Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Christianity and society”

PamBG’s Blog: Christian Economic Life – Post 1: Foundation

Pam BC has just started an interesting series of posts on Christianity and economics. I’ve read the first two, and it looks very promising indeed. PamBG’s Blog: Christian Economic Life – Post 1: Foundation:

I’m going to try a thought-experiment here. I want to think about what an economy run on Christian principles might look like. And this is quite literally a ‘thought experiment’. At the moment, I have no idea of what I intend to write in the future, but I want simply to think out loud, building on ideas step by step.

So here are some initial thoughts for a foundation:

1) Christian thinking on economics should begin with Christian and biblical principles, not with economic principles.

2) That being said, it seems to me that a good principle for a Christian thought experiment on our economic life would be: honor God and love your neighbor. (There are actually a number of principles that the bible expresses on economic life that a lot of us might not like; forbidding the giving or receiving of debt is one of these.)

3) As I think and write, I will try to separate ‘What works’ from ‘What should be’. I will recognize that ‘What should be’ doesn’t always work well. In separating the two principles, I intend to avoid what seems to me to be a usual problem in Christian economic thinking: ‘That operational method doesn’t work, therefore it is unjust’.

That is a very good start, and I recommend that people who are interested in the topic read the whole series.

If one is really going to discuss such things properly, however, blog comments are rather inadequate. It is the kind of thing worth discussing in the Christianity and society forum.

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And you can see my take on it at Notes from underground: The Invisible Hand.

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Twenty-first century urban life

My son works at Exclus1ve Books in Menlyn Mall. They used to be Exclusive Books, but they recently changed their name to Exclus1ve Books, presumably to make it easier, or more difficult, as the case may be, to search for on the Internet.

When he’s on night shift he usually cycles to work, and then when he finishes work we go to fetch him, because he doesn’t have a light on his bike, and people tend to drive more dangerously at night. Last night when bringing him home I stopped for a red light and a guy who had been following me overtook and drove through at high speed. He was driving a big BMW. They, of course, are immune from accidents, because all other traffic is expected to automatically get out of the way. Anyway, that kind of thing is why my son doesn’t ride his bike home when he’s on night shift.

When I wait for him to finish work, here’s what I see from one of the parking lots.

The blue lights in the tree seem to be intended as Christmas decorations or something; they’ve been there for a month already. It seems to get earlier every year. If he’s late getting out of the shop I have to leave and drive around the block. They only give you 20 minutes free parking, which is one of the reasons I don’t often shop there myself. There are other shopping malls that give up to 2 hours of free parking on weekdays, so i patronise those instead.

Random acts of political correctness

Yesterday I posted some thoughts about giving money to street beggars as an act of Christian charity that some people wanted to outlaw. A couple of commentators seemed to have a problem, or at least a query, about my calling this Christian. Then Notes from a Common-place Book: Those Wacko ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians pointed me to this:
I’m Not One Of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source:

I’m here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren’t anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We’re not all into ‘turning the other cheek.’ We don’t spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with extremist notions like ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice.’

It’s good to be reminded of the need to live a balanced Christian life and to avoid fanaticism and extremism. Perhaps that’s what it means to be “a moderate”.

Holy Poverty

In 1920 R.H. Tawney published his book The acquisitive society, in which he criticised capitalist morality and values. Fifty years later Lawrence Lipton, the chronicler of the Beat Generation, wrote:

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused
with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an
advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

In the 1970s Western Christian theologians wrote a lot about “contextualisation”, to such an extent that it became an almost meaningless piece of theological jargon. But the main idea is quite simple. It is an image taken from the weaving of cloth. The warp threads are stretched out along the length of the cloth, and the weft threads are woven in crosswise, so that in the finished piece of cloth the warp and the weft are inseparably woven together. So, the contextual theologians said, the gospel must we woven into society. Christianity must be a part of the society in which it finds itself.

For some contextual theologians, especially in South America, this meant a “preferential option for the poor”. If the gospel of Christ could not speak to the poor and become part of their lives, it would never be heard. In North America, on the other hand, a movement arose to contextualise the gospel for the acquisitive society. And this led to what is called the “prosperity gospel”. And so we discover that “contextualisation” doesn’t solve the problem, it just shows it. Do Christian values shape and inform society, or are they shaped by it?

