Friday, September 28, 2012

Why the Reformation Was Necessary – III

    In the providence of God it fell to Martin Luther to wrestle with the central question of how a man is made righteous in the sight of God. What he came to realize as a result of his own personal struggle is that God is perfectly holy and can scrutinize the human heart, and thus it is impossible for anyone to escape judgment. No one can produce works of merit or make satisfaction for his own sins. And then when Luther turned to the Bible and began to understand the thrust of Paul's argument in Romans, he realized that a sinner is justified by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and that this is received by faith.
    Tragically, when the Catholic Church finally took up formal consideration of justification at the Council of Trent, it basically restated what had become the standard view of the late medieval church. Baptism removes the stain of original sin, but after that the Christian must cooperate with divine grace to produce actual works of righteousness. Sins committed after baptism are dealt with through the sacrament of penance, which consists of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. To those who thus succeed in achieving righteousness, "eternal life is . . . a reward promised by God Himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits" (Doctrine concerning Justification, Chapter XVI). Those justified "have, by those very works which have been done in god, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life . . ." (Ibid.). Sadly, this remains the official position of the Roman Catholic Church to this day (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 1989-1993).
    By the time of the Reformation, then, the gap between the practice of the Catholic Church and the plain teaching of Scripture was obvious. The Reformers were confronted with a stark choice between loyalty to the Church and faithfulness to Christ. The crisis finally came to a head when Martin Luther made his famous declaration at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521: "If I have not been refuted by the evidence of Scripture or by plain rational arguments, then I remain convinced by the Scripture passages which I have cited, and my conscience remains captive to God's Word. For I have faith neither in the Pope nor in the councils by themselves, since it is manifest that they have often gone astray and contradicted themselves. I can and will retract nothing, since it is neither safe nor advisable to do something against one's conscience. So help me God, Amen." The breach was never repaired.
    Tragically, for all practical purposes the Catholic Church has ceased to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and millions of its communicants languish in spiritual darkness as a result. The Reformation, on the other hand, resulted in the proclamation of the gospel with a clarity that had not been seen in centuries. Untold multitudes have found new life in Christ, and even entire nations were transformed.
    It is possible, then, for a Roman Catholic to find salvation, provided that he looks to Christ as his Savior. But to do so he must overlook centuries of tradition and the official teaching of the Church. There are Catholics that we are honored to claim as brothers and sisters in Christ. But the Church itself remains badly in need of reform. Only when it returns to Scripture will it be the true Church of Christ that it claims to be.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why the Reformation was Necessary – II

    As we saw in our last blog post the better Roman Catholic theologians have always recognized that it is the death of Christ on the cross that saves us from sin. Unfortunately over the centuries there was much that crept into Roman Catholic theology that obscured this central truth of the gospel. Chief among these unbiblical notions was the Sacrament of Penance. Here it was held that a Christian has to make satisfaction for sins committed after baptism. By the late Middle Ages we have a theologian like Gabriel Biel distinguishing between different kinds of merit that pertain to good works.
    There were other factors that crept in as well. There was the intercession of Mary and the saints, which implied that God Himself was unwilling to forgive sins. And then the mass itself was transformed from its original significance (a "Eucharist," or thanksgiving) into an "oblation," a sacrifice offered by a priest on an altar. Instead of thanking God for what He has done for us in Christ, we are earnestly begging Him to accept from our hands what we are offering to Him. Thus God was transformed, as it were, into an implacable Deity, and nothing the penitent could do would bring lasting peace or assurance of acceptance with God.
    The profound hopelessness and despair of medieval Catholicism was brought out in the hymn "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath), which once formed part of the Latin requiem mass. After giving a vivid description of the Last Judgment, the author (thought to be Thomas of Alano, a Thirteenth Century Franciscan) goes on to plead for mercy: "I groan like one condemned and am red with shame for my sins; spare Your suppliant servant. You forgave Mary and granted the robber's prayer, and thus gave me hope as well. Though my prayers do not deserve to be heard, yet in Your goodness graciously bring it about that I do not burn in the unquenchable fire." Thus the central truth of the gospel, that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation, and that we receive this salvation through faith in Christ, was effectively lost. How did it happen? Several factors contributed. One was an undue emphasis on tradition, which resulted in errors being perpetuated and multiplied. "Another was confusion over the meaning of the word "justification," which most Catholic theologians took to mean, based on the word's Latin etymology, the impartation of an infused righteousness. But whatever the cause, the end result was that many Catholics came to believe that their salvation ultimately depended on merits which they themselves possessed.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why the Reformation was Necessary - I

