We Are What We Eat: The Word of God vs The Word of the World

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nWhen we read a Gospel lesson like Luke 8:26-39 , the Gadarene Demoniac, we can easily get the impression that demons commonly haunt the earth and that demon possession is the most frequent problem confronting humanity.   And that would be our impression if the only Scriptures we ever heard was the Sunday Gospel lessons of the Orthodox Church year.  Yet if we study the Scriptures we note:

The word “demons” appears only 4 times in the entire Septuagint (Old Testament).  However it appears 35 times just in the 4 Gospels – but then only 6 times in the rest of the New Testament.

The word “demon” appears only in the book of Tobit in the Old Testament.   It appears 21 times in the 4 Gospels but nowhere else in the New Testament.

The notion of being “possessed by demons” – occurs only in the New Testament – 4 times in the Gospels and once in Acts.

Demon possession is not mentioned in the entire Old Testament and in fact demons are almost never mentioned in the Old Testament.  So, when we come to the Gospels and suddenly demons seem commonplace, we can ask: What happened?  Why do demons suddenly abound?

One thing that does happen in Israel is the invasion of pagan deities.   Following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Israel came the arrival of pagan Hellenism – Greek paganism which was the bane of Israel in the time of the Maccabees.  Then the pagan Roman Empire conquered Israel.  Pagan temples and pagan signs emerged everywhere in Israel.   The Jewish people readily  accommodated to this reality,  even some accepting  these gods/deities in their midst, but these gods were considered to be nothing more than demons by faithful Jews and early Christians.  Demonic influence spread throughout Israel with the influence of pagan Greek and Roman culture.   What we see in the Gospels reflects this concern – that people were being made sick by becoming accustomed to pagan religion, and making demonic ideas part of their daily existence.  Demonic influence and demonic possession took over the region as the Jewish people adapted to their political and religious reality and then even adopted some of these pagan Greek ideas.


In the Gospels, however, the demons themselves acknowledging the Lordship of Christ.  These demons and the people they possess are telling Israel to return to and be faithful to the God of their ancestors.  The people’s inability to recognize that The Lord is not just like one of the many gods was making them all mentally and spiritually ill.   God was no longer the Lord of their lives, but rather they  saw all gods as equal and thus all gods as demons.  So they became possessed by demonic thinking.  Jesus may have been very critical of Pharisaic Judaism and the religion of the temple priests, but He was not telling them paganism is a better alternative or a more acceptable alternative.  Jesus came to rid the people of all false beliefs including wrong Jewish ideas as well as the pagan gods and demons.

In Deuteronomy 32, there is a song which Moses taught the people of Israel, rebuking them for their faithlessness, which says in part that

Jacob ate his fill;

Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.

You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!

He abandoned God who made him,

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.

They made him jealous with strange gods,

with abhorrent things they provoked him.

They sacrificed to demons, not God,

to deities they had never known,

to new ones recently arrived,

whom your ancestors had not feared.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;

you forgot the God who gave you birth.   (32:15-18)


It was because the people forgot the Lord that they began to worship the pagan deities or demons.  In our Gospel lesson, note that the man from whom the demons had been exorcised exactly did not forget God:

Now the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.

Note well that usually Jesus tells those whom He heals not to say anything to anyone, but here He commands this man living outside of Israel to proclaim what God has done for him.  Perhaps when Christ is in Israel, Jesus feared that people would only misinterpret his powers as being demonic (Matthew 10:25, 12:24), whereas in the land outside of Israel, which was full of idols/demons, He wanted them to proclaim the one God above all the idols/demons.


We might also think about  Adam and Eve trying to hide from God after sinning.  Instead of coming to God for healing, they fear God will judge them and so they try to avoid God.  This is exactly like the demons in the Gospel behave.  They have no love for God, only fear.    “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!”  The demons too want to hide from Christ precisely because they don’t love Him and they don’t want to have to bow before Him or to be embraced by His love.