That, in North America, often leads on to debates about “separation between church and state”, but I don’t want to go into that now. The more important question, the prior question, remains: what are my values? Are they shaped by the gospel, or by the world, by the acquisitive society?

The other side of the contextualisation coin is that in many ways the Church is called to be countercultural. St Paul said “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of contextual theology is that it sometimes leads to a conformity to the world’s values. In traditional Christian morality we recognise that we have to struggle against sinful behaviour. This spiritual struggle, spiritual warfare, is called podvig in Russian and ascesis in Greek. But contextualisation can sometimes lead to a different way.

Instead of struggling against sins like lust and greed, one simply redefines them as virtues. So for some in the West fornication is no longer a sin to be repented of or stuggled against, but rather extolled as a virtue, in the name of “inclusion”. For others, lust remains a sin to be denounced (sometimes self-righteously, especially in others), but it is greed that has been transformed into a virtue in the new “prosperity gospel”. And very often the pro-lust group and the pro-greed groups find themselves opposed to one another. The secular world has no such problems. Lust and greed go hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship, and the porn industry flourishes as never before. People from poor countries and regions are traded as sex slaves, and make their pimps very, very rich.

But this article is not about lust — that was just to show that the unintended consequences of contextualisation can take different forms. Whatever form it takes it means that one no longer even needs to pay lip-service to Christian values. But sometimes even lip service is better than nothing, and leads, however imperfectly, to an attempt to shape society by Christian values. St Constantine is often vilified nowadays since his introduction of religious toleration opened the way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. One result of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire was the attempt, at least to some extent, to manifest Christian values in public life.

The emperors participated personally in the care of the needy, e.g. by anointing lepers or sharing meals with the hungry. This must have provided them with political public relations benefits, but it also represents a crucial emphasis in Orthodox spirituality. To be complete, a charitable work cannot deal only with structures and institutions but must involve a direct relation between persons, who bear the divine
image. Thus Romanus not only funds the feeding of the masses but also invites a few at a time to his own table. Whether he does this out of genuine compassion or only from a desire to appear compassionate, he shows his respect for a spiritual and ethical principle which his society values highly (Harrison 1990:24).

The difference is that the acquisitive society does not value that spiritual and ethical principle.

Let St Ambrose of Milan have the last word

How far, ye rich, will you carry your insane cupidity? … why do you reject nature’s partnership of goods, and claim possession of nature for yourselves? The earth was established to be in common for all, rich and poor; why do ye rich alone arrogate it to yourselves as your rightful property? Nature knows no rich, since she brings forth all men poor. For we are born without clothes and are brought forth without silver or gold. Naked she brings us to the light of day, and in want of food and covering and drink; and naked the earth receives back what she has brought forth, nor can she stretch men’s tombs to cover their possessions. A narrow mound of turf is enough for rich and poor alike; and a bit of land of which the rich man when alive took no heed now takes in the whole of him. Nature makes no distinctions among us at our birth, and none at our death. All alike she creates us, all alike she seals us in the tomb. Who can tell the dead apart? Open up the graves, and, if you can, tell which was a rich man. . . .

But why do you think that, even while you live, you have abundance of all things? Rich man, you know not how poor you are, how destitute you would seem even to yourself, who call yourself wealthy. The more you have, the more you want; and whatever you may acquire, you nevertheless remain as needy as before. Avarice is inflamed by gain, not diminished by it…

You crave possessions not so much for their utility to yourself, as because you want to exclude others from them. You are more concerned with despoiling the poor than with your own advantage. You think yourself injured if a poor man possesses anything which you consider a suitable belonging for a rich man; whatever belongs to others you look upon as something of which you are deprived. Why do you delight in what to nature are losses? The world, which you few rich men try to keep for yourselves, was created for all men. For not alone the soil, but the very heaven, the air, the sea, are claimed for the use of the few rich. . . . Do the angels in heaven, think you, have their separate regions of space, as you divide up the earth by fixed boundaries?

How many men are killed to procure the means of your enjoyment! A deadly thing is your greed, and deadly your luxury. One man falls to death from a roof, in order that you may have your big granaries. Another tumbles from the top of a high tree while seeking for certain kinds of grapes, so that you may have the right sort of wine for your banquet. Another is drowned in the sea while making sure that fish or oysters shall not be lacking on your table. Another is frozen to death while tracking hares or trying to catch birds with traps. Another is beaten to death before your eyes, if he chances to have displeased you, and your very viands are bespattered with his blood…

—–

Bibliography

Harrison, Verna, 1990. Poverty in the Orthodox tradition, in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 34(1). Page 15-47.

