Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My expectations for believers

Recently a friend asked me, in the context of my last post on my melancholy blues, what my expectations are from Christians, especially those who think that health care reform and other current items of interest are "morally and ethically wrong." Some of this will be rehash, but let me give it my best shot.

1. Humility. Every one of us has issues that we are on the wrong side about. That means me, that means you. Arrogant close-mindedness is not the same thing as conviction. And when an issue has many godly people on both sides of the argument, it demands even more humility than normal if that's possible. And even if you are right, a gentle humility is still required. See Galatians 6.1.

2. Honesty. In this category falls all the caricaturizing, demonizing and scandalizing of our ideological opponents. It would also include exaggerating for effect. Both liberal and conservative news outlets are guilty of this. If you're interested I'll create a list. See Matthew 5.21-22 on angry name-calling. As I said in my Caricature Debate post a few weeks back, argue the facts, but don't resort to shouting epithets, exaggerations, or outright lies. Don't trust a news source just because they are [fill in the blank here: Christian, conservative, progressive, liberal, etc].

3. Stop equating the US with "God's Covenant Nation" status, stop identifying Western democracy as the biblical form of government, and stop believing laissez-faire capitalism is a godly economic system. I could write a book on this, but I'll try not to. My friend said in her resopnse the world hates "Jesus Christ and His children and that's not going to change." There is much truth in that. The gospel is a stumbling block to many. The humility required to receive God's forgiveness is challenging. If we are hated or persecuted for the sake of Jesus we should count ourselves worthy (Matthew 5.11-12).

But suffering because of conservative politics is not suffering for the gospel. Being hated by "liberals" because you're a "conservative" is not suffering for Jesus.

4. Be passionate both about individual morality and systemic morality, and don't be hypocritical about either. I have not yet had the chance to research this, but recently read that the most common command in the Scriptures is "Don't be afraid" and the second most common is to be kind to aliens and strangers among you. My friend said this:

There should be a balance of speaking out equally what we are for and what we are against. God tells us through His Word what He is for and what He is against and we should be a reflection of that as a whole, not in part either way.

I could not agree more. I do not believe that God anywhere in the Scriptures states being for small government, capitalism, or whatever side we are on in a war. He does say he is opposed to immorality, especially among believers. He does say that he opposes systems that oppress the poor and marginalized who have no voice of their own. He does say that those who claim the name of Jesus should be marked by their love for one another. Again, there's a lot more to be said here.

5. Be peacemakers. As far as it is possible, be at peace with those around you. Pursue peace passionately. See 1 Peter 3.11, Matthew 5.9, James 3.18, 1 Timothy 2.2, Hebrews 12.14.

To summarize, the Lord requires of us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6.8)


africangenesis said...

I've seen your post getting some uncritical distribution on facebook, so have come here hoping to engage you in a discussion that might clarify some of the issues and illuminate some of your assumptions.

I believe we can agree on 1 and 2 and use that commonality to discuss the other points, as long as we don't get too postmodern and have everyone entitled to their own personal truths.

3) Markets are surprisingly persistent phenomena that emerge when people choose to voluntarily cooperate and exchange. They are often able to persist even in the face of explicit repression. There is a social "science" that studies market phenomena, economics.

Your "I could write a book on this" seems to assume that you are confident in some assessment of the laissez-faire capitalist system. Would you be able to write that book without using divisive and demonizing collective identities (national, racial, ethnic, class or sectarian) and without characterizing voluntary relationships with an "exploitation" rhetoric that you could not rigorously define or defend?

Isn't it more humble to relate to others voluntarily rather than by coercion? Imposing one's views, policies or version of the truth on others coercively would seem to be the height of arrogance.