    Roger E. Olson, one of the many excellent bloggers at (, recently posted a blog entitled "Confession of an Ecumenical, Evangelical, Baptist Christian," with emphasis on "ecumenical" and "Baptist." This prompted a discussion about whether or not Roman Catholics should be considered Christians and whether it is possible for a Baptist to have fellowship with a Catholic. We admire Dr. Olson's irenic spirit, but wonder at times if he has gone a bit too far.
    It must be admitted at the outset that the Roman Catholic Church has always adhered to the Nicene Creed, and has always professed that Christ is the Son of God, "Who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven." It has always professed faith in "the remission of sins." The better Catholic theologians have always understood that the death of Christ on the cross was an atonement for sin. They understood this, of course, sacramentally: sins are washed away in baptism and Christ is physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But the locus of their faith was on Christ, and He was recognized as the Savior from sin. Thus Anselm of Canterbury could say: "What then is the strength and power of your salvation and where is it found? Christ has brought you back to life. He is the good Samaritan, who healed you. He is the good friend who redeemed you and set you free by laying down his life for you. Christ did all this. So the strength of your salvation is the strength of Christ." (Prayers & Meditations, "Meditation on Human Redemption").
    Likewise we have a beautiful Eucharistic hymn by Thomas Aquinas in which he says: "I do not see thy wounds, like Thomas;/ Yet I confess Thee my God. / Grant that I may ever more and more / Believe in Thee, hope in Thee, love Thee . . .Pelican of mercy, Jesus Lord, / Cleanse me, unclean, by Thy blood, / Of which one drop is enough / To wash the world of all sin . . ." ("Adoro te devote")
    The experience of Thomas a Kempis is especially interesting, in that it parallels, in some ways, that of Martin Luther nearly a hundred years later. The first two books of The Imitation of Christ are typical of medieval piety and the theology on which it was based. Here we find Thomas saying such things as "For there a man doth profit most and merit more abundant grace, where he doth most overcome himself and mortify his spirit" (I.25.3). Here "grace" apparently refers to a kind of infused righteousness, and this is why speaks of a man "meriting grace"!
    But when we come to Book III of The Imitation we now encounter a deeper awareness of sin. Here we have Thomas making statements such as this: "Oh, how humbly and lowly ought I to think of myself; of how little worth, whatever good I may seem to have!" (III.14.3).
    Finally, when we come to Book IV we see Thomas placing his faith firmly in Christ, albeit in a Christ Who is literally received in the Eucharist: "But here, in the Sacrament of the altar, Thou art really present, my God, the man Christ Jesus; where also is derived, in full copiousness, the fruit of eternal salvation, as often as Thou art worthily and devoutly received. To this, indeed, we are not drawn by any levity, curiosity, or sensuality, but by a firm, devout hope, and a sincere charity" (IV.1.9). Thus we can see in Thomas a Kempis, as well as in Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, a genuine faith in Christ, in that they were looking to Him as their Redeemer and Savior from sin. If we are justified by faith, they are undoubtedly in heaven.


Next: How the Catholic Church lost the way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Promise of Prayer

