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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making Justice with Business

As a Christian interested in biblical justice there have been times in my life when I have looked askance at my Christian brothers and sisters involved in business and finance. But as a pastor (one who believes justice is part of any Christian vocation) I have been privileged to walk with people who are pursuing a Christian vocation in the world of business and finance. I have been humbled and chastened by the experience, as I have come to realize how self serving my own narrative of vocation can be. As a congregation with a high percentage of professionals and former professionals, those involved in education, healthcare, church service, or other professions, we can be quick to recognize how these can be Christian vocations, and slower to recognize the ways of making a living more foreign to us can be. As we proclaim God's mighty acts as justice maker, let us recognize that all of us are participants in injustice, and all of us can be instruments of God's justice, even as the pitfalls are many.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Defining Success

I am spending time these days watching little league baseball at an instructional level. The idea is to instruct the players, helping them to develop as players and grow in their understanding of the game. In this league, success is not measured by how good the players are,or by wins and losses, but by how much growth the children experience as players. Coaches do not field a team designed to win as much as they seek to give players opportunities to play in a variety of places and roles, teaching along the way.

At the major league level, an environment where some teams have vastly more resources than others, success should be defined by how well teams do with the resources they have. By this measure, the Tampa Bays Rays are highly more successful than the New York Yankees because they win with 15 percent of the resources. Now that is an achievement. That is success.

Is the billionaire who has inherited wealth more successful than the person born in poverty who achieves modest success as a professional? Should teachers be measured by how smart their students are or how much they learn?

People tend to define success in terms of wins and losses, but the biblical mind takes a different view. In the Bible the widow's pittance is a greater gift than the bags of gold of the rich which are but a small portion of their wealth. The most successful nation has no standing army and lives in the shadow of the great empires of the day, but finds its security in God. The seeds of greatness are a people enslaved. The greatest king is a young shepherd boy. The word of God is not found in palaces but on the margins of society. The Lord of all is born low in a manger.

This brings me to my question of interest. How should we define success in the church?  Should it be size? Spectacular facilities? Dazzling programs? Fine preaching? Quality of music? These things are valid measures of success, and it is fine to use such standards to evaluate ourselves. But if we ask ourselves how successful we have been, the more important questions are, have we loved God? Have we practiced mercy? Have done we justice? Have we walked humbly with God?

We are well to remember that Christians have rather unconventional measures of success. We have many markers that identify us as a congregation at CMC, such as church documents and statements, architecture, art or the lack thereof. But my favorite is the signage over the doors entering the sanctuary. Take a look next time you are here.

More on Justice

My former New Testament professor, Willard Swartley, wrote a letter to the Elkhart Truth giving a brief survey of biblical thought on social justice. He was responding to an earlier letter in the Truth arguing that government is stealing from the rich when it institutes a system of progressive taxation.

If the Bible is to believed governments do have a strong redistributionist tendency (my favorite biblical polemic on this is 1 Samuel 8, but scripture is filled with them), but since governments are almost always controlled by the wealthy (there's a big surprise), wealth is redistributed to those who are already wealthy (cf. the description of Jared Diamond's look at the economic development of civilizations as they emerge from hunter-gatherer societies). As Swartley notes, scripture is filled with obstacles to the redistribution of wealth (Chrysostom's rich stealing from the poor), introducing us to a God who, rather than justify the theft by rich from poor as with the pagan gods of ancient times, makes claims on the rich to share, and to remember that their property is not their own, but belongs to God. For the biblical mind, creation is meant to sustain and give joy to all God's creatures, not just a privileged few.

Not surprisingly, again if the Bible is to be believed, we ourselves live in redistributionist times. Democracy only goes so far in restraining this impulse in civilization. It should come as no surprise to us, again, especially those of us who read the Bible, that the increasing influence on money in politics has coincided with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. A hard working so-called unskilled (I say so-called unskilled because I think God finds the notion rather offensive--God does not create unskilled labor) laborer cannot earn a living wage as wealth has been redistributed from labor to capital. Those who make money from money have fared far better over the last 40 years than those who make money from work of hands and mind. The biblically trained mind is very suspicious of this turn of events. The old canard that the poor are lazy is one of many convenient tropes the Bible exposes by which the wealthy justify themselves. Are there lazy poor people? Sure. But I am guessing no more than any other group. The notion that hard work automatically leads to wealth is absurd. The most hard working people I have ever known are among the poorest. I wonder why that is. The Bible has some ideas.