We can discuss the comparative godliness of different economic systems. The US system does, at least, have the humility to limit and check its power, perhaps in recognition, as Sarah Palin said, of "the fallen nature of man". Science and history based understanding would seem to be confirming the Judeo-Christian conclusion on this point. Need I mention the history of the 19th and 20th centuries? Our "first Americans" are arguably our 3rd, 4th or 5th Americans. Modern humans emerged from Africa not into pristine wilderness, but into occupied lands. Homo erectus and neanderthalis, and many branches of the modern human lineage are no longer with us. The effective population size of modern humans is estimated to only be between 10 and 20 thousand. "humanism" is not just reason,love and sharing. Evolution apparently selected for envy, anger, hate and fanaticism as well.

africangenesis said...

(continued due to character limit)

4) I don't recall much God-talk about "systemic morality". In the old testament, there is some condemnation of whole systems that engaged in idolatry or worshiped other gods. A "king" appeared to be considered ill-advised or a mixed blessing. Conscript labor was discussed but not explicitly endorsed. In the new testament, slavery appeared to be accepted when it was a fait accompli, but Christian masters and slaves were expected to adhere to individual morality. Under the new testament covenant, there does not appear to be much "systemic morality" guidance. There certainly doesn't appear to be any new testament endorsed system-based justification for compromising individual morality.

In our current system, Christians are not passive acceptors of a fait accompli. Individual actions impact the shape and actions of the current system. Does Christianity provide some dispensation for doing something unto others via the anonymity of the secret ballot, that would be immoral to do unto others as an individual? There are any number of coercive actions against others and coercive restrictions upon others that are supported or initiated in the voting booth.

As a practical matter, systems consistent with individual morality do not scale well beyond families or small communities of agreeable, like-minded individuals.

Can the golden rule be "extended" for purposes of enabling mass society, i.e., "it is OK to do unto others anything one thinks it would be OK to have done unto himself, even if some others would not want it done unto them." This seems a violation of the spirit of the principle involved. Perhaps, Christians find themselves in a system of necessary evil, where the best they can hope for is to choose the lesser of evils. Arguably, that would be the system and policies which require the least immoral activity by the individuals and, given the fallen nature of man, reduces the risks of the immoral excesses that modern humans are prone to when in control of coercive power. The founders thought that would be a small government with checks and limits on its power, led by moral men and a culture committed to living within those limits.

The system, like the humans that have exercised power within it, isn't perfect. Proportional representation in the house, rather than gerrymandered geographically based winner take all districts, might have given more voice to those who have "no voice of their own".

Fortunately, we live in a time where material poverty by past standards is rare in western democracies and seldom the result of oppression.

5) Let's not keep a record of wrongs by individuals or even worse by inter-generational collective identity. Let's live together peacefully, with a minimum of coercion, both in personal relations and in the anonymity of the voting booth.

Arnie Adkison said...

Thanks for the comments! Great thoughts, much deeper than my original post was intended for, I admit. But I welcome the discussion.

3) I'm certainly not opposed to free market capitalism. In many ways it is the best system, and has many positive attributes. In writing this piece I did quite a bit of refreshment reading on Marxism and communism, b/c I have seen so many believers characterize the current administration with those labels. I'm not a communist, nor a socialist. My point was that capitalism, while perhaps the best invented system by man, is not God's system. And it has faults, faults that we would do well to correct if possible. The gap between the richest and poorest USAmericans continues to skyrocket. Is this progress or regress?

My "I could write a book" refers really to all 3 things I listed, summed up in the first one--that many of today's evangelical believers in the USA (of which I am one) somehow equate God-favorable status on the country, an idea of which I am opposed. No doubt we are a religious society, and that USAmerican religion is strongly influenced by Christianity or at least Christendom. But I do not believe God has “blessed” the US more because of our founders’ thoughts, morality or spirituality; or because of our own of those qualities. God’s “choosing” is hard to determine until after the fact or he reveals it somehow. There are other, non-attributable-to-God factors that have added to our current “success:” rugged individualism, basic belief in the rule of law, basic freedoms and liberties, etc. For me, none of these somehow mean that we are blessed and that God is on our side.