    There is perhaps no area of the Christian life in which the modern church is more deficient than the area of prayer. We labor unceasingly in evangelism and outreach, yet see little lasting results. We struggle to survive in an increasingly secular and hostile culture, and are tempted to grow weary and discouraged. Yet we fail to make use of the instrument that the Bible says is the key to success: prayer!
    Jesus addressed this issue explicitly right at the very beginning of Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount He tells us, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Matt. 7:7; NKJV). Jesus went on to explain how this works by using an illustration. A human father has a son who asks for bread. In a normal human society (not the corrupt, degenerate one we have today) fathers care about their children. In this instance, then, how would the father respond? By giving his son a stone? Not hardly! The father would care deeply about his son's well-being. If the son needs bread, the father will give it to him if it is in his power to do so. And so it is that if God is our heavenly Father He delights to answer prayer. There is no reason for us to do without things we legitimately need.
    There is a condition attached to this, however. We must "ask," "seek," and "knock." God's blessings do not usually fall automatically, unsolicited, from the sky. If they did we would take them for granted and ignore the One Who bestowed them. We must ask for them. "Seeking" and "knocking" in particular imply persistent effort. God wants us to love Him with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, and with all of our strength (Dt. 6:4). To test the sincerity of our devotion God sometimes withholds the blessing until we ask for it in earnest, and then when the answer finally comes, sometimes in the unlikeliest of circumstances, it is evident that it came from God Himself. The problem with the modern church is that it is too apathetic to seek and knock.
    Perhaps the most famous modern example of the efficacy of prayer was George Muller. Muller (1805-1898) started an orphanage in Bristol, England, which grew in size to five buildings and housed over 2,000 orphans at a time. Yet Muller never solicited donations from contributors. It call came as answers to prayer. At time his faith was sorely tested, but in the end God always provided. A more recent example of a ministry built on prayer is that of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, led by Jim Cymbala.
    During the dark, dreary days when Israel was in exile in Babylon god said, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." But then He goes on to describe how this will happen: "Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity . . ." (Jer. 29:11-14).
    Are we willing to seek God with all of our hearts?

Thursday, September 13, 2012


    "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). How often have we heart that quoted as a means of deflecting criticism! Sometimes the reaction is quite justified – we have all encountered the nosy busybodies who freely offer their negative opinions on just about everything. But sometimes it is not justified; the text is being used as a cover for our unwillingness to take the demands of discipleship seriously. And unfortunately, in today's spiritual climate, all too many churches are filled with members who do not want to live the Christian life, but nevertheless want to be accepted as good Christians.
    "Judge not." What exactly did Jesus mean when He said that? Was He calling for a complete suspension of spiritual discernment? Not hardly. He goes on to say, only five verses later, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs" (v. 6; NKJV).
    What Jesus probably had in mind was the attitude of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect noted for their strict interpretation of the Law, including all of the ceremonial and dietary requirements. Not everyone in Jewish society shared their outlook, however. Then, as now, there were non-observant Jews, and this included a large mass of the common people who were either too ignorant or too unmotivated to bother with law keeping. As one leading rabbi of the time put it, "an ignorant man cannot be saintly" (Hillel, quoted in m. Aboth 2:6). The actual Hebrew phrase translated "ignorant man" is "Am-haaretz," the "people of the land," a term of contempt applied to the ignorant and ceremonially unclean masses.
    Jesus described the attitude of the Pharisees in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in which the Pharisee prays (!): "God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11,12). The tax collector, who collected taxes under contract for the Roman government, was undoubtedly guilty of many sins, including extortion and injustice. But what Jesus condemned was the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee.
    In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explains further what He means. He tells His listeners, "with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" (v. 2). In other words, we should apply to others the same standard that we apply to ourselves. Is the problem something that we would excuse in ourselves? Then it is too minor to criticize in someone else. Is it a major problem that cannot be ignored? If it were a problem in me, and I knew it had to be dealt with, how would I want someone else to approach me? Then perhaps I can approach the other person with real integrity.
    Jesus then goes on to describe the sheer hypocrisy of criticizing someone else for some trivial offense ("the speck in your brother's eye"), while ignoring our more serious offenses ("the plank in your own eye").
    No, this text does not call us to suspend all moral judgment; there are numerous passages of Scripture telling us to exercise discernment and to reject what is plainly bad. But let us approach our fellow human beings with a sense of real humility, recognizing that we have all fallen far short of God's perfect standard. And let our aim be restoration, not condemnation. In so doing we will show love toward one another and bring glory to God.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Financial Anxiety