How did we get here? I mean how did we end up with "conservative Bible believing Christians" demonizing the poor, and venerating the wealthy? During the first gilded age, the iconic fundamentalist Christian politician was William Jennings Bryan, railing against the exploitation of the have nots by the haves of industry and Wall Street. During our most recent gilded age, which is still hanging on, the cry of Bryan's constituency is against the injustices inflicted upon the wealthy. How is it that a biblically shaped society can not only ignore the relentless biblical injunctions to care for, and see the image of God in, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the alien, but turn it around and turn these into objects of scorn?

The pagan vital virtues which Nietzsche celebrated, honor, strength, power, pride, ruthlessness, winner-take -all competition, and the like are compelling to human beings. It is no surprise they die hard in the face of the biblical onslaught of mercy, forgiveness, honoring the weak, humility, and sacrificial love. Perhaps it is a resurgence of these values which brings us to this place. I should say that both political parties have led us on the redistributionist path, marching to the drum beat of those paying the hefty bills of politics, and controlling the airwaves.

Capitalism, feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, communism, colonialism, and any other human economic ideology, like all of human culture, is under God's judgment. It is easy to single it out because it is our system. But it has the capacity to enable humans to express goodness and evil. We are wrong either to demonize it or venerate it in black and white fashion, and are wise to address it through the biblical lens with all the subtlety of thought we can muster. The biblical economic models, such as the jubilee system, are impossible to impose on a modern economy. We must work with what we have. But as biblical people, work we must for the just ends which God intends for creation.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Getting into Harvard

It's an election year, and the polls suggest it will be a tossup as to who will be president come next January. But we already know one thing. Barring an untimely death, or a stunning third party surge, we will have a Harvard graduate as president for the next  four years. In fact, President Obama and Governor Romney have three Harvard degrees between them, Romney with two (law and business) and Obama with one (law). This is not news really. Harvard and Yale graduates have monopolized the presidency since 1988. If you are 24, you have yet to see a non Harvard or Yale grad as a president, and we look to take that to 28. By comparison in the 43 years between Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush, only John F. Kennedy had an Ivy League degree, also from Harvard. Harry Truman did not even have a college degree.

Considering the tiny percentage of our population with degrees from one of these two institutions, who can blame parents and students for concluding that the single most statistically significant step you can take on the road to power is an Ivy League education. In a competitive society like ours, the importance of a high class education has not been lost on parents who want their children to succeed, and on children who want to succeed. No one wants to be left out, and no one wants their children to be left out.

Academic success starts young, and getting children into first rate childcare, pre-Kindergarten, and elementary schools has become a contact sport. Entrance into top notch prep schools or magnet high schools is equally competitive. Whole industries have developed around getting kids into the best colleges. Three articles I came across recently have heightened by awareness of this concern.

This article appeared on the front page of the New York Times a week ago Sunday, about students taking prescription drugs to improve school performance as well as test scores. Taking these drugs for purposes not intended is illegal, and also comes with health risks. Stimulants taken by students include Aderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse. A New York psychologist who treats adolescents says of private schools in the area, "It's not as if there is one school where this is the culture. This is the culture." According to a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, "We're seeing it all across the United States."

And why not? The pay off is high. Not getting into a top school leads to a less than satisfying life with potential unfilled. Getting into a top school is the path to a rich, fulfilling and satisfying life. For the same reason incentive is high for a AAA baseball player to take something to push him into a major league caliber player, so it is for children looking to get into top schools.

I read a review of this book on the purpose of a college education. The author is troubled that a college education has become utilitarian, another consumer product which will help the student achieve economic success, getting a good job, making good money. The author makes the point that college used to be about making citizens who contribute to society. The children taking Aderall and their parents seem to be more concerned about preparing students for personal achievement rather than contributing to society.

