Category: Culture

Subjectivity & Inspiration

2_peter_1_20-21


Encountering

Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit http://covnetpres.org/2013/11/time-amy-plantinga-pauw/]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

Advertisements

Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.  

Affirmative-Action-1080x645

 

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? Affirmative-Action-demonstrationI want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.

. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .[1]

The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.

President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.[2]

. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not LBJtake a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.[3]

While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,

. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.[4]

Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.

The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.[5]

Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites.[6] The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans.[7] It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.

For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended.[8] That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History.[9] How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.”[10] She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?

Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.

The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies.  Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.

Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.

Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish abolish_affirmative_action_nowgoals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year.[11] Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.”[12] If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.

Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.

It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.[13]

What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”[14]

Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.

If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?[15]

Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day.[16] However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”[17]

All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that

[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.[18]

This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.

Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .”[19] A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.”[20] Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.

On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.

It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.

At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.

[1] Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/eo-10925.html.

[2] Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.

[3] “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/650604.asp.  All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.

[4] “Statement on Affirmative Action,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/aaction/state77.pdf.

[5] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.

[7] Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.

[8] Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.

[9] This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

[10] “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016, https://sojo.net/articles/jesus-and-affirmative-action.

[11] The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.

[12] Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.

[13] Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.

[14] Ibid., 143.

[15] Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.

[16] George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.

[17] Ibid., Section 11.4.

[18] Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[19] Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.

[20] John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”

Avoiding the Bern, Part Two

This is part two in my series of posts exploring issues on social justice. Regarding our Christian responsibility toward the poor and oppressed, there is a much larger conversation to be had. Here, I wish to limit the discussion to what role government should play in helping the impoverished, and to what degree Christians should support such programs. To facilitate the discussion, I focus on reviewing a single chapter from a larger work. The original work by Dr. Art Lindsley has been made available as a separate essay, and can be downloaded from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (https://tifwe.org/resource/five-myths-about-jubilee/). 


“Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth?” is one of the introductory chapters in the book For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, edited by Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley.  The overall goal of the book is to guide Christians in determining the best means for carrying out the church’s call to help the poor in our society. Given the recent popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, more and more Americans are lindsleybuying into the notion that capitalism has failed in its ability to overcome poverty, and that the country would be better served by adopting an economic system more in line with democratic socialism. The contributors to this volume do not shy away from endorsing the belief that not only is capitalism still the best economic system for helping the poor, but it is the system most in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.[1] Art Lindsley’s goal in contributing this chapter is to refute the mistaken belief that both the Levitical law of Jubilee (found in Leviticus 25) and the practice of the early church in Acts 2-5 somehow teach the redistribution of wealth, a key component of socialism. Not only are there authoritative voices in the Christian community advocating this idea, but many Christians mistakenly come to this conclusion upon simply reading these texts (more so the latter than the former).[2] While it is up to the individual Christian voter to decide whether or not to support a greater shift toward socialism as a means of addressing the needs of the poor, such a decision should be based upon a proper understanding and interpretation of scripture, rather than simply on the basis of political rhetoric. The Bible must be the foundation for social action.

Lindsley begins the chapter by addressing several popular myths about the Jubilee. His intention in handling these myths is not to provide a point by point counter argument against those who advocate for distributive justice. Take the first myth for example. Lindsley simply quotes numerous commentators to support the interpretation that Jubilee has nothing to do with the blanket forgiveness of debt (myth number one).[3] It appears that Lindsley’s goal is to show that any other interpretation of this passage would be contrary to the vast majority of biblical scholarship. However, this approach highlights a weakness of the chapter as a whole. Lindsley includes Ronald Sider, one of the leading figures supposedly espousing a redistribution of wealth interpretation, as one of the commentators supporting this majority interpretation of Jubilee. If Sider is supporting Lindsley, then who is the author actually arguing against? This opens Lindsley to the criticism that he may be misrepresenting how proponents of distributive justice utilize this passage. Had he instead presented a summary of the arguments of Sider (and others), rather than relying on statements like “some argue” and “I’ve heard it said,” then the discussion would have been better served.

What Lindsley does well throughout this chapter is to allow the plain meaning of the scripture to be heard. The reader comes away with a clear understanding of what the Jubilee law entailed. Leviticus 25:15-16 is clearly addressing “the completed payment of a debt, not its forgiveness.”[4] The law specifically allowed those who owned land to sell the number of crops, or the use of the land, up until the Year of Jubilee. The law did not permit the actual sale of the land. In essence, the land was being leased out. This is what is meant in verse 16 when it says, “If the years [until the Year of Jubilee] are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price.”[5] Lindsley puts it into modern context.

image

Art Lindsley

. . . if you have a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, each crop is worth $50,000, then the lender (or buyer) would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.[6]

 

This more accurately describes the expiring of a lease, rather than the forgiveness of a debt. Therefore, Jubilee cannot be interpreted as the redistribution of land (myth number two), because the land “never left the ownership of the original family.”[7] In fact, the law kept land ownership exactly where it originally started.

So how does one utilize this passage to argue for wealth redistribution, if it so clearly doesn’t involve the actual redistribution of land? To get that answer, the reader must look elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is not clear if this is what anyone reputable is actually arguing. John Anderson, former senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, instead sees the Jubilee as a means of ensuring that no members of society were cut off from the means of obtaining wealth.

. . . the law provided a system that prevented a family’s complete loss of its economic base . . . [it] provided an institutional means by which families were provided economic protection. They could not be deprived of the ability to care for themselves. If the law was followed, there were protections assured.[8]

This seems more in line with how Sider and others actually interpret this passage. If anything is being redistributed, it is the means of obtaining wealth, and not the actual wealth itself. As Christopher Wright characterizes it in God’s People in God’s Land, Jubilee was a means of restoring the “economic viability” of all members of society.[9]

In this sense, Jubilee helped Israelites who for whatever reason got into a situation where they needed money to pay off a debt or weather a financial difficulty. Regardless of how bad their situation was, they could never permanently lose their land, which was the primary source for obtaining wealth in ancient times. Sider states in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,

Today’s wealth is divided in a way that flatly contradicts the Bible. God wants every family to have the basic capital – land, money, knowledge, to earn their own way and be dignified, participating members of society.[10]

Lindsley is correct in arguing that the Jubilee does not indicate God’s desire for equality of income (myth number four), but he may be downplaying the fact that it does indicate God’s desire for equality of opportunity, which is essentially what Sider is advocating. No Israelite was ever to lose access to the means of capital. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs states, Jubilee ensures “that the market does not allow the poorest members of society to end up with nothing.”[11] Again, Sider offers additional insight.

