As has been clear from the beginning of our present economic crisis, our distress is about more than money or the lack of it. The problem is moral, even spiritual, and it will not be resolved by financial bailouts, corporate restructurings, salary caps, or caps on emissions. As Paul Tournier observed a generation ago, "Ultimately it is the spiritual destiny of man which is being played out in his physical and economic destiny." At just the time America most needs the message of repentance and faith - of the new life in Jesus Christ - we who believe in Him have made ourselves a stench in our neighbors' nostrils. We have a lot of work to do if we are to earn the right to talk with our neighbors about the Gospel of the Kingdom. That work begins before God in prayer, repenting of our hubris, self-righteousness, and indifference to the needs of the lost. It goes from there into the world - into each of our spheres of influence - with the towel and basin in hand, listening and looking to meet needs in love. If we expect to be a source of healing for our nation, we must begin with being healed ourselves, so that we will have the spiritual health needed to help those around us. The government continues throwing money and reforms at the economic crisis, and the nation anxiously waits to see if any of this will do any good. It won't. Oh we may experience some short-term relief and even avert a larger disaster than what has already occurred. But the economic problem in this country is one of spiritual vacuity - a fixation on self, things, wealth, comfort, and ease that thinks sacrifice and self-denial are other people's callings, and not ours. Nothing short of a spiritual revolution in the souls of Americans will keep us from traveling this doleful road again some day soon.
We neglect the counsel of our fathers in the faith to our own detriment. Is this word from Basil of Caesarea (4th century) timely and relevant, or what? "So long then as the word of truth is on our side, never be in any wise distressed at the calumny of a lie; let no imperial threats scare you; do not be grieved at the laughter and mockery of your intimates nor of the condemnation of those who pretend to care for you, and who put forward, as their most attractive bait to deceive, a pretence of giving good advice. Against them all let sound reason do battle, invoking the championship and succour of our Lord Jesus Christ, the teacher of true religion, for Whom to suffer is sweet, and 'to die is gain'" (Letter XVIII to Macaruis and John). As Christians we may think we're going through unique circumstances: the lie is proliferating in our society in all its ugly forms; we are subject to a government that some think is poised to cage and control us; the laughter and mocking of our neighbors is on the rise; and those who would advise us in an effort to be our friends tell us to keep our religion to ourselves. Basil and generations of Christians before us have seen all this and more, and they are persuaded that, if we keep the Word of Truth on our side, and stand with sound reason on the foundation of Scriptures, our Biblical worldview can prevail as Christ gives us victories over those who reject the knowledge of God and exchange the truth for a lie. But if we doubt the reliability of Scripture, or ignore or neglect its counsel, we will surely give in to those whose commitment to secularism, materialism, and naturalism is far more zealous and consistent than our commitment to Christ and His Truth.
Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter has announced his determination to jump to the Democratic party. The reason? He is up for election this year and is quite sure he cannot defeat the Republican primary contender, Pat Toomey. By becoming a Democrat, he doesn't have to worry about that. He has the President's assurance that he'll back him and campaign for him, and, as Senator Specter himself admitted, his continuing in the Senate is more important to him than party principles. This is pragmatism, pure and simple - do what you have to do to get what you want and the principles to the dogs. Mr. Specter will be roundly criticized in the days to come - especially since his action is precisely contrary to what he himself recommended a few years ago, and what he asserted just a few days ago - and plenty of Christians will wring their hands in dismay at this bald display of pragmatic ethics. But we should proceed with caution; after all, hardly anyone is more pragmatic in personal matters than Christians. We profess to believe one thing, but in many ways we live like everyone else. We don't think about the large issues of the day; we feel free to live our lives as we please with little more than a tip of the hat to anything like a consistent Biblical ethic; and we continue trying to "do church" and "be Christians" on terms and in ways that have little or no explicit Biblical or historical grounding. Why? Because it's what gets us what we want from our faith - whatever that may be. The specter of pragmatism has been around for a long time, and it's Christians who are dressed up like spooks.
During the press conference marking the end of his first 100 days in office, President Obama was confident, glib, relaxed, and hopeful. He answered 13 questions from a wide range of sources calmly and with a minimum of fumbling for words. The President presented the confident demeanor of a man whose faith is being confirmed across the board. And what does the President believe? That is, in what does he place his trust, his confidence, his hope, and his belief that these first 100 days have been a good start? He told the reporter from AP that he believed that science and public officials could be relied upon to control the impending pandemic. He assured the Detroit News reporter that his hope for the auto industry was being confirmed by the common sense actions of the unions and debt holders. To CBS news he explained his complete confidence in his "entire national security team." He expressed confidence in the Pakistani army's ability to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of extremists. To the Reuters reporter he said he trusted the good judgment of his commander on the ground, the new Ambassador to Iraq, and the Iraqi government to work out all the remaining issues there. He assured the reporter from CNN that the inidividual woman was in a better position than he, or Congress, or anyone else to determine whether or not the baby in her womb was a real person. He explained to the reporter from Telemundo that he had confidence in a "working group" of Hispanic members of Congress and others to reform immigration laws. And overall the President made it clear that he believed in the federal government's ability to provide timely, efficient, necessary, long-term actions to lead the nation to prosperity once again. The President is a very confident man. He believes in science, human reason, collective thinking, common sense, personal choice, and Democratic policies turned into law. The President told Rick Warren last summer that he believed in God and Jesus Christ. But apparently that faith has nothing to do with the President's day-to-day responsibilities or the real issues facing the nation and the world. The faith of the President - to trust in everything but the Lord he professes to know and believe when it comes to the wellbeing of 300 million Americans and the rest of the world - is a faith against which every Christian must declaim.
