Time, Politics and Devotion

For a couple of decades I have felt we were stuck between Statism and Corporatism, both undermine community, family, social connections, and faith activities.

Recently I was listening to a talk given by one of my favorite authors, Peter Kreeft (C.S. Lewis expert among many other things). If you listen to the whole thing, it’s quite obvious it’s pre-9/11, and I would love to hear him talk about what’s changed. (BTW, the Veritas Forum is the best place on-line for free lectures by Christian thinkers.)

So, the talk focuses on two principles: 1) The foundation of society is morality, and 2) the foundation of morality is religion. He talks about the primacy of moral relativism in the three primary “mind-molding” institutions in America: education, entertainment and journalism. He says the abolition of God from society will necessarily lead to the abolition of man (the title of a Lewis book). If a man stands in front of a mirror and then leaves the room, his image goes with him. Man is made in the image of God, so if we abolish Him we commit social suicide, in effect.

Agreed. But what Kreeft does not focus on is that the family is the foundation of society, and is supposed to be the primary mind-molding institution in that society for value formation and transmission.

Deutronomy 6: 4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

What I don’t hear from conservative Christians–who feel they have to side with the GOP to stop Statism, socialism, moral relativism, secular humanism, etc., is the stand against an economy that forces long hours, frequent relocations, two incomes, continual education, and constant communication (blackberries, e-mail, video conferencing, etc.)

Adults have little time for their own Bible reading and prayer, let alone family devotions, and even less for church and community building activities. A retired pastor at our church who services on Council for the Stewardship position has been doing a series this year on stewardship of time. “The Biblical model for time spending,” he writes, “is that the first hour belongs to God.” Jesus practiced this, and it is in keeping with the concept of “first fruits” when giving a tithe.

Yet, the typical work day for many now begins at 7:30 and ends at 5:30 or later, often with at least a 30 minute commute, one way. I have to get up before 6 to get my 1/2 hour, not hour in, and if I take an Ambian, this becomes impossible. I try to do family devotions, but they quickly become inconsistent with the various schedules, often things that have to be done for just a little exercise (tennis), career development (Explorers), or community service (for college applications) or health (orthodontist, doctors.).

I recently had an exchange with a youth advisor and parent of two of our senior high. I had to keep asking her over and over in emails she never replied to if they would be here to help for Roadside Cleanup (our youth sponsor our road with the Adopt-A-Highway program), so I could let the Lutheran Men, who fix us breakfast, know how many. Finally, she replied no. One son had to be up early Friday and the other was going to prom Sat. night, so “image the reaction I got when I told them we needed to be at church at 8 am Saturday morning.”

I replied that I understood; that we are busy, too, but that we have a contract, and I scheduled it 6 weeks in advance. What can we do to get youth here in the future? (My kids often make up 35-60% on any youth activity). Her reply:

These are hard times to be involved . Everyone is so busy, parents and kids a like…Hate to say it but I’d be hard pressed to find someone not stressed out. Hate that, really do cause nothing is much fun anymore. I admit, I’m tired as well as frustrated too. Doesn’t help when parents don’t commit to bringing the kids [huh?!] but the amount of young people in the church says that. That’s extremely sad. Mine don’t go to Sunday school cause it’s the only day of the week we don’t have to rush out the door . We are too scheduled of a society. It will be our down fall I believe. I think that’s why we have such low participation . Everyone is tired of being so busy. I know what you are thinking now….we don’t have our priority in the right place and I whole heartedly agree. Shame…but you know what Bo….Thank God for for you and your family. You guys are such a huge part…with out you guys I’m not sure if we would be as involved.

If they admit their priorities are in the wrong place, and their only reaction to that is a apathetic shrug and a “Shame,” what can you do as a youth leader? This is a member of our Council and a youth advisor.

But the larger issue is how do we as a Church stand both against a society that would tell us there is no higher value than self-fulfillment, no greater truth than our feelings and no authority higher than autonomous Man, and against a system that says one’s employer should get the best of your time, talent, commitment and loyalty and that depends upon cradle to grave formal education (half of Wayne Community is adults trying to get better jobs, secure their jobs or get promotions in their jobs) and non-stop consumption to function?

I actually wrote this months ago and never got around to posting it.  Interesting enough one of today’s featured talks at Veritas is: Can Capital Markets be Moral? The Global Financial System in the Dock

In Essentials

For decades I have heard people use the expression: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I think a common reply to this is that we can never agree as to what is essential and what is non-essential. In fact, most of the time it appears that disagreement about what is essential is the most common source of disunity within the Body, so we debate and debate the particular question at hand.