Finally, this book seems to me to be a variation on the theme. Although the topic of this book is not higher education, it fits the theme of parents spending family resources of time and money to enhance the likelihood of their children's individual achievements.

These things have me in a reflective mood. Why do I want my children to do well in school? Why do I want them to be in challenging classes? Why do I want them to go to a good college? Do well on ISTEPs? SATs? Why is it so important that they learn how to pitch a baseball, how to act, play the piano well? Is it for me? For them? For society? What is the point of a college education? What is the point of raising children at all? What does it mean that some children have access to a good education and some do not? Should I be answering these questions differently as a Christian?

These questions don't have simple answers, but they are important question with which we should be wrestling. How do some of you answer them?
Friday, June 8, 2012
Don Miller just brought me an op-ed piece on preaching from last Friday's Wall Street Journal, which is a nice follow up to my thoughts on relevant preaching. "The hunt for a good sermon" is a quick read, with some great quotes from Eugene Peterson's recent memoir, The Pastor.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Human Rights and Justice Part 2

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights..."

I left out the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the meaning and legitimacy of which, as rights, I might want to debate. But that is not the point of this blog post. The point that interests me here is the the phrase "self-evident." These truths might have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but they were not and are not self-evident to everyone.

(First a couple of asides. The founders of this nation were not necessarily Christian, and Thomas Jefferson, if he was a Christian, was on the edge of Christian faith. Were he with us today, I suspect he, and many of the founders, would be most at home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and hence would find it virtually impossible to be elected to national office. That said, if Wolterstorff is correct (see part 1), the biblical witness had a profound impact on Jefferson's views. Second, Marilynne Robinson writes in the introduction to her collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, that Jefferson's understanding of "all men" is broader than thought, and that an earlier draft of the Declaration contained a polemic against slavery.)

Equality is an elusive word, which is highlighted in Orwell's description of the dystopia Manor Farm, all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others. When does equal mean equal and when does it not? Obviously, we are all different, equal must not mean identical. The Apostle Paul celebrates different but equal gifts, coming from the same source. We all have different needs, although some needs we all have in common. We all need water, but we don't all need combs, for example.

I'm not sure about the Declaration of Independence. It is a political document and it's use of the word equality might be purely political, but in the biblical tradition equality has a moral flavor, not just a political or economic meaning. In biblical thought, people are valued for their status as God's creatures, and, as such all have value. And no one has value greater than can be conferred by the Creator. For most of us this idea is de rigueur. But we are wise to remember that this idea, this biblical notion of equality, has enemies.

I remember doing a social icebreaker once where we were to pretend we were on a life boat on the open sea, and did not have enough provisions for everyone. We were to choose, based on the occupation and skills of each member, who could stay on the boat and who would have to be tossed overboard. The idea is that you keep the skills most useful for survival and get rid of those who contribute less. At a micro level this is what social groupings tend to do. Some are worth more because what they can contribute to the well being and prosperity of society is greater. Human societies choose individuals who contribute to the advancement of the whole over against those who, for whatever reason, are a drag on society, even if through no fault of their own. One could argue that this is only natural, even moral. What right does someone who contributes little or nothing to the prosperity and well being of a society have to make claims on that society for sustenance? If all that matters is the material well being, prosperity or survival of the society as a whole, I would have to say no right at all.

But the Bible confronts the view that human beings are disposable head on. The biblical community, Israel, is to care for those on the margins of society, widows, orphans, strangers, aliens, and the poor. Whether or not they are contributing to the well-being, prosperity, survival, is irrelevant. It is a command, because the people were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord brought them out with a mighty hand. It is a command because God says they are "my" poor. It is a command because the well-being of the people rests not on calculations of worth to society, but on obedience to God. In the biblical view, human worth is not decided in utilitarian terms. But this kind of utilitarianism has a relentless logic, and is a powerful adversary to the idea that each person is of equal worth.

