Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Story of Roger Williams: A Founding Father of America's Baptist Churches

Occasionally I'll post materials here relating to major figures or movements in church history. For more, you can take a look at my "Heroes of the Faith" page.

Roger Williams (1603-1683), the leading founder of America's Baptists, was a man constantly on the move--usually because he was being thrown out of one place or another. Early in his life, he became part of the larger exodus of Puritans fleeing the increased religious and political pressure on nonconforming Christians by King Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud. Puritans (and other nonconformists) were given a series of stark choices: either conform to the worship of the Church of England and cease to press for its reform, or undergo persecution by the state. There was one further possibility, though: one could move to New England, where a small community of Puritans had begun to take root. Many chose the last of these options, among them a young Roger Williams, already serving in ministry as a chaplain in the Church of England, along with his wife Mary. In 1631 they disembarked to a new life in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Williams was initially well-received by the Massachusetts Puritans, and was invited to become the parish minister in the newly-founded city of Boston. But this was the point at which the Massachusetts colonists were first made aware of Williams’ opinionated self-assurance. He turned down the position, objecting to the fact that the Boston congregation was seeking to maintain official ties with the Church of England: “I durst not officiate to an unseparated people,” he wrote. The residents of Boston were offended by his refusal (and his subsequent acceptance of a post in the rival port of Salem), as well as by his accusations that their civil magistrates were inappropriately overseeing religious affairs. Boston’s bad feeling toward Williams ran so deep that they convinced the Salem congregation to withdraw its offer of a pastorate. So Williams decided to move to Plymouth Colony, which was led by a group of Separatist Puritans ("the Pilgrims"), who did not make great efforts to retain ties to the Church of England. This was rather more to his liking, but, after having lived there for a few months, he found that their attitudes toward separation were not as strong as his own, and he managed to speak out often and vociferously enough that he estranged his new neighbors and was forced to move back to Salem. “In less than two years in New England,” Williams' biographer Edwin Gaustad writes, “he had already managed to achieve a reputation for irascibility.”

Amid all this early controversy, one of Williams’ most impressive abilities began to flower: he had a knack for understanding Native American cultures and languages, and he often seemed to prefer their company to that of his fellow Englishmen. Williams’ first book was not a work of theology or biblical interpretation; rather, it was a sociological treatise on the Native American cultures of New England, showing profound regard for their languages and customs. Within its pages, he advocated for better treatment for Native Americans and for honest legal recognition of their land rights. The governmental policy of the early United States would one day follow William’s lead on the issues of the separation of church and state; one wonders how its history might have changed for the better had it also followed his lead on Native American relations.

Back in Salem once more, Williams found some support this time, and eventually did take office as the pastor of that town’s congregation. There he continued voicing his opinions in the strongest way possible, running afoul of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the issues of women’s veils, flags, legal oaths, the colony’s claim to a proper charter over against Native American claims, and, most importantly, the extent of state magistrates’ authority to prosecute ecclesiastical offenses. In 1635, the General Court of the Colony tried several means to get Salem to renounce its troublesome preacher; when that failed, he was simply exiled from the Colony altogether. 

Roger Williams at the Future Site of Providence
This event would prove to be the locus of a controversy that would extend for nearly twenty years, and which would result in voluminous writings on the subject of church and state authority, set down both by Roger Williams and his main antagonist, the Puritan pastor John Cotton of Boston. Their letters and, more importantly, their publicly-published treatises against one another, form one of the major primary sources for the emerging political and religious philosophies of the time. Even though, as historian Alan Simpson points out, Williams and Cotton agreed in “nine-tenths of [their] opinions” on theological matters, the one sticking point, of spiritual liberty vis-à-vis state authority, was so passionately held as to lead to years of long and bitter denunciations.

After a difficult winter of traveling in exile, Williams found his way to Narragansett Bay, where he laid the foundations of a settlement that would soon come to be known as Providence. Within a few short years, Williams had gathered a substantial following in his new colony, including some of his old followers from Salem and other independent-minded castoffs from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among them was a small group who had come under the conviction that the practice of infant baptism was unbiblical; Roger Williams, who had earlier expressed sympathy with the views of English Baptists, joined with this company and together they founded the first Baptist church in the colonies. Williams did not stay a Baptist for long, however, a decision that was perhaps as much about temperament—his “restless unsatisfiedness”—as about doctrine. The theological reason for this transition was his conviction that it was impossible to form a true, biblical, apostolic church under the current dispensation of history. He remained a faithful and outspoken Christian, however, and used his position as leader of the Providence colony to further his views.