God wants society’s pool of productive assets to be distributed so that everyone has the resources to earn his or her own way. When members of a society lose their assets, by whatever means, it is difficult for them to participate in economic activity. People with no assets starve.[12]

It is important to put the deliverance of this law in its proper context. Given at Mt. Sinai prior to entering the Promised Land, the Israelites owned only what they could carry. There were no slaves, no land owners, and no debt. Through God’s original distribution of land, no one was intended to start off poor. Through the law of Jubilee, no one was intended to return to poverty. Jubilee served as an economic safety net for the people of Israel.[13]

Lindsley concludes this section of the chapter by questioning the applicability of Jubilee to modern society (the final myth). Here he points out that since Jubilee only applied to the Israelites, and not to sojourners in the land, it is not clear how it can be applied to society today.[14] Michael Harbin makes a much stronger assertion, maintaining that Jubilee would only be valid “in a society that collectively recognizes God as sovereign.”[15] But while Lindsley and Harbin may believe that there are too many difficulties in trying to apply Jubilee to government programs in America, Sider and ethicist Stephen Mott do not. In Leviticus 25, they argue that God essentially “institutionalized structures to prevent poverty.”[16] In order for the law of Jubilee to be enforced, the leadership of Israel would have been required to step in as an intervening power to prevent exploitation of the financially challenged. In other words, Sider and Mott believe it is entirely acceptable for Christians to not only support government programs aimed at helping those in poverty, but to proactively recruit governmental support and the formation of new policies. While it may not be appropriate for us to apply the specific mechanism of Jubilee to government policy, we can apply the paradigmatic principle embedded within the law. For Sider and Mott, that normative paradigm is clear:

 

image

Ron Sider

Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of society.[17]

 

It is not necessary to read Sider’s previous challenge for the distribution of assets in Rich Christians, and the statement above with Mott, as advocating equality of assets or resources. They are not advocating the total redistribution of resources and wealth so that everyone has an equal share. All that is required is a sufficiency of resources enabling all to have the opportunity to earn a decent living, receive a quality education, and obtain the prospect of social mobility. No one should be locked into poverty with no hope of escape. This seems to be what politicians like Sanders are arguing to be the case in America. At a minimum, this should be a principle used in guiding our evaluation and support of both government and non-government programs aimed at helping the poor. We should not be supporting policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, but should support policies that provide safety nets and ensure all have the opportunity to flourish. We should also not support programs that involve a “hand out” rather than a “hand up.” Under the law of Jubilee, the original owners of the land simply retained access to the resources they would need to flourish. It was still upon them to take advantage of that opportunity, work the land, and avoid future financial pitfalls. At any rate, if Christian supporters of capitalism are to effectively stave off the growing sentiment for socialism, they must do more than simply provide critiques of liberal social policy. Asserting that capitalism is the best solution to poverty in America is not enough. Jubilee calls God’s people to stand behind policy that actually provides support for the poor.

The second half of the chapter focuses exclusively on Acts chapters two through five, and the notion that the early church practiced socialism. Before analyzing these passages to determine if such an assertion has merit, it is important to ask if it is possible to derive a command (or obligation) from a mere description of behavior. Lindsley speculates that even if the early church was practicing a form of wealth redistribution, it does not necessarily mean that such a practice is normative for the church in general.[18] To make this leap would be a violation of the is/ought fallacy, which states that it is impossible to deduce an “ought” (a normative statement or command), from an “is” (a mere description of something). In exegetical terms, narrative (descriptive) passages of scripture should not be taken as normative, unless there are textual clues to indicate such is intended. In regard to the Church’s practice in Acts, Lindsley asserts that “the only way you could cross this divide is by showing that other biblical passages command socialism.”[19] No such passages exist.

Turning to the actual text itself, those who assert that the early church practiced socialism focus primarily on verses 44 and 45 in chapter two.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.[20]

Again, Lindsley does an exceptional job of simply letting the scripture speak for itself. Upon first glance, the text seems to indicate that members of the early church only sold their possessions, as there was need. Lindsley points out that this is supported by the tenses of the verbs selling and distributing. This was not a once for all action, but rather something that was ongoing, as needs arose within the church.[21] The implication is that members did not sell everything that they owned in order to redistribute their wealth. This is reflected in the very next verse (v. 46) when it mentions members continuing to break bread in their own homes. Home ownership was retained. The New International Version clearly reinforces the occasional nature of this in its translation of Acts 4:34. “From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them.”[22] Lindsley speculates that this is more than likely wealthier members of the church selling off surplus property holdings; a point that seems almost certain given the example of Barnabas (just a few verses later) selling “a field that belonged to him.”[23]

The text also seems to clearly indicate that this giving was of a voluntary nature. In the opening verses of chapter five, the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is often pointed to as indicating that members were required to sell all of their possessions. The implication is that these two were struck dead because they refused to comply with the requirement to give all their possessions to the church. Once again, the plain reading of the text does not support this.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.[24]

Peter acknowledges that Ananias and his wife owned the land and could have done with it whatever they so desired. Their possessions were at their disposal. He does not rebuke them for giving only a portion of the sale; he rebukes them for lying about it. These two were obviously attempting to deceive everyone into thinking they were giving all of their proceeds to the church, perhaps in an effort to appear as more generous than others in the congregation. It was this deception that was their undoing. If it was required that Christians sell off all of their possessions and donate all the proceeds to the church, then why does Paul tell the church at Corinth that they are not under compulsion to give to the Macedonians?[25] Giving has always been seen as voluntary in the Church.