Another enemy to the biblical concept of equality, that is to the idea that each person makes claims on society based only on the fact that each is created by God, is market absolutism. Like the utilitarian adversary, it is popular, and the two sometimes collude. The free market determines who has resources and who does not in the most ruthless of fashions. If you do not have skills the market deems worthwhile, and you find yourself destitute, then you need to get those skills. If you do not have the ability to get those skills, that's tough. When we consider disparities generated by the market that seem unfair, such as the disparity in pay between a day care teacher and a professional athlete, we shrug and say the market giveth and the market taketh away, blessed be the Market. The Market is ascribed in our society with moral authority, and in many ways it has been the source of much prosperity for many of us, certainly for our society as a whole. But inevitably, the market leaves many behind.

Jared Diamond writes in his widely read short history of the world, Guns, Germs and Steel, that agricultural development and political sophistication in societies went hand in hand. In an earlier blog I wrote about a Mamanwa community in northeastern Mindanao in the Philippines. This community was pre-agrarian, and through the efforts of my co-workers they learned to farm rice, and ended up with a bountiful harvest. Abundance was found in the natural world (before the forest had been destroyed), no one owned it. But now they had to figure out what to do with all this rice, a new kind of abundance. Their friends and family from other Mamanwa communities came to visit, and soon the rice was gone, and the people were hungry. This community simply did not have the cultural, political or economic capacity to deal with a harvest. According to Diamond, as societies made the jump from hunting and gathering to farming, they learned to defend food from enemies, develop specialized skills for growing, storing and defending, and looked to political hierarchies to distribute food and manage an increasingly complex society. Overtime, those at the top became wealthy and powerful, owning the land, while those who worked the land, remained poor, unless they had skills required by the elite. Religious systems developed to legitimize these hierarchies as the only solution to the threat of scarcity, of not having enough.

However one explains the emergence of the Hebrew people in the Levant, it is they who offer the first organized resistance to civilization as it had been known. Central to this resistance, and impossible to imagine without it, was a belief in one God who made heaven and earth, created human beings in the divine image, and who believed even the most marginalized member of society had legitimate claims for care and support. The success or failure of this new community depended on obedience to a law given by the one God. Central to this law was a system for how to handle wealth, which through most of history has been in the form of land. The Jubilee system ensured that no one would be alienated from the land in perpetuity, eventually the land would be returned to its original family. On the flip side, the Jubilee system also ensured that no single person or group of people would hold too much land. The land was God's, and was to be used to meet the needs of all the people.

The point here is that values we cherish, such as forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and justice, have enemies. These truths are not self evident. Marilynne Robinson believes these enemies are ascendant in western culture as what she calls Darwinian and Nietzschean values of competition and survival trump the biblical values, the burdens of which western society has grown weary. Robinson is wonderfully creative and thoughtful on these matters, recognizing that many Christians (what Robinson calls the Manichean Right) have absorbed the anti Christian values of competition and survival and given them Christian form. The biblical revolution which transformed western society from a setting where compassion for the marginalized was seen as moral failure to one where compassion for the marginalized was seen as a moral requirement, is coming undone.

Robinson points out that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, wrote, with Malthusian concern, that, "It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed." In other words, compassion for the weak and vulnerable does damage to the species as a whole. Whether this holds up scientifically and whether this fairly reflects Darwin's thought is not the point here. The point is there is a logic to this, which goes back in time long before Darwin, and which was the norm in the West before the biblical revolution, whose hold on us has perhaps always been tenuous. Robinson suggests we do not have to look hard to see this logic at work in our political and social discourse, and especially in economic doctrine. The Death of Adam was written in 1996, and mostly the trends she identifies in this line have accelerated.

Today we see the poor and marginalized demonized for dragging us down, and the rich venerated for creating jobs and making a better society. The political-economic ideas of the Nietzschean/Darwinian, Ayn Rand are wildly popular, sales of her best known book, Atlas Shrugged, are booming, more than fifty years after its original publication. The ideas represented in this line of thought are powerful and compelling. I agree with Robinson that secular thought,either in science or philosophy, has nothing with which to combat them. It is critical at this time that Christians embrace our tradition and root ourselves deeply in faith in the God of the Bible who made all of us in the divine image, and who demands that we treat each other with respect and decency, politically, economically, and socially, simply because of this one glorious fact.