    Jesus recognized that one cause of excessive preoccupation with money was financial insecurity. Not everyone is obsessed with getting rich. Some of us are obsessed with just making ends meet. The spiritual effect, however, is pretty much the same: we are too preoccupied with the concerns of this life to give much attention to the next.
    And so it is that Jesus goes on next in the Sermon on the Mount to address the issue of financial anxiety. "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; not about your body, what you will put on" (Matt. 6:25; NKJV). "But," someone will ask, "how can I not worry about these things? My financial problems are both real and pressing." Jesus addresses this concern, first of all, by reminding us of a basic fact of life: "Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing"? As real as our material concerns may be, they should never become our only concerns. We should never neglect the spiritual for the sake of the material. Even in the midst of financial crisis we must keep things in perspective. Eternity outweighs the temporal.
    But we are still faced with the question, how can we avoid worrying about our temporal circumstances when they are so real and pressing? In answer to this Jesus point to the care that God exercises over nature, and argues, in effect, that God will exercise the same care over us. The argument assumes, of course, that God is in fact the Creator of nature. That being the case, nature reveals the power, wisdom and goodness of God in the marvelous way that everything fits together and functions as a complete system. It is true, of course, that species have a capacity to adapt to their environments. But who created the environments? And who created the ability to adapt? The environment must first be inhabitable, and the ability to adapt is the result of marvelously complex genetic mechanism. God is the Creator of them both.
    What all of this tells us about God is that He is concerned about the well-being of every living being. And if He would structure the bird so that it would thrive in its environment, why would He not also care about us as human beings? "Are you not of more value than they?" Jesus asks (v. 26).
    Then Jesus considers another aspect of the problem. "Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" (v. 27 – a "cubit" was a unity of measure about 20 inches long). Worrying, by itself accomplishes nothing. There are some circumstances (such as your physical height) that you simply cannot change. What, then, is the point of worrying about them? In some cases we need to accept what we cannot change.
    Jesus then lays down the basic principle in all this: "but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (v. 33). What it all comes down to is priorities. What is more important in our lives – God, or our own personal comfort? God is our Creator and Redeemer. He has promised to protect and sustain us. If we have committed ourselves to serve Him then we will put His concerns first, and trust in Him to meet our needs later. This is the only way to succeed in the Christian life. To become preoccupied with our personal needs is a sure prescription for spiritual failure.
    How, then can we keep our priorities straight? One way is to organize our schedule and our budget. We should set aside a certain amount of time and money for our time alone with God and His work. But the real answer to anxiety is prayer. "I waited patiently for the Lord; And He inclined to me, And heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, And established by steps" (Ps. 40:1,2). In prayer we turn to God and look to Him to meet our needs. Faith is the answer to anxiety, and faith is exercised in prayer. "Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, And He shall bring it to pass" (Ps. 37:5).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Boom and Bust

    One of the characteristic features of a free market economy is the "business cycle" – alternating periods of expansion and contraction. During the Nineteenth Century America went through this cycle on a regular basis, with a "panic" every twenty years or so (1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893). The biggest one of all, of course, was occasioned by the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930's. The question is, are these "panics" normal, the inevitable way the market works, or can they somehow be avoided?
    There are obviously a lot of factors that influence the economy: weather conditions, wars, political developments, foreign competition. But in the American experience, at least, there are certain recurring patterns that are especially interesting. There would typically be a period of prosperity with a rapid expansion of the economy, often driven by some new technology – the railroad, the automobile, the computer. Convinced that the prosperity would go on forever, people would engage in speculation – in land, commodities or stocks – hoping to make a quick profit. There was an expansion of credit, accompanied by loose lending policies. And then, unfortunately, there was crime, sometimes in the form of embezzlement at a bank. Then the whole thing would collapse. Stock prices fall, banks fail, credit dries up, investors are ruined, and someone goes to jail. The human tragedy of all this is that millions of hardworking people lose their jobs and suffer real privation and want as a result. It would then sometimes take years for the economy back on its feet.
    In a modern industrialized economy a banking system and a stock market are probably necessary; otherwise it would be nearly impossible to raise the amount of capital necessary to expand business. Unfortunately, however, both banks and the stock market lend themselves to abuse. It is all too easy to "create" money by fiat through the use of credit, and to make a "profit" through speculation. But it is all fake. Paper profits are not real profits and dept is not wealth. Eventually reality catches up with the markets and the false prosperity disappears. Debt financing , in particular, exacerbates the boom / bust cycle by creating an artificial demand which drives up prices, and then choking the expansion off suddenly when credit dries up.
    What is often overlooked in the discussions about the economy is the underlying psychology of the market. Economics is, after all, a form of human behavior, and human behavior is driven by psychology. Economics is all about the way individual human beings make financial decisions. And what is often overlooked in particular is the ugly fact of sin. We are fallen creatures by nature, and as a result our decisions are not always rational, nor do they always work for the common good. Greed, in particular, often manifests itself in excessive debt, speculation, and outright fraud.
    The Bible does, in fact, have something to say about all of this. "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (I Tim. 6:9,10; NKJV). Here we have the autopsy of a financial crisis. The problem starts with ambition ("those who desire to be rich"), which leads to risky and unethical ventures and greed ("many foolish and harmful lusts," lusts being self-centered desires of whatever sort), and ends in ruin ("destruction and perdition," or "ruin and destruction," as it might also be translated. The ruin and destruction might be either financial or spiritual).
    Paul then goes on to make a general observation: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . ." (v. 10). Greed is an aggressive primal urge which, if unrestrained, will wreak havoc everywhere. It will destroy others and will eventually bring ruin to ourselves.
    Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that "a native of the United States clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications" (Democracy in America, I.II.XIII). In reality mammon is the idol we bow down and worship.
    "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?"
                            (Mark 8:36).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: A Lesson in Faith and Politics

