Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Inventing Sin

Inventing Sin

Vatican bishop points to modern social sins


Vatican City, Mar 11, 2008 / 02:02 am (CNA).- A Vatican official has listed a set of “social sins” to draw attention to sinful acts that have social ramifications in an interview with the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican, examined today’s social sins in an interview published Sunday. "While sin used to concern mostly the individual, today it has mainly a social resonance, due to the phenomenon of globalization," said Bishop Girotti.

“You offend God not only by stealing, taking the Lord's name in vain or coveting your neighbor's wife, but also by wrecking the environment, carrying out morally debatable experiments that manipulate DNA or harm embryos,” said Bishop Girotti, according to L’Osservatore.

The seven social sins are:

1. "Bioethical” violations such as birth control
2. "Morally dubious" experiments such as stem cell research
3. Drug abuse
4. Polluting the environment
5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
6. Excessive wealth
7. Creating poverty

Kent Comments:

Collective thinking about sin is just as wrong-headed as collective thinking about other matters - in fact, it might even be a sin! That last part was just for fun. But there are some important things to be learned from the Bishop’s mistakes here.

First, sin is inextricably tied up with the actions of individuals. This connection is nothing new. While sin begins in our attitudes and inner being, it is expressed in actions. Doing that which God has forbidden, or failing to do what God has commanded, is sin. The Ten Commandments are a fair summary of what this entails in practice.

But, of course, the Big Ten must be applied. The Bishop’s “seven social sins” are in fact attempts to apply the commandments of the Bible. While the attempt is noble, and correct in some respects, it fails at key points.

I won’t debate number one here because it stems from a long-standing debate about reproduction.

“Morally dubious” experiments are morally problematic, when they are problematic, because they violate the commandment not to murder. But murder always goes back to the actions of individuals.

Abuse of self, through drugs or any other means, is a violation of the Christian idea that we must, as the Apostle Paul says, honor God with our bodies. Abuse of any kind is incompatible with honor.

Polluting the environment is a problem when it violates the command not to steal. This sort of thing must be done by individuals. Even if groups of people are polluting, the group consists of individuals who commit the act. But the Bishop has a problem here with being overly vague.

If I put something into the environment that harms other people or their property, then I have sinned. But unless that harm is very obvious, it needs to be proven. Otherwise, wild claims by ill-motivated people can become means to, in essence, enslaving others.

For example, there is a mindless hysteria today about carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide is part of the cycle of life and it has not been proven to cause any harm to human beings as the tiny part of our atmosphere that it is. In fact, the pseudo-science that claims harm to the climate from carbon dioxide - a claim lacking any hard proof - is probably an attempt to interfere with the property of individuals. This would make it a violation of the commandment against theft, and thus a sin itself!

“Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor” is something that most people do not have the power to do. It is something that many governments do, by policies that reduce people’s freedom to be productive. But when we speak of “governments” we are still talking about the actions of individuals: the officials who make such policies, and those who help put them in office. The cure for this problem is for governments to get out of the way. This leads to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that the more active government official is more likely to be a sinful one!

It sounds strange to modern ears which are often conditioned by incipient socialism, but the commandments of the God of the Bible nowhere condemn wealth. There are condemnations of improper uses of wealth, but that is a different matter. Generosity is good, but the wealthy can be more generous.

It would be interesting to see the Bishop put a number with “excessive wealth.” In modern economies, the wealthiest of the wealthy usually cannot help having their wealth benefit others. If the wealth is held as stocks, it is being invested in the creation of jobs and goods for others. If it is held as debt instruments, it is being loaned to people for their use. If it is spent - even on “luxuries” - it creates businesses and jobs in the areas where it is spent.

Finally, we come to “creating poverty.” In the minds of those infected with liberation theology, this is a constant phobia. But in an exchange economy, no action that respects the “you shall not steal” commandment will create poverty. In the most general terms, I can give away what I own, or I can retain it. If I retain it, I can exchange it with others willing to make the trade. If two people agree to make a trade, the only reason they do so is because they both believe they will be better off after the trade than they were before it. So willing trades make both parties wealthier.

