Thursday, March 31, 2011

Making Ethical Decisions: Minimum Wage

The Indiana House apparently voted to cap minimum wage yesterday, apparently so that local cities and counties cannot hinder business by requiring larger amounts.  I don't know the specifics, so this is a theoretical exercise rather than a clear critique.

As usual, the ethical calculus involves two primary considerations: fundamental principles and consequences, with a check on motivations.

The fundamental principle behind a social contract such as the US Constitution is mutual benefit.  The driving force behind the origins of capitalism was utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number.  Philosophically, we might call this cocktail: universal ethical egoism.  Western systems aim at the greatest good for all individuals.

This amounts to a system that aims at the greatest good for the greatest number, with protections for the individual.  I consider this the most fundamental principled framework for a secular society.  By a happy correlation, it also fits well with the fundamental Christian value of loving one's neighbor.

The goal of social structure is thus not to make a few very rich at the expense of the majority.  The best social structure is one that tends to result in as many people as prosperous as possible while protecting the individual from the prosperity of others, in fact aiming to empower every individual at least to self-subsistence.  Again, this is the fundamental ethical value of the United States and Western society in general.

So given the goal, how does the minimum wage debate connect?

First, the goal in business--from the standpoint of societal structure--must be to prosper everyone in connection to that business as much as possible.  This obviously is not the business owner but the employees and people who benefit from the business.  Although it's easy to lose sight of it, this actually was the founding purpose of capitalism.

Capitalism holds that a system of competition will result in the greatest benefit both to buyer and seller.  The buyer will seek out the lowest price and the seller will charge as high as they can.  Ideally, they will meet in the middle with the most beneficial middle ground.  But the goal of capitalism was not originally to make the owner of a business as rich as possible, which is why protections evolved for individuals like minimum wage and anti-trust laws.

Without those laws, capitalism had gone counter to its very founding purposes--mangling everyone it could in the service of the filthy rich.  In my opinion, this is the trajectory we are on again, the Tea Party trajectory.  We are now in the process of trying to peal back the protections of the individual, put in place at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s against capitalism gone amok.  Unbridled capitalism does not accomplish its founding goals.  This is the lesson of history.  Only a moderately regulated capitalism does.

Minimum wage ensures that an individual worker can earn at least a subsistence level income.  It would seem to be a fundamental value.  Capitalism left alone will not evolve a fair wage because of the collusion of business.  Places without minimum wages--Mexico, China--demonstrate the condition of their workers.  Eventually, the global economy will evolve a world-wide minimum wage.  We are in the throes of the transition, where American companies have temporarily shipped jobs elsewhere to get around the protections of the more evolved American system.  But of course, that's an issue of union wages rather than minimum wage.

But it's not as simple as business versus worker.  Low prices benefit the consumer, so the "greatest good for the greatest number" is not simply a calculus between business owner and employee.  A thriving business benefits the broader economy.  It benefits the people who buy the product in lower cost.

So the best minimum wage will be 1) one that reasonably allows an employee to live while 2) maximizing the benefit to consumers in the resultant prices and 3) does not demotivate the business owner from running the business.  You can't put a precise number on these, unfortunately.  The number changes from time to time and involves a significant element of cultural subjectivity.

But the last paragraph, in my opinion, is the ethical calculus for an optimal society.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shhh--we're going covert

My wife Angela has been laughing at the announcement that the CIA will secretly be helping the Libyan rebels.  Shhh... be sure not to tell anyone so Gaddafi doesn't find out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What did you make of Obama?

I'm in Chicago for the day and wasn't able to listen to Obama last night.  What did he say?  What is your evaluation?

I was thinking last night that it would be fun to start an electronic newspaper that solicited articles on topics with the goal of posting calmly argued but contrasting points of view on contemporary questions.  Then maybe editors could post a summary of the debate, including the comments, the next day.  The ground rules would simply be the rules of logic and the scientific method of using evidence to form hypotheses.

Oh well...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Making Sense of Catastrophes

This was my seminary post this week and captures the gist of my sermon yesterday.
If we were to survey the things various pastors have said from their pulpits about the recent tsunami in Japan, I suspect that we might find three types of comment: 1) those who see this event as God’s judgment on Japan for not believing, 2) those who see this event as part of the problem of evil, with God bringing peace and good news into the midst of the catastrophe, and 3) those who see God’s involvement in such events as somewhat of a mystery.

It is precisely in this sort of event when our theological questions cease being academic discussions and become either helpful or dangerous.  For example, if we believe that this event was God’s judgment on the Japanese, we will be less likely to try to help the survivors.  Or if we think giving help can only be motivated by the possibility of salvation, then our help may actually be counterproductive to its purpose.  Help purely in the service of a narrowly defined sense of evangelism is more likely to turn others away from the gospel in disgust than to draw them in.

It is also a time when imprecision in our biblical theology goes from innocent to dangerous.  For example, how do we reconcile 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1?  The first says that God tempted David to take a census, while the second says that the Satan tempted David to take this very same census.  Unless we want to allow for contradiction, the only solution I can think of is to see a development in theological precision between the earlier Samuel and the later Chronicles.  The New Testament confirms this trajectory of understanding when James 1:13 says that God does not tempt anyone.