However, it seems to me as I have been reflecting on this dictum that it channels the discussion into a false framework; well, not so much a false framework as disguising what the problem really is. It would be hard to disagree with this centuries-old formulation, so why so much disunity? I don’t believe it’s because we can’t decide what is essential and what is non-essential; I think it’s precisely because we all agree to an unstated single, core essential I would state as: The only real essential is understanding and obeying the teachings of Jesus Christ in all things.

So, Protestants believe we are saved by faith alone. We believe that is the correct understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ in both proclamation and action regarding salvation. Catholics believe that when James wrote “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” he was expressing a different “correct” understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ regarding the nature of salvation.

Every issue we disagree about from baptism to the ordination of women, from the number of the sacraments to the proper care of the environment, from the exact nature of the inspiration of Scripture to church polity hinges on the desire to correctly understand the teaching of Christ so that we can be obedient to that teaching. Those who believe homosexuals should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teachings about love. Those who don’t believe they should be allowed to marry believe they are obeying a correct understanding of Jesus’s teaching about holiness. Those who think communion should be open to non-believers, those who don’t, and on and on.

Because we are united in our unstated agreement that the only real essential is to be obedient to the teaching of the Living Word we can allow no liberty towards one another because how can one be at liberty to disobey the Lord’s teaching? So the fragmentation of the Church continues apace. “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as one does, he or she looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse. Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: ”Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  ”As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demagoguery are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Colosseum.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.

Not a Christian Nation

I support the National Day of Prayer.  It’s not unconstitutional; there is no imposition; one can pray to Whomever, whomever (only my God gets the capital–that’s how it works on my blog), or whatever they want, or to no one or nothing.  The recent court decision declaring that it violates the Constitution is nonsense, and it will be overturned.  The text of U.S. Public Law 324 clearly states that this is optional: ”The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

However, I do not agree with all the rhetoric in support of it based on the notion that “America is a Christian nation.”  Without a doubt, Judeo-Christian values, history and philosophy have informed, shaped and influenced this nation’s founding, laws and history, profoundly.   Yet, the definition of Christian is grounded in what one believes about the person of Jesus Christ, His death, and His resurrection.

Christianity is not a philosophy, ideology, political theory or worldview.  It can and does guide and shape those things; those things can and do arise and grow naturally out of  Scripture and tradition, of necessity as we strive to honor God with our lives.

Christianity itself, though, is about “Who do you say that [Jesus is]”, and what, precisely are you going to do with that answer? If you believe he is the Messiah, the God-man, the Christ who died for your sins and rose from the dead, and you surrender yourself to His grace and submit yourself to His Lordship in all things, then you can claim the name of Christian.  If you place your country above Him, you have, in fact, made an idol of your nation and violated the First and Second Commandments.

No where in our founding documents is the divinity of Christ, His atoning work on the cross for our sins, or His resurrection from the dead even implied.  They are political documents strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian ethics and values, but they are not Christian in the sense that “The Epistle To Hebrews” is Christian, or even “The Augsburg Confession,” or “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”  All are written affirmations of who Jesus Christ was, His purpose and mission, His call and our response.

If you do not believe what Scripture proclaims and the Spirit confirms about Jesus Christ and answer His call to come to Him, grow in Him and go for Him, then nothing you write, say or do can rightly be characterized as Christian.

Who Would Jesus Deport

Today, the first of May, there were protest all over the country against Arizona’s new immigration law.  One protestor was carrying a sign  “Who Would Jesus Deport?” What if it said “Who Would Jesus Marry?”  (I mean by this not get married to but whose marriage would he preside over.)  Can you image the outrage?

The Left welcome Christian principles and arguments when they support, or they think they can be used to support, the things they agree with like homosexuality, immigration, the environment, and care of the poor.  They don’t seem to have any problem at all suggesting that governments should encode such principles into law.

At a blog I recently stumbled across and really like, the author, Wes Ellis, posted a prayer for humility regarding immigrants.  I liked it, and have no problem praying it in agreement with the him.  However, it implied to me that he thought Christian charity on this point should be the rule of law, so I posted a comment:

Amen, by which I literally mean, I agree and beseech God with you. I do, however, believe there is a distinction between the Church Universal and national policy.

As Christians, the true Jews, the command in Leviticus 19:34 is also commanded of us: “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Likewise Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This is how the Church should act, and pray.

That does not mean God’s left hand, the State, does not have an obligation to protect its citizens or enforce the laws, nor does it mean Biblical commands given to God’s people should be encoded into immigration policy.

