Saturday, February 26, 2011

Christian Economics: Theft 

The main commandment dealing with economics is the eighth commandment, "do not steal".  It is not the only one; as I said in the previous post the commandment against adultery has important implications for us when we recognize that our bodies are part of the overall economy of the resources which have been placed under our stewardship.  Likewise, respect for parents, respect for life, not bearing false witness and not coveting all have important economic implications.  But the eighth commandment bears directly on our economic life and shapes it.

The eighth commandment establishes the fundamental right of private property.  Man was created to have dominion over creation.  Creation is much too big for just one man, however, even in a state of perfection.  God told Adam to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and his offspring would therefore share in that dominion.  That means that creation belongs to humanity for him to use.  And he was to tend creation, adding his labor to creation in order to maintain and improve it.  The eighth commandment means that a man has a right to the results of his own labor.

Wealth is created by human beings when we apply our labor to the natural world in a way that makes that world more usable.  Wealth and money are not the same things.  We'll talk more about money in the future, but money is simply a symbol standing for wealth, and often does so in deceptive ways.  But true wealth is a rising living standard; that a person has a better, safer and more enjoyable life as a result of efforts made to improve on nature.

The idea of "improving on nature" may sound odd to the modern ears, because of the nature-worship which is so embedded in our culture.  The fact is, that we have improved on nature in countless ways, and our society and economy have become so complex that this truth is often obscured.  But in raw, unadorned nature, most of us would be dead in very short order.  We have clothes to keep us warm, houses to shelter us, medicines to keep us healthy, abundant food, transportation and many other things.  The quality, availability and affordability of these things increases constantly.  In addition, we have arts, music, entertainment and communication available to us that improves all of our lives in many ways.  The misuse of any of these things is not the point- they are available, and of themselves very good, and all of it is the result of individuals and groups working to improve on nature.  The eighth commandment dictates that these individuals should have the right to their own labor.

Stealing happens in a lot of different forms.  The Heidelberg Catechism talks about the "wicked tricks and devices" by which I seek to take my neighbor's goods.  Essentially, any way that I seek to enrich myself at the expense of others is theft.  Obviously forcibly taking someone else's goods is theft.  Theft also often happens by deceit.  The Bible speaks of false weights and measures as an abomination.  A farmer brings his wheat in for sale, and the merchant who buys his wheat measures the bushel as bigger than it really is, making it appear that the farmer is selling fewer bushels than he is.  And the merchant gets him on the other end too, by weighing the silver out in smaller than the real measure so that he's giving the farmer less silver than he is really owed. In general, this is reflective of all business practices whereby I make the product I am selling to be less valuable than it actually is, or charge more for it than I said I would.  When I contract with a man to give him eight hours a labor at a given rate, then if I give him less than eight hours of labor, I am stealing from him.

Theft often happens in much more subtle ways as well.  If two neighbors have cornfields, and the one neighbor sneaks over in the middle of the night and destroys the crop of the other in order to make his crop more valuable, most would recognize this as theft.  If I take away the productive value of someone else's property, I am stealing.  Likewise, a man has property in his own skills and time.  He sells this property as his labor.  If I take from a man the value of his skills and labor, I am likewise stealing.

When we understand this concept, we see how very pervasive stealing is.  Our government dictates the price at which people can work, for example, and dictates a large number of burdensome regulations on businesses.  All of these regulations reduce the productive value of people's labor and property.  At first glance, a minimum wage law would seem to increase the value of labor, but in fact it does the opposite.  A minimum wage law does not make a man more productive than he is otherwise- his labor is worth what it is worth, depending on the skills and experience of the man.  If I as a business owner cannot purchase labor at less than, say, $5 an hour, then I will only purchase labor that is worth more than that to me.  The practical effect of a minimum wage law, then, is to make it illegal for someone whose labor is only worth $4 an hour to sell his labor.  The government has essentially stolen his labor.  High rates of unemployment among the youth demonstrate this well- their labor is not worth the amount that the government says is the minimum, and therefore the value of their labor is stolen from them.