Lindsley finishes this section by asserting that Acts 2-5 simply recounts the church’s response to a temporal need that arose in the days following Pentecost. At this time, the city of Jerusalem was packed with visitors in town for the festival. With thousands coming to Christ and remaining in the city to hear the teachings of the Apostles, the needs must have been staggering. Where were they going to be housed? How were they going to be fed? The newly formed church gladly took on this challenge and began selling assets in an attempt to meet this temporary need. Eventually, the new believers would leave the city, return to their own homes, and take the message of the Gospel with them.[26]

Overall, this chapter presents a compelling case for rejecting the notion that the Bible supports socialism and the redistribution of wealth. If the individual Christian is going to support a socialist candidate such as Bernie Sanders, they will have to do it on grounds other than scripture. Having said that, these passages of scripture ought to challenge the church to reevaluate how she has traditionally responded to the poor and needy in our society. The church in Acts was decidedly radical in their generosity in helping those in need. They didn’t hesitate in parting with personal possessions in order to help a brother or sister in Christ. Can we honestly say that the church today is equally as radical? Reflecting back on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, we see that in the midst of challenging the church to be cheerful givers, Paul talks openly about grace abounding, seeds multiplying, and harvests increasing. To be sure, he is primarily discussing the increase of the Gospel, good deeds and righteousness that will come from their giving. However, he also clearly states that they “will be enriched in everything for all liberality.”[27] Capitalism may well be the best system for cultivating economic flourishing. To make that case, Lindsley leaves it to the other contributors in this volume. But economic prosperity is only part of the flourishing that God wants his people to experience. Absent radical generosity and compassion for the poor, all our great wealth will afford us is empty materialism. There is no question that the impact of the church is waning in our society. Might this be due to our lack of generosity toward the poor? I can’t help but think of how those early converts in Jerusalem went out and turned the world upside down with the message of Christ, no doubt powered by the love and sacrifice they experienced among the fellowship of believers in Christ.


[1] Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, eds., For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 9. It is important to note that the book does not solely focus on the issue of defending capitalism and free enterprise. The latter half of the book focuses exclusively on practical solutions for addressing the issue of poverty. However, this is a decidedly pro-free market work.

[2] In a recent gathering of friends, someone confidently voiced the belief that the early church was socialistic. The majority of those in attendance simply nodded their heads in approval.

[3] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 73-74. Lindsley provides somewhat lengthy quotations from Matthew Henry, R. K. Harrison, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Lev. 25:16 (English Standard Version).

[6] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 72.

[7] Ibid., 75.

[8] John E. Anderson, “A Biblical and Economic Analysis of Jubilee Property Provisions,” Faith and Economics 46 (Fall 2005): 29. Italics mine.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 124.

[10] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230. Italics mine.

[11] Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), 20.

[12] Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 161.

[13] Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.

[14] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 79.

[15] Harbin, 697. Whereas Lindsley fails to provide any attempt at modern day application, Harbin offers several principles derived from Jubilee. For him, the foundational principle is that people were to treat others “fairly, ethically, and compassionately.”

[16] Stephen Mott and Ronald J. Sider, “Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm,” in Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America, ed. David P. Gushee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 39.

[17] Ibid., 40. Italics mine.

[18] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 83.

[19] Ibid., 83-84.

[20] Acts 2:44-45 (English Standard Version).

[21] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 80-81. The verbs selling and distributing are in the imperfect tense, as opposed to the aorist, which would indicate a once-for-all, completed action.

[22] Acts 4:34 (New International Version).

[23] Acts 4:36 (New International Version).

[24] Acts 5:1-4 (New International Version).

[25] 2 Cor. 9:7 (New American Standard). This verse cannot possibly read as Paul telling the church as a whole that they are not under compulsion to give a gift. Verse seven begins with Paul saying “let each one . . .” give as he has purposed in his heart.

[26] Lindsley, For the Least of These, 82.

[27] 2 Cor. 9:11 (New American Standard Bible).

Dancing with the Devil

We were having a discussion in class Wednesday about how universities in America have become incredibly intolerant of Christianity. The following link is to an Op-Ed in the New York Times last month, acknowledging this fact. It’s a great read.

The whole discussion got me thinking about a philosophy class I took back in the 80’s. I was a relatively new Christian at the University at Buffalo and wanted to take classes where I could debate the existence of God.  Unfortunately, there was not a single Christian philosophy professor on staff. It was rare to hear the Christian perspective in a classroom discussion. That’s not entirely uncommon in a philosophy department.

I was part of a small group of Christian students who requested that the department offer a philosophy of religion class. We were told that such a course had not been offered in over a decade, and that there wasn’t a single professor interested in teaching it. Since I worked in the department office on a work study program, I had ample opportunities to continue to bring the issue up whenever I got a chance. After several months, the department chair told me that Dr. Paul Kurtz was interested in teaching the class. Knowing I was a Christian, Dr. Barber asked me if I still wanted the class offered. I appreciated how considerate he was being. You see, Paul Kurtz just happened to be the most famous atheist on the planet at that time. He was back then, what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are today. He was one of the primary authors of the Humanist Manifesto, wrote numerous books against Christian Faith, and had famously debated Christian Philosopher Norm Geisler. Did I really want to take a philosophy of religion course from a professor I knew would use the class as a platform for promoting his atheistic beliefs? You bet I did. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was a little concerned. I remember a friend of mine saying that Kurtz was the devil incarnate.

As it turned out, I was the only Christian philosophy student who actually took the class. On the very first day Kurtz stood in front of the room of about twenty students and asked, “Who here believes in God?” Several hands went up. One by one, Kurtz asked the students why they believed in God. One by one, he completely dismantled their reasons and made the case for atheism. Yeah, it was at that point I realized I was probably in over my head.

When it came time to write my research paper for the course, I decided to write on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. I knew I was taking a big chance. Would Kurtz give my paper a fair evaluation, or would he simply give me an F? It didn’t matter to me. All I needed to do was speak the truth and trust God with the results. On the day the papers were being handed back, Kurtz took the time to say a few words about each paper in front of the entire class. Very intimidating. Unbeknownst to me, there actually was another Christian in the class. Apparently this guy had also decided to use his paper to make the case for the Christian Faith.When Kurtz got to him, he openly criticized the student’s work, telling everyone it was the worst paper he had ever read. I really felt sorry for the guy. Of course, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about him; in just a few moments it would be my turn to dance with the devil.