His season of colony-building, however, did nothing to decrease the stress of his conflicts with his perpetual antagonists. In addition to carrying on his theological disputations with John Cotton, he was often also called upon to manage the power plays being made by the other rather thorny personalities that had gravitated to Narragansett Bay, to mediate in conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, and to establish a clear, legal charter for the new colony. The latter job was perhaps the most difficult, as it necessitated his return to England.

Roger Williams Returns with the Charter
Coming to England for the complicated process of applying for a royal charter in the absence of a king (Charles I had recently been ousted, Parliament was in limbo, and Oliver Cromwell was soon to establish a de facto dictatorship), Williams found himself in the middle of a religious conflict that pitted Anglican, Presbyterian, and Nonconformists of all sorts against one another in the marketplace of ideas. Together with other influential voices, like the poet John Milton, Williams took the opportunity to speak out on issues of nonconformity and "soul freedom." As far as the charter went, Williams did what he could, and gained a legal charter from the highest governmental body available at the time, but the unstable political situation, coupled with a legal challenge from one of the other settlers of Narragensett Bay, necessitated one of Williams’ colleagues staying on in London for another fifteen years in order to make certain the charter was ultimately legitimized.

Williams returned to Providence and took up an official position as its governor, a job that quickly proved thankless. Nonetheless, after decades of hard work as a leader of the colony, Williams could boast a secure governmental system unlike any ever seen in the Christian world: freedom of religion was allowed to all (including non-Christians), and the state bore no authority whatsoever to adjudicate in ecclesiastical matters.

For the first hundred years after Williams' death, rival positions regarding him continued to fall along “party lines”—Congregational thinkers lined up against him, Baptists for him. But after the acceptance of the Bill of Rights as part of the foundational document of the American experiment, Williams’ role began to emerge in an ever more positive light. He had anticipated the social and philosophical necessity of the First Amendment more than a century before it came into being, and his views on church and state, which were unspeakably radical for his time, have now largely become the accepted mainstream view of all Western society.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Photo of the Week

Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving
To God the Creator triumphantly raise:
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,
Who guideth us on to the end of our days!

- from verse 1 of the hymn "Let All Things Now Living," by Katherine Davis

Monday, November 27, 2017

Quote of the Week

"He who desires to be happy must pursue and practice temperance, and run away from intemperance as fast as his legs will carry him."

- Socrates, from Plato's dialogue Gorgias

Monday, November 20, 2017

Let Us Give Thanks!

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God: It is right to give him thanks and praise!
         - from the Liturgy of Communion

I'll be taking a week off from blogging while I celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Posts will resume on Monday, Nov. 27. Happy Thanksgiving!

(Painting: "A Sketch of Gratitude Crowned by Peace," by James Thornhill, 1713)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, watch over me always, in my work, in my words, in the thoughts of my heart.
O God, have pity on me, in this world and in the world to come.
O God, have pity on me, for I have sinned against you like the mortal that I am; but, kind and gentle Master, forgive me…
O God, do not show me the anger that my sins and misdeeds deserve...
O God, your Word was made flesh for me; for me he was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again. Bind me to you!
O God, do not let me give way to disloyalty. May the Enemy find nothing in me that he can call his own.
O God, sharpen my will. May it be like a sword and cut all sinful thoughts out of my mind.
O God, as you calmed the sea with a word, so drive out the evil passions from my sinful nature. May sin die down and disappear from all my members.
O God, grant that my heart may always be pure and my faith orthodox forever, yes forever. Amen.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Garden of Eden and the Nativity

Before we leave the Garden of Eden narratives, we need to attend to a few other parallels between the stories of creation and the unveiling of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. We’ll do one of the parallels this week (how the Nativity stories allude to creation), and another after Thanksgiving week (the Tree of Life). Unlike the preceding studies, these are parallels inferred from the symbols in the stories, but are not specifically indicated in the textual exegesis of these passages.

