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Yvon Chouinard, climber, surfer, the founder of Patagonia clothing company, and generally reluctant businessman says that true adventure doesn’t begin until things go wrong. If one sets out on a road trip and travels great distances through new and exciting terrain, there is still no true adventure happening. But if the van breaks down in the jungle, or the van is stolen, or a hitchhiker causes some serious grief, or one gets malaria, etc., then the adventure has begun. In this sense, adventures cannot be purchased or manufactured. An adventure travel agency does not sell you adventure.

Adventure is what all great stories are made from. And adventure is often the greatest teacher.

From a broad perspective one can then understand a merely lived life, that is, the life that continues safely from beginning to end of day, from one day to the next, and year to year, is not an adventure. Though such a life can be good and rewarding in many ways. But without adventure one could say something significant is missing. From a Christian perspective adventure may be the process of faith itself.

Imagine sailing on the high seas and your boat is knocked down in a sudden storm, the boat’s mast is sheared off, and the rudder is damaged. What was a fun and pleasant journey has now turned into an adventure of fear and trembling. In such a situation one cannot give up hope or one is likely to die. Work, effort, struggle ensue. The stakes have increased and everything seems riskier. What is important becomes clearer. What is superfluous is not longer cherished. Discovering the true nature of faith happens when one’s mast is sheared off and the seas are coming over the sides of the boat. I don’t see another way around it.

And yet, that is the adventure. As far as I can tell, there is no faith without the dark night of the soul. There is no faith without a wrestling match with God.

There is a problem with this view, however, The problem is not with the view itself per se, rather it is with us, with our longings and desires. We hear the word adventure and we want it. Adventure sounds exciting and even fun. I am more of an armchair mountaineer than an actual one. I love reading stories of mountain climbing, including tales of survival in the midst of dire circumstances. Though I would be right in assuming the life of faith is an adventure, I would be mistaken to think this adventure was always like the exciting stories I read in books. Our problem is to think that adventure, including the adventure of faith, only happens in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.

Truth is the life of faith usually looks on the outside rather mundane. For the Christian the adventure can be a far more private, subtle, and existential experience than it shows to the world. Sure, there are martyrs and great saints, but for most the adventure is inside. When it is visible to the world it is often understood by others differently than it might appear. For example, everyone knows the loss of a child is a big deal to the parent, but what is often going on inside is not merely sadness and grief. The wrestling with God, and with oneself and one’s beliefs, cannot be truly expressed. It is private. Even between spouses. But that same internal, existential wrestling can come about by something as simple as a poor grade in school, or the loss of a basketball game, or the breakup of a relationship.

When I was a young man (maybe thirteen or fourteen) I was obsessed with snow skiing. I nearly worshiped the sport. I would keep my skis and equipment in my room and stare at them when I was not looking at skiing magazines. One weekend I went skiing with some friends. On the way home we stopped by one friend’s house who took her skis off the top of the car and said goodbye. We drove on not realizing that friend had not closed the ski rack. Somewhere on the way to my house my skis came off the car. I never found them. I was devastated. Then my eyes opened. It was like God drew my attention to this lesser god and asked me who was more important, skiing or Him. I was shaken to my core. Anyone else might have just been upset, but for me it was an existential moment. I told this to an adult close to me and he said I was wrong to think that. He said God does not work that way. At that moment I knew he did not God like I did even though he is a Christian. Both of those experiences, the existential struggle and the realization of how God will work in one’s soul, changed my life forever. For anyone else they might laugh at the insignificance of loosing one’s skis, but for me, at that time in my life, I was in the midst of the adventure. And I still want those skis back.

Years later when I held my infant daughter in my arms as her life slipped from her precious body I was wracked with grief. And yet it was not an existential moment like loosing my skis had been years before. How can this be? Words cannot describe the pain of loosing a child. Even as I write these words the emotions come back powerfully and deeply. But was my faith in doubt? No, at least to the degree that any of us can be sure of our faith. I knew God was there, loving me, teaching me, taking me through the harsh reality. I felt connected to all those other people I knew or heard about who’d lost their children and other dear loved ones. In fact I had a sense of God being more present, closer, more obviously involved in my life than ever before. It was strange. I was suffering tremendous grief and yet had such joy. I had a sense that I was being blessed even though it came through tragedy.

I consider both events, that of losing my skis and of losing my daughter, to be important in my own life of faith. One seems trivial and the other is big and tragic, yet God used both to help me see important truths and to know myself better. Both are part of the adventure that is my growth in faith, but only one really turned me around.

>I wonder.

I am thinking, no,
not exactly.
I am noticing that I wonder,
as though I am
looking at myself and
wondering,
why the buildings
all have flags,
and why, at least
(at minimum)
there is always a
U.S. flag.

Why do the buildings
all have flags?
Or have to have
a flag?

I can look at those flags,
wonderfully colorful
and bold, from a time
when primary colors
were in vogue.
And I wonder
what my part is
in flags.

Today would it be
different?
Would we take our hats
off for teal or chartreuse?
Or maybe, perhaps, for a flag
that proclaimed,
in the gentle cadence
of its waving,
a message of peace?

Could there be a flag
that refuses power?
Could there be a flag
that turns from violence,
rebuffs war,
laughs at the proud,
and calls to the poor?

Is there a flag for
sacrifice?
For the laying down
of one life
for another?

I wonder
about kingdoms,
knowing I am a
monarchist at heart,
knowing that there are
no true kings
except for the one who kneels,
taking gently the foot
of his servant,
and washes it.

What is his flag?

[I am reposting this from my other blog.]

The title of this post is also the title of my thesis which I wrote for my Masters of Business Administration program three years ago. To get some idea of what sparked my thinking and led to my thesis topic you can watch the video clip below about workers in developing countries as they support the demands of the developed world. You have already heard about sweat shops in third world countries. Here is a little of what they look like:


What are we, those of us in the most powerful nations on earth, going to do about the globalization of capital and corporate power? The world may be becoming increasingly, economically “flat”, as Tom Friedman says, but is it becoming morally flat as well?

It may sound strange to ask what we are “going to do” about globalization. Isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it about the expansion of wealth and freedom? Isn’t it about the Internet and better communication? What we don’t typically hear about is the hidden costs of globalization, or about what that word conjures up in the minds of those in the developing world. For much of the world globalization includes the realities in the video above. For the rest of us that reality is often hidden.

I am, by nature, a rather conservative type. I don’t get easily bent out of shape over issues. I don’t seek revolution at the drop of a hat. I also grew up a Christian and was, until a few years ago, a registered Republican. I am still a Christian, and because of taking my faith seriously I could no longer be a Republican. Now I am an independent. But it’s not really about politics. It’s about a perspective on the world, on how I want to live. It’s about what kind of person I want to be and where I want to end up. And it’s also about the kind of world I want for my children and their children.

When it came time for me to choose a topic for my MBA thesis I felt the need to tackle something to do with ethics. I felt I needed to address, for myself, the underlying moral issues inherent in business and economics before I went out from my schooling into more business adventures. So I picked the topic of the treatment of women workers in global supply chains and the ethical implications for businesses that rely on the benefits from those supply chains (like lower costs and faster delivery, etc.). My thesis became, for me, a kind of introduction to the larger topic of ethics and, more specifically, how should someone who claims to be a Christian act in the world.

The following is from Chapter One of my thesis:

Consider this scenario: when a shopkeeper opens her doors in the morning and hangs out the welcome sign it is time to get to work. The pressures of the day quickly crowd in as she must meet the demands of her customers and her business’ bottom line. She must manage her time and her employees, deal with suppliers, and try to make plans for the future while also trying to fully understand the past. Questions of ethics are considered, if considered at all, largely in the immediate context of the day-to-day routine. Our shopkeeper will have to decide where she stands on being truthful and honest with those whom she works; she will make ethical decisions around how she manages her accounting and pays her vendors; she may even face moral questions about what products she sells and whether they are good for her community.

Now let’s assume this shopkeeper is also a Christian, one who makes claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and one who participates in the life of Christian culture. The ethical issues for the shopkeeper will not be any different from any other shopkeeper. However, she now carries the burden of having to follow some explicit commands with regard to the world, most notably to love her neighbor as herself. And who is her neighbor? Is her neighbor only the immediate customer or vendor with whom she does business? Or, given that she lives in an increasingly globalized world, does her neighbor include those with whom she now has connections, even though they may be on the other side of the planet and at the distant end of her supply chains?