We may be moving off track here, but one point I often make on this is that our religious system in the US—pop religion if you will—is not biblical Christianity. It is a moralistic deism.

I have to admit, I’m confused on your last paragraph about “first Americans” and the emergence of homo sapiens among the other hominids of the time. Can you elaborate on that more?

My final thought on #3, then I’ll move on to #4 & 5…I have not anywhere I don’t think advocated for this piece of HCR legislation that has caused this discussion. I do rejoice in the poor and uninsurable that will get better health coverage now. But do I think this could have been done better? Absolutely! Is there a better way to get those folks adequate health care w/out giving our gov’t more control over 26% of the economy? I’m sure there was. My post was not a critique of economic or political thought, but a critique of the IMHO unbiblical comments and actions of those who claim the name of Jesus.

Arnie Adkison said...

4) Perhaps the real struggle here is that we are forcing a dichotomy between systemic and individual morality that is not there in many cases. For example, I think many OT commands, everything from leaving a corner of your field unharvested for the poor to get some grain all the way to the year of jubilee when all slaves were to be freed, are both individual and systemic in nature.

Having said that, I struggle all the time with how individual commands in the NT apply to geo-political nation-states of the 21st century. What does it mean to military policy to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5.39), or to use violence to curb violence (Romans 12.14-21)? If the 2nd most common command in the Bible is to be kind to aliens and strangers, should that affect immigration policy? What does it mean for us politically to see Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians to give generously from their abundance to the poverty of the Jerusalem church in order that fairness and equality might be attained (see 2 Corinthians 8.8-15)? Some would say that these verses should have no input into political thought, others would say that they should be implemented by the state. I think both extremes are unacceptable—I do not wish for the state to force sharing on everyone, but I think we have a responsibility to pray for and live out as best we can “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”I’m also not wanting those who cannot afford adequate coverage or for whom the insurance market is not an option to go without. There is not an optimum option—well, I don’t believe that. There is an optimum option. If the 155 million USAmericans attending the 340,000 churches in the country began to give generously, we could alleviate much poverty and suffering in the world. That is the optimum solution.

I believe you make a great argument for small gov’t. No doubt taking the sinfulness of man into account is important when making governance decisions. Again, I’m actually for a smaller gov’t, but I find myself in a conundrum where choosing between various bad choices is the only option.

I would argue with this statement you make: “Fortunately, we live in a time where material poverty by past standards is rare in western democracies and seldom the result of oppression.” It depends on what you mean by oppression. Is the creation of a system of healthcare that relies on large insurance companies for most significant healthcare costs then denies coverage to the sickest and poorest among us count as oppression? Some would say yes. Is it oppressive to take a piece of land by trickery and force, move the inhabitants to other, ever smaller pieces of land, import people from other continents as unpaid workers, build a successful economic structure on their backs, then set them free with little or no capital with which to succeed on their own? Some would say yes.

But now I’ve moved ahead I think to #5. Keep no record of wrongs? Absolutely. Turn a blind eye to history? I’m not so sure. How long of a view is required for justice? God thought of it as inter-generational in the OT. But it’s complicated. I’ve used the baseball analogy before; if it’s the 6th inning, and we just discovered the team that is ahead 35 – 0 has been getting 5 outs per inning and the other team only 1, what is the just thing to do to finish the game? Forget the history and just give each team 3 out for the last few innings? How is that just to the team behind 35 runs? They have no chance to catch up. But you can’t start over, and is it fair to give them more outs for a couple of innings? Life is so much more complicated than a baseball game!

Arnie Adkison said...

So, we’ve got lots of points we could discuss if you like. But just remember my main concern was to engage believers in Jesus to take stock of all the Scriptures and compare their actions to the revealed will of God, especially as seen in Jesus of Nazareth, who was the fullness of God revealed as a man. I’m glad we can agree on #1 and #2 – there is a reason I put them first!

africangenesis said...