Likewise, if I have a business, and the government dictates regulations to me about how I can and cannot do business, they are reducing the value of my business.  Some of these regulations are necessary, of course.  It is proper for the government to regulate my business in such a way as to prohibit activities which would steal from others.  A factory should not be permitted to dump its waste in the river- this would be stealing from everyone else who uses the river.  But many regulations, disguised as this sort of thing, are actually intended to benefit politically favored groups at the expense of others.  Requiring me to hire certain minorities or disabled people; preventing me from firing people unless I provide very burdensome proof of malfeasance; and many similar regulations are ways of benefiting favored political groups at my expense.  All government regulations should be very strictly examined to determine whether they are truly necessary, and whether the same goals could be accomplished in less burdensome ways.  And much better is to take action in cases of actual harm against people, rather than preemptively trying to eliminate any harm through the use of regulations.

In Deuteronomy 22:8, when a new house was built, they were required to build a railing around the roof.  Roofs in that culture were flat, with access by stair, and people would often dine or socialize on their roofs.  It is therefore very reasonable to dictate that a rail should be built to prevent an accidental fall.  In similar ways, the government is well within its right to dictate obvious safety precautions.  But look at Exodus 21:28-29 for a different kind of example.  There, if an ox killed a man, then the ox was to be put to death, but the owner was not guilty.  Only if the ox was shown to be dangerous in the past could the man be held responsible.  The solution here was not to impose burdensome regulations on all oxen owners.  The solution instead was that in the case of actual provable negligence- the ox was known to be dangerous in the past- the man was guilty for the death of the victim and punished accordingly.

Many products have been restricted or prohibited merely to gain political favor, because some group of people in the country got scared over the dangers of this product.  Incandescent light bulbs were banned in this country because of the perceived threat of global warming.  This of course destroyed that industry in this country; incandescent bulbs will now only be made in other countries.  Man-caused global warming is only a theory, and one which is doubted by many.  But the law was promoted by environmentalist groups as well as by companies that would be manufacturing the more expensive high-efficiency bulbs, and the law was passed.  This was an act of massive theft, and yet is hailed by many as a virtuous deed.  The recent accusations against Toyota regarding their brake failures are probably another example- no problem with their brakes has ever been found and most reports can be attributed to driver error, and yet this did not stop many media outlets and politicians from making outrageous accusations.  Toyota suffered economic harm as a result, to the benefit of those politicians, activists and media outlets.  Now the truth is known, and yet Toyota will likely never be recompensed for their losses.

We should recognize that any restriction on a man's economic activity takes away economic value.  This can be justified if such restrictions are necessary to prevent theft or real harm to others.  But when we restrict a man's freedom simply to benefit some other favored group such as "workers", the "poor" or any other group, we are stealing from him.  If we restrict a man's freedom to prevent the remote possibility of some harm or because unsubstantiated accusations of harm are made, we are again stealing from him.

Theft is extremely serious.  God speaks of deceptive economic practices, such as unjust weights and measures, as an abomination (Deuteronomy 25:14-15).  When we see that man's economic activity is an essential part of the image of God within him and his mandate for dominion of the creation, we can see the reason why this attack on God's image in man should be taken so seriously.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Christian Economics: The Image of God 

Economics means literally "rule of the house".  It addresses the distribution of wealth, goods and services.  The name is more appropriate than you might think at first, since the study analyzes the behavior of fundamental economic unit, the household.  Economic choices are typically made at the household level.

Economics is often neglected by Christians because of, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of what we as humans are.  We are not spiritual beings who happen to inhabit a physical body for a time.  That is a gnostic error with roots in the ancient church, and led to the frequent abandonment of the economic world in favor of living in caves, hermitages or monasteries by those who desired to be more spiritual.  The truth is that God created us to be both physical and spiritual beings.  He put Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him fundamentally material tasks.  He was to tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply the earth, and name the animals.

