Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Thoughts on Christians in the Workplace

It has been suggested to me by a woman in my church that a series of lectures on the issue of Christians in the workplace would be helpful, for the issue of job dissatisfaction is being experienced rather accutely by many. In the light of this, I'd like to put the issue on the table, offer some thoughts (which I may unpack in detail in subsequent posts), and get some feedback from you, the faithful reader.

First, I take it as pretty much incontrovertible that all (legitimate) vocations, though common and not holy, are potentially God-honoring. Further, this involves no transformation or redemption of anything. Since adjectives are not adverbs, a non-holy job (accounting) can be done holily, thus glorifying the Lord while retaining the common and secular nature of the work itself.

Secondly, there is a built-in ache that accompanies all earthly toil. As Vos taught us, eschatology precedes soteriology, which means, among other things, that the frustration we feel is supposed to be there.

Thirdly, the nature of our market-driven society, in which we are forced to compete with one another for wages, for position, and for power necessarily compounds the frustration people feel. Work, for many Americans, is not just some thing we have to do for eight hours a day in order to have enough money to enjoy our extra-curricular lives, but it has become our lives.

Fourthly, many have reached a point where they have ceased even asking out loud whether they are working too much. If you are a manager, a partner, or an executive, you pretty much have to put in sixty-plus hours a week, right? The ladder only goes in one direction (up), so unless you want your personal stock to plummet, you'd better keep climbing.

Fifthly, the mantra that we must do all things "with excellence" is most often applied to those areas where excellence is rewarded in a visible and worthwhile way. In a meritocracy, a 10% pay increase is worth more than a "World's Greatest Dad" coffee mug.

Lastly, every culture has its blindspots, which make certain verses in the Bible seem non-sensical. In Uganda, it's the one about not starting to build a house without making sure you have the money to finish it. In Hungary, it's the one where Peter says that the disciples can't possibly be drunk since it's only 9am. Maybe for us capitalists it's the one that condemns the withholding of just wages from laborers for the purpose of living lives of earthly luxury and self-indulgence?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Overlap and Eschatology

I mentioned earlier this month that on one level it is impossible for anyone to hermetically seal off her theology from her views on matters civil and earthly. This is not due, however, to the line separating the kingdoms being blurred or erased, but to the fact that the believer herself straddles that line.

The overlap, then, exists not within the earthly and heavenly kingdoms themselves, but within us as we attempt to navigate them in this age.

For my own part, the overlap is probably most evident in my thoughts being drawn to the identity of the underdog, the powerless, and the oppressed. I recently re-read the words of black writer Langston Hughes in his 1930s poem "Lenox Avenue Mural":
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?

Or maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

There seems (to me at least) to be an affinity between the status of the civil and spiritual underdog. I'm not saying that to be powerless in one sphere is to be the same in the other (the two kingdoms remain distinct), but I am saying that it is not without significance that Jesus described the blessed man as the one who is spiritually poor, mournful, thirsty, and persecuted.

Since my theological convictions—particularly my amillennial eschatology, which I regard as simply code for "suffering now, glory later"—are such that I have come to consider the church's underdog status to be normative and even conducive to her health, it is only natural that my thoughts are also drawn to the powerless in the civil kingdom as well. In a word, I tend to side with the weaker of the two sides in most disputes.

And the flipside of this is that I can't help but wonder how those whose earthly affinities lie with the wealthy and powerful cannot necessarily be uncomfortable with a poor and powerless church?

Maybe others can be more "regally schizophrenic" than I can, but I would have a much easier time with the War on Terror if I were a postmillennialist.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Romney and Blair: Nutters Both?

Well, after much speculation, it is now official: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has converted to Roman Catholicism.

As when Dr. Francis Beckwith abandoned his post as president of the Evangelical Theological Society for the greener pastures of Rome, my reaction is to yawn, and then wonder what's for dinner.

I will make a few observations, though.

First, anyone who thinks that the Christian world is still divided between Catholics and Protestants is stuck in the sixteenth century. The Anglicanism that Blair jettisoned, much like Beckwith's former evangelicalism, is more similar to Catholicism than most care to admit, for various reasons.

Secondly, when our focus shifts from doctrine to piety, confessional Reformed theology is much closer to the Vatican than to Saddleback.