If our shop keeper then decides that she does want to build her business around the idea of loving her neighbor as herself, and then apply that philosophy to her dealings with her supply chains, she must decided how to do that. What options are available to her? Does she choose servant-leadership as a leadership style? That is, will she seek to be a servant first and, as Greenleaf (1991) says, “to make sure that other people’s highest priority meeds are being served” (p. 7)? Does she choose to buy only from suppliers that treat their employees well? Does she seek to instill corporate social responsibility into her business practices?

These kinds of questions might be of little importance if it were not for two realities. The first is that the world is more connected than ever before. The second is that many workers in global supply chains, particularly those in developing countries, often have few of the rights or freedoms those in Western and Northern societies take for granted and may even assume to be inalienable. This is not to say that the benefits of free-market capitalism have not brought greater wealth to many developing countries, nor that many of the world’s poor have not seen at least some economic improvement to their way of life. However, as the gap between the world’s poor and the world’s rich gets bigger, and as facts continue to come out regarding the all too often harsh treatment of laborers, including women and children, within global supply chains, one cannot help but ask whether a laissez fair, free-market philosophy is the best approach for creating a fair and just system that benefits all stakeholders appropriately.

A Christian business person must ask these kinds of questions, not merely because economic systems come with their own set of moral presuppositions about human nature and human needs, but also because in the day-to-day world of business, as it is in life, one’s actions flow from one’s beliefs. If a Christian is to take seriously the commandment to love her neighbor as herself, then it only makes sense that that command, that challenge, would raise such questions. Maybe one of the great historical ironies is the interconnectedness of free market capitalist thinking and Christian theology; ironic because one system is based on self-centeredness for its success and the other is based on other-centeredness. Our shopkeeper will have to decide if this interconnectedness is both useful and valid.

I go on to describe how global supply chains work, including the fundamental pressures they impose, such as cheaper labor and fast delivery. I then describe how those pressures necessarily create negative conditions for many workers. I then describe the common conditions of working women in those supply chains. (I chose women workers because of the data available and because they represent more than half of the global workforce while often being in the weakest position with regards to labor rights and fair treatment.) Finally I examine how some have sought solutions, for example the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR), fair trade, and servant leadership.

I also examine how Christianity has shifted away from social concerns by becoming a personal/private faith thing rather than an “all of life” thing. This shift has led many Christians for forsake the requirements of their faith, that is, to be “salt of the earth” as it where. Too many Christians, I argue, see their faith as a purely private matter, except for a small handful of political issues.

I do not see globalization as a specifically “Christian issue.” There are many perspectives and answers available. But I find narrowing the scope down a bit helps to crystallize the issue for me. I do not see in the Bible anything specifically about free trade (though I might be missing it), but I do see a lot about feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Recently a professor of mine related a story where he was teaching about globalization and one of his students, a man from Africa, said that when he hears the word “globalization” he knows it to mean Western imperialism. There is something that rings true for me about that student’s perspective, and that bothers me.

Much of my thinking has shifted over the past several years as I have tried to take seriously the teachings of Jesus. The irony is that the teachings of Jesus contradict much of modern, popular Christianity in both its focus and its call to action. I have become convinced that mainstream, right-wing (and many left-wing) Christians just may have become the new Pharisees – the pious religious types who Jesus railed against and who eventually killed him. They do church really well, they do religion really well, and they keep everything in “perspective” and “balanced,” but their hearts have become hard – and I know what I’m talking about because I am one of them. Because of this I chose to focus on the implications of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a foundational challenge. I figured that commandment cuts through a lot of garbage.


This video interview with Tony Campolo offers some idea of what I am talking about:


I won’t say that I am in Campolo’s camp entirely, and I don’t cite him in my thesis. However, I will say that his teaching challenges me deeply.

I am also challenged by numerous other thinkers, most of whom are not Christians, and some are even anti-Christian (though their understanding of biblical Christianity is often rather thin). But I believe truth can be found just about everywhere. The following video clips further pad out the topic.


Christian “progressive” Jim Wallis talks about living out one’s faith:

Left-left-wing academic and leading progressive thinker Michael Parenti on globalization and what it really means:
Parenti is no fan of Christianity by any means, or any religion really, but he is a very sharp thinker and erudite historian.

Brilliant and exacerbating Noam Chomsky on globalization:
I find myself more and more fascinated with Chomsky’s work. Years ago I read a book of his on linguistics for my MA thesis (not my MBA). Since then I have most only heard him speak. His observations on power politics are illuminating. Chomsky and Parenti do not see eye-to-eye on several issues.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine speaks on the topic of global brands, the topic of her famous book No Logo:

Famous activist, historian, and progressive thinker Howard Zinn on American Empire (a topic related to globalization):

Not all is doom and gloom. Consider the Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis clips above and the clip below.

Towards a solution – Fair Trade:

I have to say the process of writing and defending my thesis was longer than I anticipated, but it was a very rewarding process. I am glad I finished school and I am excited about my future career. I will say, however, that I have not, for me personally, solved the issues raised in my thesis. I still struggle to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor, and I’m sure I always will.

References
Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

But Christianity never suffers a man to go in vain, not even a single step, for when you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbor whom you shall love.
~ Kierkegaard from Works of Love
A STRATEGY

An everyday Christian (whoever that might be) may inventory various ethical propositions and decide that all have their strengths and that none are entirely favorable. That Christian may then determine, motivated by faith or by tradition, to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all other pretenders for the pinnacle of the ethical, and that which will systematically envelop all possible conditions. And let us say our Christian, with full care and consideration, develops such a theory, with the Christ as his center and God the Father as his master. Will not, then, this ennobled person still struggle against the masses of people who would, without hesitation, denounce or, worse yet, merely shrug away his system, just for being from a different world (or bowing to a different god) than theirs? Might not, then, this Christian seek an ethical approach that would unify the goals of faith and tradition with the general desires of humanity (if there be such a thing) even merely only as a strategy?

Certainly, a method of approach is needed, for to spring too quickly is the hunter’s faux pas. One must be a modern ethnographer of sorts, slowly assimilating into the world of the people under scrutiny, while keeping, secretly of course, a safe moral distance. And this Christian will certainly realize the best methods tend to encourage the participation of those for whom conversion is the goal. In other words, people will more likely accept a conclusion they helped to create than one thrust upon them, especially one that determines the courses of their future actions. And if a Christian ethics is likely to have at its core a series of obligations, then a method that also seeks obligations is a strategy worth considering.

Looking for a method of participation toward obligations, our Christian might choose the philosophical thought experiment of John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls proposed a kind of mental game (but a game of serious implications nonetheless). What if, he suggested, one were to try and mentally create the best possible world, by way of a social contract of sorts, with one significant caveat: one would not and cannot know where one will end up in that world? In other words, think of a world in any fashion one chooses while keeping in mind that one may end up in power or poverty, in India or France, in silk suits or in chains. What kind of world will one envision? The mental experiment is a kind of research in reincarnation where one imagines the next life and then has to accept one’s fate on the other side. Not knowing where one will be in this imaginary world is a kind of conditional ignorance Rawls calls the original position, or the veil of ignorance. The neat trick of this original position is that as one seeks his own advantage, he must seek the advantage of all. The seriousness of Rawls’ experiment is that one is really thinking about this world and creating the foundational ideas that may undergird a platform for change.

A friend of our Christian may ask what is it about this world that needs changing? If one does not say “everything,” then one might as well start choosing particulars. Our Christian may state that a good place to start is with economic injustice, and that seems fair enough.

THE CASE STUDIES

Shell and the Niger Delta

One child died after being caught in the crude. About 20 of our people are going to hospital each day with skin problems, breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

(Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta, p. 1)

The world needs oil. The world, in this sense, is the industrialized and proto-industrialized world; an ever ravenous beast for petroleum and its myriad of products, from gas to power our oversized SUVs to the non-animal, synthetic fabric products used to make the outdoor clothing of nature enthusiasts. Backroom deals are made over oil, wars are fought over oil, and debates about need, greed, and the future of oil are part and parcel of our world. And occasionally, even in the midst of the already fomented controversies about oil, there are cases that raise additional questions, if only because of their scale and/or implications. Shell Oil production in the Niger Delta region of Africa is just such a case.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Oil and natural gas are Nigeria’s largest industries accounting for more than 98% of export earnings and about 83% of government revenue, and around 40% of it GDP. (Petroleum in Nigeria) Most of that oil is located in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria is also the 10th largest oil producing nation and the U.S. remains its largest customer of crude oil, accounting for about 40% of Nigeria’s total oil exports. From the time the British discovered oil in Nigeria in the 1950s the industry has been marred by political and economic difficulties, including corrupt military regimes, collusion between foreign oil companies and Nigeria’s government, abuse of indigenous peoples, and significant, ongoing pollution of the region. Although all the major oil producing companies have their stake in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell (locally known as Shell Nigeria) has by far the largest investment and produces about 50% of Nigeria’s total oil extraction.