“. . . the demons are violent and destructive, seeking  injury and death of the human person; Jesus’ actions are liberating, restoring humans to tranquility and communion with self and others.”  (Willard Swartley, COVENANT OF PEACE, p 98)

The demonic is visible wherever people are seeking destruction and injury for their fellow humans – the endless list of terrorists and murderers who attack children in school or worshipers in a synagogue.  Or who send pipe bombs to politicians.   It is Christ who brings sanity to us and tranquility and communion with God.  We need to see the violence in our society for what it is.  Like in Israel of 2000 years ago, all kinds of demonic ideas abound in our midst and our making us and our country insane.

But what to do, respond with more violence?  As Christians we are called above all to be a people of prayer.  To recognize that these people possessed by violence and demonic thoughts are still part of us – both human and American.  We have to work to exorcise the demonic influence in our country through prayer and fasting.  That’s exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us (Mark 9:29).

“The possessed and insane individual remains a brother who has even a greater need not to be held in contempt or rejected, but on the contrary to be loved and helped since he finds himself in a condition of great suffering.  As St John Cassian teaches:

‘We shall not only never despise them but we shall even pray ceaselessly for them as for our own members and suffer along with them from the depths of our being and with all our hearts (for when ‘one suffers, all members suffer’ [1 Cor 12:26]).’

The Christian should feel bound up with their destiny, believing that his own spiritual destiny is linked to theirs, as each member of the body is linked to every other member.

‘We cannot possibly attain to perfection without these members or ours, just as we read that our forebears were unable to arrive at the fullness of the promise without us.  As the Apostle says concerning them: ‘All these who were approved by the testimony of faith did not receive the promises, since God had provided something better for us so that they would not be perfected without us.[Hebrews 11:39-40]’

… It is quite evident that in the eyes of the Fathers the possessed remains a complete human being, for even though the demon occupies his body and soul, he continues to carry intact within him the indelible and unalterable image of God which constitutes his true being, his profound nature, and indeed his very humanity.  In the face of this, possession is only an accident, a superficial deformity.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, pp 60-61)


Rather than seeing these American terrorists as “them”, we need to realize they are us and we as a culture have allowed these demonic ideas to become part of our lives.  We all need to repent and turn to the Lord.   There is a writing attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt which says:

“The Word of God is God.  And the word of the world is world.  There is a great difference and distance between the Word of God and the word of the world and between the children of God and the children of the world.  For every begotten offspring resembles its proper parents.  If, therefore, the offspring of the Spirit gives itself over to the word of the world and to earthly matters and to the glory of this age, it is stricken with death and perishes, whence it came into existence.  For, as the Lord says, he is ‘choked and becomes unfruitful’ (Mk 4:19) from the Word of God who is surrounded by the cares of life and who is bound by earthly bonds.  Likewise, one who is possessed by the fleshly desire, that is, a man of the world, if he desires to hear the Word of God, is choked and becomes like someone irrational.  For being accustomed to the enticements of evil when such men hear about God, they are burdened by boring conversation and their minds are bored.”     (Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, p 230)

Many are bored with hearing the Word of God and only want to hear the word of the world.  They read and listen to their political extremist talk show hosts and web pages.  They have filled their heads and hearts with demonic thoughts – “the word of the world” – and that is why they behave like the violent and destructive demons of the Gospel.

We also see in this why it isn’t enough for any individual just to change their mind, for they are not just acting alone but as part of a greater world experience/power.  “The word of the world” is greater than any one individual, it is all around us just like the ocean is to all the creatures that live in it.  We can’t just shake it off or get out of it.  This is why we need to read the scriptures and to pray and attend church and worship God.  It is why we need Holy Communion, the sacrament of confession, prayer and fasting.

Turning Our Heart to God

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
(Psalms 146:3-7)

That which a man loves, to which he turns, that he will find. If he loves earthly things, he will find earthly things, and these earthly things will abide in his heart, will communicate their earthliness to him and will find him; if he loves heavenly things, he will find heavenly things, and they will abide in his heart and give him life. We must not set our hearts upon anything earthly, for the spirit of evil is incorporated in all earthly things when we use them immoderately and in excess, this spirit having become earthly by excessive opposition to God.

When God is present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works, then it means that the kingdom of God has come to him; then he sees God in everything—in the world of thought, in the world of action, and in the material world; then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him, and a genuine fear of God dwells in his heart: he seeks every moment to please God, and fears every moment lest he may sin against God, present at his right hand. “Thy kingdom come!