Since the Democratic National Convention is currently going on, I thought it would be appropriate to rerun a previous post about my all-time favorite Democrat.
Today we often think of Evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives as being aligned with the Republican Party. The Democrats are usually thought of as the party of the secular left - - staunch supporters of legalized abortion and advocates of "gay rights." It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the leader of the Democratic Party one hundred years ago was a devout Evangelical Christian: William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a renown orator, three-time candidate for President, and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He closed his career as a prosecutor in the famous Scopes evolution trial of 1925.
Bryan was a loyal Democrat if there ever was one. He held to the traditional view of his party that the honest, hardworking laboring men and women of America were being systematically exploited by the wealthy financiers on Wall Street. Therefore Bryan saw it as his Christian duty to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. And so he began his political career by promoting the free coinage of silver as a way of expanding the money supply and thereby easing the burden on debt ridden farmers. He favored lower tariffs and was an early proponent of a federal income tax. He attacked trusts and monopolies and advocated the government ownership of railroads. Although reluctant at first, he eventually became a whole-hearted supporter of the prohibition movement (Democrats traditionally opposed prohibition.) After the Spanish-American War of 1898 he opposed the annexation of the Philippines. He was generally opposed to war, and resigned from Woodrow Wilson's cabinet over what he perceived as a bias in favor of the allied powers. Bryan was seen as a dangerous radical in his lifetime, but he was also a hero to millions of farmers and workers in rural America who admired his eloquence, moral fervor, and patent sincerity.
Bryan's last great battle was against the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. Today we often see Creationism as a conservative cause, at odds with the liberal, progressive policies Bryan espoused throughout his career. But in Bryan's own mind the two were closely linked together. Evolution was about the ruthless struggle for existence - - the survival of the fittest. Progressive politics, however, rested on the moral foundation of Christian compassion. Social Darwinism is the very antithesis of the Social Gospel. And to use taxpayer money to tear down civilization was utterly beyond Bryan's comprehension. Accordingly he advocated outlawing the teaching of evolution in tax supported schools.
The major test case came in 1925 when John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, TN, was arrested for teaching evolution in class. Bryan was invited to join the prosecution; the ACLU provided a defense team that included Clarence Darrow, one of the top trial lawyers in the nation, and, ironically, once a political supporter of Bryan. In an unusual move the defense called Bryan himself to the witness stand, and for two hours Darrow subjected Bryan to a withering cross examination in which he tried to make Bryan's faith in the Bible look naïve and ridiculous. As it turned out, Bryan did not get a chance to cross examine Darrow, and as a result Bryan's reputation was irreparably damaged. Bryan died shortly after the trial. It was a tragic end to a heroic life.
Bryan always couched his positions in moral terms. But there were some disturbing inconsistencies in his stance. He was reluctant to challenge his party's position against prohibition at first, and at times he cooperated with Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine in New York City. But the most serious blot on Bryan's character was his attitude toward race relations. The Democratic Party in his day stood firmly for white supremacy and racial segregation, and Bryan throughout his career offered lame excuses for his party's stance. In perhaps the most deplorable episode in his career, Bryan was Secretary of State when President Wilson ordered the segregation of the federal government. Even though the matter was undoubtedly discussed in cabinet meetings, Bryan evidently said nothing in protest. He was too much of a party loyalist to challenge the racial attitudes of his southern white supporters.
This raises an important question for any Christian who takes his faith seriously and loves his country dearly: is it possible for a Christian to participate in the political process without compromising his faith? Bryan certainly thought he could. But Bryan was possessed of a certain naïve optimism about human nature, and at other points he was simply too much a part of his time and culture to see the faults and shortcomings of his own party. It was easy for him to denounce Wall Street plutocrats; it was harder to see fault with the Ku Klux Klan. The former, after all, were Republicans; the latter were loyal Democrats. It was hard for him to find fault with the "good guys" in the ongoing war against evil.
As Americans it is our privilege to choose our own leaders, and it is our duty to vote. But as Christians our first responsibility is toward God, and for this reason we must be careful about aligning ourselves too closely with a secular political party. Parties represent various competing interests in society; as Christians we must be concerned about the common good. Politics is the art of compromise; as Christians we must stand firmly for the truth.
Christians should participate in the political process, but not necessarily in partisan politics. We should be issue oriented, not party oriented. We can accomplish more for the cause of truth by protesting and letter writing than we can by campaigning for a flawed candidate. And sometimes it makes more sense to vote for a minor party candidate than it does to support one of the two major parties that are a part of the established system in Washington. Let every Christian search his own conscience, and act accordingly!    