Chrysler is in the tank, all the efforts to forestall the dreaded outcome notwithstanding. Mr. Obama was perturbed yesterday as he made the grim announcement, even though he spoke wistfully of a Phoenix future for the auto company. Well, we hope so. Mr. Obama was angry, but not at the car company, which has manifestly failed to make automobiles that appeal to enough people. This involves judgments about things like style, engineering, excellence, economy, and so forth. Chrysler failed to provide these well enough to satisfy enough car buyers, but that's not something to get angry about. It's too bad, make your mother cry, but nothing to get angry about. And the President wasn't angry at the car company. He was angry at the people who lent Chrysler operating money and who, for the
President Obama yesterday announced with scarcely-veiled delight the impending resignation of Justice David Souter from the Supreme Court of the United States. As if the President doesn't have enough to do, now he has to nominate a replacement for the highest court in the land. I wonder what kind of judge he'll choose. Well, in fact, the President made his guidelines and principles fairly clear during a press briefing yesterday, when he explained that he would be looking for a person with empathy who will take into consideration "the daily realities of people's lives" when he or she makes his or her interpretations of the Constitution. So we have the law, and we have a person who has a case before the Supreme Court. How should the justices rule? According to the President they must, of course, understand the law of the land; but they must also weigh the experiences, aspirations, and everyday lives of the people who are seeking a ruling from the Court. But wait a minute: Mr. Obama is a declared Christian. Presumably that means his view of all things is informed and guided by the teaching of Scripture - since for 2,000 years Christians have looked to the Bible for guidance in all aspects of life. But, oh my gosh, the Bible teaches that judges should not be partial to people - even to poor people or "sojourners" from other countries - when ruling on cases before them (cf. Dt. 16.18-20; Ex. 22.2, 3; Lev. 19.15, 16). What matters in seeking justice is not the circumstance or the daily realities of the people in question, but the law and the application of its principles to a specific instance. Justice is supposed to be blind to "mitigating circumstances." In the end, the judge's responsiblity is to apply the law to a particular case, not to bend the law or modify it to take into consideration extenuating circumstances or exceptional conditions. Surely the President knows this? Mr. President, do you want to conduct your administration in a manner consistent with the faith you profess to believe? Or does the faith you profess to believe not have anything to do with such mundane matters as how we interpret the law of the land?
More evidence (as if we needed it) of the secular world's determined effort to be done with a role for religion in human life can be found in a fine symposium on religion in the arts in the May/June 2009 issue of Books & Culture. Four representatives from the Christian art community - artists and scholars on the arts - respond to the Art Institute of Chicago's James Elkins, who, in his book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, explains that that "strange place" is really no place at all. Among institutional artists, critics, museums, and galleries in the modernist and postmodernist tradition, religion, and particularly Christianity, is simply not a presence to be reckoned with, either thematically or with respect to individual artists. That part of human history is over, you see, like the Bush years, never to return again. With this as the guiding assumption, it's understandable - not so strange, really - that secular artists and critics cannot bring themselves to regard Christian faith as a serious contributor to the contemporary creation of and conversation about art. Oh, there's plenty of Christian art being created, and some of it is very good. But the keepers of the flame in the world of the arts do not acknowledge it as serious, which, when you think of it, reflects the attitude of probably 90% of the members of the Christian community, much to the chagrin of unappreciated and struggling Christiian artists. For the really sad and disturbing element in this whole story is that, for the vast majority of contemporary Christians, Christianity has no place in the arts, which most Christians regard as a waste of time. Until the Christian community wakes up to the importance of the arts, Mr. Elkins' insistence that religion's present non-place in the arts is not likely to change, is likely to remain true.