Some of the parallels have to do with the stories of Christ’s nativity. First, let’s take a look at the annunciation passage, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary about God’s plan for her. The first part of Gabriel’s announcement (Luke 1:30-33) refers back to the Old Testament prophesies of the Davidic Messiah-king. But when Mary asks Gabriel how these things will come about, he says, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). The first phrase immediately calls to mind the first scene of creation (Gen. 1:2), when the Holy Spirit comes and hovers over the waters of the newborn world. And the second phrase uses a word that immediately evokes an Old Testament parallel: “overshadow”—this was the same term used for the way the presence of God overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, filling that place with his shekinah glory. So within the space of two sentences, Gabriel has connected his announcement to Mary with the creation of the world, the presence of God in the Temple, and the Davidic kingship: three Old Testament allusions that cover almost the whole scope of the salvation-history of ancient Israel. I referenced some of these parallels when I wrote my poetic rendering of Luke 1:35 in my Evangeliad:

The Holy Spirit will descend on you,
Hov’ring in blessing o'er a world born new!
The Most High's power will o’ershadow thee:
Shekinah glory of His majesty,
As in the Temple, full of glory’s awe;
The one born of you shall be Son of God!

The early church fathers also liked to draw a parallel between Mary and Eve when they considered the annunciation-passage in Luke: they noted that Mary in some sense recapitulates Eve’s role. Here is a woman, standing in the light of God’s creative activity (for Eve, the creation of the world; and for Mary, the New Creation), and faced with a decision: to obey God, or to disobey him. Eve chose to disobey, but Mary submitted to God’s will. I’ve also referenced this parallel in my poetry: take the following extract from my “Incarnation Hymn.”

The Word that knit the universe was knit in Mary’s womb,
The tapestry of ages, upon her humble loom.
She obeyed where Eve had sinned, and with her act of faith,
The Maker took our nature, to save our sinful race.

Even the smallest of details in the nativity story were taken as recapitulations of the Garden of Eden. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a stable (more specifically, Luke tells us that the infant Jesus was placed in a manger, and from that information it is inferred that they were in a stable). Early Christian traditions, available to us in other written documents from the first few centuries AD, help to fill out our familiar picture of the nativity: the presence of animals with them in the stable, and the portrayal of the stable being built into a little cave on the hillside.

One of the interesting things to consider regarding this story is that the Gospel writers often select stories from Jesus’ life that illustrate the ways in which Jesus recapitulated the sacred history of humanity. Matthew’s gospel is the clearest example of this: he chooses to present the stories of Jesus that show him as the recapitulation of Israel’s history. So Matthew presents the holy family’s flight to Egypt and their return, along with Herod’s murder of the male babies in Bethlehem, all of which parallel the exodus account in the Old Testament. He shows Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness (a parallel to Israel’s 40-year wanderings), and Jesus as the new Moses in Matthew 5, teaching the essence of God’s law from the mountain. Even the appearance of the Wise Men, who are Gentiles, fits into this theme: it is a fulfillment of the promise so often made to Israel in the pages of the prophets, that all nations would come to Israel to worship the true God there. And this isn’t just a case of Matthew making stuff up, or forcing Jesus’ life history into his own particular set of boxes: other early Christian documents note stories from Jesus life that also fit this theme of the recapitulation of Israel. In one of them, The Protoevangelium of James, there are two midwives present shortly after the birth of Christ, which, if true, would be another parallel with the exodus story of the Old Testament (see Exodus 1).

Luke, however, is not quite as interested in showing Jesus as merely the recapitulation of Israel; he wants to get the point across that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. So he often chooses stories that display Jesus’ interaction with Gentiles, and he, unlike Matthew, traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam. There might be some significance, then, to the nativity stories that Luke chooses to recount, two episodes of which include the presence of animals. Jesus is born in a stable, with animals present, and the first announcement of his birth is made to the shepherds, also with animals present. It may very well be that Luke is using this particular story to illustrate what he makes explicit in the genealogy one chapter later: that Jesus is the fulfillment of Adam’s experience, and ultimately, of all humanity. Just as Adam came into the world in close proximity to, and relationship with, members of the animal kingdom, so too does Christ. Jesus is the new Adam, sent to reconcile humanity with God, to undo the effects of the Fall, and to restore humanity to its original purpose as the image of God and the priest of all creation.