Monday, September 3, 2012

Capitalism and the Sabbath

Since today is Labor Day here in the US, I thought it would be appropriate to rerun a blogpost from last November.
    Perhaps nowhere is the clash between Capitalism and Christianity seen more clearly than on the issue of the Sabbath.
    Adam Smith famously maintained that in a free market economy an individual is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part of his attention." ". . .the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment [of resources] which is most advantageous to the society" (Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II).
    Frankly, we think that this is a morally dubious proposition. Human nature is self-oriented, and self interest leads naturally to . . . the exploitation of others. Absent government regulation, an active labor movement, or some sort of moral restraint, the profit motive will lead the strong to take advantage of the weak, and frankly, leave them impoverished.
    We have been distressed to see businesses apparently acting without conscience. Convenience stores sell been, cigarettes, lottery tickets and pornography. The "entertainment" industry regularly exploits sex and violence. The food industry pushes oversized portions larded with salt, sugar and fat, creating an obesity pandemic. And most incredibly of all, we find pharmacies selling tobacco products in complete disregard for their own professional standards! It seems that all too often the public welfare is sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits.
    In the current economic crisis conditions in the labor market are especially heart-wrenching. Employers are reluctant to hire, and when the do it is often for part-time or temporary positions at entry level wages on the second shift with no benefits. We were especially appalled to find some local employers (non-union manufacturing jobs) with horrendous mandatory overtime policies. Employees are required to work up to seven days a week and from ten to twelve hours a day. One employer had its employees work 21 days straight. Overtime for the day shift can begin at 4:00 a.m. Under these conditions almost anything in the employee's personal life that requires attention can cost him his job. Apparently it is all legal here in Pennsylvania. Workers with families and obligations outside the job need not apply!
    Some of us are old enough to remember a time when there were "blue laws" – only a very few businesses providing essential public services were permitted to be open on Sundays. These laws have largely gone by the wayside, another casualty of modern "progress" and secular thinking, but in light of current conditions it might be time to bring them back.
    The Sabbath was ancient Israel's labor law. It placed certain restrictions on what an employer could demand from his employees. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord you God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you" (Deut. 5:13,14; NKJV).
    Jesus once told the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mk. 2:27). The Sabbath essentially serves a humanitarian purpose, and it is not hard to see why.
    First of all, we need periodic rest. What our Creator knows is that physically, mentally and emotionally we need intervals between periods of work in which we can relax and refresh ourselves. We are not machines that can run continuously forever without maintenance! We work better on the other six days of the week when we have had time to rest on the seventh.
    Secondly, we need to spend time with our families. Marriages are collapsing and children are growing up without adequate parenting. We need to gather around the dinner table and reconnect. Where will America's future workers learn the values of honesty and hard work if not from their parents and churches?
    Thirdly, we need the Sabbath to keep life in its proper perspective. If all we ever do is work, if all we ever think about is money, then frankly we will become crassly materialistic and subhuman. We will sacrifice family, friends and faith on the altars of Mammon. Six days have been allotted for work, and on the seventh day we need to turn our attention to the higher concerns of life. We need to be in a house of worship thinking about God and how everything fits into the cosmic scheme of things. That, in turn, will give a sense of meaning and purpose to what we do on the other six days.
    Self-interest may be what drives the marketplace, but it is not moral. What God requires of us is a decent regard for the welfare of our fellow human beings. "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! . . .Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth" (James 5:1,4).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Social Agenda of the Tea Party