Thirdly, as Mitt Romney has been arguing, the minutiae of one's theology, despite our insistence to the contrary, has little bearing on his or her discharging of public duties. The next time we ask whether one who believes he will become a god one day is fit to have access to "the button," we should then pause to inquire the same of someone who believes that the earth stopped rotating for a day so the Amorites could be slain in Gibeon (is it not written in the Book of Jashar?).

The article cited goes on to say that "The former prime minister told the BBC this year that he had avoided talking about his religious views while in office for about 10 years for fear of being labeled 'a nutter.'"

I'm speculating here, but I'll wager that if Romney is elected, American evangelical culture warriors will expect the Latter-Day Saint to hold his tongue about the whole "Jesus is Lucifer's brother" thing. But if President Huckabee shies away from publically affirming that Jesus walked out of a grave on Easter morning, he'll be stoned for denying such a reasonable proposition.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Decentralization of All Power

Submitted by John Terranova (A.K.A. Johnny T)

Starting with a distinction between the sacred and the secular, I approach the question of government with the belief that both Christians and non-Christians have equal insight and wisdom concerning this realm. As a topic of general revelation, I tend to side-step questions about the divine intentions of government -- rather than trying to discover the "nature" of government, I think we are free to create what ever form of social organization we need to. Personally, the government that I like best is the government that does the best job of promoting peaceful coexistence with everybody (a sentiment I assume most people will share with me).

I think that Libertarian-Socialism offers some ideas that might help achieve this desired end. Basically, Libertarian-Socialism wants to decentralize power -- to diffuse power as much as possible. Classic Capitalist-Libertarianism shares this basic goal, but has failed to achieve it. Capitalist-Libertarianism stifles the centralization of State power, but it promotes the concentration of private power. Today, the largest multi-national corporations have more global power and influence than many countries. Just as unchecked State power can result in massive abuses, so unchecked private power can result in the same abuses -- power can be abused whether it is public or private.

Libertarianism tries to offer the individual as much personal freedom as possible. Capitalist-Libertarianism tends to judge personal freedoms in economic terms -- the more stuff people have, the more they can consume, the happier they are; it positions people as consumers, choosing our favorite brands in the market place.

Socialist-Libertarianism recognizes that people are more than consumers, and that in addition to certain economic needs, people also need free time, family and social interaction, quality of life, and quality of environment. Around 200 years of Capitalist experimentation demonstrates that concentrated private power reduces the quality of these non-economic aspects of our lives. Without labor laws, the free market creates extremely oppressive working conditions that dehumanize workers (examples include Victorian England, pre-labor law industrialized USA, and contemporary developing countries that expose their work forces to the Capitalist policies of the WTO, IMF and World Bank).

Libertarian Socialism seeks to protect individuals from oppressive public AND private power. To do this, the government would need to be strong and independent enough to resist private interests from hijacking public social structures. This strong government's role would be to ensure the public's freedom from both private and public institutions. The government would have the role of policing itself -- but since this creates problems of accountability, complete governmental transparency would be necessary. This transparency would allow for both public and private scrutiny of everything that takes place in the public domain.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Limited Government Defended

Submitted by Darryl Hart

In theory the two-kingdom position allows for any form of government, from monarchy to socialism conceivably. In practice though, many two-kingdom advocates like myself favor the American form of government which involves at its best constitutionalism, federalism, the separation of powers and limited government. Is there something inherently two-kingdom about this form of governance?

If you believe in the fallenness of man, and you don’t need to be a Christian to do so, then it follows that decentralizing power is a good thing. To consolidate power in one person, office, or government agency may and usually does result in abuse of power for unwholesome ends.

Historically, tyranny of the worst kind has resulted from unrestricted state power. Centralization of the state only makes such tyranny more efficient. Churches have suffered repeatedly from states without limited power. Efforts to make Puritans and Presbyterians conform to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rule produced an anti-authoritarian streak in Anglo-American Calvinism. A similar logic lays behind the concerns of those who would try to protect the authority of parents to rear children according to their own convictions.

Churches and families are not the only sort of mediating structures that suffer when states control more areas of society than they should. Voluntary associations of all sorts, from newspapers to baseball leagues, would not exist if the state were to regulate all aspects of social life.