Synchroblog

This post is part of a “Poverty, as seen from God’s perspective”.

Here are links to others blogging on this topic this month:

Phil Wyman: A theology of poverty and our personal biases
Adam Gonnerman: Echoes of Judas
Cobus van Wyngaard: Luke: The Gospel for the Rich
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Steve Hayes: Holy Poverty
Jonathan Brink: Spiritual Poverty
Dan Stone at The Tense Before
Jeremiah: Blessed are the poor… churches…
Alan Knox: Boasting in Humiliation
Miss Eagle: Poverty and the hospitable heart
Jimmie: Feeding the poor
Calacirian: Fully known and fully loved

Synchroblog on Christianity and social justice

This month’s synchroblog is on Christianity and social justice, and the links to the various articles on the topic are below:

Pagans and Neopagans

In a comment on another post Yvonne Aburrow writes:

Small grumble… why do Christians (even lovely ones such as your good self) always insist on the “Neo-” prefix? Is it to emphasise that you don’t believe we have continuity with pagans of the past? Sure, we don’t have the equivalent of apostolic succession (we call it initiatory lineage), but there is a continuity of ideas via the Western Mystery Tradition, and many another strand of thought and feeling. Also, the pagans of the classical world didn’t call themselves Pagans, so I don’t give them a capital P – but I do give it to modern Pagans because they identify as such.

Of course, given that you belong to a tradition with unbroken apostolic succession, maybe you should call all other forms of Christianity Neo-Christian…

This post is an attempt to respond to that.

I should say right at the start that in addition to being a Christian I am a curmudgeonly language pedant. I tend to be fussy about language and usage, and distinctions between the meanings of words that some might think hair splitting.

And for me, “pagan” is a general term, whereas “neopagan” is a more specific one.

“Pagan” started off as Christian slang for non-Christians. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians:

In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life.

“Pagan” continued to be used as Christian slang for non-Christians right up to the middle of the 20th century. Paganism was not a religion. It was the state of not being a Christian. In Europe, perceptions of religion began to change with the growth of modernity. I don’t want to go into that in too much detail here, but should just point out that modernity gave rise to the modern conception of “religion” and “religions”, and the idea that Christianity was one instance of something that belonged to a wider category, one religion among many. Such a notion would probably never have occurred to anyone before the 17th century. What it led to was a notion among some people that the term “pagans” applied to adherents of non-monotheistic religions, so that anyone who was not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim was a pagan. But still, no one was a self-described pagan.

In the 19th century, though, some people did begin to describe themselves as pagans. They accepted the Christian understanding, with an extension. Not only were they not Christian, they were not religious. Those who accepted “pagan” as a self-description were secular humanists.

An example of this usage can be seen in a book by Rosalind Murray, The Good Pagan’s failure. It was a book of Christian apologetics written by one who had been a Good Pagan, but had become a Christian. I used to have a copy, but can’t find it. The following excerpt from a review, however, should make it clear what the book is about, and how the word “pagan” is used in it.

The Good Pagan’s Failure. By Rosalind Murray. (Longmans, Green, 7s. 6d. net.)

Miss ROSALIND MURRAY has attempted to interpret liberal humanism to the Christian, and Christianity to the humanist, to examine the misunderstandings which inevitably arise between the supernatural outlook of the “totalitarian” Christian, and the cultivated, “moderate”, humanitarian worldliness of the Good Pagan. Miss Murray is singularly equipped to make this attempt, having known both worlds, and she has achieved a work of immediate value.

At its best (and Miss Murray knew it at its best) that humanism possessed qualities of culture, moral refinement, honour, and humane sensibility which were remarkable; today its essential weaknesses have worked themselves out, and the Good Pagan stands back in hurt surprise at the sight of a world in ruins. His intentions were so good, his heart so kind; what has gone wrong? Miss Murray examines his failure with intelligence and sympathetic insight, and shows how by his exclusive preoccupation with this world, his confidence that with bread (and kindness) alone man could be happy, the Good Pagan was forced to shut his eyes to the world’s imperfections, to the facts of suffering, poverty and sin. But “by excluding Heaven we have not abolished Hell, by denying redemption we have not been redeemed, the sinner is still there, in the world and in ourselves”.

