Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.

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We are not the New Testament church, and we aren’t supposed to be

I’ve been awol from the blog this past month, moving house, celebrating the holidays with a huge swath of family, and hunting deer (thank you, my sons, for killing four – the freezer is full!) Now I’m back. Let’s talk theology.

Our job is not to re-create the New Testament church. To do so would be to attempt to recreate the Hellentistic Jewish or Greco-Roman culture of first century Palestine/ Eurasia… which is precisely what the New Testament church chose NOT to do. James’ leadership to the Jerusalem church regarding the cultural practices of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem was precisely not “recreate us” – it was to allow the Gentile churches to evolve within their cultures, not try to recreate the culture of the Jerusalem church.

So when folks often crank up conversations about whether or not a church practice is “biblical,” what you often find when you peel back the layers, is that they are actually talking about if the NT church actually practiced this or that. That’s utterly beside the point. Of course they didn’t drink coffee in foyers – they had neither coffee nor foyers, (but as soon as Christians discovered both, they latched on!) – they were busy eating communal meals in each others’ homes and selling their landed property to provide for the poor.

Their era was not our era, their context was not our context, their issues were not our issues. (Few people in North America are wondering if they should participate in ancestor worship or give homage sacrifice to the Emperor or figure out the relationship of Christian slaves to Christian masters who worship side by side as brothers in Christ). Their practices were a reflection of the era they lived in. Our task is not to recreate a theme park of first century Jewish or Galatian (et al) religious practices that Christians utilized. These were all drenched in their own culture’s practices so as to make sense of their worship of God.

So one church gets accused of not being Bible-believing for not using the term “born again” while another gets accused because they don’t speak in tongues meanwhile the other church is accused of because they do speak in tongues, while another is on the hook because they ordain women. This is all beside the point. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a church that was literally not Bible-believing. (It almost always translates that the other church doesn’t place as much directive value on, or interpret that particular VERSE, the way my church does!) It’s that we have different cultural practices in our worship, just like Ephesus differed from Antioch. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the diversity is good – it allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to choose a church that makes sense to them and nurtures their relationship with God. The Jerusalem elders’ letter to the Gentile churches in Acts is clear: we do not need to all practice church culturally the same.

What matters is that our practices –and God help us: our mission! – are theologically in tune with Jesus. You can do that a zillion different ways (and Christians do, all around the world) and the issue is not whether you light candles when you do it, for goodness sake. Whether it’s a “biblical” practice or not is NOT the question (the New Testament didn’t sacrifice bulls on altars anymore – a quintessential “biblical” practice!) The question is: is this practice utilized in such a way to bring glory to God, to advance His work in the world, to carry on the mission of Jesus in ways that God’s Spirit works through. To make it about whether a particular practice has historical or Scriptural precedent, is simply to fall into the argument going on within fundamentalist Islam today. And that’s not our schtick.

Ours… is (faith, hope, and) love.

N.T. Wright on Mark 4:26-34

World renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright makes the following comments on Jesus’ seed parables in Mark 4.

“When you audition for a choir, often the conductor will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. Here is a chord of three, four or five notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, and sing each in turn? It’s often quite a test.

We can all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that produces a big bush. But can you see the individual notes that go to make up these chords?

Answer: the seed is laid in the earth and then arises. The word for ‘get up’ is one of the regular words for the resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, wasn’t about how individuals would find ‘life after death’. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.

Jesus asks: What shall we say God’s kingdom is like? What picture shall we give of it? In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asks a very similar question about God himself: To what will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him (Isaiah 40.18)? It’s not just an accidental echo. The passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation.

…the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel and Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it (Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21). Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world. Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord and at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a very different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers, kingdom-explainers, in our own day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, and perhaps even into joining in the song?”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pgs. 47- 50). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.

If Climate Change is Natural, Does that Change Anything?

It never ceases to amaze me that two radio entertainers have convinced a majority of Americans that Global Warming is a hoax, although it happens to be a hoax that nearly every government on planet Earth believes is true, and is working to address. The immense confidence my fellow citizens have in these two entertainers is astounding. For sure, they are talented.

However, there is now another tagline alongside the hoax argument, and that is that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and so our use of fossil fuels (57% of the carbon dioxide released currently) shouldn’t matter. (What we do and don’t know about climate change is summarized pretty handily in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772 ).

So let’s consider the “it’s only natural” argument for a moment. First, certainly that is in part true. We know, from analyzing a variety of materials, that Earth’s climate has been both hotter and colder in the past. The polar caps on Mars were melting/shrinking/subliming the last few years, and of course my Chevy Silverado’s engine didn’t cause that.

However, it is also certain that we are releasing unprecedented amounts of CO2 in the last hundred years, and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. No one wanting to be serious should argue that increased greenhouse gas doesn’t contribute to the rise in temperature.

But if the temperature is climbing anyway (increased sun output, etc), should we bother trimming back on our contribution? Let’s think about that.

When it gets colder outside, I put additional wood on the fire. I mulch the flower beds deeper, wear an additional layer, and maybe add a layer of insulation to the attic. When there’s a drought in the summer I don’t water the lawn, and pay extra attention to when I water the garden. When the average frost line dips south, farmers look to more cold-resistant strains of grain. (At the moment, world governments are looking at heat resistant strains, and planting further north). In short, we make adjustments to our life due to climate all the time. Even when the changes are natural.

So, if climate changes are largely natural, should we do anything with our lifestyles? Several questions arise for North Americans, even if you leave out moral questions about how our decisions affect Fiji, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. First, do you like Florida? Because if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes off the landmass and into the water, Florida will no longer be above water. Goodbye. And one of our problems is that we simply don’t know when the tipping point in that slide is reached, so it’s hard to know if we are very close to danger in that area, or not. How about East Coast cities? Have you watched the news on this? The numbers of East Coast cities dealing with tidal flooding and writing up emergency plans for such is growing monthly. These are cities that never dealt with tidal floods in the past. Or consider the wheat belt in Kansas, et al. There is extreme concern of catastrophic crop failure due to a spike in temperatures. Your croissants are going to get very expensive. So expensive, that Bill Gates has already funded the 30 kilometer high balloon-lifted hose that would spray silicates into the high atmosphere to shield us from sunlight. It’s the most popular of the ‘geo-engineering’ projects being debated by world governments as we speak. Sound like science fiction? The money has already been spent. Governments have been discussing it in deadly earnest for some time now. Do you like coral reefs and seafood? Because industrial acidification is killing off the coral reefs, and we know this for a fact.

As a Christian who believes in the stewardship God placed us in over His world, I believe we should be a serious and thoughtful voice at the table these days as we try to figure out an appropriate response to climate change. My brother-in-law in Kentucky, a very wise follower of Jesus, said to me not long ago when I asked his opinion on all this, “I’ve always believed you should clean up any mess you’ve made, and avoid making a mess when you do something, if you don’t need to make one.” Good common sense.

So, in a word, here’s what I suggest is worth talking about: even if climate change is purely natural, it is very worth our time thinking together about how to adjust our contribution to it, because our contribution is exacerbating a situation that is already going to make life here more difficult. If I knew fire-danger was at an all-time high one summer, everything dry as a bone, and we had 25 mile an hour winds, I’m not going to burn a brush pile that day.

Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.