Before I go any further, I want to say a few words in defense of Paul Kurtz. He comes across as pretty hostile to Christians in my description above. The reality is, that while he didn’t like Christianity, he was never hostile. He never got angry in his attacks of students’ comments. He might ridicule ideas that he felt were poorly grounded, but he never ridiculed students. And of course, he was always smiling. You see, Paul Kurtz was actually one of the best professors I ever had. He was friendly, quick to share a humerous story, and always willing to listen to everyone’s views and opinions. That’s a far cry from the kind of environment we see on college campuses today.

Toward the end of the course I got the feeling that Kurtz had run out of things to talk about. He believed he had sufficiently disproved the existence of God, made the case for secular humanism, and simply had nothing more to say about it. So one day, he asked the students if anyone wanted to take over a class and present on a topic related to the philosophy of religion. I really can’t remember if anyone else volunteered. After the class, I asked him if I could present a lesson on the authority and reliability of the Bible. He agreed. The following week I recruited John Mansfield, the campus director for Cru (and my Bible study leader), to give the presentation. John was simply amazing. To this day he remains one of my biggest heroes. The whole time Dr. Kurtz sat in the front row, listening intently to everything that was said. He never interrupted. He never made fun of what was being presented. But I can only imagine how intimidating he must of have come across, sitting directly in front of John. John never even broke a sweat. Every once in a while Kurtz would gently utter a brief comment. “Really?” “I’ve never heard that before.” “Is that so?” At the very end, John shared the Gospel and I handed out contact cards. Several people indicated that they were interested in learning how to have a personal relationship with Christ. Kurtz never filled out a card.

I honestly don’t remember what happened the following class. I’m pretty certain Kurtz never even mentioned it. But that one Christian student who Kurtz had so openly put down, ended up joining one of our Bible studies. To God be the glory! Even when it seems like you are going up against the devil incarnate, God is greater. “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world!” 1 John 4:4 (NASB)

Thanks John for your faithfulness to the Kingdom. Not only were you instrumental in leading me to Christ, but you showed me what it means to stand up for the truth.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. What about that paper I wrote on the resurrection? What grade do you think Kurtz gave me? I still have the original paper in my personal files. I will treasure it until the day I die. It serves as a reminder of my experience in that class and what God can do when his children are faithful to the truth. Kurtz wrote a single sentence on the cover page: “While I disagree with your conclusions, you gave a valiant defense of the resurrection.” The big red A underneath still surprises me to this day.

Avoiding the Bern, Part One

It has been a while since I made a post. My graduate studies have been keeping me very busy. I will be posting three papers I recently wrote on issues relating to social ethics. The first is on Capitalism and its ability to meet the needs of the poor (Avoiding the Bern, part One). I will follow that up with a post on socialism and the redistribution of wealth (Avoiding the Bern, part Two), and then one dealing with the issue of affirmative action (I’m still working on a catchy title for that one). I may sprinkle in a few other things along the way. Enjoy!


The title for this one was born out of the frustration I felt hearing about how some young Christians have decided to support Bernie Sanders. It seems that these Christians have come to think of capitalism as so evil, that our best recourse is to abandon it altogether and fully embrace socialism. Sanders has openly called himself a Democratic Socialist. The only difference between regular socialism and Sanders’s democratic version, is in how they achieve the re-distribution of wealth. I will talk more about that in part two. But before you go giving up on capitalism because you think it’s contrary to your Christian faith, you may want to read Austin Hill and Scott Rae’s book The Virtues of Capitalism. Below is a summary and evaluation of the book.

Capitalism

The Virtues of Capitalism

It may seem counter-intuitive to write a book calling for Christians to become advocates for the moral value of capitalism. After all, the moral values most often associated with capitalism are greed and selfishness. These are the kind of values Christians are traditionally known for condemning, not defending.  The Church, rightfully so, has been quite vocal about the right to life, traditional marriage, stem cell research, and even the evils of gambling. When it comes to saying positive things about capitalism, she has largely been silent. Austin Hill and Scott Rae, authors of The Virtues of Capitalism, are convinced that this shouldn’t be the case. Economics touches upon every aspect of society and therefore has the power to impact every facet of an individual’s life. This means it has the ability to mold morality. If our overall end is a “good” society filled with morally good people (who love and serve Christ), then it stands to reason that Christians ought to be very concerned with the type of economic system in place in the country. Not all economic systems are created equal. Some are better suited for promoting good behavior, while others promoting the bad. According to Hill and Rae, capitalism (contrary to popular belief) is on the side of promoting good. While capitalism may not be a perfect economic system, for the authors, it is not only the best system available for generating wealth and diminishing poverty, it is the best system when it comes to championing the moral values most important to Christians.[1]

The authors begin by looking at what the Bible has to say about economics. Of course, the Bible’s overall approach when speaking about economics is to treat it as a moral issue.[2] In this sense, the Bible clearly supports one of the fundamental beliefs of the authors: Economics and morality are intimately connected. On the one hand, wealth and prosperity can lead to idolatry and the oppression of the poor. This was as much a problem in ancient Israel as it is today. The Old Testament prophets frequently condemned economic injustice and the exploitation of the disadvantaged amongst the Israelites. On the other hand, the scriptures encourage the use of one’s affluence as a source of blessing to the underprivileged. Proverbs 14:31 indicates that one shows honor to God when they are generous to the poor.[3] Jeremiah 22:16 reveals a strong connection between helping the poor and knowing God. “[King Josiah] pled the cause of the afflicted and needy . . . is not that what it means to know me.?”[4] How God’s people used their wealth was a direct reflection upon how well they knew him and manifested his righteousness. At no point does the Bible support the idea that wealth necessarily leads to greed and corruption. From God’s perspective, it all comes down to what his people choose to do with their treasure. Do they allow it to become an idol in their life, or do they use it as a tool for serving him and helping the less fortunate in society? In the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy that it is not money that is evil. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”[5] Economics, more specifically how we relate to it, has the power to mold faith and morality.