Rosalind Murray, as the reviewer points out, was a member of both worlds. Her father, Gilbert Murray, was a well-known advocate of secular humanism. And Rosalind Murray’s use of the term “pagan” was fairly widespread and well understood for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

When I was teaching in the theology faculty of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the 1990s, the faculty issued formal tutorial letters to students to say that they should not use words like “non-Christian” and “pagan”. Their intentions were good. The people who compiled the letters thought that these terms were insulting, and that it was not good to be rude to people. The problem was that they were a little naive, and did not see how their own prohibition was actually a manifestation of an attitude of superiority. If it is bad to call someone a pagan or a non-Christian, that implies that one thinks that Christians are superior to non-Christians, the therefore it is rude to imply that a person is so inferior as not to be a Christian. I doubt that many pagans would be fooled by this disingenuousness. It actually patronising condescension at its worst.

At the same time, and especially since the mid-1960s, many people were happy to call themselves pagans, not because they were irreligious, but because they were religious. Many of them were consciously trying to revive the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe. But even in this sense, “paganism” did not refer to a single religion, but to a group of religions, some of which had their own names. Asatru, for example, as the revival of ancient Norse religions, Hellenism was the revival of the pre-Christian religion of the Olympian gods. There were new composite religions like Wicca.

Yvonne objects to the term on the grounds that it implies a lack of continuity, and in a sense it does: Asatru is not a continuation of ancient Norse religion. Hellenism is not a continuation of ancient Greek religion. They are revivals. The term “paganism” also covers what some have called “paleopaganism”, which includes not only the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, but also religions that are still practised at the present day, including African and American traditional religions. And many modern pagans themselves have come up with, and are happy to use, terms like “neopaganism” and “paleopaganism” and indeed have helped to define them. While I don’t agree with everything in that article, I think it does help to clarify the definitions of the terms.

Perhaps, as a postscript, I should say a little more about the question of “superiority”, as manifested in both the Unisa tutorial letters and in the article referred to in the previous paragraph. After all, I remain a Christian — doesn’t that mean that I regard myself as superior to pagans, whether neo-, meso- or paleo-?

And the answer for me, at least, is no.

Someone once likened Christian evangelism to “one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread”.

It’s a good analogy. A beggar who finds bread is not necessarily better than one who has not. He may be “better off“, but he is not “better”. That is the point of the discussion of the Good Pagan’s failure. Why the epithet “good”? The point is that the failure is not necessarily a failure of ethics or morality. Many pagans live better and more moral lives than many Christians, and some indeed have higher ethical and moral standards than some Christians. The moment that Christians assume that they are morally superior to others simply because they are Christians, they’ve lost the plot. And, as Isaac Bonewits points out in his article cited above, that has happened quite often, There is nothing in the Christian faith to justify such attitudes of moral superiority. And when we do adopt those attitudes, we simply show how much we are still sinners.

Christian responses to "Satanism" and journalists who write about it

Commercial pressure leads Rapport to scrap column : Mail & Guardian Online: “Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport has scrapped writer Deon Maas’s column after his piece on satanism prejudiced the paper’s commercial interests, its editor said on Thursday. Following the appearance of the opinion piece on November 4, readers started an SMS campaign calling for a boycott of sales on Sunday, said editor Tim du Plessis in a statement.”

The controversy has spilled over into the blogosphere, but in the confusion the points made in the original article have been been lost.

In the original column Deon Maas wrote about a woman who was arrested for possession of heroin and cocaine, but found it disturbing that the police, after searching her bedroom, were now investigating her for Satanism, after finding Satanist documents written in blood, candles, human hair and more.

Maas notes that he had candles in his house, because of Eskom’s lack of planning, and wondered why no one had informed the investigating officer that the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Maas said that he himself was not religious, and that if he were in the market for a religion, Satanism would seem like too much effort, slaughtering peaceful domestic animals, and rising after midnight to practise your faith.

Maas also observes that the Satanist ethic of do to others what they do to you or before they do it to you might not go down too well among those raised in religions with an ethic of turning the other cheek, but that it sounds to him like standard behaviour in the business world of Johannesburg.

So why the storm of protest, threats of boycotts etc.?