Some years ago I think it was Neil Postman wrote a book entitled, The Disappearance of Childhood, in which, as I recall, he lamented the fact that childhood - which, he explained, is a modern invention - was in danger of being "disappeared." Children were being made to grow up too fast, and neither they nor the world were prepared for the consequences that might entail. Were he alive today, Mr. Postman might be relieved to know that his fears were perhaps premature. But I'm not sure he'd be happy about what James Davison Hunter describes as the "disappearance of adulthood" in an article in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review ("Wither Adulthood?,
One of the many things separating human beings from animals is our penchant for living toward the future. Animals live in the past, mostly guided by instinct, learned behaviors, and things that worked before. In many ways people are like that, too. However, we are eternal optimists and perpetual anticipators. We live toward the future, envisioning the days ahead, what they will bring and what we hope to realize, and this enables us to get through the sometimes-difficult or uncertain present. For example, it just occurred to me yesterday that in two weeks it would be the summer solstice, and, as everybody knows, from that day forward the days begin to get shorter, meaning that fall and winter can't be that far away. Now this is something to look forward to, especially if you're the kind of person, as I am, who could easily skip summer with all its heat, humidity, and long, bright days and get on with the gray, gloom, chill, and bluster of late fall and winter. So why does this matter? I'm getting a little concerned that Americans may be losing sight of their future. We have become so fixated on the present, especially on the floundering economy, that we seem to be making decisions, or allowing decisions, on the basis of mere expediency, decisions which, while they bring hope for the short-term, could be disastrous in the long-term. Like the incurring of trillions of dollars of debt. Ceding important parts of our everyday lives to the government. Turning to drugs for relief from everyday maladies such as sadness, sexlessness, and sleeplessness. And simply shrugging as governmnet officials make outlandish statements they refuse to be held accountable for saying. Shouldn't we be looking to longer horizons and a fuller picture of what can be, or might be? If we only make decisions based on whatever momentary relief we can find, we're liable to sacrifice the future - if not ours, then perhaps that of our grandchildren. I can get through the summer without drugging myself or turning to the President to appoint a weather czar to make sure I'm as comfortable as I think I ought to be. Having that fall/winter horizon helps. What the nation needs at the moment is not someone who will give us whatever we want to assuage our fear in the present, but someone who can espy a brighter future beyond the far horizon, and who is able to lead and persuade us to hang in there and take the heat until better days come.
An old BeeGees song is rattling through my brain tonight as I watch the news about events in North Korea and listen to the President boasting about jobs saved and more to be saved: "It's only words, and words are all I have..." The world is on to America's political class and their free and easy use of words. Our politicians calculate carefully just what to say to put themselves and their party in the best possible light. Truth is a non-factor; power and the appearance of power are everything. Republicans are as guilty of this as Democrats. Yesterday the North Koreans convicted American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for actions against the regime and sentenced them to 12 years each of hard labor. The Administration, on the same day it boasted about having "created or saved" 150,000 jobs since the beginning of the stimulus package and made bold predictions about "creating or saving" 600,000 more jobs over the next 100 days - the Administration threatened to put North Korea back on the list of terrorist nations. Yeah, that ought to do it. I can hear Kim Jung Il: "Go ahead, taunt me again!" Our political leaders are addicted to power; they are wary of truth. What's worse, they know no one is going to hold them responsible (cf. Nancy Pelosi). For American politicians, words are merely a means to the end of self-aggrandizement. That's why the Washington definition of a "gaffe" is "a sudden eruption of truth" into the political arena. The really sad thing is, it works. And politicians know it works. Say what they think the people want to hear so as to usher them into or keep them in power. The real villains here are not the politicians, but we the people, who have so little regard for truth that we let our leaders get away with whatever we consider will vindicate whomever we have chosen to support. The days of letting your "Yes be Yes and your No be No" in political speech may never have been very bright, but they are more obscure, obtuse, and self-serving now than I've seen them in my lifetime. Christians at least should be more insistent that our leaders traffic in truth, and not just words.
Continuing our chronicle of the federal government's extension of power into the private sector, two new developments just yesterday. First, it seems the "pay czar" is soon to be a reality. Perhaps his authority to define the terms of executive remuneration will at first be limited to those companies which took federal bailout money. I wonder how many of those would have agreed to the money if their execs knew up front their pay and perqs were about to be seriously curtailed. This is "gotcha government" at its finest. Then the "clunker voucher" which Congress passed, agreeing, with the President's urging, to provide a $4500 voucher for anyone who will turn in his gas guzzling SUV, hopefully to purchase a "greener" vehicle instead. Bait the hook and reel 'em in. Where is the Constitutional authorization for any of this? The federal government is taking advantage of America's economic vulnerability by establishing its presence in the economy in unprecedented ways, a presence that will not easily be rolled back, but will almost certainly expand. What's next, we wonder? This is governmental hubris in the extreme, and it bodes ill for such things as health care, education, tax reform, and a host of other economic issues still to be considered. We could point the finger at the federal government and cry, "Foul!" but it's too early for that. The real test will come next year, in the round of Congressional elections. If the electorate returns the present crowd to Washington it will prove the concerns of Huxley's
Three high profile murders have reminded the nation again of just how much things have changed since the 60s. The murder of an abortion doctor, the assassination of an army recruiter, and now the murder of a security guard at the National Holocaust Museum - all within the space of about a week - have sadly become the sort of news that, while it shocks and dismays, nevertheless doesn't surprise us anymore.