In fact, Adam was said to be "in the image and likeness of God."  God's creative acts, beyond the initial ex nihilo creation, involved separating and distinguishing one thing from another- light from dark, sea from dry land- as well as filling these forms with content- stars in the sky, fish in the sea, plants and animals on the land, and so forth.  And then He created man, in the image and likeness of God, as the pinnacle of creation.  He gave man tasks to do that reflected this image and likeness, in that Adam's acts were small reflections of God's own creative acts.  He was to bring order out of chaos in the creation by tending the garden, naming the animals and filling creation with human beings.  Man was to be a scientist.  Naming the animals meant understanding them.  Man was to be an industrialist.  Tending the garden meant hard work and industry to take the raw materials of creation and improve on them.  And man was to be a father, a family man.  All of these things defined man's relationship with creation and with other men, and ultimately with the God that made him.  Of course when Adam fell into sin, all of this was brought into ruin and corruption.  Man's labor is specifically mentioned in the curse- the creation would rebel against his rule by bringing forth "thorns and thistles", and man's work would now be by the "sweat of his brow."

Salvation involves restoring what was lost.  Man was to be a faithful servant of God, but failed.  Jesus came to be what Adam failed to be.  And He succeeded- He was the faithful servant.  In salvation, we are conformed to His image, which means that in salvation we are being restored to our status as faithful imagebearers of God.  And that means that our relationship with God's creation will be one of the principal things being restored in us.  The implication of this is that economics is a proper and important study for every Christian.

I believe that if economics were better understood, a great deal of foolishness that passes for policy could be avoided.  But my concerns here are not primarily political.  My concern is that we as Christians understand that being a Christian does not mean retreating from the world.  This world is cursed and fallen and will be destroyed by fire.  But creation itself will be restored.  Eternal life will not be spent sitting on a cloud playing a harp.  A "new heavens and new earth" are coming, and our life will be a physical life spent in a physical place.  Preparing for that eternal life then means that right now, just as we are learning what it means to treat one another with love, so it also means learning to relate properly to God's creation.  We are to take dominion over the creation we are presently in.  This means being good stewards (caretakers) of our own bodies in sexual purity.  It means being hard at work with what God has given us to do, and doing that work in integrity and thankfulness.  It means helping those who are in need.  It means using all of the things of God's creation with moderation, joy and thankfulness, and not being drunken or gluttonous.  It means not stealing from others.

Unfortunately, the gnostic error persists.  It is seen in the fact that when we are called to serve God with our lives, to many that means quitting their jobs and engaging in full-time "church" work, or at least giving most of their money to ministry.  It is seen in the fact that it is viewed as somehow inherently immoral to make money, or at least to make very much.  But we see here that when I interact with God's creation in dominion, improving on that creation and bringing order out of chaos, I reflect God's own image and begin to fulfill man's original reason for existence.  I must do so in a way that glorifies God, of course, and is therefore in accordance with His word; meaning that I do not exploit creation for the satisfaction of my selfish lusts; I do not steal or defraud from others in my labor; and that I always remember to be generous to the poor.  But in this way, the Christian sees that so-called "secular" work can be highly glorifying to God.  This is the foundation of Christian economics, the understanding that man was created by God as a physical and spiritual being, and is called upon to reflect God's own nature in his physical being and in the physical creation which God has made.


Saturday, February 05, 2011


Recently, Obama gave a speech in which he quoted Isaiah 40:31, a very familiar verse to many.  In the quote Obama left out one phrase, "renew their strength."  So Fox News reported that Obama "botched" the quote.  I would say this is a good bit petty on Fox News' part.  I frequently quote Scripture from memory, and often paraphrase and summarize.  Many of the apostles themselves, when quoting the Old Testament, do the same.  As long as the meaning of the text is intact, the quote is fine.  I wouldn't describe that as botching a quote.  The change Obama (probably inadvertently) made did not change the meaning of the verse at all.  But cheap shots for the sake of generating a story are nothing new.

But here's where it gets interesting.  MediaMatters unloaded on Fox, saying that Fox doesn't know that there's more than one version of the Bible.  They claimed that Obama's quote was from the NIV and Fox News' quote was from the KJV, and that Fox was claiming that the misquote was because he didn't quote it in the KJV.  This is nonsense; the omitted phrase appears in the NIV as well.  The slander continues in the comments on MediaMatters, with people saying things like "The dimwitted teabaggers believe Jesus was a white guy with blue eyes and spoke King's English." and "A lot of Christians don't even know about the Apocrypha, or that the Bible was assembled by an assembly of Priests who determined what was and wasn't "God's Word" by popular vote."  But that stuff is just run of the mill for the totally ignorant, malicious way that an awful lot of people on the left think about conservative Christians.