Limited government is counterintuitive to some because it requires trusting others to oversee their affairs. It also assumes that a measure of order will emerge from a decentralized polity. The economist, Friedrick Hayek, talked about spontaneous order arising from the seemingly disparate efforts of actors with much less authority of the state taking charge of specific segments of society. This was order from the bottom up rather than the top down. If one believes that the health of local communities is crucial to the health of a nation, then limited government is an important way to protect the prerogatives of towns, counties and regions.

The particular aspect of the two-kingdom doctrine that lends itself to limited government is the inherent recognition of two powers, the church and the state (the family is also in the mix). When you already have two authorities you automatically have some limits on each. Living with the idea of two different powers overseeing your life could well explain why 2k folks lean toward the state’s power being restricted. Its power is not the only game in town.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The View from the Other End of the Club

It has been pointed out, correctly I think, that the world looks very different depending on whether you have your boot on your enemy's neck, or he has his boot on yours. While power is a sought-after commodity, there is also something to be said for the clarity that comes from being on the receiving end of the club.

Returning to Mitt Romney's appeal to allow the common morality that he shares with all people of faith to trump whatever theological differences there may be between him and evangelicals, it must be pointed out that the appeal for tolerance of minority positions is not uncommon for minorities to make.

After all, does not history demonstrate that the rights of those outside the inner circle are never bequeathed from on high, but must be won through popular struggle? Power, whether political, social, or religious, is often clutched with great jealousy lest it be lost. So if you're a woman, an immigrant, or in Romney's case, a Mormon, the clarion call is for civil liberty and the right to be treated as equals in the public square.

The evangelical church (err, excuse me: movement) has not had the best track record in according said civil liberties to those who are demanding them. You see, as long as we are in power, we will use all the muscle we can muster to win the culture war and defeat the godless, feminist, socialist Ivy-Leaguers who would just as soon surrender the American Dream to those A-rabs in the Middle East.

Sure, we can't define justification by faith if given a hundred tries, but by God we're gonna keep those gays at bay if it kills us.

Let's hope that if our millennial dreams shatter like the tables of the Decalogue and we are unseated from the corridors of power, the new occupants will be kinder and gentler than we were.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Romney, Rodney, and the Plea to "Get Along"

It was humorously pointed out in the previous thread that it apparently takes a Mormon like Mitt Romney to recognize the fact that the minutiae of one's theology has much less bearing upon his public service than the "common morality" that he shares with all people of faith.

I'm not sure if what lay behind Romney's appeal is an example of irony, or the most obvious thing in the world.

Think about it: Experience amply demonstrates that, generally speaking, it is the underdog who pleads for leniency and the outsider who calls for tolerance. In our nation's history it wasn't white people who were marching for civil rights, it wasn't Protestants who were calling for an end to religious bigotry, and it wasn't men demanding equal pay for equal work.

As Andrew Meyer can testify, it's the guy with the taser to his chest who cries, "Don't tase me, bro!"

Part and parcel of (fallen) human nature seems to be that one must find himself against the ropes before he will employ the Rodney King defense. Whether the humans in question are religious or not, once the powerless become the powerful, it is no longer time for "just getting along," but for brandishing the sword and taking the land.

If and/or when the church in America becomes completely marginalized in the public square, our religious leaders will begin to whistle a very different tune than they have heretofore. Instead of the sabre-rattling and rhetoric of dominion, we will begin to hear our evangelical leaders make the "live and let live" appeal that their enemies presently invoke.

The problem, however, is that anyone's appeal to the same civil liberties that he has been instrumental in denying the underdog for centuries cannot but sound hypocritical and hollow.

In a word, when Bellick gets sentenced to Fox River, whatever happens next, it won't be good....

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Why Split Doctrinal Hairs?

If you've not yet read D.G. Hart's piece entitled "Jeffersonians All" I would warmly commend it. In it, Darryl draws an interesting parallel between the sentiments expressed by our nation's third President and those of Mitt Romney, the Mormon campaigning for the GOP nomination, in his recent much-discussed speech.