So the “social sins” are not social, and they are not all truly sins.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Government Trumps Parents - When ‘Rights’ Becomes Wrong

(Comments follow excerpts from this article.)

From the Los Angeles Times
Ruling seen as a threat to many home-schooling families
State appellate court says those who teach children in private must have a credential.
By Seema Mehta and Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

March 6, 2008

Parents who lack teaching credentials cannot educate their children at home, according to a state appellate court ruling that is sending waves of fear through California's home schooling families. . .

The institute estimates there are as many as 166,000 California students who are home schooled. State Department of Education officials say there is no way to know the true number. . .

The California Department of Education currently allows home schooling as long as parents file paperwork with the state establishing themselves as small private schools, hire credentialed tutors or enroll their children in independent study programs run by charter or private schools or public school districts while still teaching at home.

California does little to enforce those provisions and insists it is the local school districts' responsibility. In addition, state education officials say some parents home school their children without the knowledge of any entity.

Home schoolers and government officials have largely accepted this murky arrangement.

"Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children," wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in a Feb. 28 opinion signed by the two other members of the district court. "Parents who fail to [comply with school enrollment laws] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program."

Teachers union officials will also be closely monitoring the appeal. A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said he agrees with the ruling. "What's best for a child is to be taught by a credentialed teacher," he said.

Kent Comments:

This episode illustrates how so-called “positive rights” can become wrongs.

Back when these United States involved an ever-moving and developing frontier, formal education was a valued privilege. All the “movers and shakers” recommended it and many worked to make it possible. Thomas Jefferson even went as far as to advocate the state funding it for anyone who desired it.

Eventually, some began to claim that everyone had a “right” to a formal education. That idea even made it into many state constitutions. And when education became a “right” things began to go wrong.

Many of the practical problems in schools today stem from mistakenly thinking that formal education is a “right.” If I have a “right” to a good or service, such as formal education, it becomes very easy to think it should be delivered to me. I shouldn’t have to do anything besides “consume” it. If you can’t see that philosophy running rampant among students today, you just aren’t paying attention.

There is a large gulf between the Jeffersonian idea of providing formal education for those who want it, and the more recent idea of providing formal education and requiring everyone to consume it because we supposedly have some ‘right’ to it. How can you force anyone to utilize formal education? What we have discovered, it seems to me, is that while you can force people to attend school, you cannot force them to partake of education.

Beyond that, consider what is being assumed once we accept the conclusion that the state can rightly force parents to send their children to a school of which they do not approve. That assumption makes children ultimately not children of their parents, but children of the state - and not just the state in general, but as things have worked out, the ‘eduaucracy’ of the state.

So the president of a teachers union thinks children should be taught only by “a credentialed teacher.” Who is surprised that a union wants to maintain its monopoly?

The government has no business in the ‘education’ business. The lame claim is made that the state has an important interest in an educated citizenry that can participate intelligently in the democratic process. When newspapers pander to a grade-school reading level, it is hard to make that case. When people are as easily swayed by the stupidity that passes for campaign politics, it is even more difficult to make that case.

Shouldn’t free people be allowed how, how much, when, and where to participate in formal schooling? While there are probably many families with problems in these areas, there are certainly even more government schools with systemic problems. These are problems that people complain about, governments debate and education bureaucracies never seem to solve.

Is it not long past the time to separate school and state?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bible Believers vs. Red Letter Deniers

Bible Believers vs. Red Letter Deniers

A recent post on CT's Liveblog reminded me of a thread I've been wanting to sound off on since Tony Campolo defended the concept of Red Letter Christians. . . .

Rigid Biblians and Red Letter Christians (by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

I've been frustrated over the years with Christians who are unwilling to see any truth outside of scripture or who prefer to explain away rather than grapple with the Bible's internal diversity. Even pillars of the church like Martin "Sola Scriptura" Luther felt the freedom to call the book of James "a right strawy epistle" because of its teachings on works.