But now, a pastor gets involved.  Pastor Dan Schultz, blogging at Religion Dispatches, jumps in, repeating MediaMatters' slander.  Both the MediaMatters post and Pastor Dan's post are linked by the conservative blogosphere, with the result that they are quickly corrected in their own comments.  Pastor Dan (unlike MediaMatters, so far) at least has enough integrity to realize that he's made a mistake and issues a correction.  But even in the correction, he can't help continuing to take shots at Fox, and act as if his error was not as great as theirs-

As several people point out in the comments, Media Matters made a mistake of their own. The President's words don't match exactly the NIV, as MMFA reported. He seems to have left out the phrase "they will renew their strength."
This is somewhat embarrassing.
"Gotcha," however, is neither a functional equivalent of a smear campaign, nor a moral one. Media Matters mistakenly attributed the scripture quote to the NIV; I saw nothing obviously wrong with that, and failed to notice the omission. Shame on me, but I'm not the one charging a sitting president with misquoting the Bible. Nor does the mistake in versions alter the basic point: Fox News said the president "botched" scripture. He did no such thing. He left out a phrase which changes the meaning of the scripture not at all. However much egg this leaves on my face, it changes nothing about the subject. I apologize for my error, as I'm sure Media Matters will once I inform them of it. I wonder if Fox News will follow suit, or will they allow a false impression about the president to stand?
But Fox didn't make a mistake, Pastor Dan.  Fox didn't lie about what the President said.  They exaggerated the importance of it, true.  But you lied.  You claimed that Fox did something that they didn't do.  And it's interesting to me that leftists have just recently (oh, since sometime in January, 2009) rediscovered the dignity of the presidential office, so that exaggerating about a "sitting president" is somehow so much worse than lying about a news organization.

Pastor Dan goes on:
The standard for professional competence in Biblical scholarship is not memorizing random passages instead of, say, the ability to analyze the literary, textual and theological significance of a particular passage. While the NIV rests in my congregation's pews, Isaiah 40:31 comes up precisely once in the three-year lectionary cycle. Which means, other than being the source of "On Eagle's Wings," it's not exactly a familiar passage. Perhaps Fox News will use this as evidence that I am not in fact a Christian minister, but a secret godless Muslim. I tremble at the thought.
It's a pretty familiar passage to a lot of us.  But agreed, memorizing passages doesn't prove a real understanding of Scripture.  But do you know what does?  Not lying about people, and not continuing to divert blame when you get caught in the lie.

Pastor Dan's actions here are a great example of how gossip and slander work.  The only thing that makes this different is that it all happened on the Internet, so he got caught.  But you hear a negative story about someone that fits into your preconceived idea of what kind of person they are, and without any proof at all, you repeat that story to others.  What Pastor Dan did in the original article was slanderous even if Fox _had_ done what he said they did, since he didn't bother to check to see whether it was true or not.

The Tuscon shooting was a perfect example of this.  The shooting happened, and before anyone knew anything about it, it was already being pinned on the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  Anyone who made that claim proved themselves to be a liar, even if the shooter had been a Limbaugh-Beck-Palin fan and a registered Republican, because they were claiming to know something they didn't know.  They committed slander, falsely accusing a whole political movement of murder, with no evidence- just innuendo.

If I get drunk and go driving in my car, I am guilty of the sixth commandment whether or not I actually kill anyone, because I recklessly endangered people's lives.  Likewise, when I spread stories around about people when I don't know their truthfulness, I am guilty of the ninth, even if the stories happen to be true.  (This leaves aside the question of whether it's legitimate to spread even true, negative stories about someone if you have no need to do so.)  The catechism tells us that one of the duties of the ninth commandment is to "promote and defend our neighbor's good name."  A good reputation is one of the greatest treasures a man can possess.  When we recklessly endanger that reputation, we do a great deal of damage to the man.  I would rather someone played with matches in my house than that he spread false stories around about me.  Being reckless with the truth about someone else's reputation is a great sin, and just because I get lucky and accidentally don't lie some of the time is no defense.