If one wanted to stretch the implications further, one could even take a few of the extra-biblical details of the nativity story and read hints of recapitulation into them. If the stable Jesus was born in was actually a cave, as the early Christian document The Protoevangelium of James claims, this could be taken as a sign that God intended Christ to recapitulate the earliest experiences of the human race—dwelling in nature rather than in manmade shelters. Once again, this is more of a stretch, but it could be another indication of what Luke was getting at (and what Paul says outright in his letters): that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of humanity itself, recapitulating Adam’s experience, and constituting in himself a new humanity that will be liberated from sin.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

How Should Christians Use Their Wealth?

John Calvin once wrote, “Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us.” The question which follows, and which brings us to our main question, is: What are the ends for which God gave us material wealth? My answer is tripartite (and is demonstrated through just a very small selection of the vast biblical evidence for all three themes): [1] for the meeting of our needs (Gen. 1:28-30; 9:3-4; Ps. 104:14-15; 136:25; Mt. 14:15-21), [2] for the blessing of others (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; Lk. 12:33; 14:33), and [3] for the grateful celebration of his goodness (Lev. 23; Mt. 26:6-13). The Christian tradition highlights three virtues that match these ends: simplicity, generosity, and moderation.

The vast majority of that tradition, drawing from OT principles, affirms that the ownership and use of private property for meeting one’s own needs is entirely appropriate, since this is one of the reasons that God gave us material things (Gen. 1:28; Ex. 20:15). However, in meeting those needs, we are called to simplicity rather than “luxury” (a negative term in classic Christian thought).

The second end for material goods is to bless others. In the Bible and elsewhere, this is usually put into practical terms of giving help to the poor and assistance to the ministry of the Kingdom of God (Deut. 15:11; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). Christian tradition is unanimous in saying that this giving ought to be generous, not merely in amount, but, more importantly, in the spirit of our giving (2 Cor. 9:7). In fact, the Christian tradition affirms a view of “stewardship”—that the things we own are not properly our own; they belong to God and are on loan to us. Some go further, and, like Basil, claim that some of the things we are given are only given to us in order to be given to others, thus: “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”

The third, sometimes overlooked, purpose of material wealth is to enable us to celebrate God’s goodness. In the old medieval tension between feasting and fasting, this is the feasting side of things. We must remember Christ’s rebuke of Judas, in which he affirmed a lavish outpouring of material wealth in celebration of his own presence rather than having it given to the poor (Jn. 12:1-8, cf. Mt. 26:6-13). This joyful celebration of God’s goodness is the counterweight to the renunciation which simplicity and generosity urge. It is possible, ironically enough, for renunciation to become a self-oriented pursuit, and feasting to the glory of God reminds us not to fall into that trap. But, as always, we must remember that even this must be done within the bounds of moderation, because we must maintain enough resources to give generously to the poor.

Is it possible to move from these three general principles and to generate some specific rules? Gilbert Meilaender suggests that this would be a mistake, and I agree: “For such a life of moderation and austerity there are, however, no universal rules….Room must be left for freedom of the Christian life—and, perhaps still more, freedom of the God who calls Christians to different ways of life. Beneficence to others in need is a duty for Christians, but the ways in which that beneficence may be enacted are many.” John Wesley attempted to frame a rule from these principles, but it came out general enough to be a principle itself: “Make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can.” Nevertheless, in the absence of rules, we can still commend an overall perspective of “stewardship” as described above, and an overall attitude of trust in God. Let us rejoice in the Lord our God, and use what he has given to his glory in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Photo of the Week

My soul, praise the Lord!
O God, Thou art great:
In fathomless works
Thyself Thou dost hide.

- from v.1 of the hymn "My Soul, Praise the Lord," by William Kethe and Robert Seymour Bridges

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote of the Week

"My wish is that you who believe would place yourself with all your love under Christ, and that you pave no other way in order to reach and attain the truth than has already been paved by him... This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place, humility... As often as you ask me about the Christian religion's norms of conduct, I choose to give no other answer than: humility."