3) Yes, I do think the skyrocketing gap between rich and poor in America is progress. The poor and middle classes in the US are not any worse off, at least, they weren't until the recent recession and unemployment. Their compensation was basically flat, and when internet, cable television, large screen HD TVs, improved computers, and safer, more efficient autos are considered they are arguably better off. An additional part of the gap, is due to US openness to continued immigration of undocumented workers. So even from a nationalistic perspective, greater wealth, even if more unevenly distributed is "progress". However, I don't think Christians should adopt the national identity perspective. One of the main reasons middle and poor class compensation has been flat is due to competition on labor costs. Due to globalization, they are now competing internationally, and huge middle classes in China, India and elsewhere are rising out of poverty, largely as a result of trade with the US. Christians should consider the hundreds of millions who have benefited. This is in stark contrast to the old special interest trade protectionism where textile tariffs, for example, cost US consumers over $100,000/yr for every $36,000/yr job saved.

Government interference in the market is also responsible for part of the gap between rich and poor. Much of the new wealth was due to increased productivity. Federal Reserve policy is not supposed to pick winners and losers in the relative distribution of that wealth between capital and labor. However, by viewing increases in wages as inflationary, and clamping down on the economy, the Federal Reserve was favoring a market allocation to capital. The Federal Reserve reports regularly to Congress, so Congress was well aware of when the Federal Reserve thinks wage increases signal an increased risk of inflation.

africangenesis said...

Modern Europeans are often portrayed as the beneficiaries of the exploitation aboriginal populations around the world. For example, the native are portrayed as innocent victims owed something by today's persons of European descent for losses suffered by their ancestors generations ago. They are sometimes called "first Americans" to emphasize their prior claim to the riches of the land. But if we are going to start accepting intergenerational racial or ethnic collective guilt, there are arguably no modern human innocents. Today's "first Americans" are not the descendants of the original colonizers of the Americas, the ones responsible for the megafauna extinctions. Most of South and Central America descendants of a 2nd and 3rd wave of immigrants from Asia, the rest of N. America from another wave, and the Apache and Navajo are the latest arrivals working their way down either side of the Rockies and raiding their neighbors to supplement their hunting and gathering life style.

When modern humans emerged from their origins in eastern or southern Africa, west Africa was already populated by homo heidelbergensis, Europe by homo neanderthalis and all the way across Asia by homo erectus. Modern humans, despite a population of billions has much remarkably little genetic diversity, even when compared to the much smaller populations of Chimpanzees and gorillas. The genetic diversity is so little that it could be effectively sustained by a reproducing population of only 10 to 20 thousand, thus our "effective population size". The original hypothesis was that humanity must have been through some population bottleneck 100,000 or 200,000 years ago, but that has fallen out of favor. Genetic studies show that todays western Europeans are not descended from European hunter gatherers or even from the first wave of farmers. Instead these populations were displaced by subsequent waves, with little admixture of the original populations. For most of human history the ethnic and cultural barriers to interbreeding rather than in-group breeding and thus preserving genetic diversity were high. The current hypothesis is that many modern human populations or subgroups were exterminated or competitively displaced to marginal resources and became extinct, suffering the same fate as neanderthal, erectus and others. If we are collectively guilty for the sins of our ancesters, then there are no innocent humans. "Original sin"?

Modern humans didn't exist in mass societies for most of our evolution. In mass societies, humans are vulnerable to divisive collective identities, fanaticism and cults of personality, i.e. fascism. The original Hegelian sense of the word, is the idea that the national or ethnic collectives are organisms with rights that can supersede the rights of individuals. The US constitutional system is perhaps the least fascist among the western democratic nations. By construction, perhaps the chief duty of the government is to protect the people not just from other governments, but from itself. The division of powers, the checks and balances, the standards of proof and evidence and the restrictive bill of rights, etc. By contrast other admittedly more "democratic" governments act more as mechanisms for imposing the will of the majority that speaks for the ethnic or national collective. I acknowledge that many of those more fascist governments are more "progressive".

africangenesis said...