Examine yourself oftener; where the eyes of your heart are looking. Are they turned towards God and the life to come, towards the most peaceful, blessed, resplendent, heavenly, holy powers dwelling in heaven? Or are they turned towards the world, towards earthly blessings; to food, drink, dress, abode, to sinful vain men and their occupations? O that the eyes of our heart were always fixed upon God! But it is only in need or misfortune that we turn our eyes to the Lord, whilst in the time of prosperity our eyes are turned towards the world and its vain works. But what, you would ask, will this looking to God bring me? It will bring the deepest peace and tranquillity to your heart, light to your mind, holy zeal to your will, and deliverance from the snares of the enemy.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 76-77)

 Then Jesus said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.  (Matthew 22:21-22)

The Church in the World

“The history of religion in power is the best argument for the Enlightenment’s desire to weaken its institutional clout. There is a certain wisdom, not of secularism, but of something that secularism has taught us: if religion is to be a vital part of the culture, it must persuade. It is not a bad thing for the Church to be limited to persuasion, and it is probably no coincidence that in those countries where churches are established and propped up by the state, they are generally unpersuasive to the majority of the population, who show their lack of interest by nonattendance. The relative health of religion in America, as compared to the subsidized churches of many Europeans nations, where almost no one attends church, might be a good argument for the separation of church and state.” (John Garvey, Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions, pp 95-96)

James Madison - Father of the Separation of church and state

How Important is Religion to the People of the World?

I saw this chart and just found it interesting, so decided to share it as well.


Chart originally in How Strongly Different Countries Feel About Religion

A lot of strong feelings about religion in the world’s Southern Hemisphere and in the so called “Third World.”  Sadly, it is the formerly “Christian” Europe including nations thought of as being traditionally Orthodox where religious fervor has dwindled greatly.  In this survey at least, the United States, which considers itself as being quite religious (at least in comparison to Europe) is only midway in the pack.


Reducing the Church to Politics

I have often read that a serious problem which occurs when church and state are so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable.   People who are marginalized by the state or oppressed by the state or whose consciences are troubled by the deeds of the state, have no where to turn to seek solace and refuge when the church is in complete sync with the state. And often the church ends up submitting to the state on many issues.

Some claim this is why in America “traditional” Christianity is on the decline, and why people instead turn to New Age religions or embrace spirituality instead of religion.  These alternatives allow them to see life and the nation freed from the government or politically correct view point.  Official or traditional religion ends up sounding so much like the state that people begin to look for a spiritual alternative. So Ted Peters wrote in his 1991 book,  THE COSMIC SELF: A PENETRATING LOOK AT TODAY’S NEW AGE MOVEMENT :

While church leaders have been occupying themselves with the world of secular politics, millions of people have begun to turn once again to religion. They are embarking on a spiritual quest: they want to find the source and meaning of their existence; to regain a sense of transcendent divinity; and to find a way to integrate human beings with one another, with nature, and with the whole of reality….’

At root the human potential movement is seeking a new cosmology, a new grounding for reality. The key to this new cosmology is the innate connection between self and world. It seeks to overcome the dualism of modern mind that separates subject and object, the humanities from the sciences.’   (as quoted by George Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Kindle Location 138-142)

At the exact same time that denomination and church leaders try to leverage their power through influencing the voting habits of their constituents, the people in the pew find themselves turned off by the political bent of religion and seek to find a spirituality that is not so conformed to or determined by the news or nationalistic trends.  An other worldly dimension is what many are seeking from religion – not a church which embeds them more in this world, but which brings them into contact with the boundlessness of the divine life.

Something for American Christians to consider as we into a presidential campaign year.  Politicians love it if we conform en masse to their message or support them or their party as if it were the church.   And in so doing they often are shaping the religious messages and spiritual beliefs of those following the political leader.    The politician’s goal is to get elected.    The goal of any political party is to get their candidates elected.  Are they willing to bend and shape and even mislead in order to get voters to get on their bandwagons?  Certainly.  Are they happy if they can capture Christian denominations en masse to vote their way?  Ecstatic.  It makes their job easy.  They create an illusion that they are empowering the voters when in fact they are taking the power away from the voter and putting it in a political party or ideology.  They make an appeal to the religious nature of voters, but then will embed those beliefs in their secular ideology and goals.