I may disagree with Luther about James—love James—but I also love Luther's freedom in his approach to the canon. I also love N.T. Wright's assertion regarding scriptural diversity, for example, that accounts of Christ's death and resurrection that differ in details but affirm essentials are evidence of the veracity of those essentials because in real life, multiple witnesses tend to have diversity in their testimonies—while Da Vinci Code-type conspiracies get their stories straight with rigid uniformity. Expand that concept to the whole of scripture, and you've got a diversity of authors with some very real differences that, taken as a whole, form a narrative that has integrity in essentials. We may struggle to understand the diversity at times, but we need not feel threatened by it or explain it away.

I am first and foremost a Christian. I worship, follow, and seek to imitate Christ. I am not a Biblian. I do not worship the Bible, even though it is a reliable and authoritative witness to the person of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. It is not a question of choosing one over and against the other, but a question of priority, emphasis, and ultimate allegiance.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners

Kent Comments (in red here, to keep the "red letter Christians" happy):

This is the kind of muddle-headed thinking that will destroy the Christian faith. The problems here are many. Let's take them in the order they appear.

First, the suggestion that Christians who have a high view of the Bible are unwilling to see any truth outside scripture is nothing more than a "red letter" red herring. The claim that all the claims of the Bible are true tells us nothing about claims outside the Bible. That is nothing more than faulty categorical logic. But, as their writings reveal, "red letter" Christians are not strong on logic.

Second, if we have "freedom" in approaching the canon, the historical Christian faith is out the door. Once we take it upon ourselves to decide that a book of the Bible should be tossed out, or even downgraded in some way, based on what we "love" or any other subjective criterion, then we begin to make the Christian faith over in our own image. Show me a Christian who rejects some section of the Bible and I will show you an illicit motive in that Christian. Martin Luther's attempt to "downgrade" the Letter of James because he was unsure how to understand it in the context of justification by faith proves nothing, other than that even the greats sometimes make mistakes.

Third, it is true that the fact of obvious differences in regard to what details are delivered in the various canonical gospels does lend credibility to their testimony. But the diversity vs. essentials dichotomy is more than unhealthy for the faith - it is dangerous. The key question is whether or not the claims we find in thegospels are true. That is, do they describe reality accurately? If they do, then the fact that different gospels relate different details is interesting but irrelevant. If the gospels are not true, then we need some sure-fire way to know what parts are false, or else we know nothing from the gospels and the historical Christian faith evaporates.

Finally, this talk of the Bible being a "reliable and authoritative witness to the person of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God" can be a problem for the faith, in spite of the fact that it sounds rather pious. If only the person of Jesus is the Word of God, then the Bible is not. The historical Christian faith holds that the Bible is the word of God written. The "witness to" view expressed here is neo-orthodoxy, not Christianity. And those two are decidedly different, in spite of some good things Karl Barth has to say.

If you "worship, follow, and seek to imitate Christ " then you will follow what He said in John 16 - He had more to say to the Apostles. He would say it via the Holy Spirit Who would guide the Apostles into the truth. In addition, during his ministry Jesus often equated what we call the Old Testament with the word of God. If this make one a "Biblian" then perhaps we should all adopt that title!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Hide the God Side?

Hide the God Side?

[from Human Events, Nov. 13, 2007]

The anti-religious elites' attempts to drive God out of America's public square are serious and ongoing.

For example: One of the places we visit in Rediscovering God in America is the Washington Monument.

The monument's capstone is one of Washington's most profound acknowledgements of the centrality of God and faith to our nation. Etched in aluminum, the East side of the capstone reads "Laus Deo," Latin for "Praise be to God."

But recently, visitors to the Washington Monument noticed that a display plaque describing the capstone was changed to omit the words "Laus Deo" and any reference to God.

What's more, a replica of the capstone had been positioned so visitors could not see the side reading "Laus Deo."

Thanks to an e-mail campaign by outraged Americans, the references to God on the displays have now been restored. But the incident serves as a reminder of the near-constant threat of anti-religious bigotry in America.

Of course, when it comes to official anti-religious bigotry, not all religions are equal.