- Augustine, influential North African church father in the 4th and 5th centuries AD

(Painting: "Saint Augustine," by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1650)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God born of God, true God of the true God born, you are goodness itself, we confess it. In your kindness come to our aid. Be merciful and hide us under the shadow of your wings. We are as servants in your hands: prevent us from rebelling against your sovereignty. We know that you are just: show us your justice, Lord. We know that you are our Savior: deliver us, save us from evil. We acknowledge your holiness: make us holy through your body and blood. Grant us forgiveness, kind God, merciful as you are to sinners. Amen.

- Ephrem the Syrian

Friday, November 10, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Serpent, the Seed, and the Ground (Genesis 3)

(Painting: "The Triumph of Death," by Lorenzetti, 1342. This painting shows scenes from the fall of Adam and Eve, left, as well as the victory of Christ over death, center and right.)

This week we're looking at Genesis 3, in which there are two short passages that the early church saw as speaking to the realities of Christ and our salvation: Gen. 3:15 and 3:23.

In Genesis 3:15, near the end of the Garden of Eden story, there are a few stray lines in which God condemns the serpent who convinced Eve to disobey the divine command. Interestingly, since the days of the early church, these lines have been interpreted as a Messianic prophecy: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you sill strike his heel."

At first glance, you might not think there's anything particularly prophetic about this. It sounds like a rather mundane summary of humanity's ongoing relationship with snakes in our natural environment. Like the lines before it and after it, this verse could easily be read simply as an "etiological curse"--a description of the way things presently are (snakes crawl on their bellies, women have pain in childbirth, and humanity has to labor to produce crops from the earth), with an explanation that these things are the way they are because of God's punishment of sin. In the same way, humans have had a fairly antagonistic relationship with snakes over the centuries: they try to bite us, we try to kill them.

But there's more to this verse. First, it's helpful to remember that in the Christian tradition, the serpent in the Garden of Eden narratives is not simply a snake, but an appearance of the devil (see Rev. 12:9). Second, the opening line, "I will put enmity between you and the woman," seems to suggest something more specific than just humanity's generally adversarial relationship with snakes: it points toward the metaphorical vision of Rev. 12 once again, in which "the ancient serpent" is determined to destroy the woman and her child (often interpreted as Mary and Christ). 

Third, it's worth noting that there are other prophecies in Genesis that also use the same word for "offspring" (or "seed") as this verse: the promises made to Abraham, that his seed would inherit the land of Israel and ultimately bless all nations (see Gen. 22:17-18). In some of these instances, the prophecies seem to have in view all of the many offspring of Abraham--the people of Israel and the spiritual family of God's followers--but in at least one case, the New Testament takes this Abrahamic prophecy as pointing specifically at Christ. In Galatians 3:16, the Apostle Paul gives a very interpretation of the prophecy about Abraham's "seed": "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ." Based on this precedent, it has been common in the Christian tradition to take Paul's application of the "seed" as Christ, and to read this back into Genesis 3:15. 

So if this verse is a prophecy about Jesus, it quickly becomes clear what is going on here: this is about the ultimate cosmic battle, waged between the devil and Christ, in the events of the cross and resurrection. "He will crush your head," is seen as a reference to the full and final victory of Jesus over Satan in the cross and resurrection. The other phrase in Gen. 3:15, "You will strike his heel," has been taken as a reference to Satan's attack on Christ, seeking to have him killed, an attack that reached its culmination on the cross. (Another possible reading, from LXX, the ancient Greek version of the OT, gives further attention to Christ's victory, not Satan' act: "You will be on guard for his heel.") Indeed, the New Testament portrays the crucifixion as a cosmic battle between Christ and the evil spiritual powers: "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:15). So right here, in the story of the world's beginning, we already have a foreshadowing of the ultimate victory that Christ would one day win for us.

One of the other interesting early-church interpretations of Gen. 3 has to do with verse 23: "So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken." This seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it? It's just a description of Adam's banishment from the Garden, and his future work of trying to grow crops from an unforgiving soil, as had just been referenced in vv.17-18. But many early church fathers saw in this verse something more than just Adam's agricultural career: they saw it as an indication of the mission of humanity, to tame not only the soil but our own flesh as well.