Christians need to read and study the Gospel carefully about Christ’s own attitude toward political power.  The early Church did not rely on political power to get its message to the world.  It relied on the membership living the Gospel and remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ.

We Christian should never hand over our votes en masse to any candidate.  Make them work for every vote, and hold them to their promises.  There is power in withholding endorsements.  The politicians have to pay more attention to those whose votes they want to win.

RussianbishopsAnd we can remember that when the church is too cozy with any political party or ideology, in America at least, we will lose some adherents to all kinds of independent spiritualities.  Some really are looking to the Church to proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom and to offer a spiritual vision of reality rather than simply trying to get people to conform to a political agenda.

Of course the other extreme is to be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good as Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have quipped.  The issue for the church is to be a light to the world, which we cannot be if we allow ourselves to be identified with any political ideology.  We are not called to be disinterested in democratic elections, but we must always remember the goals of a political party are not the goals of the Church.  We must always be wise to the fact that politicians will use us to their advantage if we let them.  And they hope that we believe they will carry out the will of God whether or not they can even say what that will is.

A Theology of Government

Today is election day across the United States, though this  year many of the races and issues being decided upon are local rather than national or even on a state level.   Since it isn’t a national election, Ohio is not ground zero for the political battle this year, for which I’m grateful.    I don’t have the heart for listening to the negative campaigning and though many think that is a necessary but messy part of true democracy, I could live without it.

Biblical scholar N.T.Wright comments on what he discerns to be a theology of government found in the scriptures.   On the one hand, God is forever trying to bring order upon a universe which  tends toward chaos, and government is part of a god determined plan for order in the world.  On the other hand, rulers have had a penchant for choosing evil and abusing their power, and God finds it necessary to hold all leaders accountable for their behavior.  The fact that rulers are needed in the fallen world, does not give them license to do as they please.

“The Jewish political belief we find in books like this was based on a strong theology of creation, fall, and providence: the one God had in fact created all the world, including all rulers, and though they were often exceedingly wicked God was overruling their whims for his own strange and often hidden purposes, and would judge them in turn. This meant that a classic Jewish position, which echoes on well into the Christianity of the second and third centuries, seems to us today to play from both ends of the spectrum at once. The rulers are wicked and will be judged, especially when they persecute God’s people. But God wants the world to be ruled, rather than to descend into anarchy and chaos, and his people must learn to live under pagan rule even though it means constant vigilance against compromise with paganism itself. […]

Augustus Caesar

God wants the world to be ordered, to keep evil in check, otherwise wickedness simply flourishes and naked power and aggression wins. But the rulers of the world are themselves answerable to God, not least at the point where they use their power to become just like the bullies they are supposed to be restraining. Meanwhile, God is working out a very different purpose, which will result in the vindication of his people and the judgment of the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world. All this is based, of course, on a creational monotheism which, faced with evil in the world, declares that God will one day put it all to rights, and that we can see advance signs of that in systems of justice and government even when they are imperfect. This leaves no room for a dualism in which pagan rulers are thoroughly bad and can be ignored, or overthrown without thought for what will come next. Nor does it allow that kind of pantheism in which rulers are simply part of the fabric of the divinely ordered world, requiring unquestioning submission to their every whim.” (Paul, pps. 66,68-69)

G. Washington resigns his commission.


American Religious Crosswinds

Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”  (James 3:4)

What direction is the wind blowing in terms of religious life in America?  Strong wind gusts are swirling through the country.

ConstitutionIn the past few days I read 3 articles on religion in America from the Washington Post.   I don’t know if it is usual that so many pieces on religion appear in this paper as I don’t always pay attention to such things, but these three caught my attention, and perhaps are representative of the very strong and opposing currents trending in American religious debate.