The physical impact of oil extraction has taken a significant toll on the people and environment of the Niger Delta. Correspondingly, almost none of the vast wealth produced by the oil extraction has gone to the people in the region. Uncountable oil spills have created such a level of pollution that any hope of reclaiming the land to even an approximation of its original health is largely fantasy. Neither Shell, nor the Nigerian government, has shown much interest in either cleaning up the mess or reducing the causes of the pollution.

The human toll has also been high. Many Nigerian citizens suffer from air, water, and soil pollution. There is little to no doubt that much of the human suffering in the Niger Delta region comes from the insidious curse of oil and related contamination. Bronchial asthma and other respiratory diseases, gastro-enteritis, and cancer have all been recorded at significantly higher levels among those in the region than elsewhere. Neither Shell nor the Nigerian government have shown much interest in alleviating the suffering or addressing the obvious sources of the suffering.

One area of investment of great importance to Shell is helping to fund the Nigerian military. The military, under the auspices of protecting Shell from unlawful harm and dissent, have killed numerous indigenous people, destroyed several villages outright, and brutally stopped peaceful, non-violent protests. Shell has admitted to purchasing weapons for the military and of paying specifically for the military to go into villages which, in each case, has resulted in death.

Much more can be said of the role of Shell and other oil companies in the Niger Delta. The overwhelming question is not whether Shell, in collusion with the Nigerian government, is doing bad things. That is fairly obvious, even in light of the great apparent value of having billions of gallons of oil available to the world’s economic system. The question is why do these things happen? Why do companies, and apparently the people that run them, seem to care more for innumerable profits and the power necessary to guarantee those profits than for what we all, in our better moments, claim to be of a higher good, that is, human life in its fullest and most meaningful sense? Does the answer lie with economic systems or with human nature? Or both?

Working Women in a Global Economy

Exploiting the circumstance of vulnerable people – whether intentionally or not – is at the heart of many employment strategies in global supply chains.

(Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004, p. 4)

For a citizen of an post-industrialized consumer society, where goods are offered in vast quantities and competitive prices, the global supply chain is critical to economic maintenance. With margins to be managed all along the way, goods must be produced quickly, efficiently, and at virtually no cost. Laborers must (as so-called free markets dictate) be found who will work without complaint for low wages. In other words, exploitation of human life-energy, in its more negative connotation, is becoming increasingly de rigueur for modern global economies supplying consumer based societies.

Certainly there is nothing new in exploiting human labor for one’s own gain. The pharaohs built their pyramids, the caesars conquered the known world, and U.S. farmers harvested their cotton by the sweat of the subjugated, conscripted, and vanquished. What makes the present day so singular is the combination of scale, perceptions, possibilities, and gender.

Increasingly, women are playing a central role in the global supply chain. In fact, the majority of jobs at the end of the chain, from sewing, to harvesting and packing fruit, to making shoes, are done by women. Given the poverty of the countries where many of these women live one might assume that having the opportunity to participate in the global supply chain ,working for some international company producing goods for affluent societies, would provide a release from the shackles of penury. All too often the very opposite seems to be the truth. The following examples were taken from a recent Oxfam report (Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004):

  • In Chile, 75 per cent of women in the agricultural sector are hired on temporary contracts picking fruit, and put in more than 60 hours a week during the season. But one in three still earns below the minimum wage.
  • Fewer then half of the women employed in Bangladesh’s textile and garment export sector have a contract, and the vast majority get no maternity or health coverage – but 80 per cent fear dismissal if they complain.
  • In China’s Guangdong province, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial areas, young women face 150 hours of overtime each month in the garment factories – but 60 per cent have no written contract and 90 per cent have no access to social insurance.

When one walks into a major retailer, a supermarket, or any other conveyor of goods in North America or Europe, one is likely to be confronted by products made by underpaid, overworked laborers from the global exploitation network. Marx was concerned that workers in capitalistic economies would lose contact with the results of their work, that they would become alienated from the very product of their own energy and efforts, and even from labor itself. Ironically, it is not only the laborer who have become alienated from their products, it is the consumer who has become alienated from the reality of their consumables. The shopper perusing the shelves in The Gap, or Target, or Wall-Mart, or Safeway is typically unaware of the toil behind the products displayed before them, or the true cost of those products. And the true cost is increasingly carried by the women (and their families) who toil in harsh conditions, with low pay, no benefits, and little guarantees. Therefore, it is not only the companies who rely on these women, but it is the pleasantly ignorant consumers who are, though unaware they may be, happy to let someone else bear the burden.

Might there be a different way to doing global economies? The question is not about the rightness or wrongness of abusing women’s social positions within the global supply chain for economic gain, for its wrongness is evident. Rather, the question is how is it that so much injustice seems to be a part of a system that so many apparently good, ordinary people readily accept? Where is Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding all these selfish desires toward the best possible outcomes for everyone? Or maybe the solution is, in fact, not an invisible hand at all, but a will toward love.

Putting Meat on the Table

Worker looses hand. Worker loses legs. Worker killed.

(Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants, 2005, p. 2)

At you local grocer, neatly wrapped in clear plastic and styrofoam, laying in rows under bring lights, are the appealing displays of relatively fresh meat, from poultry to beef, pork to veal. But the packaging belies a deeper truth than what’s for dinner. Certainly, one truth is that meat comes from animals and does not magically appear at the store; somewhere an animal had to die for this display of tasty comestibles to exist. However, another more serious truth lies behind these neat rows of animal protein, that is the human toll of the meatpacking industry.

In the U.S., the meatpacking industry, with its slaughtering and processing plants churning out mass quantities of products for the American table, is home to some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. More significantly is the harsh reality facing the workers in these factories. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report (Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants): “Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They aggressively block workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the vulnerabilities of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work site.” (p. 1)

Workers put in long hours, face possible death, amputation, and maiming daily, are not allowed freedom of association, fear reporting injuries for fear of being fired, and suffer ignominious treatment in abject conditions due, not least in part, to the fact that many of the workers are immigrants. According the report, these abuses are not rare, isolated cases (bad enough as that would be), but represent “systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.” (p. 1) A great amount of ink has been spilled defending the rights of animals against the meat and poultry industry. Little has been said, unfortunately, about the human toll.

The report also highlights that the U.S. government has committed itself to upholding and protecting rights guaranteed in several critical international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and members Families. These documents have formally established at least the following workers’ rights: (a) A safe and healthful workplace, (b) compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses, (c) freedom of association and the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively, (d) equality of conditions and the rights for immigrant workers. The U.S. government has failed to promote and enforce these obligations.

Surely the troubles here described are not merely a government issue about enforcing obligations accepted by the international community. A more fundamental question is why do such abuses of seemingly obvious human rights happen, or maybe “happen” is not the right word. At every turn, as in all of life, choice is available for each player in the process. For some, choice has little personal consequences, for others, choice is a matter of life and death. Using and abusing other persons for one’s own ends is a choice, it does not just happen, regardless of how uncritically one approaches those choices. But the question remains, why do such abuses happen? Where is the basic goodness that we are told people have innately within them? If people are basically good, where then is the rebellion against evil choices? Why is there so much room for selfishness, greed, and the acceptance of other people’s suffering? Could it be that we are without an adequate system of ethics, even an adequate system of economics, to guide us? Could it be that the world is fundamentally the victim of a false idea? If so, where then is the answer to be found?

IMAGINING A NEW WORLD

” . . . [E]xtorted promises are void ab initio.”

~ John Rawls

Applying Rawls’ thought experiment to these case studies forces one to consider the possibility that one could end up as an indigenous person in the Niger Delta, or a woman in Bangladesh making garments for large retail chains, or an immigrant worker in a U.S. meatpacking plant. The potential reality of such an experiment, if it truly could be advanced into real change, would likely be the unraveling of much of the world’s systems, from economic to political, the social to the religious. Rawls’ argues that the implications of his experiment lead to two fundamental principles or maxims.

