Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, October 26, 2007

church and statism

Update: When I first posted this, my concluding paragraph did not get pasted into the edit window. I've corrected the omission.

A few weeks ago, John the Methodist linked to an essay titled The Liberal Temptation. John argued that the phenomenon discussed in that essay -- using state power to advance the church's agenda -- is a temptation of conservatives as well as liberals. He more accurately labeled it a statist temptation.

In the comments, Dan Trabue gave a lengthy defense of the idea that Christians should expect the state to help care for the poor -- and quoted several Bible verses to back his points.

I can understand both of their points of view, and to some extent I agree with both. There's no better indicator than that: John and Dan were actually discussing two different issues. I'll try to touch on both of them here.

First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).

So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.

Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.

The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.

But, as John points out in his post:

Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.

If Congress votes to use our taxes -- everyone's taxes -- to fund a program to help the poor, we haven't fulfilled Jesus' mandate. Christian giving isn't simply a matter of helping those in need: It's also a matter of giving up our own desires and truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we give nothing more than what is automatically withdrawn from our paychecks, we are not really giving of ourselves.

Legislation of morality never works: The Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, did not eliminate the drinking of alcohol -- it merely created a new class of criminals.

Neither the right nor the left seem to be immune to the statist temptation: Just as we can't make people righteous by passing laws against abortion or homosexuality, we can't make people righteous by donating their money for them through tax laws. Laws may change a person's outward behavior -- or at least a person's public behavior --- but they cannot change people's hearts.

So I am left with two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Without the resources that only the state can muster, we can't hope to take care of all the people in need... but giving by proxy through taxes is not true charity.

But these are not mutually exclusive. It's not impossible to give to private charities and pay our taxes. It's no sin to expect our government to be responsive to the needs of its citizens. It's also no sin to give of ourselves to take care of our brothers and sisters.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

for your reading pleasure

Some thought-provoking posts from around the blogosphere. I may start making this a regular feature of it seems to me... since I'm not finding much time for writing myself.

Lingamish says personal devotions are unbiblical. In a followup, more nuanced post, he argues that common prayer is far too uncommon, and suggests that we might grow more in our faith if we grow with a group.

Daylight Atheism looks at the principles upon which the United States was founded -- and contrasts them with biblical teaching -- to answer the question, Is America a Christian nation?

Michael Westmoreland-White gives some historical background on the Nobel Peace Prize, and how the Nobel committee understands "peacemaker."

And food for the right side of the brain: Christine at Quiet Paths offers haiku and glimpses of fall.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

expressing the truth

Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely anecdotal, the last childish. Yet these forms of language are certainly capable of expressing truths about economic relationships, as well as any other relationships, and indeed have been employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers.

- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

If, in Postman's quote, you hear echoes of Marshall McLuhan's aphorism, The medium is the message, it's because Postman was a disciple of McLuhan. But regardless of how the media might affect our thought processes, I think it is obvious that the modern mind does not look for truth in the same way ancient people did.

How does this affect our understanding of the Gospels?

In an era where rhetoric was considered as important as logic, Jesus was a skilled rhetorician. But to us, does it really matter whether he made the Pharisees look bad in conversation?

In age of low literacy rates, Jesus was a master storyteller. But today, do the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son have any resonance? What does it mean to us that God's kingdom is like a mustard seed, or like a net full of fish?

In a time when the universe seemed capricious, Jesus was said to have power over wind and waves, and to be able to cast out demons. He was said to be able to feed large crowds with a small amount of food. Do these stories have any meaning for today?

In the 21st century, are the Gospels relevant? Or is our world so different from first century Galilee that we can't really understand them even if we try?

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

free burma

Free Burma!

Free Burma

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I've got a couple of posts in the works, but I'm having trouble finding time to pull them together. In the meantime, here's some interesting reading:

I hope to have some content here within a few days.