In mentioning these three Op-Ed pieces  I am not to make a particular point.  I use this blog to write about things I am reading or thinking about, not necessarily to express any conclusions about what I read.  America is in a period of flux regarding a number of issues related to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion (not to mention its problems with deficits and debt, health care, foreign threats and its ever increasing reliance on the military as its foreign policy department).

ground-zero-crossThe first Op-Ed piece, Why the ‘Ground Zero’ Cross Should Remain by Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark (Published: April 4, 2013),  agrees with a court decision that says the “Ground Zero Cross” will remain a part of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum despite the fact that a group of atheists filed a complaint in court claiming “that the mere ‘existence of the cross’ is causing them ‘depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish.’”  The steel beams were part of the 9/11 debris –they emerged out of the inferno and wreckage as a cross (an insurance industry “act of God”) rather than being built later from pieces of the wreckage.  The fact that Christians may see it as a religious sign does not change that it is a piece of history from 9/11.  Orthodox Christians at least have seen the sign of the cross in many events reported in the Old Testament (Moses holding out his arms giving victory to the Israelites for example).  Jews and others may not see Christ’s cross prefigured in these same biblical events, but Christians have for nearly 2000 years.  It is standard fair for believers of any faith to see the hand of God where non-believers may see only wreckage.

“There is nothing about the existence of the cross, for one, or its inclusion in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum that violates the Constitution. First, legally, the two steel beams in the shape of a cross are a historic artifact of 9/11, not a man-made religious symbol, despite any religious significance it took on. Second, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution’s ‘goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.’

The heroes of 9/11 and the families of the fallen to whom this cross – this symbol of hope – has meant so much deserve to have this artifact from the wreckage of 9/11 displayed in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They have gone through so much hurt and pain; they do not need to be dragged through a tenuous court battle. The cross should remain.”


Whatever may be said about a separation between church and state which prohibits the government from establishing a state church, the Constitution does not forbid the practice of religious beliefs nor does it ban religion in public discourse or the public domain.   It is good, reasonable and important for us to understand what factors shape our moral values in public discourse and debate.

The second Op-Ed piece that caught my attention in some ways is the polar opposite of the article above.  Rev. Barry W. Lynn’s  What part of ‘no law respecting an establishment of religion’ does North Carolina not understand?   (Published: April 4) looks at an ongoing effort in North Carolina by a few politicians to assert state rights regarding religion that would trump the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment.  The North Carolina “House Joint Resolution 494, known was the ‘Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,’ makes the claim that ‘each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.’”

In some ways this is simply part of the endless struggle in America between state’s rights and the rights of the federal government.  Lynn is concerned that the North Carolina resolution is simply an attempt to circumvent the First Amendment and make it possible for religions to gain control of government at the state level.  The bill declares: “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

James Madison, considered by many to be the architect of the proper relationship between church and state in the American democracy, was very concerned that the majority would always be tempted to impose their religious beliefs on the minority and he believed there needed to be a separation between church and state to protect the rights of all.  His efforts have led at times to the majority feeling frustrated and excluded from decisions as they must always take into account minority views. I think that frustration is what causes these particular North Carolina legislators from trying to pass this resolution – they are trying to find the way for the majority’s beliefs also to be protected.   Lynne in his article surmises that the courts will continue to defend the views of the minority which seems to be the intent of the constitution and its amendments.  The importance of the individual’s conscience is the segue into the last article I will mention.

In Still hoping for change on religious freedom   Mary Ann Glendon (Published: April 7) deals with federal legislation “that would force virtually all employers nationwide—including religious charities, schools, and hospitals—to facilitate and fund insurance coverage of sterilization, contraception, and drugs that can cause abortions” even against the consciences and religious beliefs of individuals.  As Glendon argues,  “It is unconscionable for the federal government to force religious people to check their deeply held beliefs at the door as they enter the world of commerce. These days, our business sector needs to be informed by more moral reflection, not less.

Religion and morality are not merely individualistically held beliefs but are part of the shared space and dialogue which creates culture.  America wrestles constantly with balancing individual rights/individualism with the common welfare.  The state is banned from imposing religious beliefs on us but also from interfering in the religious beliefs of individuals and different religions.  Churches are prevented from making their religious beliefs required of all citizens but also are protected from state interference in practicing the dictates of their religion.  In America with its matrix of religious beliefs, the state is faced with the task of protecting the religious rights of all of its citizens by balancing the demands of the constitution for religious freedom while protecting the consciences of individuals.