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

With these maxims in one hand and the case studies in the other, one might imagine how the world could be different. Shell Oil and the Nigerian government would have to consider the inherent inequalities between the vast wealth produced by oil production and the relative poverty and sufferings of local residents and seek to develop a system where pollution is better controlled and more of the wealth is given to the local population. For the global supply chain, one would seek to provide adequate benefits and minimum pay for women workers. For the U.S. meatpacking industry, allowances for worker associations and adequate representation would need to be allowed and encouraged. Obviously, these changes would only be the tip of a vast iceberg. In fact, so many changes would be necessary to carry forth Rawls’ experiment from theory to action that many of the issues described in the case studies would cease to be issues just because the fundamental inequalities that make the case studies the examples they are would disappear.

The irony is that Rawls’ thought experiment is unnecessary, though not without individual value. This new and improved world has already been imagined and, though imperfectly, been codified. If our economic and political systems were truly based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, et al., then would not Rawls’ experiment be made manifest, at least to a significant degree? Which raises the question: Is the issue an issue of imagination, or even of knowledge? Do we need to build another castle in the air? Or is the issue about something much deeper and profound, at the level of our individual wills and desires?

WORKS OF LOVE

And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

~ Matthew 22:39

The dilemma with systems of ethics is that the human heart always finds a way of disregarding them. More importantly, the human heart, history shows us, is capable of great goodness and indescribable evil, and every shade in between. Both the goodness and the evil of the human will can be exacerbated by systems, even as it seeks to overcome them. For Rawls there are two systems, one is the method of deriving the other. Both are capable of being influenced by the corrosive forces of power seeking, arrogance, and self deception. And neither have an answer for ignorance. Rawls’ original position is also a position of perfection, an ideal seeking after an ideal. Is this, then, a truly feasible solution? No, and yet ideals are what create the greatest forces for change. How then shall our everyday Christian friend find a true solution? Maybe the answer lies not with a question, but with an exhortation, and not an exhortation to be ethical, but to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Questions of rights have ways of getting tangled. Business and political leaders can twist out of many ethical questions, or can redefine them in slightly different terms, or can deny them on some imaginary higher grounds. That is because ethics is an outward proposition. Ethics asks people (mainly other people) to change their behaviors regardless of their inward desires. Love seeks to change the core of people, to make them better, to seek what is ultimately good in spite of failures and poor choices. If the powerful decision makers of Shell Oil, the captains of the global supply chain, and the capitalists of the U.S. meatpacking industry were to truly and honestly adopt Rawls maxims there would be significant change for the better. That is certainly true. But if those same decision makers, captains, and capitalists were to love their neighbors (and maybe that is all Rawls really intended) then something truly transforming would happen, and not merely to the loved, but also to the one who loves.

At this point our fearless everyday Christian may realize that an impasse is looming. The strategy of choosing a method that seeks obligations cannot change the human heart. All it can do is build another system with a set of maxims by which to live. It cannot solve the dilemma of good intentions corrupted by ever present evil. Might then our Christian turn back to God and ask for wisdom. And in this turning back, might our Christian have finally set himself on the path for which he set out, namely to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all others? The path might be narrow, but it is well worn: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

A final note

I wrote this paper in 2006 for a business ethics course as part of my MBA degree. I do not think I would change anything in it, though I feel my thinking has progressed somewhat and, if anything, I would expand the paper significantly. Fundamentally I still believe that a critique of business from a moral/ethical stance must include a recognition of the existential nature of human beings. Answers are not found in systems, though some systems are far better than others, rather answers are found in God’s working on the human heart, and that remains a mystery still.

REFERENCES

Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants. (2005). Human Rights Watch report. Retrieved Friday, March 17th, 2006 from http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/usa0105/summary_eng.pdf.

Kierkegaard, S. (1962). Works of love: Some christian reflections in the form of discourses (H. Hong & E. Hong. Trans.). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Petroleum in Nigeria. (n.d.) Retrieved Tuesday, March 14, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_in_Nigeria

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta. (n.d.) Christian Aid report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0401csr/csr_casestudy1nigeria.pdf

Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains. (2004). Oxfam International report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/trade/downloads/trading_rights.pdf

Additional sources

Compa, L. and Fellner, J. (2003) Meatpacking’s human toll. Washington Post. Retrieved Monday, March 20th, 2006 from http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/08/03/usdom11575.htm.

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The question came up […] about being self-centered and selfish. How can we not be self-centered was implied in the question. Is not altruism the ideal state of being for the Christian?

JAC said: “We can’t but be self centered. If I’m not the center of my universe, who is?” But he qualified this statement by making a distinction between selfishness that is part of my God designed humanness and selfishness that is evil – or what we typically think of when we consider selfishness. To seek the glory that comes from God is both “selfish” and good. The is what Jesus did. He went to the cross willingly, not only because he loved us, but also because he was doing what needed to happen if he was to enter into the glory God had for him, namely to inherit a kingdom. Therefore, Jesus was not altruistic in the way we tend to think of that concept, that is, to completely deny one’s own needs, desires, or wants for the sake of the other. This may not jive with what we are accustomed to hearing.

JAC went on to say: “What makes selfishness evil is not a matter of seeking what is best for myself.” To seek the pearl of great price, as told in the parable, is a good thing. But we know that selfishness can also be, and usually is, evil. He then went on to define three characteristics of what makes selfishness evil:
  1. Seeking shallow desires at the expense of other human beings.
  2. Acting on the self deluded idea that I’m the most important being in the cosmos.
  3. Rejecting the idea that what is best for me is to be like God in my character and then being committed to the well being of others.
To love others is not to ultimately deny oneself, or to only care about the other and care nothing for oneself. To be committed to goodness for its own sake produces love for others as well as an appropriate relationship to all of creation including oneself. It is giving out of love (and consequently out of strength) that does not take away from oneself, but in fact, benefits oneself.

Finally, is selfishness or self-centeredness the root or cause of all that is evil in the world? Some would say one’s sin has everything to do with one’s relationship to oneself, thus implying that self-centeredness is our biggest problem. JAC disagrees. He said: “It’s not my inappropriate attachment to me that makes sin sin. It’s my inappropriate rejection of God that makes sin sin.” In other words, being inappropriately attached to myself is part of rejecting God, but it is the rejection of God that is the foundation of sin. Self-centeredness flows out of our rejection of God.

Thoughts?

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My goal was to publish this for July 4th. Other things took precedence, but here it is now.

Of the [forms of government] the perversions are as follows: of monarchy, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of polity, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.

~ Aristotle (1)
Governments are by definition about “power over” others. In the words of Greg Boyd, Jesus is about “power under.” (2) This is exemplified in Jesus’ example as well as his teaching. The establishment of the United States of America was, on the one hand, about getting out from under the power of England’s ruling class. On the other hand, the U.S. government is another form of “power over” others. It is a government, certainly somewhat unique at its inception, but still a controlling “power over” force. Popular ideology sees U.S. citizens freely and democratically submitting to that power, and even partaking democratically in the continued creation of that power. However, if Aristotle is right, and the “founding fathers” where certainly reading him in 1776, then what was established on July 4th was an oligarchy, not a democracy.


One question for us is whether the U.S. government is still an oligarchy (parading as a democracy) or whether it is truly a democracy. The other question, one for Christians specifically, is whether it matters.

The answer to the first question is most obviously that we still live in an oligarchy. It is well known that the “founding fathers” championed democracy early on and then became fearful of having uncorked the scary bottle of democratic populism. They were scared of mob (indigent) rule and realized they needed to carefully craft a constitution that used the language of democracy to appease the masses, but created an oligarchy in order to ensure the already established relations of power continue. In this sense the U.S. Constitution was a masterful response to the Declaration of Independence. One declared freedom, the other made sure that freedom was appropriately allotted. The wealthy would remain free and rule over the lesser freedoms of everyone else. All citizens are free, only some are more free than others. Concentrated power remained so, protected from the masses.