The reason for this reading is that the passage reminds us, not once but twice, that Adam's flesh comes from that very ground (in v.19 and v.23). It's interesting to note that, according to Genesis, Adam was not created from the ground inside the Garden of Eden itself. Rather, Adam was created first, and then placed in the Garden. Gen. 3 identifies the wild, untamed soil outside the Garden as the earth from which Adam was made. In the same way that he is ordered to cultivate the earth, then, he is, by extension, being ordered to cultivate his own flesh. That is to say, it is the duty of human beings to toil and labor against the sinfulness of our natural condition. And this work, just as in God's prophecy about tilling the earth, is a difficult and trying task: we can only subdue this ground of our flesh "through painful toil" (v.17). 

If this reading is accepted, then we have here an early hint of the very same teaching that Paul gives us in Romans 8:13-14: "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live." In the thinking of the early church, we are all missionaries of the Kingdom of God, proclaiming Christ's triumph on the cross over sin, Satan, death, and hell. And the first battlefield of our missionary labors is the arena of our own bodies. Just as we must be witnesses of Christ's victory out in the world, we must also plant the flag of his conquest in the field of our own flesh, and let the Spirit manifest his reign in our daily lives.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Is Capitalism Unchristian?

Having spent a fair deal of my life in places like Latin America and Africa, where the inequalities of the global economic system are dramatically evident, I came to this subject with an intuitive sense that capitalism would prove to be decidedly un-Christian in many respects. After some research, however, I have become convinced that quite a few of the most vocal Christian opponents of capitalism mostly just end up excoriating a succession of “straw men,” partly due to a misunderstanding of economic philosophy. It now seems clear to me that economic systems like capitalism are merely parts of human culture, and as such can be expected to reflect all the scope of the possibilities inherent in our “very good” and yet “fallen” nature—a propensity towards great creativity and cooperation, as well as the danger of systemic failures and blind spots due to our sinfulness. In this piece, I'll be looking at some of the "upside" of capitalism, and then turn to address some of its inherent dangers.

First, it should be noted that free-market economic systems like capitalism are not driven by any evil mastermind behind the scenes—rather, it is a natural, networked system of human interaction that emerges on its own under the right conditions.[1] If you have a culture that encourages individualism, personal property rights, and a utilitarian view of time, free-market exchange will develop. This is especially true of cultures that also place great stock in personal values of honesty, diligence, thrift, and the importance of hard work. Thus the development of capitalism in the industrialized West has often been associated with “the Protestant work ethic.”[2] The reason why this system emerges so naturally is simply because it is based on universal human behavior: all people everywhere seek what they perceive to be “the good,” and, specifically, what tends toward happiness,[3] and one of the ways they do this is by entering into exchanges with other people. Each of these exchanges is naturally aimed toward the preferred end of each party, and thus they tend toward the good of both parties.[4] In this pattern of mutually-beneficial exchanges, value is produced for both parties, and wealth can be generated: economics becomes a win-win, not just a zero-sum game in which the success of one party necessarily means the impoverishment of another.[5] This, of course, is an idealized portrayal of capitalist economics; there are unfortunately a lot of examples in which market exchanges can be coerced or cheated. But the idealized version constitutes the philosophical base of capitalism's economic principles: any coercion or other aggressive imbalance introduced into the system actually tends to work against the efficiency of capitalism, not for it.

Capitalism, in some Christian circles, suffers under a number of unfortunate myths, often related to misunderstood terminology. One such myth is that any system that uses greed (or, the more technical economic term, “self-interest”) as its driving force cannot, by definition, accord well with Christian practice. This is a myth because it misunderstands “self-interest” as “greed,” when in fact what is meant by the term is simply that all people always conduct exchanges based on their own preferential scale of choices. This is true even of Christians who seek to give everything away to the poor—they are making that decision based on their own preferential choices; no one chooses consistently against their own desired outcomes.[6] Thus, while greed can be a motivating influence for some individuals, it is not a philosophical imperative of capitalism. And, in fact, some forms of greed, like hoarding, run directly counter to capitalist tendencies.[7] A similar misunderstanding of terminology results in a myth that claims that capitalism depends too much on “competition,” by which it is supposed that “conflict” is meant. While it is true that competition among firms is a core part of the capitalist system, the competition’s main aim is at producing more and better goods for society (and so it is unlike the violent competition of a boxing match, where each participant is focused primarily on beating each other, not on creating something of value for the audience). Further, capitalist competition favors cooperative interaction in many levels of its pursuits.[8]

A criticism that is more sensitive to the weight of the Christian tradition is that capitalism betrays the biblical and patristic teachings against the practice of collecting interest. But the Old Testament prohibitions against usury do not restrict it outright; they merely set limits to its application (Deut. 23:19-20; and thus the Jewish tradition has usually allowed interest), and the patristic criticism was largely directed against the sort of people that we would now call “loan sharks.”[9] The Protestant Reformation, which emerged at a time when people were starting to use interest as a means of mutually-beneficial exchange (not exploitation), gave much more allowance to such things.