Romney's "Jeffersonian moment," Hart argues, came not when he assured his hearers (as did JFK during his presidential bid) that if elected he would vow to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and not the Book of Mormon or the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Instead, Hart argues:
"The actual Jeffersonian moment came just before his appeal to the separation of church and state. Romney ran through the religious virtues of fellow believers, from the profundity of the Roman Catholic Mass to the prayer life of Muslims. He then said, 'It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.' The 'great moral principles,' he explained, 'urge us on a common course.' Romney... affirmed Jefferson’s view that theology doesn't matter compared to ethics. An American may believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that there are three persons in one God, or that men and women have the potential to become gods. But as long as he or she believes in the nation's great moral principles they make darned good neighbors."
The irony of Romney's appeal to ethics over doctrine, Hart argues, is that it is usually only employed by evangelical Protestants, or Roman Catholics like Kennedy, whose churches at least affirm the Trinity and deity of Christ. But when a Mormon plays the deeds-over-creeds card, those Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of a Latter-Day Saint in the White House all of a sudden become very theologically scrupulous and doctrinaire (I mean, the culture war is at stake here!).

For this turning of the faith-based tables Romney should be commended, for he has articulated what many have been thinking all along: Advocates of religion in public life have never cared about doctrinal precision, so as long as one's religion affirms the correct political ideals, then what's the harm?

After all, if the spiritual kingdom is destined to be the handmaiden of the State anyway, then why split hairs?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

On Hermetic Sealing, Overlap, and Boys Who Cry "Wolf!"

I have been noticing some misunderstandings with respect to the doctrine of the two kingdoms that I'd like to try to clear up, if I may.

First, two-kingdoms theology does not teach that one may not factor in any of his Christian presuppositions when considering an a-religious topic. As some of my faithful readers have ably pointed out, no individual can seal his various viewpoints off with such hermetical precision.

While we distinguish between what the Bible clearly teaches and that to which it may be loosely applied (think the Trinity and economics respectively), we still may say that my view of the latter may be informed by certain theological presuppositions about, say, the imago Dei. But we must also allow that another who shares those presuppositions may come to a different conclusion about the issue in question.

Secondly, two-kingdoms thinking does not deny that there is cultic/cultural intersection and overlap in discussion about difficult issues. But it is crucial to remember that the tension does not lie in the kingdoms themselves. The kingdom of Christ is concerned with spiritual and eternal affairs and advances by Word and sacrament. The kingdom of man, on the other hand, is furthered by carnal weaponry for earthly and temporal ends. Both are legitimate and God-ordained, but distinct nonetheless.

I, however, happen to live in both of them, and hence the tension. Though for the most part I can distinguish a secular issue from a sacred one, that doesn't mean that I can as easily identify where my own existential lines are drawn.

Finally, we must realize that the more contemporary issues to which we seek to apply the Bible, the less authoritative the Bible will become in the eyes of the world. In the same way that paying off our nation's debts by printing a few trillion dollars will devalue our currency, so citing chapter and verse to prove both justification by faith alone and the value of laissez faire economics will only serve to lessen rather than increase its relevance. If you're going to cry "Wolf!", there'd better really be one, at least if you want the townsfolk to take you seriously.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Hermeneutics of Convenience

I find it interesting how arbitrary we Christians can be with respect to what we think is Scripture's clear position on various hot-button issues. What most discussions amount to, at the end of the day, is that the Bible condemns all the things I don't like, while the things I approve of either enjoy the divine stamp of approval, or are at the most unaddressed, or murkily so.

So if you're an American evangelical, then the Bible obviously condemns abortion, while the War on Terror is tantamount to Israel's storming of Jericho. The fact that the former position rests on little direct biblical evidence while the latter rests on bad eschatology seldom comes up, if at all.

If you're a European or British Christian, on the other hand, you are most likely passionately in favor of movements like Make Trade Fair and movies like SiCKO (both of which are considered by Americans as rather liberal).

The same "wink, wink" tactics are employed in the political arena. While Republicans and Democrats disagree over whether the Iraq War is being fought correctly, there is little discussion over whether the U.S. has the right to invade other countries if it sees fit to do so. The two parties may differ on the degree to which the federal government should spend money on social programs for the poor, but there is complete agreement on the glories of the free market.

Regardless of which kingdom we're dealing with, and of what our personal convictions may be with respect to it, it is certainly a healthy thing to lay aside the hermeneutics of convenience every now and then and allow our sacred cows to be challenged. Maybe we'll end up standing our ground, but at least we'll have the benefit of saying that we weren't afraid of a little scrutiny now and again.