To which he replied: “I don’t think God’s left hand would work in opposition to his right…”

This is loaded with all kinds of implications for Church/State relations, most of which the Left would condemn if used to support a conservative viewpoint.  It almost sounds like he supports a theocracy, like Israel was when God gave them the command in Leviticus.  Besides, nothing I wrote even implied that I thought God works at cross-purposes with Himself.

I think that we should be Christ to immigrants, and we should call on our government to create just policies. But those just policies have to take into account justice for the citizen. Forget popular sovereignty; only God is sovereign, and He established the US government (whether they know it or not) to govern US citizens.

Concerning the roles of the State in the Two Kingdoms, Luther argues that government is “First, established [by God] to provide order and maintain the peace. Second, it must wield the sword with justice and according to the statues and laws of the nation.” ((http://www.servetus.org/en/news-events/articulos/ensayo240206.htm“)) No government has ever been the source for God’s redemptive, social transformative work. That’s not its function. That is the task of His Church.

In an interview in 2004, N. T. Wright addressed this kind of thinking:

“I’ve sometimes hypothesized, what if someone were to say to Paul: ‘Well, according to your principle of love, all God’s people should share their possessions with one another. Therefore, some of us in the church think that we should help this process on the way by going into our neighbors’ houses and helping ourselves to whatever we fancy, thus liberating these objects from the spurious idea of possession.’ You can imagine someone might say, ‘Well, some of us believe in theft and others don’t, so let’s not judge one another.'”

As long as we have legitimate laws, the State has to enforce them. As a Christian I will minister to a resident alien, but I will not hire him or help him get here.  I simply do not see how my ministering to anyone obligates me to support a particular governmental policy.  Are we to just open the borders then?

Besides which, Chrisian principles of love and hospitality apply to all Christians in all places at all times.  So, should Christians in Japan, say, try to make the government relax its strict immigration policy?  Are all governments everywhere supposed to encode our beliefs into law?  Even in Iran, say?  Did Jesus intend His commands to His Church to be imposed on all people through the State?  Sure sounds like exactly what the Left is always accusing the Right of wanting.

When I protested his characterization of my comments, Mr Ellis clarified: “If God is in solidarity with the poor and with immigrants, and the government passes a law that is unjust toward immigrants, then God would be ‘cross-purposing’ himself.”

First, God does not stand with the poor and with immigrants, per se, in and of themselves.  He makes it sound as if just by virtue of stepping aross a border, even if done so illegally, even if done so with the intent to commit crimes, that somehow God stands with and for them, collectively, as a group, automatically.

Nor does it follow that because God clearly does have a heart for the outcast, the poor, the sick, the broken, the marginalized and oppressed that anytime a government passes a law that may not be equitable and just He is either working at cross-purposes with Himself or He is not really sovereign over the State.

It’s a flawed conclusion from an equally flawed premise.

Questions: Adam and Eve

In his song “Could it Be,” Michael Card sings:  ”Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?”  I often think so.  So I am starting a new category as a place marker for me to pose questions that I think can lead to interesting reflections.

First up:  What if Adam had told Eve not to eat the fruit and she had anyway?

It might be interesting to speculate on the outcomes, but I think it’s more interesting to speculate on the possibility.  I do not think this would have been possible.  I think in some mystical way that was lost after the Fall Adam and Eve were truly one.    It is important in today’s secular climate for Christians to remember that God instituted marriage before the Fall.

This is one reason why I believe the Catholic rational for marriage as a sacrament is not convincing.  Marriage was instituted before there was a need for sacraments.  All things were sacred.  Though I am Protestant and accept only two sacraments, even if one accepts the other 4 sacraments that Catholics have (not including marriage), I could not see the rational for including marriage.

One could argue that the other six–Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Anointing the Sick and Holy Orders–were instituted  ”by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  I don’t believe but two of them were, but God instituted marriage before there was any need for any “means of grace.”  God designed us for marriage and for families.

Before there was the need for a Savior, before there was a need for the Church, before there was a purpose for sacraments, when God and mankind dwelt in harmony and all things were sacred, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Marriage between a man and a woman was part of God’s original design for creation.  Had there never been a Fall, there would be no Baptism, but marriage would remain.  The most would could argue is that it is an attempted recovery of God’s original plan, but I’m not sure I would find that convincing.