Did you know that, while religious images are under assault across the nation, in nine Western states the courts have ruled it constitutional for public schools to require a three-week course on the Islamic faith -- a course in which all junior-high students are mandated to pretend they are Muslims and offer prayers to Allah?

This is the same court, mind you, that infamously ruled (in the case brought by atheist activist Michael Newdow) that it is unconstitutional for students to mention "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kent Comments:

The question of the place of "religion" in U.S. public life is a challenging one. I can't begin to solve it here, of course, but in these times when the word "God" is only whispered in back rooms, it is probably time to take God out of the closet. (Somehow, that seems like something I shouldn't say. But on we go.)

Even the most cursory reading of the history of our nation's founding reveals that the Founders simply assumed that some "version" of Christianity - perhaps even a deistic version that included only the so-called moral teaching of the faith - was a necessary prerequisite of good government, and even a civil society.

The Washington Monument controversy, mentioned above, illustrates how a man like Washington viewed the importance of faith in God. Washington was a good Anglican/Episcopalian all his life. But like a lot of his upper-crust contemporaries, his Christianity had a bit of a deistic tint to it.

But as historian Paul Johnson has pointed out (see A History of Christianity, pp. 421-436) the emphasis in this view of religion tended to come down on the moralistic side. In other words, what many of the Founders (though there were notable exceptions) tended to see as "religion" was the moral teaching of the Bible. It was this they thought necessary for good government. That explains why a full-fledged deist like Jefferson could find some common ground with more orthodox Christians in the American enterprise. Still, these people realized that, in order to have the moral order they required, acceptance of the fact of God's existence was necessary.

So even with these qualifications, it is very difficult to see how we can successfully rip God out of the life of a nation that began with the premise that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.

These United States have been places where religious toleration has developed - sometimes at different paces in different locations - throughout our history. And yet, when moderns use the word "toleration" it is often invested with a meaning very different from what it once had.

We were once a people who based our political and social structure on that Christian-tinged-with-deism religious starting point. Toleration began as the view that people should be allowed to practice whatever form of Christianity they wished. It eventually became the view that people should be allowed to practice whatever religion they wished.

But there have always been some limits to this. Religions that involved human sacrifices have never been tolerated. Religions that practice human slavery would not now be tolerated. And for a long time Americans by-in-large realized that it was the Creator who guaranteed the moral order they knew was necessary for our republic.

Somehow, in recent times we have moved from a religiously-based political social system that does not, out of principle, persecute religious dissenters, to the view that religion has no connection to public institutions and that religions cannot be right or wrong in any sense. Former President Eisenhower is famous for his 1954 pronouncement that "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply-felt faith - and I don't care what it is." While he reflects recent views on this matter, it is a position that will not withstand even the slightest scrutiny.

The Founders - even the most deistic of them - shared the profound insight that society cannot be built on just any view of God, or no view of God at all. There is no ultimate reason to think that all should share equality before the law unless we are created beings and, by necessary implication, there is a Creator. This Creator needs to be a personal God capable of intentions for His creatures if our whole political system is to make any sense. We must have some knowledge of these intentions if our system is to be based upon them.

These and other considerations rule out some religious views as the basis for our system of political philosophy. Some of the views ruled out would be no God, no knowledge of God, and impersonal "god" and perhaps others. But the point is, not all religious views carry the required equipment to be compatible with our social\political underpinnings.

Those underpinnings require human rights that transcend political systems. Those underpinnings also recognize that such transcendence requires a personal Creator - not just an unnamed great spirit, not just 'the force," and not many other views of "god.". There is a long story that can be told about this, but the short version is this: without a personal Creator, human might will make "right." This has become very clear from the French Revolution through modern experiments in Communism.

In the current world context, it is also more than a little interesting to notice that so far, no truly liberal society (in the classical sense) has emerged from Islam. The provisions of Islam that require "pagans" to be eliminated and Christians and Jews to be given some version of second class citizenship seems to make Islam incompatible with a classically liberal society.