The authors then move beyond this connection between economics and morality, to asserting that the most biblically consistent economic system is that of capitalism. This is not to say that the Bible specifically teaches capitalism, but rather that the Bible teaches general economic principles that are best embodied in a free market system. Christians should favor an economic system that provides the opportunity for all members of society to flourish (achieve economic well-being), and properly meets the needs of the poor in a manner consistent with the scripture’s emphasis on personal responsibility.[6] For the authors, capitalism is that system. To be more specific, while a socialistic economic system seeks to care for the poor by simply redistributing wealth, a free market system seeks to care for the poor by providing the means for each individual to support themselves and their dependents. And when it is not possible for an individual to care for their own needs, Hill and Rae are quick to point out that capitalism provides the abundant resources to fuel charitable giving. Additionally, capitalism seems to promote the kind of personal qualities that the Bible holds as desirable. The entrepreneurial spirit so essential to the free market system personifies the characteristics of initiative, perseverance, and diligence so prominently encouraged throughout the Old and New Testaments.[7] It also seems to encompass the creative implications of being made in the image of God.

In chapter three, the authors look at what kind of moral virtues are required in order for capitalism to exist and thrive. At a foundational level, capitalism needs social stability, particularly in the form of a democracy upholding a true sense of human rights and dignity. The authors later maintain that where this does not exist, capitalism should not be attempted.[8] While the authors go on to list creativity, initiative, cooperation, civility, and personal responsibility as additional values required for capitalism to function effectively, they also seem to be arguing that  a free market economy will gives rise to these attributes. This is not as contradictory as it seems. There exists a symbiotic relationship between these virtues and capitalism. On the one hand, if these virtues are not initially present within a society, at least in a nascent form, capitalism will likely fail to fully develop. On the other hand, capitalism necessarily generates these virtues. Of course, it is important to distinguish that capitalism itself is not moral. The system does not guarantee that all those working within will be morally virtuous. However, it is not entirely appropriate to say that capitalism is morally neutral.[9] To be sure, the prospect of increased wealth can fuel greed, as noted above. But by virtue of how it is designed (being based on competition, the division of labor, and the production of wealth), it more often than not leads to the cultivation of virtue and the common good.

Capitalism gives people an incentive to pursue excellence . . . [it] creates an environment that, as philosopher Adam Smith envisioned, allows self-interest to be harnessed in such a way that it promotes the common good.[10]

AdamSmith

Adam Smith

While it seems odd to talk of a system based upon self-interest resulting in moral virtue and human flourishing for all members of society, this is exactly what Smith had in mind when writing The Wealth of Nations. Smith believed that the self-interest of the individual, and ultimately her well-being, was best served by a society where the “greater part” benefited.

But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part [servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds] of the members are poor and miserable.[11]

So it would seem that Hill and Rae are arguing for the value of Capitalism purely on utilitarian grounds.[12] The authors are not claiming that capitalism is an end in and of itself, or that it is even a perfect system. They are simply stating that it is the best possible means toward an end to which all Christians should strive: moral virtue and human flourishing.

Up until this point, the authors have attempted to provide a largely positive apologetic defense for capitalism. Chapter four presents a negative apologetic, attempting to refute the common criticisms leveled against a free market economy. This is a significant challenge in that the perceived faults of capitalism are well known, if not axiomatic in the minds of most. First and foremost is the idea that capitalism is based upon greed and necessarily results in materialism and overconsumption. Hill and Rae are quick to make the distinction between the sin of greed and Adam Smith’s notion of self-interest. They believe, it is a misunderstanding to equate the two. Greed is a problem of the heart and not a necessary by-product, or foundational principle, of capitalism. Nowhere in the writings of Smith is “greed” cited as something good.[13] Instead, he talks a great deal about self-interest.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.[14]

Of course, it is important to view Smith’s understanding of self-interest within the context of his moral philosophy. As a moral philosopher, Smith balanced his notion of self-interest with sympathy, prudence, cooperation, benevolence, and justice, all of which were equally as influential. It would be better to characterize Smith’s foundational economic principle as an enlightened form of egoism, “in which a person possessed the internal resources necessary to provide checks and balances on his or her self-interest.”[15] The opening line from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his work published prior to Wealth of Nations) says it best:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.[16]

For Smith, egoism and altruism are balanced within human nature, both for the benefit of the individual and society.[17] The point the authors are trying to make is that Smith’s concept of self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. In fact, they argue that philanthropy is far more identifiable as a characteristic of capitalism than is greed. While greed, materialism and overconsumption may be more of a temptation in a capitalist nation, it also generates greater opportunity for charity. Hill and Rae rightly point out that the U.S. is more than twice as charitable as any other nation.[18]

Even if capitalism is not based upon greed, is self-interest a value that Christians can legitimately champion? After all, isn’t Christianity more about self-sacrifice? The authors utilize Philippians 2:4 to argue that scripture unambiguously supports both self-sacrifice and self-interest. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests . . .”[19] This verse seems to imply that we are to look out for our own self-interests. Of course, it challenges us to go beyond this, and also look out for the interests of others. One might even argue that if we are going to properly look out for the interests of others, we must first have a clear understanding of what it means to look after ourselves. Did not Jesus challenge us to love others as we love ourselves? Is not the essence of the Golden Rule to treat others as we would want them to treat us? Looking out for the interests of others is not contrary to capitalism, at least not the idea of it articulated by Adam Smith. Likewise, self-interest is not contrary to Christianity.[20] Christians ought to be concerned with looking out for their own interests, having the desire to better themselves, and taking care of the needs of their family. To the authors, this is not a bad thing.

Wall Street Protestors Rally Against Police Brutality

A sign is seen at a gathering of demonstrators opposed to corporate profits on Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in the Financial District on September 30, 2011 New York City. 

Next, the authors dismiss the criticism that capitalism necessarily leads to the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. Contrary to this belief, they argue that capitalism is the most productive way of generating wealth and lifting the majority of people out of poverty. The mistaken idea that the prosperity of the wealthy causes the poverty of the poor is rooted in a zero-sum game model of economics.[21] While from a global perspective it’s certainly true that the world has a fixed pool of resources (which fuels the notion that when one gets more, someone else gets less), the reality is that the creative spirit that drives a free market economy finds ways of utilizing previously unused resources. In this way, wealth in a capitalistic economy is not static; new ways are constantly being developed to create it.