LOGOIn my experience as a member of a minority religion – Orthodox Christian: neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Jewish but a fourth tradition – I have benefited from being allowed to pursue my religious interests and beliefs in our country.  I appreciate the rights which minorities are afforded in terms of religious faith and practice.

Life, as Orthodox hymns tell it, surges with the storms of temptations.  The winds of controversy blow across the American religious scene, and it takes an active and aware public to defend religious liberties because they benefit our people and our nation.

“… and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock”   (Matthew 7:25)

Calming the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric: Christ is Savior

Lots of Americans on both extremes of the American political spectrum get fervently wound up in election year imagining some apocalypse if their favored presidential candidate does NOT win the election.  I don’t know whether that is the product of the negative campaign ads or the reason the campaigns constantly run those ads.

For Christians, we live by a truth which is outside of the effects of who wins the U.S. presidential election:  Jesus Christ is Lord, God and Savior.

No election can change that simple, yet eternal truth.   So however much we fear the “other” party’s candidate winning the election, we do need to keep perspective.  Jesus Christ is Lord, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).

“As the prominent biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The Priene inscription called Caesar ‘savior’ – savior of the world, bringer of peace and justice to which Paul says, ‘No way!’ We must add, therefore, that if God is savior, Caesar is not. And if God’s salvation, including peace and justice, comes through Jesus, then it does not come through Caesar – or any other political or imperial force or figure.” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pg. 44)

That “any other political or imperial force or figure” includes the President of the United States and the United States itself.  Just for the sake of a little humility for us Americans and to deal with our own hubris, we might remember that the devil in Luke 4:5-6 when tempting Jesus says all the authority and glory of every kingdom on earth belongs to him, and he offers it to Jesus who refuses it.   Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, not through the US, or through the US only if the right man gets elected president.  Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, showed little interest in governments and their power.

None of this is to say that it doesn’t matter who wins the election.  Since we do believe in free will, every decision matters and has its effect, great or small, on the universe.  But the complexity of the universe and the the love of God interact in such a manifold matrix, that we have Christ testifying to the fact that God the Father gives both rain and sunshine to the good and evil, the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous:

“… your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

Jesus attributes this particular behavior of God to His love, and then goes on to say we are to be as perfect in this love as God.   So we as Christians can have strong partisan, even polarizing, political feelings, but then as Christians, we are obliged to love the other as God does.

Ethics and Economics

I’ve been slowly reading through John Medaille’s TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET: A DISTRIBUTIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT, TAXES, HEALTH CARE, DEFICITS, AND MORE.    As I’ve acknowledged in previous blogs I have no formal education in economics, so it often is incomprehensible to me, and I will not here defend or critique the book.

Medaille offers a rather somber evaluation of modern economics and thinks the ongoing economic crisis worldwide is not an aberration but really the end result of modern economic, capitalistic policies.  One thesis of the book is that in an effort to make economics a hard science (rather than a mere social science) economists jettisoned ideas of morality.  Economics void of morality becomes a strange animal indeed creating many of the problems we see all around the world.  Some people defend as the greatest good whatever is “good for the economy.”   But of course exactly what constitutes the economy is not completely accounted for (is it people or businesses?  citizens or corporations?), nor is “good” defined especially in a system of thinking which wants to avoid moral judgments.  Medaille for example points out that while current economic thinking assumes the existence of labor, it cannot account for the existence of labor because it totally ignores the existence of families.

Modern economics does not account at all for what it costs to produce a labor force, thus families are left to scramble on their own to earn enough to survive meanwhile “the economy”  (economic leaders and forces) feel no responsibility for the survival let alone thriving of families.  So economic policies often ignore what is good for the family.    Additionally the labor force is also the consumer force – the rich get richer off the labor and consumption of these people.   But those leaders of economic ideas see no connection between the cost of producing a labor force and their own profitability.    Medaille offers many ideas about how to correct some of the problems that beset the world economy today, ideas based in distributist economics.  Some of his ideas would resonate with conservatives (especially he advocates a significantly smaller federal government) but his arguments on the moral issues of economics might not make conservatives feel so comfortable.  The keystone to his ideas is the notion of the just wage (you can read more on distributist ideas at http://distributistreview.com/mag/)

I suppose because I’ve been thinking about Medaille’s ideas connecting ethics to economics, I paid attention to a 20 December 2011 NY Times Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, Deep Pockets, Deeply Political.   Blow is sounding a recently familiar alarm:

 A tiny number of wealthy Americans are playing an ever-increasing role in financing our politics. This is not a good thing for a democracy.

