't recall Jesus ripping on Rome very often. Quite the opposite, actually. Generally He seemed to leave political systems alone. His was an internal revolution- both spiritually (for His followers) and religiously.

Consider also: economic growth at the time was an almost unheard-of concept. Wealth was perceived as a zero-sum game. Thus, the more you had, the less I had, and if you hoarded I suffered. Jesus certainly didn't preach against "economic activism," as Michael Novak calls it, consider the story of the talents.

My own rather pitiful attempt to square the two thoughts that you pointed out is as follows: consider why you seek increased wealth in life. Is it for you? Is it for others? A wealth turned inward is a "hoarded" wealth, a wealth turned outward is instead offering ones "talents" to the world. If your creation of prosperity is done through just that- creation- and if that in turn is directed toward improving the well-being of others, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with becoming wealthier.

That said, good luck with ever having pure motives in the endeavor. :) Building wealth becomes consuming- if you don't believe me, think of how much you've probably sweated in the latest financial crisis! (admit it, we all have here and there) Hence the need for constant prayer and a certain degree of aloofness, detachment from worldly belongings (even as we seek to grow them).

Anonymous said...

Eccl 7:12
For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.

Here it is acknowledged that money is a protection, although far inferior to that of wisdom which gives eternal life.

1 Tim 6:10
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, in their eagerness to get rich, have wandered away from the faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.

And here, we are told that it's not money itself that is the problem but the LOVE of money.

It all comes down to what money means to each person. It can be very dangerous in that it easily inures us from much of the suffering man experiences, making us less focused on the need for salvation. I suspect it's one of those insidious evils that sneaks up on a person, hence all the warnings. However, riches themselves are not inherently evil.

Amy K.

B. Durbin said...

My parents are having this problem with a priest whom they like very much but who is all but outright stumping for "social justice" causes. The unfortunate part is that they had a priest they liked very much; he was accused, put on leave, and eventually left the priesthood even though the allegations were disproven (because in some people's minds, accusation=fact and he would be unable to minister in such an atmosphere.) This is the replacement priest, someone who was an assistant many years ago.

Anyway, I appreciate the sermons of the priest at my church because he doesn't stump his favorite causes but ties the readings into a way to examine the self. He's very good at showing how each Gospel applies to us directly and is more than a history lesson. And I think that as our culture is not conducive to self-examination, it's good to get jerked out of our mental ruts from time to time.

Crimson Wife said...

I heard a great sermon one time by a visiting priest who preached on Luke 18:25, "For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

It turns out that the "eye of a needle" was the name of a low gate in Jerusalem. To get through this gate, the camel had to be unloaded of what it was carrying and bow down. So it's not that it's impossible for the wealthy to enter Heaven- they just need to unload themselves and bow down before God.

I can't speak for the bishops, but Pope John Paul II at least placed great emphasis on both evangelism *AND* helping the needy.

Anonymous said...

As far as social justice goes, I think it would be instructive for one to go through the gospels and see what percentage of Jesus' time was spent teaching and preaching about his Father and the kingdom, and what percentage was spent resurrecting, healing and feeding. That sounds like a project you could sink your teeth into.

Amy K.

Goldman said...

Tim, as usual, I absolutely love your mind and articulation! For those reading who don't know me, this is Goldman...Tim's preacher.

Luke's record makes me as uncomfortable as it does you and the issues of social justice stretch me way beyond my comfort zone. That said, Tim is really articulating a thought that sticks in the back of my mind weekly as I prepare this series of lessons.

Christians applying the teachings and life of Christ have an individual responsibility to stand on the side of justice (not necessarily the law) and people who need it. We are never called to overthrow the system, but to work within it for the good of those we come in contact with.

My recent educational opportunities have included a week spent with African-American ministers and the reading of, "Same Kind of Different As Me" that have helped me see how oppressive not only our system is to certain groups of people in America, but also how it protects individuals who use the system to protect oppressive behaviors. Jesus chimes in on this and it disturbs me.

That said, my main concern isn't even for oppressed Americans as much as it is for oppressed people around the world (some who are unable to get out from under poverty as a result of economic policies contributed to by our government). I have for most of my life turned a blind eye to those policies until my daughter confronted me with them via her educational experiences at Pepperdine University. It's challenging.