Whoops, intended to provide this link to a John Hawks article on "effective population size". If you are a fan of physical anthropology, and also what we are learning about our origins from genome analysis, I highly recommend his site:


africangenesis said...

4) I often regret that we don't have an analysis of the Samaritan coming upon the crime while it was still in progress. It might also have been instructive if the soldiers had come for Peter or Mary instead of Jesus. Jesus did intervene in the stoning, but moral persuasion doesn't always convict the perpetrator of his sin.

Are we justified in using coercion of others to come to the aid of the oppressed? What if that requires coercion of innocents rather than just the oppressors, for example "collateral damage", the death, conscription or taxation of innocent civilians? "turn the other cheek" obviously applied even to the oppressors, when it was our own cheek. I can see how many have concluded that Christianity demands pacifism or libertarianism.

I don't see oppression where there isn't coercion, however, insurance is problematic in a free market, since there is a perverse incentive to sell the insurance to those least likely to need it. That is why less populous states should have cooperated to produce larger risk pools. A larger problem than the uninsured, which have medicaid and bankruptcy as options, is the high and increasing costs of medical care. The healthcare bill only worsens the problem by increasing the demand for healthcare without increasing the supply of medical care providers. It left tort reform unchanged, while continuing the government imposed barriers to entry to medical practice. A $150,000 education should result in a specialist not a general practioner. A nursing level of education should be adequate for common non-emergency conditions and management of the most common chronic conditions. There are only a few classes of drugs, tests and procedures to be mastered, plus the common sense to recognize when a specialist is needed. Tort reform and reduced barriers to entry of new drugs would also help lower costs. Insurance companies have been wrongly blamed for the high cost of healthcare. The profits are a small percentage of the overall medical costs, non-profits don't have much lower costs, and much of their business is not "insurance" anyway. Most large employers are self-insured, and the role of the insurance company is not insurance, but just management which is contracted on a highly competitive basis. Costs were still high and rapidly growing, even in these situations where the competition was intense, the risk pools large, and the covered population healthy enough to be working. Supposedly, the problem was the US was paying a far higher percentage of its GDP for healthcare than other western democracies, and Congress somehow produces a bill which makes it worse.

With over 2.5 million American's dying each year, and arguably only 20,000 or so deaths attributable to lack of health insurance, the uninsured are not even in the top ten causes of death. There had to be a better way to spend a trillion dollars over the next 10 years, starting with not spending it at all.

africangenesis said...

Slavery was oppressive, and they were freed with little capital. But they are also dead and before they died many learned to read as adults. What excuse do their descendents generations later with the benefits of public education and libraries for not being able to read or to compete with the more disadvantaged in other countries? Many do compete well, and many are middle class, so on a needs basis start life better off than poorer people regardless of race. Their oppressors were too impoverished by the war to be assessed for much compensation, and they are now dead too. Just three generations back, I have a grandfather born out of wedlock in the poor house and shipped to America on an orphan ship to work for a farmer at the age of 12. My other grandfather had to quit school at the 8th grade to go to sea to support his family. My father suffered under military conscription, and then loaded trucks until he was 62. My "capital" was a generation that sacrificed and valued education. Even a lousy school system is no excuse, many slaves learned to read as adults, if you have to make up for mispent youth, you have twice the adult life expectancy in which to retrain yourself for new careers several times.

The same European leaders who were oppressing third world colonies were also oppressing their own people at home. Europeans were so poorly nourished before WWI, that when the Americans joined the war, there are anecdotes about the Europeans thinking that all Americans must be officers, since they were so tall. Europeans were oppressed too, and many came to American long after slavery was history. Should they be seeking compensation from governments in their countries of origins? Should they be paying compensation to the descendants of slaves or native Americans? The descendants of slaves are better off, not just than Africans in the lands of their origins which were complicit in their enslavement, but they are also better off than most of the third world, and many who would claim benefits, like Obama are not descended from slaves. Christians should not be keeping records of intergenerational wrongs, it will only lead to more wrongs. Perhaps living victims of the Vietnam war conscription should be compensated, but it is probably better to focus on doing no further wrong.