This is no argument against the classical view of tolerance. That is, we should still welcome, and in no way persecute, those who do not acknowledge God, or hold views of God incompatible with our social/political system. But none of this implies that we should be silly enough to try to pretend that the genius of our political system can be supported by just any religious views.

Trying to do so would be even more stupid than trying to hide the fact that the Latin phrase for "Praise Be to God" is inscribed on the Washington monument!

Wrong About Rights

Emergents are Wrong About Rights

This is an entry in which I will comment on another blog. If you read “God’s Politics” often it quickly becomes apparent that it is not. I will reproduce the most comment-worth sections of the original, interspersed with my comments in bold.

God’s Politics a blog by Jim Wallis and friends
Monday, February 18, 2008
An Emergent Politics Primer: Part One (by Tony Jones)

The unnuanced maps showing states as "red" or "blue" disregards the fact that in a red state, as many as 49 percent of the voters are blue, and vice versa. . .

But even more important, it ignores what we all know to be true: each one of us is a complex mélange of viewpoints and opinions, and very few of us line up with every plank in a party's platform. Being that postmodern Christians are acutely aware of micronarratives and justifiably incredulous toward metanarratives, they are particularly suspicious of the spokespersons of left and right . . .

Will “emergent politics” turn out to be as muddle-headed as the “emergent church”? Let’s have a look.

We begin with “micronarratives” of which postmodern Christians - something that is probably a conjunction of contradictory terms - are “acutely aware.” To translate that out of emergent/postmodern speak and into English, postmodern Christians are wrapped up in the concerns of their own little groups and sub-groups.

These same “postmodern Christians” are “justifiably incredulous toward metanarratives.” This means they don’t pay much attention to all-encompassing views, because they don’t think there is any reason to do so.

That is especially amusing because - as the postmodern are prone to do - the author is about to present a very “metanarrative” perspective on human rights. While you can point this out to these postmoderns, you are usually wasting your effort because they often put very little stock in logic - all the while using it, of course. This again leads to something we could point out, but why bother with postmoderns?

From a theoretical point of view, both the good and the bad of our democracy in its present state seem to be driven by the concept of unalienable, individual human rights. . . the modern version of individual rights was invented by John Locke (1632–1704) and written into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution by Thomas Jefferson and his posse. . . individual rights became the foundation of liberal democracy, clearly the most robust and equitable of all systems of government yet conceived.

So was only the “modern version” of individual rights “invented” by John Locke? Is there an older version that preceded Locke? Inquiring minds would like to know such things, but more on that later.

However, it is also responsible for some serious ills, including the rampant consumerism ("You deserve that new iPod!") that has led to the average U.S. adult carrying a credit card balance of $8,000. And, it seems, the premise of individual rights means that some arguments just aren't winnable - the rights of the mother versus the rights of the unborn child . . .

Apparently, emergent/postmodern “thinkers” like Tony Jones don’t pay much attention to “micronarratives” - things like what John Locke actually thought. Locke’s view might make “consumerism” possible, but it certainly does not endorse it. Of course, if individuals have even a degree of economic freedom, they can borrow what they will if they can find those willing to lend.

And, really now, is a new iPod really a “serious ill”?

Beyond these trifling points, it is the height of stupidity to claim that Locke’s view of rights makes it impossible to decide if a mother has a “right” to kill her unborn child.

Emergents don't have a problem with Lockean individual rights per se - their problem is with the fact that unalienable, individual rights is not a biblical-theological virtue. The Bible's call is not to protect the self but to sacrifice the self. Jesus says clearly to his followers, "Drop everything and follow me. ... Let the dead bury their own dead. ... Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me. ... Take up your cross daily."

It appears that emergents have not forgotten how to build a straw man. Who, exactly, claims that the idea of individual rights is a virtue? Even Locke, whose Christian orthodoxy might be questionable, rightly understood that “rights” derive from the fact that God is our Creator and as such has given certain behavior-limiting commandments. If the Creator has commanded that no one take innocent human life - and He has - then innocent humans have a “right to life.” In a similar fashion, the commandment not to steal creates a right to property.