    This past week witnessed the Republican National Convention, and the official nomination of Mitt Romney as president and Paul Ryan as vice-president. The Republicans, understandably, are emphasizing the economy and Mr. Romney's financial and business expertise.
    It is worth noting that Mr. Ryan has proposed a budget that would cap spending on Medicare and Medicaid (the federal health insurance programs for the elderly and poor, respectively), but does not cut defense spending or raise taxes. A budget reflects one's values and priorities; you spend money on what you think is most important. Mr. Ryan's proposed budget presupposes a philosophy of government – one that is limited, that provides for defense but not the health and welfare of its own citizens. His proposals are sure to spark controversy and debate.
    Large numbers of American evangelicals are expected to vote for the Republican ticket in the Fall. But the Ryan budget raises some serious questions. Does the Republican Party agenda really reflect Christian values?
    What is especially reason for concern is the Republican Party's philosophical underpinnings. The more radical element within the party is known as the "Tea Party movement." The Tea Party, in turn, is vocal in its support of limited government and individual freedom. Its preferred solution to the federal debt crisis would be to cut both spending and taxes.
    Among other things Tea Party activists are critical of the idea of "social justice." Dick Armey and Matte Kibbe, leaders of the major Tea Party organization FreedomWorks, write that "Liberals don't talk about democratic socialism anymore; the prattle on about 'social justice.' They misuse the phrase. Justice means treating every individual with respect and decency and exactly the same as everyone else is treated under the laws of the land. As best as we can tell, 'social justice' translates to really wise elected officials (you know, smarter than you) redistributing your hard-earned income to their social agendas, all dutifully administered by a well intentioned bureaucrat."1
    Much of the Tea Party's philosophy can be traced back to the late Ayn Rand, whose novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were and remain bestsellers. FreedomWorks, in fact, distributes copies of Atlas Shrugged. This fact alone should make Christian conservatives hesitate. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and her ethical system was one of radical egoism.
    In each of Ayn Rand's novels there is a hero who delivers a lengthy speech outlining what is Ms. Rand's philosophy of "objectivism." The speeches typically contain impassioned harangues against altruism, and then go on to argue that true morality is based on self-interest. This, in turn, is used to support a libertarian view of government and free market economics.
    In Ms. Rand's view it is the enterprising individual who, through his intelligence and hard work, earns what he has, and therefore should be allowed to keep it. In Atlas Shrugged one character goes so far as to say "To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement," and then goes on a little while later to say "The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality."2

    Ms. Rand's attacks on altruism bring us to the heart of the issue. Do we have a responsibility for the well-being of others? Ms. Rand's answer is an emphatic "no." To her way of thinking she was accountable to no one but herself. She got where she was by her superior intelligence and the dint of her own hard labor. She owed no one anything. As Chuck Colson pointed out, "It is hard to imagine a world view more antithetical to Christianity."    
    "He has told you, O man, what is good;/ And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly, to love mercy, / And to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8; NKJV).


1 Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (New York, 2010) p. 170
2 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York, 1961), pp. 93-94
3 quoted by columnist Cynthia Tucker