Steyn on Kennedy (or Why I Tend to Be Non-Progressive)

In general I would like to change the overall tenor of my blog away from the more polemical, reflections on the news-of-the-day, culture war sort, but something Mark Steyn recently wrote about Edward Kennedy summed up a lot of things for me.   Steyn is acerbic, clever and hilarious, the closest living writer we have to a Twain (in his journalism and travelogues (not fiction)).  I have debated with myself for years if an H.L. Mencken (whom I love though I don’t share his worldview) style of rhetoric and writing is appropriate for a Christian.  At one time I read a lot about Muggeridge, though I have only dipped into him, and have the sense that he may have pulled it off.

Steyn wrote: “If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular?”  While I really do find that I tend to adopt mediating political and theological positions, though that does not make me a moderate, I am a thorough orthodox Nicene Christian with strongly held beliefs, and though I dislike hubris on either side, I tend to believe political conservatism (for all its faults, failures and excesses) tends to do less harm to humanity.  Basically it’s a slower descent on the road to hell.

Steyn’s quote above nails it for me.  Progressives care deeply about the Poor, and less about the poor.  They are more concerned with Environmentalism than they are the environment.  They love Humanity and hate man.  Jesus Christ was the opposite.  His life and ministry showed an unparalleled concern for concrete humans, and His death showed that that deep care was extended to all Humanity.  This is the arrow of love–it moves from the particular to the general–and without that focus on the concrete, historical person before you; that is, our neighbor, we can not truly exhibit compassion for humanity.

We see this in 1 Timothy 3.  An overseer should be gentle, temperate, faithful, self-controlled and hospitable, among others, all qualities that relate to specific, real, tangible human beings we are in family or community with.  We find an awful lot in Scripture about how to treat persons and not so much about how to treat peoples.  We find almost exclusively teachings on how individuals should relate to individuals and how communities of faith should relate to individuals (e.g. Matthew 18:15-17).  I can not think of a teaching off-hand that deals with our responsibility to our neighbor, family or community mediated through the government, unless it’s Jesus’s teaching to reconcile with another before it lands in court, suggesting, at least, that judicial intervention is a valid and necessary, if undesired, process.

It’s interesting to me that Jesus, Paul and Peter all addressed our obligations to the government, especially when the government they were referring to would be intolerable to us today, as long as it wasn’t in conflict with our obligations to God.  Nowhere I am aware of do they delineate the obligations of government to the individual or the individual’s obligation to other individuals through the government.

Don’t get me wrong; I cherish representative democracy even if it is “the worst form of government except all those others” (Churchill) which contains the “seeds of its own destruction” (Robert Welch) ((No I am not a member of the John Birch Society and know very little about it)), and ours is sliding into an insidious individualism with a destructive bent towards self-gratification and consumerism.  However, nothing we can do will remove the consequences of original sin.   When we try to “fix” problems, especially on a grand scale, we tend to make them worse–the more grand the proposed solution the less grand the outcome.

So, I tend to be generally more conservative politically and more radical (in the sense of the Sermon on the Mount, not French Revolution) personally. Conservatism should be about conservation (and I should say I tend to an older pre-Reagan conservatism, one that at one time would have embraced thinkers like Wendell Berry), and the best way to conserve is to plant.  If democracy does indeed contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as all human Babels must, then at least it takes longer for the weeds to flourish because there are just so many vibrant, beautiful plants growing.

Governments do indeed have positive roles to play; some problems (e.g. toxic waste, highways, defense, education) need resources, regulations and direct intervention, but governments deal with people in the aggregate and abstract, and this leads to care for Humanity and carelessness towards humans.  It creates a situation in which people can advocate for health care as a positive right while denying life to millions.  Medical treatment guaranteed to the sick by governmental legislation is not as  legitimate a function of government, if at all, than protecting the innocent or defending those who can not defend themselves.  Because the unborn have been abstracted to fetuses, we have decided they are not human and have no rights.  The first right a government should protect is the right to life.  Even liberty itself comes after that!

It is not progress to medically treat a person with the flu in the same hospital where an unborn baby is deprived of her life and where another baby is born and another is operated on in the womb.  (While most abortions are done in specialty “clinics,” there are still hundreds of hospitals that perform them, and even if they were not, it’s not progress to treat those who were born while killing others. The hospital was a useful, but unnecessary, comparison.)  Yes, of course, I think the conditions which drive some women to abortion need to be addressed.  That’s why we adopted two older, special needs children out of the public adoption system after they were removed from their mother.

Desipte what Obama said in his address before Congress on September 9th, don’t be fooled into thinking that if we get a national public option we won’t eventually get tax-payer funded abortions.  They already have them in Canada.

Render unto Caesar, but love your neighbor.

Obects of History

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked On-Line, wrote what is probably the most perceptive essay on the Obama phenomena that I have seen:

So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.

Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’. There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’. Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.