A final myth worth addressing (though, like many myths, it does have some basis in fact), is the perception that global capitalism is a system in which poor countries are relentlessly exploited by rich countries. This is an easily understandable reaction, given the glaring inequalities among nations. It is important to understand, though, that although poor nations do sometimes suffer a trade imbalance because of their own lower standard of living (thus, they are priced out of their own goods by richer markets willing to pay more), they are still, if the market is operating correctly, making uncoerced, voluntary exchanges toward their own perceived benefit. It’s also worth noting that recent studies show that globalized trade has had a fairly minor role in economic inequality,[10] and that third-world countries actually appear to prosper economically in direct proportion to their level of interaction with the industrialized West.[11] Far from seeking to exploit poor countries, the US and the United Nations give massively generous packages of foreign aid to them (although sometimes this comes with strings attached, and sometimes results in unforeseen harm).[12] Further, much of the systemic poverty in third-world countries can be traced to internal problems, such as corruption, bad infrastructure (including poor education and health care), and lack of government oversight in labor markets.[13] Perhaps an even larger reason for their poverty, however, is simply that their cultures often don’t match up well with the cultural framework that maximizes capitalistic pursuits. Many third-world nations have cultures which emphasize community identity, shared belongings, public goods, and a view of time which sees it more as a gift to be lavished on friends than a commodity to be turned into an efficient work-week. All of these cultural aspects are quite noble (and I’ve come to appreciate them in my missions experiences), but they do have an inherent economic tradeoff. A third-world country with these values simply will not perform as efficiently in the global market as an individualized, utilitarian culture will.

Against the critics of capitalism, it is also worth remembering once again that philanthropy can operate as part of a capitalistic system. In fact, it is the massively greater wealth that is produced by capitalism that makes philanthropy possible on a scale never before known. For example, Bill Gates has been able to do dramatically more good in the world through his multi-billion dollar charitable foundation than if he had redistributed his earnings directly to charity as he received them.[14] Similarly, it is the capitalist wealth of Western society that has enabled us in the US to be one of the most generous societies of all time (though of course we could stand to be far more generous still). Not only so, but the capitalist economies of the West have eradicated or severely diminished the worst forms of poverty within their own borders, such that previously commonplace, horrific tragedies like famines, which were a regular part of human experience (on an average of every 15 years), have not significantly afflicted the West since the turn of the 1700s.[15]

However, capitalism also has some obvious blind spots. It has no inherent laws of justice. This means that governments have to step in and institute regulations against exploitation and abuse, as in the case of child labor or poor work conditions. Similarly, capitalism has no short-term incentive built in for the protection of the environment.[16] It also has a massive cultural impact: when it comes up against “inefficient” cultures that are more people-oriented than goods-oriented, those cultures will be outcompeted on the market, and traditional, family-based economies will be bankrupted in favor of larger corporations. Thus people previously engaged in productive, holistic work will instead be pushed into poverty or mindless, repetitive jobs in factories.[17] There are also no built-in moral laws that restrict capitalism from creating and disseminating “morally odious products”;[18] any such discretion will have to come from public morals or government regulation.

Further, there are some alarming cultural trends that capitalism can set in motion if no other dominant philosophy curtails their influence. It can quickly make politics less of a moral discipline and more of a slave-mechanism to promote the market.[19] It can also train people to think of themselves as “consumers” as a matter of identity, or to perceive interpersonal relationships in utilitarian terms,[20] and it can lead us to rate “success” in terms of wealth rather than virtue.[21] There is also the spiritual danger inherent in being led to trust too much in ourselves, in our society, and in the security of money. As Basil said: “For many, it is prosperity of life that constitutes the greatest trial.”[22]