Slavery and displacement of native Americans were real wrongs of the past. However, many other "wrongs" purposely manufactured under marxist "critical theory" for divisive purposes. Native populations given options they didn't have before due to western capital and technology are not "exploited". They are often just the accidental beneficiaries of geographical proximity to resources that had value to the west, but were nothing to them. An option is not oppression or exploitation.

Under the new covenant individual morality, Christians should relate to individuals as individuals, not as members of a collective identity. We should challenge Haiti's right to bribes for children they "own" or China's intergenerational "claim" to democratic Taiwan, or Israel's, Egypt's or Germany's right to continue to "conscript" their "own" people, or the US right to tax expatriates. Collectives don't own individuals.

Perhaps these issuing these challenges wouldn't be humble. But they are less arrogant than those who presume to coerce or own others.

Arnie Adkison said...

I'll have to agree to disagree on the widening gap as being progress. But I do think you're right about believers not adopting a nationalistic identity, and we should value the progress our own flatlining has brought to poorer nations. In fact, the gap situation is probably far better applied globally than nationally...

You make interesting points on the constant exploitation of neighbor perpetrated by homo sapiens. I suppose you can go back to those beginnings and say that we can't make it up, we shouldn't consider history. But I don't buy it. There was much made about the Southern Baptist Convention (the tradition I grew up in and am ordained in) in 1994 recognizing that the convention was founded on an issue of slavery (organized when the national baptists wouldn't appoint missionaries who were slaveowners) and apologizing for how that and any prejudice since had impacted the world negatively. Many in my own church at the time were incensed, saying that we couldn't apologize for the sins of our ancestors. I disagree. I think that there are communal sins and communal evils and communal good.

Arnie Adkison said...

And btw, thanks for the links to John Hawks. Fascinating stuff.

And also btw, are you anonymous for a reason?

africangenesis said...

My anonymity is a historical anachronism. I was employed for a large and proudly green company, the kind that contributes to environmental groups and practically makes earth day a holiday. Being scientifically literate, I saw serious problems with the "evidence" for a high climate sensitivity to CO2 and want to discuss that evidence without risking my job or "embarrassing" the company. I'm now unemployed for unrelated reasons going on 9 months. So my avatar is now habitual and has a life of its own from my contributions to wikipedia, pharyngula, chron.com and tfninsider.org. I have always endeavored to post with the same integrity and etiquette as africangenesis (and any other avatar) that I would use to represent myself.

I have many friends and family who were Southern Baptists and torn by the conservative takeover, the credalism and the SBA split. However, I think it is a bit presumptuous to apologize for anscestors and I think it is dangerous to give any lip service to inter-generational collective guilt. One can justify the 9/11 attacks on innocent civilians because of the crusades, or al Qaeda attacks on American forces because of what other "Europeans" did to colonial Iraq, or attacks on blacks because African's eat bush meat. You don't always get to control what collective identity someone else assigns to you that strips you of all innocence in their eyes. There is only individual responsibility the rest is subjective.

Arnie Adkison said...

Interesting that you turned an SBC recognition and apology of past sins into being able to justify current ones. I don't think they are the same. There isn't good justification for any act of evil, or or revenge, or retribution. That doesn't mean that I--or collectively we--cannot now say that some part of our success has been because our ancestors abused those who were on this continent before us, or because our military was stronger than the military that lost, and acknowledge that there might have been some wrong perpetrated by our forebears.

I think it is about the humility of the "dominant" group (dominant isn't the best word but I'm too sleepy to think of a better one) acknowledging their past as opposed to the less-dominant group justifying current uprising against oppression.

africangenesis said...

I don't think "group" is the best word either. We should be judged as individuals, not as a "group".