To that, the Apostle Paul adds a score of exhortations to self-control, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Supplement this with the fact that every word of the Hebrew and Christian scripture was written to human beings living in community (the nation of Israel in the former, the early church in the latter), and it becomes untenable for a Christian to base her life on the philosophy that "it's all about me and my rights."

None of this, properly understood, leads to a philosophy that ‘it’s all about me and my rights.” As a matter of fact, without an understanding of rights at least in the ball park of Locke, the virtues would make no sense. Jesus’ statement “sell everything you own” presumes that you do, in fact, own something to sell. Without a right to property, the man to whom Jesus spoke would have had nothing to sell. Perhaps those enamored with “emergent politics” should bother to study Acts chapter six very carefully. There we find that those communities mentioned, especially the early church, clearly recognized the right to property.

The emergent/postmodernists always have a metanarrative. It is, strangly enough, a metanarrative of trying to ignore metanarratives. Call it what you will, but a bit of clear thinking would be good for those emergent politicians.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Faith-Based Foolishness

Faith-Based Foolishness

John Dilulio is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Dilulio is the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future.

The following questions and answers are from an interview of Dilulio by Paul Hughes and Madison Trammel at Christianity Today, 2/21/2008.

Will the White House's faith-based initiative survive this administration?

It should. [Current] presidential candidates share a constitutionally sound, faith-friendly, social-policy vision not unlike the one that both President George W. Bush and Vice President Gore preached in 1999 and 2000.

You're against giving government dollars to agencies with behavioral codes and Christian-only hiring policies. Why?

If you are [suggesting] we ought to enlarge the ministerial exemption in civil-rights law to give religious nonprofits a right to discriminate against tax-funded employees on religious grounds, then I would urge caution. To level the playing field does not mean to tilt it in favor of religious nonprofits. Besides, most community-serving religious nonprofits, including ones led by Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, do not demand any such exemption or constitutional carte blanche.

Is there any evidence to suggest that religious providers of social services are more effective than secular providers?

There is no empirical evidence [showing] that programs that promote spiritual transformation are more likely to succeed. We can say that urban faith-based groups typically deliver better services at a lower per-capita cost.

* * * *

Comments by Kent:

Faith-based initiatives are, in my short summary, a plan to allow religious, non-profit groups to be conduits of the welfare state. It all sounds so good to some Christians: “we” get to get money from the government to help people.

It’s all so lovely, “centrist” and thus middle-of-the road. But those in the middle of the road are more likely to be run down by the on-coming traffic of reality. Because the Biblical reality is this: the welfare state is not Godly, and it’s not Christian.

It is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Christian faith to confiscate people’s property for redistribution. It doesn’t matter how good the motives (they are often very good) or how good the results (they are often very bad). There is an insurmountable moral problem in the taking.

Why is it so hard for twenty-first century Christians to understand that, while it is blessed to give, it is only blessed if what you are giving was not stolen from someone else?

Why do so many Christians today so easily succumb to the doctrine of demons which teaches that the end always justifies the means when it comes to “helping the needy”?

Why do people who would never think of robbing their neighbors at gunpoint to fund the local soup kitchen think it is noble to vote to have agents of the government pull off that little hold-up on their behalf?

It is not the faith of faith-based initiatives that is bad - it is the welfare-state mentality of which they are a part. So the so-called faith-based initiatives should not survive this administration, because they contradict one of the most fundamental tenants of the Christian faith: thou shalt not steal.

Beyond this, Christian advocacy of the welfare state is self-defeating. Notice something that comes out clearly in this interview: welfare state funds will not be traveling through groups with “behavioral codes and Christian-only hiring policies.”

Why do Christians want to jump on this kind of self-defeating approach? A dismantled welfare state would mean Christian funds able to flow freely through overtly Christian channels. Wouldn’t that be much better than the so-called “faith based” welfare state approach?

The welfare state is both a moral and a practical failure. Christians should be busy opposing its very existence, not playing patsy to it. The beast should be killed, not fed - especially by those who take the Christian faith seriously.