Since that time more democratic forms have been established (hard won) for all regardless of race or gender. We can all vote. We don’t have to own property, be of European decent, and male, in order to cast a ballot. In other words, the U.S. has shifted towards democracy in spite of the intentions of the majority of its powerful and wealthy rulers, though that shift has been limited and specific. But what is that shift worth in the face of limited candidate choices, mass collusion between big business and government, and increasing monopolization of media. The powerful generally always remain powerful and work to keep it that way. The wealthy remain wealthy and are the ones with the power. The game we call the U.S. government is truly a game from which we are fundamentally excluded. When we read about U.S. military actions, or the Patriot Act, or Wall Street bailouts we, the people, have no say or control in any of those areas. Though we can cast ballots we are not really in power. The great promise of democracy is fundamentally an illusion in this country.

So then, for all intents and purposes we are living under and oligarchy still. Does that matter? Yes and no.

Christians are called to be servants, to give up their lives for the lives of others, to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to trust in God for their well being and ultimate destination. Christians know that the first (the rich and powerful in this world) will be the last in the Kingdom of God. Jesus also taught us that the wisdom of God is sheer folly to us. The world is truly upside down, on its head. Christians are supposed to have eyes to see this, to have hearts that long for the reality of the kingdom, and to live their lives in light of that reality. But Christians don’t do that very well, and many Christians have embraced the Kingdom of this World and cloaked it in Christian sounding language. I believe the religious right falls into this camp. So do many others; maybe the religious left just as much.

Of all forms of government democracies may have the most potential for equality and freedom, which may be a better situation for Christian “values” to flourish. Though both points are debatable. On the other hand, there is no form of government that can either truly challenge or suppress the Kingdom of God. Totalitarian governments may persecute Christians. Caesars may throw them to the lions. But Christians are still promised the Kingdom, and no government – democracy, oligarchy, monarchy – can either offer a comparable replacement or take the Kingdom of God from anyone.

So the answer is no, it does not fundamentally matter whether we (Christians) live under one kind of flavor or style of the Kingdom of the World or another. We should still be able to have our faith, trust in God, love others, and find contentment (sophrosyne) in what ever situation we find ourselves in. We should be comforted that God is both sovereign and trustworthy.

On the other hand the answer is yes we should care. To the degree that any government oppresses others it should be called to account. To the degree that any government lies it should be called to account. Christians, while not being particularly concerned with Kingdom of the World concerns, are very much concerned with love, mercy, and truth. We have a desire that the Kingdom of God should triumph, that it should over take the Kingdom of the World and turn it upside down. We are revolutionaries at heart, but our methods are not to violently smash the structures of power (though we might throw our bodies on the gears) but to overcome with Jesus as our leader and our example. We seek a “power under” stance that begins with loving our enemies, even if it means to die for them. That is not just different than the Kingdom of the World, it is not merely opposite, it is the most fundamental challenge to everything the Kingdom of the World stands for, or is capable of achieving. It is LIFE in the face of death.

To give up our lives for our enemies. That is what Christians are called to do. Unfortunately, I can preach it but I don’t do it.

We make a big deal of the freedoms we have in the U.S. We tend to be proud of our life, liberty, and happiness. (It has been said that the attacks on the World Trade Center happened because “our enemies” hate our freedoms.) But Christians are called to give up their life, liberty, and happiness. We are to hold lightly such things in the light of a different set of priorities. The very foundation upon which the U.S. is based, though noble is, in a way, also un-biblical. It is not un-biblical because life, liberty, and happiness are bad things. No, they are good things as far as it goes. We should want those things for others and appreciate them when we have them. As Christians, however, we are to set aside those things, to be bond servants of God and not merely to ourselves and our desires. To be thankful that one lives in the U.S. is fine, but to be proud to be an American is folly. We are to recognize that the Kingdom of the World, no matter the amount of flowery language with which it surrounds itself, cannot offer life, liberty, or happiness. Nor can it take it away.

We are, however, not to live our lives as though there is no real world, no physicality, no Kingdom of the World. People are suffering because of wars and famines, because of poor choices and sin, because of foolishness and faulty social structures. Christians should be the first in line to help others through their suffering. We should not shy away, though I tend to. The Kingdom of the World is very real even though it’s not eternal. How we respond to the realities of this world has a lot to do with our eternal destinies and shows us where our hearts are. Do we love God? Then we will love others. Do we trust God? Then we will not fear the world. Do we follow Christ? Then we will love God, love our neighbors, and love our enemies, yeah even give our lives for our enemies as did Christ.

So, really it does not matter if we live in a oligarchy or a democracy. What matters is that we live in the reality of the Kingdom of God – and act accordingly.

(1) From Book III of Aristotle. Politics. trans. Benjamin Jowett. Thatcher, ed., Vol. II: The Greek World, pp. 364-382. New York: Colonial Press, 1900. Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text. Online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/aristotle-politics1.html

(2) See chapter two of Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Question for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

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“…the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”

– Roman 2:5b-8, New American Standard trans.
We already have an understanding of what Paul’s theology is all about. In fact, it is nearly impossible to read any of Paul’s letters without assuming we know what he means. We always bring our pre-understanding to the Biblical text. We know, if we are children of the Reformation, that salvation comes through faith and not works. We cannot earn our way into heaven. We cannot make ourselves good enough to be saved.

But wait, what does Paul mean, then, by “according to his deeds” or “perseverance in doing good”?

It would appear that Paul is saying that one can be justified by doing good works. If we are to make this jive with our traditional reformed understanding of justification by faith alone then we’ve got some theological gymnastics to do with Paul’s language. Maybe, however, Paul means what he says. Maybe one is saved, gaining glory, honor, and incorruption, by persevering in doing good. If this is true then everything rests on what Paul means by doing good.

I would hazard that “doing good” means just that. With Jesus as our example we lay down our lives for others, setting aside our ambitions and wants for the needs of others that are all around us. We help widows and orphans, we give to “the least of these” and seek peace in a world of constant war and oppression. I believe it also means that we forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, go another mile. We do good by living out the kingdom of God in our daily actions.


If this is true then a significant characteristic of the Reformation, at least in how it is often understood and lived out, is misguided. It also means that divorcing faith from action, separating our ultimate destinies from our deeds here and now, may be a kind of cheap grace. Without a gospel of good deeds we are left with one of the scariest passages in the Bible:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46, New American Standard trans.
I am profoundly and fundamentally challenged by this passage. If I am to be judged by my deeds then I am a failure many times over. I do not want cheap grace but I also cannot afford the grace that is offered. What I need is mercy.

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I am not sure what I think of Shane Claiborne, other than I like his spirit and his perspective. I have not tried to pick apart his understanding of the gospel or his use of the Bible to support his arguments. Some times I am a little hesitant to embrace his message but, for the most part, I like it.

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Here are some thoughts I have regarding the Gentiles who do instinctively the things of the law.

From Jack Crabtree’s translation of Romans, Portion One/Section 1/Part 5/paragraph #14:

3) It is not the hearers of the divine commandments who are dikaios before God; rather, it is the doers of the divine commandments who will be deemed dikaios. 4) Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the Covenant by natural birthright, do the things required by that Covenant—even though these people do not possess the Covenant for themselves—such things are a covenant. 5) Such people demonstrate the deed required by that covenant written on their hearts[.] (See Romans 2:13-15 in your “real” Bible.)

 These real (or hypothetical) Gentiles are not “God fearers” in the sense that they are merely not familiar with the Judaic law or the particulars of the various covenants. These are true pagans or non-religious individuals who know absolutely nothing of the God of Abraham and Moses. When they “do the things required by that covenant” this is not that they have figured out somehow (intuitively?) what the covenant is and then began keeping a list of commandments. From the outside there may be nothing about these Gentiles that would make them appear as devout Jews.* What this implies is that the hearts of these Gentiles have come to a place whereby (one could imagine) they might stumble upon the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and say, “Yes! That’s true. I long for that.” It follows, then, that when Paul here is arguing to “do the things required by that Covenant” he is thinking not of dietary laws or keeping the Sabbath. Neither is he thinking of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I imagine Paul has in mind the list we call the beatitudes – being poor in spirit, being a peacemaker, being someone who thirsts after righteousness, etc. To be poor in spirit, to be a peacemaker, to thirst after righteousness, is to do the things required by the covenant.