What should a Christian response to Satanism be?

In the Christian understanding Satan is an over-zealous public prosecutor who got fired for exceeding his powers. He was the prosecutor in the heavenly court (“satan” is a noun rather than a name, an office; it means “accuser” or “adversary” as does the Greek diavolos, from which the English word “devil” is derived).

Like many human prosecutors, Satan wanted to up the conviction rate, thought the judge (God) was too soft on criminals (sinners) and thought it better that the innocent should be punished than that the guilty should escape (sound familiar?) He brought accusations against the high priest Joshua, representing God’s people (Zechariah 3) which Christians see as typologically referring to Jesus (“Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua). Jesus was found guilty in the magistrate’s court (Annas and Caiaphas), and in the high court (Pilate), but in the supreme court of appeal (heaven) he was acquitted. Not only was the verdict reversed (guilty to innocent) but so was the sentence (death to resurrection). Satan not only lost his case but lost his job, and was thrown out of court (Revelation 12:7-12) and is going around looking for revenge.

Another image of Satan given in the Bible is of a concentration camp commandant. He has turned the whole world into a jail (Luke 11:14-26) but Jesus has come into the jail in the guise of a prisoner, tied up the chief warder, and smashed the gates, asks his followers to go around telling the prisoners that they are free.

That is a very brief and over-simplified account of the Christian understanding of Satan.

And if we look at things from that point of view, the last people Satan is going to be concerned with is Satanists. Far from trying to escape, the Satanists are in the prison voluntarily. Satan doesn’t have to worry about them at all.

No, where Satan is most active is among the Christians, and in the churches. He’s not worried about the volunteers, he’s worried about the conscripts who have deserted. It’s in the churches where we need to be concerned about satanic activity, because that is where Satan is most active. And the most characteristically satanic activity of all is the making of accusations, because Satan is, above all else, the Great Accuser.

Shuck and Jive: Render to my ex-wife what is my ex-wife’s…

This would be a worthy addition to the Synchroblog on The Church and money

Shuck and Jive: Render to my ex-wife what is my ex-wife’s…

The estranged wife of a pastor claims her husband blended his professional and personal finances so thoroughly that his church should be counted as an asset in their divorce.

Muslims call for peace with Christians

In my previous post I reported some confusion about a letter to Roman Pope Benedict XVI signed by 38 Muslim scholars, and another addressed to a wider audience by 138 Muslim scholars.

The confusion has now been resolved, with the latter being issued on the anniversary of the former. The second and more recent letter is addressed to a number of different Christian leaders and is a call for Muslims and Christians to work together for peace. It is addressed to all Chtristian leaders everywhere, and is addressed to two African church leaders by name: His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa and His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Apostolic Throne of St. Mark.

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of The Times, blogs about it here, and reports that Irene Lancaster thinks the letter is “threatening”. Part of the confusion about the two letters was caused by Ruth Gledhill linking to the wrong one on her blog, which one hopes may be corrected.

There seems to have been a mixed reaction among Christians, but I think that any call for peace is a hopeful sign, if it can be followed up. Religious leaders might not be able to deter political leaders who are bent on war. Many of the Christian leaders to whom the letter was addressed urged the USA and Britain not to invade Iraq in 2003, and the call was ignored. But quite a number of ordinary Christians went to Iraq to face the bombs.

Imagine what might have happened if Christian and Muslim leaders had been united, and the Roman Pope, Orthodox Patriarchs and the other leaders to whom the letter was addressed had gone to Baghdad in March 2003 and refused to move until George Bush withdrew his threat?

The world might have been a much less dangerous place today.

So if the letter leads to united action for peace by Muslim and Christian leaders, it is to be welcomed.

Guitar Priest: Dorothy Sayers on Christian Work

Now this is worth a read: Guitar Priest: Dorothy Sayers on Christian Work

The only Christian work is good work done well. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery, or sewage-farming. As Jacques Maritain says: ‘If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.’

When I was a student (more than 40 years ago) I used to attend St Alphege’s Anglican Church in Pietermaritzburg, which at that time was a thriving Christian community. A new priest came to the parish, and complained that people were not doing enough “Christian work”, meaning arranging flowers for the altar, baking cakes and so on. Several people objected, saying that for many people their Christian witness in the secular world of jobs, education and working for NGOs and even political parties was their Christian work.

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