Pastor Dan is a liberal, politically and theologically.  He's a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a very liberal denomination.  I would love to pin this somehow on his liberalism.  But in my own sad experience, even politically and theologically conservative pastors will all too often listen to very harmful lies, from old friends or family members in churches they used to pastor, if it confirms their prejudices against others or strokes their ego about what a better pastor they are than the new guy.  Church members will all too often spread rumors about each other and listen to gossip about church members from others outside the church.  It makes us feel superior, more righteous, "in the know", and also feeds our envy and resentment of those perceived as being more influential or more popular than we are.  Gossip and slander within churches and within denominations is among the most harmful of forces, and causes far more ruin than sins we talk more about such as drunkenness and adultery.

Psalm 101:7- "7 He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight."

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Taste and See that the Lord is Good 

The proper relation of good works to the gospel is a common discussion in Christianity, especially since the Protestant Reformation which confirmed so powerfully the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It's been the subject of a recent controversy between several Reformed blogs- a letter from Pyromaniacs warning the White Horse Inn blogger Michael Horton about encouraging antinomianism, a response from Michael Horton, and some related thoughts from Professor R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary.

I have a great deal of respect and sympathy, really, for all of the people involved here.  There are, however, some important distinctions to be made and I think underlying this discussion truly is simply some real differences of opinion regarding the nature of the gospel itself.  Here is a video of Dr. Lane Tipton making this very point- demonstrating that we can make some pretty basic assumptions about the gospel without even realizing it, and those assumptions will very powerfully affect how we answer a whole bunch of questions.  Tipton asserts (and I agree) that the gospel is not simply justification by faith alone.  It includes that essential doctrine, of course.  But the gospel itself, he says, is the good news of union with Christ, meaning that the gospel is the fact of my union with Him, and all of the benefits associated with that- justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, are all included. 

Jesus said He came to save His people from their sins.  If Dr. Tipton is correct, then the salvation which Jesus is offering is not just rescuing from the punishment of sins, but from the sins themselves.  The old hymn sang, "Be of sin the double cure; cleanse me from its guilt and power."  So we are rescued from the condemnation, but also from the tyranny, of sin.

Heidelberg Catechism q. 86 says,
"Question 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?
Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, (a) and that he may be praised by us; (b) also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ. (d)"

I want to point out that phrase  "...that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof."  This teaches that one part of our assurance of faith is by our works.  Our sanctification is never the grounds of our merit before God.  But it does demonstrate that God is at work in us, and therefore shows that the promise of God is true.  God's claim to be able to save me from my sins is shown to be true by the beginning of that process.  I think this points us to the fact that the gospel encompasses more than simply justification, that the gospel includes all of Jesus' benefits, and that therefore an exhortation to good works as a thankful response to God's forgiveness belongs properly to the preaching of the gospel.

Now one school of thought really downplays or outright denies this doctrine that good works have a role in assurance of faith.  They say that this breeds legalism on the one hand and despair on the other.  How good is good enough?  How many good works actually demonstrate that I have true faith?  My answer would be, how many apples growing on the tree does it take to show that the apple tree is alive?  Just one.  Any good work at all in the believer demonstrates the work of faith.  The unbeliever is incapable of good works.  Also according to the catechism, only those works which proceed from faith are truly good works.  The Pharisee, the outward religionist, cannot produce any true fruit, but only a fake version.

This doctrine is not in the least a burden to me.  It is a great comfort.  I can look at myself and see clearly that I am very far from what I ought to be.  I cannot claim to have the least merit to produce before God and say, I am worthy of salvation.  But I can look at myself and say, I am not what I was, and I am not what I would be without Jesus.  I know that I could not have done this good work in me by my own power, and therefore I recognize the work of the Spirit in me.  This gives me comfort when I am downcast over my sin.  The Spirit is at work in me, and God will finish the good work which He has begun.

We can therefore challenge ourselves and challenge each other, "O taste and see that the Lord is good!"  If you are plagued with doubt, despair and uncertainty about the gospel, my encouragement to you is, lay hold of the promises of the gospel and start striving to live in the light of that blessed freedom.  Bathe yourself in the word of God and prayer.  Remind yourself constantly of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And endeavor to live in a way that reflects that truth.  God will work in you.  God will grant you power and strength to overcome sin, when you have faith in Him.  You will taste God's goodness in your life, and this will grant you a stronger assurance of the truth of God's promises.

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