Somewhat related is the criticism that capitalism leads to significant inequities in wealth. Politicians often talk about the shrinking middle class and the widening disparity between the very rich and the very poor. Hill and Rae cite various statistics that poverty in America, and the world for that matter, is shrinking. Additionally, they argue that those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, at least in America, are far better off than the poor in other countries. They maintain that this is all due to capitalism. Seen through this lens, inequities between the most and least wealthy do not necessarily mean an injustice has occurred. In a free market economy, inequities of outcome will exist, even if everyone is ensured equality of opportunity. Some inequalities “are the result of a difference in effort, hard work, and diligence.”[22] Still other inequities are the result of differences in natural abilities, or are simply the result of poor choices. Some are simply smarter, more creative, have higher energy, or are more competitive by nature. Some desire to pursue a career writing poetry, while others desire to start a business. All these factors will necessarily result in inequities of wealth, but should not be considered unjust. Hill and Rae assert that nowhere does the Bible condemn inequity of wealth.[23] What is condemned in scripture is the exploitation of others and the failure to address the needs of the poor. Again, the authors maintain that capitalism provides the best means of addressing the needs of those at the bottom.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of capitalism is the growing belief that it has failed. enron_logoChapters five through seven confront this idea, especially in light of recent economic failures. An overview is provided of the dotcom bubble bust in 2001, the housing market collapse post 2008, and the corporate corruption of Enron, Peregrine Systems and Countrywide Financial. The authors’ goal is to illustrate that contrary to growing public opinion, these failures are more the result of too much government involvement (or in the case of the Enron scandal, government overreaction to bad behavior), and less a byproduct of capitalism itself. For example, the authors do an exceptional job of illustrating exactly how government involvement in pushing for increased home ownership and the issuance of risky, sub-prime mortgage loans specifically led to the housing market crash. Hill and Rae go on to argue that the government bailouts that followed simply magnified the problem, by creating an atmosphere of moral hazard.

As a general principle that influences our evaluation, we regard it as a destructive thing when the government intervenes in the economy and tries to “protect” individuals and businesses from experiencing the effects of their own behavior.[24]

Moral hazard occurs when people are shielded from the negative consequences that they would normally suffer from bad behavior. While this might seem compassionate, the authors believe that “rewarding bad behavior generally ensures more bad behavior, not good behavior, in the future.”[25]

Of course, Hill and Rae are not arguing against all government involvement in the economy. They do not believe that the market is self-regulating. In fact, the final chapter of the book delineates several essential, albeit limited, elements that government needs to provide. These include setting policies that regulate commerce, ensuring that some goods novakand services remain “off the market,” and protecting individual and corporate rights. The most significant role of government is in how it contributes to the overall moral climate of society. Certain social structures are needed in order for capitalism to be successful (as discussed earlier in the book), and government cannot supply these on its own. Government involvement necessarily needs to be augmented by religious and voluntary organizations that nurture the values and virtues that capitalism needs to prosper. This closing chapter harkens back to Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which Novak emphasizes the importance of the “moral-cultural system” of the country to “create the proper context in which the economic system operates.”[26] Unfortunately, just as government can over-regulate the market, it can also over-regulate religious and voluntary organizations, ultimately limiting their ability to provide support and incentives for virtuous behavior, and checks and balances for bad behavior.

Novak would argue that it is no coincidence that democratic capitalism has thrived in Jewish-Christian lands. The doctrines and values of the Christian faith have “helped to supply the ideas through which democratic capitalism has emerged in history.”[27] Therefore, Hill and Rae are not arguing that Christians stop advocating for the moral causes that they have become known for, focusing instead on defending a free market economy. That would be counter-productive. They maintain that the church simply needs to include a defense of capitalism to what they are already championing.

Overall, I find myself agreeing with the basic premise of the book. Christians cannot remain silent at a time when the economic future of our country is being heavily debated in the current presidential campaign. A greater shift toward socialism would be detrimental to the values and virtues that we Christians find most important. The time has come for Christians to include a defense of the free market in their apologetics courses and bible studies. While it may be hard to see economic issues as just as important as defending the veracity of scripture or the historicity of the resurrection, we must keep in mind that we are not defending capitalism, per se. We are defending the positive moral values and virtues that capitalism necessarily nurtures. We are also taking seriously our call to take care of the needs of the less fortunate in our society. History has clearly demonstrated that capitalism is the best way to bring economic flourishing to the largest number of people in a society.[28]

Having said that, I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, where he comments on Christian efforts to speak favorably of capitalism. “We must end the outrage of Christians celebrating the market economy.”[29] While I believe that Sider’s sentiment is rooted in a mistaken notion of capitalism, it represents genuine hostility that exists in the minds and hearts of many. The baggage that capitalism carries is real. Regardless of whether such hostility is justified, Christians defending capitalism have the potential of appearing celebratory of riches and insensitive to poverty. This unfortunately seems evident in this volume in two specific ways.

First, Hill and Rae exhibit a bit too much confidence in capitalism’s ability. While the authors do at times include token reference to Christian compassion for the poor, that message is largely drowned out by their exuberance for capitalism. At times they convey the notion that the needs of the poor will best be met by market forces. The final words of the book sum up this sentiment: “. . . we insist that capitalism is indeed the best hope for the poor around the world.”[30] From an economic standpoint, this is certainly the case. But without any other qualification to this statement, it comes across as simply echoing an enormous amount of faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market economy. Smith discusses this briefly in both The Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments.

… every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society, as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.[31]

Smith is saying that the common good that results in a free market economy is not the result of intentional effort on the part of individuals. The distribution of wealth to all levels of society is simply the happy by-product of pursuing one’s own gain. Put self-love first and everything else magically works itself out. Perhaps, it is unfair to characterize Hill and Rae as embracing a laissez-faire approach to helping the poor. However, the book clearly does not include an emphatic call for Christians to be more engaged in voluntary efforts to reach out to the poor, or to support public policies that help those at the bottom. In other words, the book comes across as declaring capitalism, and not Christ or the Church, as the poor’s only and best hope. From a Christian perspective, this seems incongruent with the very scriptures the authors survey. The authors’ handling of Philippians 2 is a perfect example of this. While they are certainly right that it is acceptable for the Christian to have a level of self-interest, using this passage to primarily defend Christian self-interest diminishes the true meaning and emphasis of Paul’s words.  Christians are called to put the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. The emphasis of the Bible is not upon an economic system working out the status of the poor, but rather on the behavior of believers proactively engaging the problem of poverty. Hill and Rae come across as putting more trust in the “invisible hand” of market forces, rather than the active responsibility that God’s people have to be agents of change. It is not an option for the responsible Christian to simply let market forces work things out. That being said, Christians working under the umbrella of a capitalistic system, taking full advantage of its strengths and benefits, have an even greater ability to combat poverty.