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making government “transparent and accountable,” issued a report, which said:

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. …

The report also pointed out that “overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers” and that “a good number appear to be highly ideological.” In the 2010 election cycle, the report revealed, “the average one percent of one percenter spent $28,913, more than the median invdividual income of $26,364.”

But perhaps even more disturbing was this:

The community of donors giving more than $10,000 (in 2010 dollars) has more than quadrupled, from 6,456 in 1990 to 26,783 in 2010. In 1990, they accounted for 28.1% of all itemized (over $200) donations. By 2010, that number had risen to 44.1%. These donors are also accounting for an increasing number of all donations. And they’re giving more, too. In 1990, the average donation was $13,443. By 2010, it was more than double: $28,913.

James Madison

That the top  1% of  the well-to-do are financially more influential in politics than the rest of the country is not new.  Certainly Jefferson’s call that “all men are created equal” was not really a declaration of the equality of every human being but rather a demand that the limited number of landed gentry should be considered equals with the king.  The founding fathers envisioned some sense of the upper class ruling the country (as I recall James Madison even made mention at one point that the wealthy actually constitute a minority in the country and they had to be protected under minority rights against majority rule!).   There seems to have been in fact some notion among America’s creators that the well-to-do get to retire from work early and then can nobly serve the country in political office (This was an idea entertained by Ben Franklin).   So the wealthy being more influential in government than the majority of people is part of our democracy by and for the people from the beginnings of these United States!

I find myself connecting the statistics which Blow mentions to the ideas of morality in economics raised by Medaille.  People who are willing to drop nearly $30,000 down to influence politics are the ones who are fighting against paying taxes.  They would rather give $30,000 to political parties to promote their own interests (though this political donation is a form of a tax – the price to prosper in America) than to give that same amount of money to the government for the common good.  And they will give that same amount of money year after to year to political causes to avoid paying even less than that amount in taxes.

In the ancient Roman republic the imperial family and their slaves staffed the government at no public expense.  Senators and the equestrian class did the same out of a sense of duty – it was they who paid out of their own wealth for public buildings and services.  The landed elites of the provincial cities in turn paid for public services out of a sense of their own responsibility for the public good.

Is this civic sense, the sense of the common good,  what is so lacking in the current process of the wealthy paying for the politics of America?  Now, sadly people are willing to pay only for their own self interest – which often means exactly avoiding contributing to the common good.  A civic pride seems to be lacking.  The Romans thought patriotism meant working for the common good of all citizens which entailed spending their own money to build up (=edify) society.   Belonging to the wealthy class and owning property was considered a privilege which carried great responsibility for the common good of every citizen.  They believed all citizens should benefit from prosperity of the empire and of the wealthy.

Americans love to criticize entitlements – generally of any subgroup of Americans to which they don’t belong.  But entitlement thinking exists in the upper echelons of wealth too – it is entitlement which says the wealth is mine alone and no part of it is to be used for the common good.   It is entitlement thinking which fails to see the land on which we stand as a natural resource which is a shared good which profits all Americans.

George Washington

The common good does not mean socialism.  Medaille certainly opposes socialism which he actually thinks is really a necessary offshoot of capitalism because  current capitalism fails to consider that all economic issues are ethical issues as well.  Patriotism as valuing all citizens and working for the common good is in short supply in America these days.   Patriotism which values civic duty  is not a nationalistic exclusivism or exceptionalism.  It is a virtue which the founding fathers did embrace as they imagined citizen statesmen and citizen soldiers.   These same founding fathers thought the wealthiest Americans would come forward and support the common good for all citizens – such were their ethical beliefs.

None of this means we cannot question the size of the federal government, or work to reduce its size.  Certainly the size of the government is a question worth debating – and for Medaille this is part of the ethical discussion which needs to take place.  The issue I raise is whether our extreme individualism doesn’t in the end hurt the very basis of civil society as we cease to have any sense of responsibility for others.