All this to say, I think it's good for us to be uncomfortable and to talk about it openly. As a church organization, though, we aren't going to follow the model of becoming a Christian welfare organization in exchange for sharing the doctrinal truths of the gospels and scripture.

This is one point I've made vocally and gladly make it in writing on this fabulous blog: When the church becomes singularly focused on social justice, it ceases to be the church of Christ and becomes part of the greater welfare state. That is not our call from Christ.

Well, thanks for the invite to the blog...I'll be back. This kind of input is both intelligent and helpful (unlike the occasional thought criticism public speakers primarily get).

God bless and let's keep struggling together. Through struggle, we will become stronger.

In Him,

Timothy Power said...

Hey Chris, thanks for dropping by, and for enduring my gentle poke in the ribs with such good humor.

I'm totally with you on the point that we, as American Christians, need to be thinking about what our economy is doing to others around the world; and if we as a country truly are doing things that are hurting the poor in other countries, we need to use what resources we have to fix the problem.

The trouble is, economics is a very complicated subject, and not a whole lot of us understand it very well. I thought I did, and then Roger Z showed up and started explaining things to me.... :-)

Very often in economics--as in any other area of life--the thing that is best for us in the long term is downright painful in the short term. I've written on this before--specifically, how productivity increases eventually increase the wealth of a society, but have a way of putting a lot of people out of work in the short term. And often our attempts to use policy to alleviate the suffering in the short term, wind up causing more damage than they solve over the long term.

The danger that churches have is that there is a tendency to go beyond "we need to care for the poor", to "we need to promote policy changes that will alleviate the poverty", without a thorough understanding of what's happening, or what the full ramifications of such policy changes might be. And things that feel good, and sound good, can in fact be disastrous.

For one concrete example, I happen to think one reason Africa is in such a mess today is that good-hearted Western politicians have been showering foreign aid on African countries, which the leaders of these spread around in ways to buy political support, instead of using it to build economic infrastructure. The people remain poor, their corrupt leaders remain in power, and the Western politicians get to feel good about how they are "helping". I suspect the African nations would be much better served if the West would cut off the foreign aid--but would instead eliminate our import tariffs (especially on agricultural products). Of course, Western politicians are loathe to do that, because it means the farmers among their own constituency would have more competition....

As I said, I'm perfectly on board with the idea of Christians consulting their values when they decide what policies they will support when they put on their "American Voter" hats. And I'm all for us taking the time to learn about how our actions are affecting others. The trouble is, if someone is going to talk about this stuff in Church, they had better understand the stuff inside and out. After all, the credibility of the Church is on the line, at least in the minds of our listeners. And as I said in my posts, politics (and economics) can be really, really divisive topics--and in a Church, that's bad.

Anyway, this is just my take on things. Thanks again for dropping in. I do appreciate the work you do for us, and I enjoy your teaching.

And I shudder to think how what I say here is going to wind up in your sermons....

P&R said...

I think you get at the point best when you note that neither Jesus nor the apostles addressed the system as such. The kingdoms of this world and their systems were, frankly, irrelevant to them.

So, when it comes to the question of "social justice", the Bible is silent. When it comes to the question of what you as an individual or we as a Church should do, it speaks plainly. Often it boils down to stewardship. If you don't work, you don't eat. Work, rather than steal, so you may be able to give to those in need. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Protect the widow and the fatherless - those who have no place in the "system" of this world. Manage the talents and resources God has entrusted to you for his honor and glory. If God should entrust more money to another, what is that to you? Whether you worked the whole day or part of it, if God gives you the same, are not all things God's to distribute as he chooses? Yet respect the system of this world - pay your taxes, honor the king, pray for those who persecute you.

No where in any of this does the Bible require government action. Even in the Old Testament, where rules were set up for cities of refuge and such like, government was familial and personal in nature and the instructions are to specific people in specific roles rather than government as such. It's much like Jesus' answer to the soldiers who asked how they should serve. They are not told to give up soldiering. They are told to act justly and not loot or rob by false accusation. That's it. There is nothing in Luke - or any other Gospel - that tells us what our government or economic systems should look like. But there is plenty that tells us how we can be Christians in whatever government or economic system exists.

I think it is particularly important for us in this time to be careful in regards the State. The idolatry of the State is, in my opinion, one of the chief sins besetting the West in the years since the French Revolution. The Church should not aid and abet that sin.