What does this mean for us? I think we need to constantly examine our tendencies to create lists of particulars by which we judge others and ourselves. Just like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we too have our rules, our mental covenants that we live by. We judge our spirituality, our faith, our righteousness by these lists, and each of us always come out better in our own minds than do anyone else to whom we apply the standard. But we know this, we hear this on Sunday. The frightening reality is that deep down we know that to truly live as the beatitudes call us would produce people who might not look much like us or the other Christians around us. What is more frightening, we cannot become the people who live the beatitudes by choice. The beatitudes are thrust upon people, mark people, at times against their will.

* I think we have to assume, as well, that there may be nothing about these Gentiles that would make them appear as “devout Christians” either.

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The most important axiom to keep in mind when doing Bible study is this: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see. Translation and interpretation is about learning to see what is actually there in spite of one’s expectations.

Consider this famous optical illusion:



One will tend to see either a young woman or an old woman until the image is explained. Once it is explained then one laughs at how easy it was to miss the dual image. It can be all too easy to believe one knows exactly what one sees and move on. It took me years to unlearn many “obvious” interpretations. I had to set the Bible down for a while – really a few years – before I was able to come back to it with fresh eyes. I recognize this process also flies in the face of what Christian culture tells me.

“Biblical translation is more like an art rather than a mechanical process.”

Translations play a part as well. We tend to study translations of original (or near original) texts. Translations can be quite bad, and good translations can still mislead. Anyone who has spent time with languages other than their native tongue know this. Think of the instructions below translated from Chinese into English. It is important to have some idea of where one is going.


Even if the translation is fine, or one is studying in the original language anyway, it can still be tricky. Consider to following statement:

“You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” 

What does this mean? What should the one managing the nuclear reactor do? Might it be important to get the interpretation correct? But how is one to know? In biblical studies that is a huge question. Many sentences in Greek are not much different than the above quote. Translators often remove such ambiguity because the translators made a decision based on their pre-understanding. That does not mean they were correct. And pastors and Bible teachers who thrive on the performance rather than substance shortchange their congregations by missing such interpretive conundrums, teaching with a practiced conviction that their understanding is without substantial challenge.

For many Christians, doing Bible study is more about letting the spirit of God teach them directly through the words. This is often just a religiously encourage method of disguising one’s intuition as the voice of God. Regardless, imagining that you “get it” is not the same thing as actually getting it. Intuition is rational and takes years of hard work to develop. Having an “intuitive flash” does not mean one has got it right, but that flash is often part of the process of our search for understanding. Tacit knowledge is critical. Regardless, in our pursuit of understanding we need to have humility. And we must remember: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see.

Context is huge for meaning. So is the intent of the author. For example: JFK’s famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner” can mean both “I’m a Berlin-person,” or “I’m a jelly donut,” though I believe most German people instantly knew he meant “Berlin-person.” The socio-historical (not to mention geographical) context meant a lot in understanding JFK’s intent. We often have to make a case for intent, but an author’s intent is frequently difficult to discern. It is important to keep in mind that authorial intent has more to do with making a case for what the text means from the test itself rather than trying to read the author’s mind, which we cannot do. It is also an art and not a mechanical process.

These thoughts are very simple I know. But I think there is something basic and profound in them as well. What is unfortunate, however, is that so much of Bible teaching that I hear reminds me of the Benny Hill skit when a character says, “Look, what’s that in the road? A head?” and the director says “Cut! It’s suppose to be ‘What’s that in the road ahead?'”

Postscript: I recognize that in this day of pomo-evangelical, deconstructive theology my thoughts above are possibly simplistic. But I am convinced that the average Christian cares little for the more intellectual debates and just wants to live as a good Christian (or at least look like one). I believe the general outline I have given is radical enough that if followed would shake up much of popular Christianity as it stands.

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As Cain lifted the stone so that he might bring it down upon his bother Abel’s head to kill him, Abel leaped out of the way and grabbed a stone from the ground and threw it at Cain’s head. Cain fell to the ground and died. God came to Abel and asked him, “Where is your brother Cain?” Abel said to God, “I killed him in self-defense.” God then said to Abel, “Did you have to kill him? Was there not a more peaceful solution? Do you not believe that I can take care of you?” Abel said to God, “Like I said, it was in self-defense and, honestly, there really was no other alternative. I know Cain would never change. You know how it is with people like that.”

I am studying about Just War Theory. I am inclined to think that when the layers of arguments are pealed back it comes down to human nature: Sin is the great justifier of its own existence. Sin is the great excuser. I fear that Just War Theory is fundamentally an elaborate excuse system. I recognize this is simplistic, but maybe simple is closer to the truth. The fact that Just War Theory is also the “common sense” position only fuels my suspicion.

More specifically I find fascinating the fact that human beings are utterly captivated with this world. We love this world (my perspective here is Pauline not Platonic). More importantly, we are committed to this world being a certain way and we not only feel the need to make is so, we want the control to make it so. Part of that control is the belief in our right to exist at the expense of others – if it comes to that. In other words, I have my life and no one has the right to take it from me (true, except that God has that right of course) therefore I can take another’s life if my life is threatened (true??). 
In Just War Theory it goes a step further. I have the right, some might say the obligation, to take the life of another if a government tells me to, assuming that government has made the case that the killing is justified. Or, if we don’t go quite that far, I am at least absolved of any need for either justice or mercy for having killed.

We weave our elaborate theories out of our common sense. Our common sense emerges from our captivation with this world. And, like all things human, our common sense is run through with sin.

There is a logic to the Just War Theory, but I fear we only cling to the logic in order to delude ourselves into believing our right to chose to kill in war does not come from our corrupt hearts. We disparage Cain in the Genesis account, but we hold to a position not unlike Abel in the fractured fairy tail version above. We are good at creating a gloss over sin. This does not mean there is no truth in the gloss, but it may still be only a gloss over something we neither want to look at or be seen. (I use “we” in the broadest human sense, recognizing the multiplicity of experiences.)
I am in the process of looking deeper into Just War Theory. I am doing some reading and a lot of pondering. I welcome any suggestions for reading. I will probably write through my process here on SatelliteSaint.

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I have a beef with mainstream Christianity.


I am going to try to make a point here, but I fear my concerns may be just that, my fears only and belonging to no one else. But here goes…

Possibly the great doctrinal sacred cow in all of Christendom is the doctrine of the Trinity, or more truthfully, the theological formula that apparently secures the divinity of Jesus: The incarnate fully god/fully man, existing before all of creation person, entering into that creation with humility, Son of the Father God, and understood as the second person of a single but triune god (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). For most Christians the Trinity is a given, an unquestioned if not fully understood (or understandable) doctrine. Could it be that this doctrine, this interpretation of scripture we have held so inviolate since A.D. 325 might be wrong? Is it okay to ask this question without immediately being condemned to the fires – or at least without being in dire need of intercessory prayer, a laying on of hands?

That may be the real crux: Can you seriously, legitimately ask the question?

For the most part, if you have grown up in Christendom you have grown up with the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has been used extensively to support numerous other positions (e.g. we can know God is a relational being because He exists as a relationship). In fact, at times it seems that much of Christian theology rests upon this powerful doctrine. The truth is, I really don’t have any particular need to disbelieve the doctrine of the Trinity, unless it is actually wrong. But I will assume the freedom to ask the question.

It is a well know fact that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented within the context of a rather large church squabble and was then formulated as a solution at one of the great church councils. The need for a solution was political as much as anything else. Constantine was trying to hold his empire together and saw the Christian church as one element of the glue. The philosophical questions being asked were primarily Greek (not Hebrew) in origin. The arguments were more like legal arguments than sound biblical exegesis. The final decision was made with direct help/guidance from the emperor himself. All of that makes me suspicious. Regardless, my concern is this: Do we truly have the freedom to ask the question? Can one say, “I have my doubts whether the doctrine of the Trinity is biblically sound” and not be seen as having fallen away from the faith? Maybe more importantly, can a pastor get up in front of his congregation and say he has his doubts without losing his job? Can a Sunday school teacher encourage her “flock” to value questioning such doctrines as a means to spiritual growth?


Some will wonder why in the world would one even bother to ask such a question. If not outright heretical it would seem to be at least pointless. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. What value, what improvement to one’s faith could it possibly produce? There are two: a) If the doctrine of the Trinity is true then by asking the question (with the full implication that one might discover it is not true and have to face the consequences) one gains a finer and more substantial understanding of that truth, and b) If it is not true then one has a chance of coming to the truth. I know, however, that within mainstream Christianity both of those possibilities are generally squelched or cut off altogether.