The second way that Hill and Rae come across as insensitive to the needs of the poor is in their discussion of the issue of moral hazard. The authors are correct that shielding people from the consequences of bad choices can lead to increased bad behavior and even more bad choices. The Bible is clear that God disciplines those whom he loves, and that the purpose of such discipline is to train us to do the right things.[32] However, the Bible also talks about restoration and redemption, even for those who make bad choices. While the authors touch briefly on the issue of Jubilee, they fail to distinguish in what sense this law wouldn’t also count as moral hazard, according to their own definition. Jubilee required land to be returned to the original owners regardless of what originally led to them having to sell it in the first place. Might this somehow be construed as the kind of policy that contributes to moral hazard? Unlikely, as the potential existed for the individual or family to lose the use of the land for as much as 49 years. Consequences were undoubtedly felt, as often those selling the land would have to hire themselves out as indentured servants to make ends meet. However, through this law God also provided a way of redemption, the possibility for them to regain their land and the means of economic prosperity. The year of Jubilee, clearly represents a safety net policy.[33] The authors acknowledge as much. Unfortunately, they refuse to discuss how something like this might be applicable to modern society.[34] It comes across as insensitive and judgmental to cite moral hazard as the reason for not wanting to help people in times of financial crises. As Christians, we shouldn’t be hiding behind such flimsy justifications for sitting back and allowing people to remain in poverty. Instead, we should be proactively seeking out ways to elevate the economic status of the poor.

So given these concerns, how can Christians legitimately defend capitalism? They can do so by honestly pointing out the weaknesses of capitalism, by coupling their defense of a market economy with an emphatic call for radical generosity and outreach to the poor, and by offering practical proposals to help the financially challenged find economic redemption and restoration.

I end this first part by letting God’s word challenge us to greater generosity:

If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’[35]


[1] Austin Hill and Scott Rae, The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010), 18, iBooks.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Prov. 14:31 (English Standard Version). Emphases mine.

[4] Jer. 22:16 (New American Standard Bible).

[5] 1 Tim. 6:10 (English Standard Version).

[6] Deut. 15:4 states, “There shall be no poor among you.” Prov. 10:4 says, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”

[7] 2 Thess. 3:10 states, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.”  Prov. 14:23 says, “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

[8] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 138.

[9] Robert A. Sirico, “The Moral Potential of the Free Economy,” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, ed. Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 160, iBooks.

[10] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 45.

[11] Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 78-79.

[12] This reflects the utilitarian argument that Smith himself is making, by arguing that the market alone ensures the greatest amount of prosperity for the greatest number of citizens. Robert Solomon and Mark C. Murphy, eds., What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 143-144.

[13] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63.

[14] Smith, Wealth of Nations, 14.

[15] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65.

[16] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 34.

[17] Sherwin Klein, “The Natural Roots of Capitalism and Its Virtues and Values,” Journal of Business Ethics 45, no. 4 (July 2003): 390.

[18] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63

[19] Phil. 2:4 (New American Standard Bible).

[20] Klein, 391. Klein specifically makes this connection with Puritanism and the Protestant ethic.

[21] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65-66.

[22] Ibid., 70.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 102.

[25] Ibid., 110.

[26] Ibid., 139.

[27] Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism  (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1991), 334, Kindle.

[28] Novak spectacularly makes this case in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

[29] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230.

[30] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 122.

[31] Smith, Wealth of Nations, 423.

[32] Heb. 12:6-11 (New American Standard Bible).

[33] Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.

[34] Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 30.

[35] Deut. 15:7-11 (New American Standard Bible).

Christians & Gay Marriage

At the risk of offending many of my Christian friends, I would like to offer the following thought experiment on gay marriage.

  • First, as a Christian, Billy Ray believes that homosexuality is a sin. He just can’t seem to get around the fact that this is what the Bible teaches. What the Bible teaches about this issue (or any issue for that matter) is important to Billy. While that may seem foreign to some people, for him it is a core belief.
  • Second, as an American citizen, Billy Ray supports the right for gay couples to marry. This is not a new position that he has only recently adopted in light of legal developments. Billy Ray has held this view for well over twenty years. While he has had no problem letting people know that he holds homosexuality to be sinful, he has rarely let it be know that he supports these rights for homosexual couples.

Is Billy Ray confused? Do his views indicate a lack of reflection and internal consistency? Has he gone liberal?

I think not. In fact, it may well be that Billy Ray is on to something. It can be argued that his views are actually more consistent than the views of all those Christians upset that gay marriage has been legalized. This is the point where some of you start to wonder if I’ve gone liberal.   For those of you who truly know me, you shouldn’t be surprised at all. You may even be thinking there is more to this discussion than meets the eye.  Yes, I am intentionally being controversial. Remember, I told you this would be a thought experiment. It is designed to grab your attention and get your hackles up.  I want you to think hard and evaluate your previously held views. Are you being consistent?

Now let’s get our thinking caps on.

Let’s start with some background beliefs that are possibly fueling Billy Ray’s seemingly contradictory views:

  1. Billy Ray believes in the autonomy of the local church. He is not alone in this belief, as most churches of a “baptistic” nature hold this view. It’s the belief that each individual church has the right to decide what they believe about the Bible, and how they will function as a Church body. Long before the Supreme Court made the decision to legalize same sex marriage, and long before DOMA was a twinkle in representative Bob Barr’s eye, churches all across America were marrying same sex couples. They were exercising their religious autonomy. These marriages were not recognized by the government (and the vast majority of employers), but they were still being performed. Christians were not lobbying for these churches to be shut down. Even in the cases where a particular church was part of an ecclesiastical organization that didn’t recognize gay marriage (or the autonomy of the local church), there were still pastors performing these ceremonies. If it was your church and you disagreed with the practice, you simply left. If it wasn’t your church and you disagreed with the practice, you simply never had to attend. Billy Ray may think the Church down the street is wrong when it comes to the belief that gay marriage is ordained by God, but he believes they still have the right to hold that belief. He simply chooses not to attend. Likewise, Billy Ray is adamant that churches that refuse to perform same sex marriages (like the one he attends) should not be penalized for their beliefs. Personally, Billy Ray could never see himself as a member of a church that performs gay marriages or that believes homosexuality is not a sin. This is not because he hates homosexuals. It is because he is constrained to adhere to what the Bible teaches.