Now that capitalism has been examined, we move to our ultimate goal: considering the matter of an individual Christian’s ethical choices within this system. The truth is, even if we wanted to, it would be tremendously difficult to stop being capitalists (it would require not using banks and growing all our own food, for instance). We should also realize that a boycott against particular capitalist ventures would undoubtedly lead to unforeseen adverse consequences to others in the global economic system, perhaps especially against the poor (such is the nature of the interconnected web of global trade).[23] What, then, should we do? Two paths of interaction with capitalism are advisable on the individual level. First, it is worthwhile to know a little bit about the brands we buy, and to try to support those firms that are actively working to address capitalism’s many blind spots. ("Fair trade" products are almost always a good moral investment.) However, given the number of brands out there, this would be an inordinately time-consuming task for most Christians, and not the most efficient way of addressing the problem. (Further, it can lead to the temptation to be judgmental against those who choose not to boycott the brands you boycott. It’s worth remembering C. S. Lewis’ observation: “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up.”)[24] The second path is the more effective: through your vote and political voice, push for governmental regulations in international trade and labor markets such that exploitation of workers and unjust treatment of the poor at the supply end of the economic chain become ever more rare.[25]

[1] Ronald H. Nash, Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism (Crossway: Westchester, IL, 1986), 49. See also: Timothy, Taylor, “Supply and Demand (Lecture 3),” Economics, 3rd ed., The Teaching Company.
[2] John R. Muether, “Money and the Bible,” and Virgil Hartgerink, “The Protestant Ethic of Prosperity,” Christian History, No. 14 (1987), Christian History Interactive CD-ROM.
[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Macmillan: New York, 1962), 64.
[4] Thomas Aquinas, “Selling and Lending: An Excerpt from the Summa Theologica,” Christian History, No. 14 (1987), Christian History Interactive CD-ROM.
[5] E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Crossway: Westchester, IL, 1988), 108.
[6] Nash, 72-73.
[7] Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World, Kindle edition (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2012), Location 2604.
[8] Nash, 74; and Beisner, 98.
[9] See, for instance, Basil the Great’s sermon “Against Those Who Lend at Interest,” On Social Justice, Popular Patristics, No. 38 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 2009), 89-99.
[10] Taylor, “Inequality: Lecture 16.”
[11] Beisner, 196; and Nash, 187.
[12] For example, when the US decided to donate its surplus wheat to Nicaragua in a time of crisis, this well-intentioned gift drove many local farmers to bankruptcy. Cf. Taylor, “Price Floors and Ceilings: Lecture 4.”
[13] Nash, 193.
[14] Far from encouraging greed, in fact, many of the richest people in the world, including Bill Gates, have signed the “Billionaire’s Pledge”: to give away at least half of their fortunes to charity before they die.
[15] Nash 76; and Beisner 193.
[16] Taylor, “Negative Externalities and the Environment: Lecture 12.”
[17] Bell, Kindle locations 1203 and 1591
[18] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (IVP: Downer’s Grove, 2003).424.
[19] Bell, Kindle location 981.
[20] Ibid., Kindle locations 481 and 1409.
[21] See John Chrysostom, “First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man,” On Wealth and Poverty, Popular Patristics, No. 9 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 1981), 36.
[22] Basil the Great, “I Will Tear Down My Barns,” On Social Justice, 59.
[23] For example, movements like the “buy local” campaign are good for local economies in the short term, but they will depress the global economy overall if pursued too strongly. See Beisner, 93-95.
[24] C. S. Lewis, quoted in Gilbert Meilaender, Things that Count (ISI Books: Wilmington, 2000), 193.
[25] Stassen and Gushee, 424-425.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Photo of the Week

I am God, your God...
I know every bird in the mountains,
And the insects in the fields are mine.

- Psalm 50:7b, 11

Monday, November 06, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Had I a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might present unto God one year of such devotion and good works as I never before so much as intended."

- William Law, author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

Give me to be thy child, and learn for ever at thy knee.
Give me to grow weak and grey-headed, since thou willst it so.
Bid me aside
Lay all the pleasures of my youth and pride,
Gladness as well,
Sweet ardours and bright hopes—I’ll not rebel.

Only, I pray, keep me beside thee all the night and day,
Only for all thou takest give thyself and past recall!
And when youth’s gone
As men count going, twixt us two alone
Still let me be
Thy little child, left learning at thy knee.

- "Amor Dei," anonymous