By calling the doctrine of the Trinity a sacred cow I am calling attention to a reality of Christendom that some doctrines are not allow to be genuinely questioned. I recognize the fact that there are some traditions within the history of Christianity that do not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, and there are also always exceptions. (Someone is bound to comment that they have always been free to ask such questions within their church.) But, in general, to seriously pose the question, to say one thinks the doctrine may be a misinterpretation of scripture, is to court a real or symbolic tossing out from one’s local church – or, at least from ministry in that “body.” Christendom has thrived on dogma and conformism, and has suffered because of it. To challenge the unchallengeable doctrine is to court danger. To challenge the doctrine of the Trinity is to challenge the traditional understanding of the divinity of Jesus: no Trinity no divinity. Hence the tossing. If follows then: Christendom also does not allow questioning of the traditional understanding of the Son of Man’s divinity, but that’s another question.

Now I am only using the possibility of questioning the validity of the Trinity somewhat rhetorically. I am in the process of asking the question and doing some research, and I do have my doubts as you might have guessed, but there are many such questions waiting to be asked. My desire is to keep pursuing the truth and letting that truth guide me. Though I am still firmly a Christian (God willing) I was fortunate to escape from some of the mainstream clutches more than twenty years ago. I have been “in process” ever since. And though I am not a liberal Christian, I am not a conservative one either. I believe, in fact, that my faith has matured and my understanding deepened. (I could be deluded too.) The biggest factor in both the escape and the subsequent maturity in faith was the freedom to ask questions without social fear (though maybe a little personal trembling). This came about by my finding a community of believers who gave me that freedom. I wrote a little about that here.

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Christians should struggle with Memorial Day. I fear that we do not.

To remember those who have died is important. To appropriate those deaths as a means of perpetuating mythologies is wrong. Brass bands and fighter jets, televised concerts and presidential pomp draw a veil across the reality of war. Christians are called to be peaceful, to seek peace with and among others, to love their enemies. Christians, who have the example of Jesus as their guide, should not fall into the trap of “common sense” that equates war with peace. This is why Memorial day should be a struggle for Christians. As we remember those who have died in war, we must also deny war its glory.

Dead Civilians by George Biddle

My thinking on Memorial Day has been evolving for several years as has my position on war and killing in the name of the state. I believe most Americans don’t think too much about it. Barbecues, a three-day weekend, and maybe the occasional thought about deceased soldiers are the mainstays of Memorial Day for most Americans. Newspaper articles and commentaries will prod us to have deeper, more patriotic feelings for the day. Politicians will make the connection between the sacrifices of those who died in war and our “freedoms,” but the connection is often a lie. I believe we should value our freedoms and this day does warrant emotion but, as a Christian, I cannot wrap my faith in any government flag, nor can I celebrate war by elevating state-supported martyrdom to a religious fervor. But I will remember those who have died (rightly or wrongly, soldier and civilian, for good causes and bad) because they, like me, need more than anything else, the mercy of God.

And I will enjoy a good barbecue with friends and family.

I have been sorting out my own perspectives on war in other posts:
I have a lot of work to do on this topic. One thing, though, is I can no longer accept the “common sense” that guided my thinking in the past.

Also, here is an interesting post on Memorial Day by Michael Lafrate titled, Memorial Day and the religious syncretism of the state.

One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is ask them to be conservative. Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary. To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us. If we want to be fair, we must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo.

~ Francis Schaeffer
We inherit the terms of debate and discussion. The U.S. is a two party system, debates are drawn long liberal and conservative lines, and allowable ideas are carefully controlled – though how is another matter. In short, we are called to choose sides. But for those who take the time to ponder and think about these conditions the liberal/conservative divide starts to look more and more hollow. For the Christian, who has chosen to follow Christ (this does not necessarily include all who claim the designation “Christian), the cultural terms of debate pale in comparison to Christ’s new commandment: To love others as he has loved us. This love, and all of its implications, completely transcends conservatism and liberalism. But this is old news.

The quote above, which is a great quote, may be surprising to many conservative Christians who think of Francis Schaeffer (when they think of him at all anymore) as a famous conservative voice within Christian circles (largely based on his stance against abortion). Schaeffer directly challenged a powerful hegemony within much of Christianity today. That hegemony, driven mostly by the so called Religious Right, defines the terms of acceptable language and faith for many Christians. But Schaeffer saw it as a trap. The Religious Right’s project is, in fact, a turning away from Christ. It is a way of defining the Christian life in terms of social and cultural agendas rather than by the tranforming and radical message of a biblical Christianity. (The antidote is not in some kind of “religious left” either.) As Schaeffer points out more specifically elsewhere, Christ was not a “conservative,” and neither should be his followers.

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This may seem like a non-starter. What could be more obvious? Governments, nations, societies, and cultures are all extensions of individuals who, in both their relationship to others through individual agency and through the agency of corporate actions, are always faced with the existential question of who they are and where lies their allegiances. If it is ludicrous for me (an individual) to think I can convey the love of Christ (which includes his humility, suffering, and serving) through any kind of violence, warfare, or dominance, then it is also ludicrous for any government (merely an extension of many individuals) to do likewise. If I am to take up my cross every day then I cannot seek to nail others to it.


Christians have grown comfortable with the idea that governments can take care of the dirty work (armies to kill our enemies, embargoes to starve governments into doing what we want, etc.) so that we can get on with our personal peace and prosperity. Strangely, Christianity (in its Christendom formation) has tended to require the force and brutality of governments to secure the right kind of environment so that its faith can flourish. But what kind of a Christianity is that? What kind of faith? When I was a kid I heard that Christians in Soviet Russia (a state apparatus set against Christianity) were praying for the the western church because they knew our lack of suffering, our materialism, and our self righteousness would lead to a kind of faith that had shallow roots – if it was even genuine faith at all. One evidence of shallow roots, I would argue, is enthusiasm for the use of military force by one’s government, and maybe even the support our the military’s existence.


I have been watching Ken Burns documentary on WWII, called The War. Like all of Burns’ films it is slow moving and invites one to ponder the subject matter (which is a good thing). The archival images are amazing and, at times, staggering. It is hard to take one’s eyes off them. The stories are touching, deep, profound, and often unbelievable. War is truly an attention grabber in so many ways (even WWII after all these decades). As a Christian I understand the connection between human sinfulness and the fact of war. I also know that Christians are called to love their enemies, to love their neighbors, to carry their crosses, and to trust in God for their destiny, their daily needs and their very well being regardless of the apparent threats arrayed against them. Jesus is to be our example and he showed us that sacrifice and service are the touchstones of the true believer. So why do so many Christians support war? I am not sure.

For me WWII presents somewhat of a struggle. It is hard to be a pacifist in light of the supposed glory of WWII. Who would not want to stop the spread of Fascism and end the Shoah? And then one has to contend with the very real valor of the soldiers who did the fighting. Their stories are so amazing and so often deserving of praise. In fact, one could argue that the lot of the ordinary soldier fighting against objective evil is a kind of cross bearing. However, I look at my government today and I don’t trust it. I see our foreign policy and it looks evil to me. I see our leaders and I sense they are glory hounds and corrupt (but what else is new). I study our economic system and I do not see any intention of bowing the knee to God. And I see what our military is being used for today and I do not see the love of Christ or a trusting in God. I do not find a love for one’s enemies, the forgiving of offenses seventy times seven, or a faith to move mountains. And I do not expect the situation to change any time soon.


What I do see is a kind of modern American version of Christianity mixed with American militarism. It is the ultimate prosperity gospel, a gospel that hopes God will keep one alive and healthy so that the job at hand can continue, and promises glory in the afterlife for those whom God has called to Him (via an IED or bullet). It is a gospel that seems to support the couching of warfare in the language of freedom, but does not question what freedom is nor contrasts it with what the Bible actually says about freedom. We are told they (whoever they are, “our” enemies I suppose) hate our values, therefore we must bring war upon them. This is a gospel that supports walking the streets of someone else’s home town with an assault rifle in one’s hand and the authority to kill. As with all of us, the individual soldier must come to terms with God. I cannot judge an individual soldier’s heart.