  2. Billy Ray believes that the Church is the true authority when it comes to marriage. If the government decided tomorrow to no longer recognize any marriages conducted in churches that refuse to perform gay marriages (and retroactively enforced it), Billy Ray wouldn’t be worried. He believes that no decision the government makes about marriage could render his own marriage null and void. The government doesn’t have that kind of authority. Marriage is ordained by God. It wasn’t the marriage license filed after his wedding that guaranteed the union Billy Ray established with his wife, it was the vows he and Lucy Mae spoke while standing at the alter. Billy Ray does understand that such a policy might effect certain benefits afforded only to married couples. While these developments would upset him, it wouldn’t take away from the fact that he is still married in the eyes of God. God is the only authority that matters when it comes to marriage. In fact, Billy Ray has long believed that government needs to get out of the marriage business all together. Despite the fact that Tony Campola has recently changed his views on homosexuality, he still said it best: I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples and, leave marriage in the hands of the Church and other religious entities. Amen! For this reason, Billy Ray was never in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).


  3. Billy Ray believes in the founding principles of this country. He believes that discrimination, regardless of who it’s against, is wrong. He also believes that everyone should be free to live life as they choose, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. As a good student of American history, Billy Ray is well aware that his baptist ancestors fled Europe for this very reason. They believed in the autonomy of the local church and didn’t want any government or ecclesiastical authority telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Billy Ray has often used the following example: I disagree with atheists. I think they are severely misguided. It saddens me when they become militant in their attacks against Christians. I do not support any legislation that would criminalize atheism or prevent them from espousing their views. I am against workplace discrimination of atheists. The sole exception to this would be if a person’s beliefs about God were essential to a particular job. For example, a Christian school should not be penalized for refusing to hire an atheist as a teacher. Why should my views about homosexuals be any different? Just because I think they are wrong, does not mean they should be discriminated against. 

Once you understand the convictions that lie behind his views, Billy Ray suddenly seems very consistent. In fact, his views make a great deal of sense.

But let me muddy the waters a bit more before concluding this thought experiment.

We have established that Billy Ray is not against gay marriage, but he is still very concerned about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize it. In fact, he thinks it could very well be a bad thing. Have I completely confused you? Now he’s being inconsistent, right? Not really. Remember, Billy Ray doesn’t believe the government should have the authority to define or enforce marriage. That’s the role of the church. The reason for Billy Ray’s dismay? He is very worried that the government will use its authority to penalize churches that refuse to perform gay marriages.

Unfortunately, when Christians turned to the government to define and defend marriage, they ceded their authority to elected officials.  They gave government the power to set the rules and enforce them.  That was a bad decision.  Christians should have been the biggest opponents of DOMA. Oh, it seemed right to support it back when traditional values reigned supreme.  The hammer of governmental power was being wielded on behalf of the Christian.   Fast forward twenty years and values have now changed. The majority of Americans support gay marriage.  Guess who’s still holding the hammer? Only now, the hammer is coming down on Christians.  Bad choices always come back to haunt you.

Now the challenging part of this thought experiment. Do you think Billy Ray is right? It’s one thing to begrudgingly acknowledge that he’s being consistent. It’s quite another thing to accept what he believes as true. Do his views represent what all Christians ought to believe?

I find myself agreeing with Billy Ray.

I believe that the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin.  If we are going to call ourselves Christian, then we have to stand firm on this belief.  We cannot compromise.  However, just because we believe homosexuality is a sin, it doesn’t give us the right to treat homosexuals differently than any other people in this world.  We are all sinners. God’s love extends to us all. And as Christians, we are called to take his love to others. That includes homosexuals.

The bottom line is that we have been fighting the wrong battle when it comes to homosexuality.  We were trying to outlaw gay marriage by telling our elected officials to support traditional marriage.  The battle we should have been fighting was for our constitutional right to believe what the Bible teaches regarding homosexuality.  We needed to protect each church’s ability to decide whom it marries and whom it doesn’t.

Marriage wasn’t established by government, it was established by God.  It should be defined by churches, not by government. And, each church has the right to define it as they see fit.  They answer to God, not man. Frankly, we should be far more disturbed by houses of worship performing gay marriages than the Government recognizing them.  I am not upset that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage, but I am concerned about the impact that it will have on Christians who hold to the traditional view of marriage, believe that homosexuality is a sin, and refuse to perform gay marriages. Will it effect the tax exempt status of churches and Christian schools? It will. Of that you can be sure. Bad choices always come back to haunt you. If you need biblical confirmation of that, go back and read the story about Israel’s insistence that God give them a king. If I remember correctly, God warned then it was a bad idea. How did that turn out for Israel?

Let me end with a post I made to Facebook shortly after the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage. I think it says it best:

To all my Christian brothers and sisters who are still upset about the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Please do not jump on the bandwagon to try and find some way to have this decision overturned. That is not the answer. We should not be turning to the government to define or defend the Biblical idea of marriage. We made that mistake before, let’s not make it again. This is solely the province of individual churches, not the state. We should instead be pushing for legislation that protects our religious freedom to define marriage as we see fit (in accordance with Scripture). Yes, I see the irony in such an approach. We are asking the gay community to extend to us a courtesy that was never extended to them. I will not apologize for my views on marriage and homosexuality, for I am bound by what the Scripture teaches. However, I will apologize for the way that many Christians have engaged the homosexual community in the past. We are called to be servants of all, to love all, to bring the light of Christ to all, regardless of their beliefs or practices. I am not sure we have done a very good job of that. Please support candidates who are advocating for the protection of our religious freedom and who are not resorting to vitriolic attacks against the proponents of gay marriage.

Whether you agree with me or not, this approach is our best option. The fight is on! But before we turn to the government for help, let’s turn to God in prayer.