Designer Religion

American religion pollster George Barna ‘s  new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks trends in the religious attitudes of Americans from 1991 through 2011. A main finding is reported in the 14 September 2011  USA TODAY article More Americans Tailoring Religion to fit Their Needs .

Barna notes that more Americans now count themselves among the unchurched than did in 1991 – 37% today vs. 24% then.   The trend is not that fewer Americans consider themselves Christian, it’s that they no longer consider church membership essential to being a Christian.    To some extent it is Americans living out their extreme individualistic attitudes.

 “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,” he says. Now it’s our religion.

Buddy Jesus

I commented on this same idea in Which Christ do We Believe In? referring to the movie Talladega Nights, in which every character has their own personal Jesus.  No longer are we Christ’s disciples conforming ourselves to His teachings, now we shape Jesus into whatever we want or need Him to be.  Christianity is not a revealed truth but a putty whose plasticity we shape to fit our personal opinions.   For a growing number of Americans Christianity maybe informational but certainly is not formational.    In fact now the attitude is we are to form Christianity into whatever we want it to be.   No longer is there the Lordship of Christ, what remains is how we exert our lordship over Christ to make Him conform to what we need from Him and His Church.  Barna reports:

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”

Of course this trend isn’t something totally new.  To some extent the very reason the American revolutionaries hung together was that following the ideals of the Enlightenment, they placed denominational differences as unimportant as versus the cause of a united American front against England.  The particular beliefs of each denomination were made relative and unimportant.  People could accept a general notion that they were all Americans, believers, even Christians as the bond which held them together as long as what they actually believed (their theology) was marginalized.   It is a great compromise that Americans made in order for America to emerge.  It is similar to the compromise the founding fathers made regarding slavery – ignore it because the issue was potentially too divisive.

It may be that the very partisanship which now paralyzes politics in America is the same issue:   all the compromises, looking askance, winking and nodding, knowing smiles, avoidance and all other ways we used to pretend we were a united people  no longer work as the glue to hold us together.   The differences are emerging and we realize we are not such a united people after all.  There are huge theological differences and diversities within the family of beliefs known as Christianity.

And since the differences are real, and since we have not created any open forums in which theological or philosophical differences can be discussed, people personalize religion and create their own.  This of course is not going to help keep the nation united.  It may for some mean the issue cannot be discussed since there is no point of agreement, but underneath the fissures in basic assumptions by Americans are widening.  (In American politics we never seem to have an exchange of ideas, just mutual hurling of false accusations against each other in negative ad campaigns).

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote:

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”

When any one church makes its appeal to be “we are different” from all the rest and that all the rest are wrong and we alone are right, it actually feeds the problem.  For that church begins to attract those people whose “designer religion” ideas say I want a church just like that.  It is the individual which now affirms the “truthiness” of the church.   The church appeals to the most individualistic thinkers who are happy to discover a church which conforms to their beliefs.  It is the heart of sectarianism and the mind of cults.

The countervailing need is for Christians/ Christianity/ the Church to understand the cosmic nature of its truth.   “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) – not just individuals, believers, the super-righteous, Christians, or Americans.  The Christian message is for the entire cosmos.  The Christian message is universal, a message for every single human being on the planet.  The Christian message is meant to help us engage the world, not flee from it.   Our task is to be a light to the world, not the fire that destroys everything in its path.  It is in this universal as versus individualistic understanding that Christianity invites people to become part of the Body of Christ – become part of something greater than one’s self.  Become part of something whose unifying bond is love, not alienating individualism.

None of this means people are to mindlessly believe and live a life of warm fuzzies.  All of it demands great intellectual exploration and discovery.  Are the claims of Christianity true?  How are we to live if they are?  What does it say about what it means to be human?   What is the human role in and responsibility for the world?  For one another?  How do we deal with our differences – in perspective, in theology, in ethics, in science?

The test of love and faith is whether we can in fact discuss our theological differences and can overcome them in Christ. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34).   The embrace of extreme individualistic thinking is in many ways a rejection of the love which Christ lived and was the very basis of His willingness to die on the Cross.  The opposite of the (self sacrificing) love of Christ is the self love of individualism.