With what I know of the gospel I could not follow orders to carry a gun or use lethal force against others. I am also not certain I could go to war at all, even as a medic or a soldier on the back lines doing paperwork. It all seems to be supporting war in one way or another. And I am still sorting out the whole “support our troops” thing. I understand it means that no matter what you think of the current administration, at least recognize the individual sacrifices of the troops. I am no longer convinced that is a good position to take, especially since we no longer have the draft. But I’m still sorting it out. What I am convinced of is that war cannot defend Christian values or, if “Christian values” is too squishy of a phrase: War is the opposite of Christ.

I have previously written some related thoughts here.

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The church I attend is structured around Bible teaching. This is typical of many churches within the Protestant tradition and its multitude of denominations and nondenominations. I grew up in a Baptist church that also placed an emphasis on Bible teaching, but in a much different way than my current church. Those who visit my current church are typically struck by something we do that is very different than in most any other churches – though not all. That is, when the teaching is done a microphone is passed around for a few minutes and we all can ask questions of the teacher, and even challenge the teacher. Those who teach expect this and approach both their study and their teaching with this in mind.

Why do we do this?

Traditional Christianity (I’m making a huge generalization here) is based, in part, on not challenging those who teach the Bible and promote dogma. Baptist preachers are famous for their emphatic exhortations and claims on absolute, Bible thumping truth. Others with a little less thumping. In general pastors assume this hegemony to be acceptable, and even biblical, and may seek a life in ministry in part because of it. Even the apparently humblest of ministers can have large egos in their official positions. Regardless, if we (those in the pews or slightly padded interlocked chairs)) feel compelled to challenge the teaching then we need to move on to another denomination or start one of our own. Anyone who has disagreed with the pastor and then gone up to the pastor after the service, Bible in hand, to challenge the teaching, even with a humble spirit, is likely to get evasion or a cold stare. This kind of response may be just another example of human nature, but is also a great flaw in the church. There is an unspoken force within much of Christianity that is designed to suppress the questioning of dogma.

Christianity is a galaxy of related subcultures each with their own entrenchment of dogmas and an inability to welcome challenges in the name of seeking a clearer truth. But an openness to questioning received truth(s), dogmas, spiritual practices, and anything else that is claimed as “Christian” is critical for each of us and the church on the whole. Without such openness there can really be no faith because the inability to question leads to a closed loop that, in the name of establishing, actually precludes genuine belief. Faith requires more than merely saying yes to what one is told to say yes to.

However, and here is the clincher for all those who preach (and the rest of us as well), the pursuit of truth requires the ability, even the desire, to say, “but I might be wrong.” I have heard that in some seminaries would be pastors are exhorted to preach with confidence even if they are unsure of their own understanding. Many pastors preach with unflagging conviction passages that are hotly debated without addressing interpretive issues, and certainly without hinting their teaching is based on their current understanding – which could change with time and study. These pastors do, at the minimum, a great disservice to the church in my opinion.

We are all too finite to assume our understanding of the Bible is total. We have so much theological, cultural, and intellectual baggage we bring to reading the Bible that a lifetime could be spend merely working to set aside that baggage. I do not need a pastor to tell me what to think or what to believe. What I need is someone who is wise, is in pursuit of authentic faith, and has done their homework, to then come beside me and walk with me through the process of coming to my own understanding of who God is and what this life is all about. And to remind me that whatever the conclusions I come to I might be wrong.

You have baggage** and so do I.

We all have it and we bring it with us when we read the Bible. I had a lot of baggage that came with me from my Baptist upbringing. Over the years I have had to sort through a lot of that baggage, unpacking it and jettisoning some of it as I learned better what the Bible has to say. I sometimes feel like one of those people on those shows that make de-cluttering someone’s house a form of television entertainment (but without as much entertainment).

I still carry with me a lot of presuppositions about what the Bible must mean. I know my understanding of Romans has a great deal to do what I assume Paul is trying to say and what questions he is trying to answer. I get concerned about those assumptions. I wonder how much of what I understand scripture to mean is what was intended and how much I am reading into it.

When Martin Luther championed Paul he did so with at least two issues in mind. Luther was a man wracked with guilt, at least early on. He built his life trying to be a good monk, and he was a very good monk, but it didn’t work. He still needed desperately to know if God could accept him. It all began, so the story goes, that when lightning struck nearby him during a storm he became obsessed with his own mortality. He needed assurances. Sola fide became both a Reformation rallying cry and the solution to Luther’s need to know that God would accept him as righteous enough for saving. Salvation came by grace through faith not by being a good monk, no matter how good. For Luther the existential dilemma was critical to salvation. One had to pass through that dark night of the soul, as it were, to reach the light on the other side.
I tend to agree with Luther on this point. I am not convinced Luther got it perfectly right, but I am a Christian existentialist.

The other issue was the famous social and political context in which he lived and struggled. Luther saw his own attempts at righteousness as being akin to what he saw as the Jew’s struggle to keep the law. He was immersed in a world of law keepers – what he experienced as the Roman Catholic church. Luther railed not merely against indulgences, but the understanding that under girded the existence of such theology. He saw a significant portion of Catholic theology being fundamentally the same as the Jew’s faith in keeping the law as the means to attain salvation. I am not convinced Luther made the right connection here.

Both of these perspectives – the need to remove a personally debilitating guilt and a corrective to Catholic piety – colored Luther’s lenses as he interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans. Protestantism inherited these perspectives and has promoted them down through the ages. The question is whether Paul had them in mind, or at least at the forefront of his mind, as he penned his letter.

I am not so sure Paul was directly addressing, or even concerned with the same perspectives as Luther. He may have been, and I still tend to see those concerns in Romans, but I wonder if that’s just more baggage. Was Paul’s primary concern for writing his letter to emphasize the solution to individual guilt or instead in addressing the need for harmony between Greek/Roman Christians (formerly pagan) and Jewish Christians in light of an entirely new kind of faith community – one that incorporates both Jew and Greek? And/or was Paul’s primary concern to convey a new reality based on faith without piety, and therefore to trounce the felt need to keep the law or, instead, to merely put the law into its proper perspective? In other words, did Luther misunderstand Paul?

I don’t know the answer, but I am inclined to think that he did. I will say that if Luther had it wrong, or even just overly emphasized certain aspects of Paul’s message, then maybe we have been missing Paul’s message all these years – assuming we have been under the spell of Luther’s axioms as has been so much of Protestant history.


*A version of this post was previously posted at a now defunct blog.

**I don’t mean luggage, though you may have that too.

 

[T]he most persuasive case for Christianity lies in the overall coherence and human relevance of its world view.
~ Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, 1983.
I have spent all of my life within a Christian sub-culture of one kind or another. I was raised a Baptist, “escaped” that rather specific world (but brought a lot of it with me), and now consider myself somewhat of a cynical evangelical. In some ways I prefer the moniker Christ-follower. I also like Christian Existentialist for various reasons. Unlike many Christians (though I could be wrong) whom I have met over the years, I have always been a fan of the “thinking Christian” approach to faith. I grew up, in a sense, with the likes of C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, etc.), Francis Schaeffer (How Shall We Then LiveEscape from Reason, The God Who is There, etc.), and Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, etc.). All those books, and many more, I had read by the end of my senior year in high school. Therefore quotes like the one above from Dr. Holmes have rung true for me for most of my life. But I wonder if it really makes complete sense.
 
The issue I have with Holmes’ quote is not the words “overall coherence” or “human relevance,” but the word “persuasive.” I have spent much of my life interested in (what I believe to be) the fact of Biblical Christianity‘s coherence and human relevance. But even with all my study over the years I have never been truly persuaded by the arguments because they were good arguments rigorously laid out and defended. What I have come to realize is that I was already predisposed to be persuaded, and would have been even if the arguments had been (and sometimes were) poorly made by fumbling pastors and Christian intellectual poseurs. The persuasive case for Christianity is not found in argument, but in the mysterious work being done, for whatever unknown reason, in the heart of the individual who, though even a hater of God finds her/himself drawn (even as if against one’s better judgment) to what the writers of the Christian scriptures called the Gospel.
 
Still, there is great value in digging into the nature and claims of the Christian World View, to lay it out, pick it apart, and see what’s really there. Christians inherit a great many dogmas (major and minor), and sub-cultures to boot. We should always ask if what we “know” to be true is, in fact, something other than the truth, something we got from our culture or elsewhere. We must always be wary of the tendency in all of us to impose our desires on what we call our faith. I want to dig into these things. That’s what I hope to do with this blog.
 
FYI: I get the name satellite from a 1540s definition, “follower or attendant of a superior person,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.