About Me


Powered by Blogger.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thank you Katherine Boo!

I gave up many years ago trying to describe the experience of living in the middle of grinding and profound poverty in the Philippines. An experience which continues to shape my life and worldview seems so alien in the context of privilege in which I have lived most of my life. So I am heartened by Katherine Boo's new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo chronicles life in a Mumbai slum in agonizingly blunt and matter of fact language, with little or no commentary. She gives us the experience of living there, witnessing life as much of the world lives it. It's the closest thing I have experienced in the way of media which leaves me feeling like I felt after my years in the Philippines. The Goshen Public Library copy will be returned today!
Friday, May 11, 2012

Hooray for irrelevance!

I recently read in a magazine article a suggestion that an important part of preaching is making it relevant to the congregation. Such suggestions irk me, and I can't let this one pass without comment. It is not the gospel that is irrelevant and our lives that are, but the other way around. The gospel is truly relevant, and our lives are mostly irrelevant. It is the task of preaching, and of Christian proclamation in general, to make our lives relevant to the gospel. A focus on relevance reflects how easily we are seduced by the consumerism and narcissism of our culture, turning the gospel preaching into glorified advice columns. Advice is plentiful and cheap, and can be found almost anywhere, and often it is pretty good advice. The good news about Jesus on the other hand is found in few places, and is more precious than the finest jewel.Of course Christians have always sought to communicate the gospel effectively to those for whom it is strange, inviting them into the gospels relevance. But the distinction between these two is important.

The Biblical Roots of Human Rights, Part 1

It has been one month since my last post. It has been a busy month for me, but I have not forgotten Pastor's Puddle. I have been reading in preparation for this post on a topic that has long been of interest to me. The topic is the origins of the concept of human rights in the Western tradition, which I have come to believe comes into our political, cultural and social life from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. My most recent reading in this area has been Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Wolterstorff is a philosopher at Yale University, and writes from a Reformed perspective.

Wolterstorff includes this quote from St. John Chrysostom's preaching as an example of early (4th century) Christian understandings of human rights. It is lengthy, but worth your time.

"'...this is also theft, not to share one's possessions.' Perhaps this statement seems surprising to you, but do not be surprised. I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of other's goods but also the failure to share one's own goods is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, 'The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.' Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, 'Deprive not the poor of his living.' To deprive is to take what belongs to another, for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others... Just as an official of the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants. Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others...

The poor man has but on plea, his want and standing in need; do not require anything else from him; but if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger... The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity; a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck; and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into its own shelter. So you likewise, when you see on earth them man who encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune...

Need alone is this poor man's worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further. We do not provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy on him not because of his misfortune... I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.

Wolterstorff sees in Chrysostom a biblical argument for the inherent rights of all human beings. According to this sermon, anyone, simply by virtue of being human is entitled to the things that make for life, and to have the means to offer these to someone and withhold them is a form of theft.

Wolterstorff's writing is dense, lucid at times, and quite technical at others. I am able to follow theological and biblical arguments without too much trouble, but when he gets into dense specialized philosophical writing, reading becomes a slog for me. I have no hope of giving a summary of Wolterstorff, but I can share some highlights.

Wolterstorff believes that rights language, thinking, and practice, come into Western culture through the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Regarding non-Christian cultures he is an agnostic, claiming no expertise to judge whether rights ways of thinking about justice are present. He goes to great lengths to define legitimate rights. His most compelling writing for me is the biblical case for rights thinking. He also spends significant time with Augustine, in particular looking at the movement in his thought from neo-Platonism in the early years after his conversion, to a more embodied understanding of Christian faith. He argues that it is the biblical study that moves Augustine to embrace the worth of embodied human beings, and because of inherent worth, humans have rights to certain goods.

Wolterstorff's case is that it is God who gives human beings worth, by virtue of creating them in the image of God, and by loving them, by having affection for them, confers a status in which they are entitled to certain goods (as in good things), such as the right to fair treatment, the things required to sustain life (food, water, shelter, health care), and the right to be treated with dignity. It is Wolterstorff's contention that human rights language, values and practice can only be sustained through theistic faith, going in depth to look at non-theistic arguments for human rights, and finding them unsustainable. Will the values we cherish have a future without faith in God? Wolterstorff thinks probably not.

It seems to me that Wolterstorff writes for two audiences. One is for those who, from a philosophical or theological standpoint, are disturbed by rights language, seeing it as a product of hyper individualism, and antithetical to Christian thought. Wolterstorff seems most concerned by this group as he makes the case that, not only are human rights biblical, but the biblical witness is their source in our culture. Wolterstorff's other audience is secularists who do not recognize in scripture the extraordinary new understanding of the worth of each human being which he sees. Like the first audience, for the secularists, the narrative of the growing emphasis on human rights in Western thought, is animated by enlightenment philosophy rather than the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Even though Wolterstorff writes from a Reformed theological perspective, I find his work invaluable for Mennonites, who have long recognized the status of all human beings as having worth and dignity in God's eyes, and there fore our own eyes. We can take heart that the values we cherish have deep roots in Christian tradition, and we are sustained, not by our own peculiar goodness, but by God's love for us, and for all people.

This book is not light bedtime reading. But if you want to love God with your mind in this way, you can find the book at the Goshen College library. Summer is coming and the check out time is longer which is good. If you are like me, you will need it. And overdue fines go toward a good cause.