It seems an inescapable conclusion that some of what the older parts of the Old Testament ascribe to God’s direct action (like sending an evil spirit on Saul–1 Sam. 16:14) are likely things that God allows rather than directly causes.  Similarly, many parts of the Old Testament–especially the historical books–have a very general sense of good and evil consequence:  those who do good receive prosperity in this life; those who do evil suffer in this life.  In the New Testament especially this view gains precision.  After all, the most righteous man of all–Jesus–dies on a cross.

So a more precise understanding is that God does not directly cause all the bad things that happen.  Further, both good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The most accurate view is thus the third one, although with a bias toward the second.  That is to say, unless God gives you a special revelation about the Japan crisis, we must ultimately accept that his will in such events is a mystery.  We must also be confident that he is in control and does what is right.

I will also confess that I have remained with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition because I cannot make sense of Christianity if God directly causes everything that happens in the world.  The notion that “God is love” seems to become meaningless.  If I have to try to explain how God can be love in a world where pedophiles rape and murder children, the only answer that makes any sense at all is that a world in which God has given us some degree of freedom is a better world than one in which we are slaves to his will.  But if God allows us the freedom to do evil, then some will do evil.

Romans 8:20 tells us that the creation is in the same boat with us.  I can only make sense of things if God has granted the creation some of this same freedom to continue on its course following its laws and the effect of Adam’s sin.  According to those laws, when tectonic plates build up enough pressure, massive earthquakes happen.  And when massive earthquakes happen under water, massive tsunamis happen.  And when people are living nearby, a lot of people are probably going to die.

Jesus warned his audience not to think that God was singling out the 18 who died when a tower fell on them.  ”Don’t think they are worse sinners than you,” he said (Luke 13:1-5).  And when Jesus’ disciples assumed a man was blind either because he or his parents had sinned, Jesus corrects them (John 9:1-3).

So how can we make theological sense of these sorts of events in the context of Christian faith?  First, while God’s intentions in relation to such events is ultimately a mystery, given God’s revealed nature it is far more likely that he allows them rather than directly causes them.  But even more importantly, our sense of his revealed nature will lead us to picture his Spirit reaching out to those who are suffering.

Is this not the picture of God we find in Romans 5:10 when it says that Jesus died for us when we were his enemies?  And Jesus did not die only for those who would believe.  He died for everyone, including those who ultimately reject him.  For this reason, we cannot legitimately restrict evangelism–preaching the good news–to saving people’s souls.  Nor can we legitimately distinguish between helping people’s souls and helping people’s bodies.  The good news is one good news, to body and soul, to those who believe and those who do not believe.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Preaching this morning...

... from Romans 5:1-11.  Simply outline:

1. God has been getting us ready for our sufferings.
2. God has been getting us ready for the end.
3. God is with us now, in suffering, leading to endurance, building our character, and confirming a hope that will not disappoint.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mike Savage...

Back home.  We did end up stopping for a few hours sleep in Kentucky, but drove some into the night.  About midnight, I heard Mike Savage and another guy afterward in Tennessee.  Heard of Savage Nation but never actually heard him before.  If I had to sum up what I heard (it did keep me awake ;-) in one word, it would be "poison."

It's no wonder half of America is angry if they're listening to this sort of stuff.  Good grief, he virtually called O'Reilly, Hannity, etc part of a Republican establishment conspiracy.

In the midst of my despair at the irrationality of America right now, I thought perhaps it is time to start a new movement.  The word "Remodernism" came back to mind.  Yes, we have learned from the postmodern challenge that we cannot be objective.  But it's about time we started trying again.  One sided talk shows on both sides are poisoning the populace.

We need to return to dispassionate debate across the board, moderated by neutrals, with all major positions represented and objectivity the goal.  The bottom line playing field must be evidence and coherency, or the West is lost to tribalism.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Shore Leave Ends

Coming home today from a wee spot of shore leave.  No doubt IWU has launched a new program on the moon in my absence. ;-)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Those Christ Came For...

I visited an organization yesterday in Florida that helps and distributes aid to a cadre of local individuals, most of whom have HIV.  Most of them have some sort of Christian background, and I did my best to field all sorts of questions about everything from weird offshoots of Buddhism to whether we should pray to Christ or God the Father.  Because of organizations like this one, they are not forgotten.

But to mainstream society, they are forgotten. I left thinking of Jesus' words in Luke 5:32: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."  These are those that Christ came to earth for, I thought.  He certainly died for everyone, but his earthly ministry was not directed at those who go to church.  He did not come for those who keep the law.  He did not come for the comfortable professor or legislator.  He came for these.

This is the perspective of the gospels.  The ironic parallel between the Pharisees of the gospels and the Christian climate right now is amazing.  Let me contemporize.  The Pharisees are worried over whether the immigrant's papers are legal.  Jesus is helping a mugged immigrant by the road.  The Pharisees rejoice in the justice of someone getting AIDS.  Jesus is having dinner with them.  The Congressmen are wanting Jesus to speak at their luncheon.  He is giving bread to a homeless person on the street.

Got knows the hearts of those I spoke to yesterday.  Some of them expressed their rejection by churches and Christians.  Many of their heads are not what they might be, given years of drugs.  I gave them my sense of things as a Wesleyan:

1. God looks on the heart.  What direction are they moving in, and are they really trying to move toward him?
2. Don't hurt anyone.  This is basically what it means to love our neighbor.
3. We try to understand God, the Bible, and the answers to life's biggest questions.  But we will inevitably disagree on many things.  We know God will do what is right, and we just have to trust him.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Trajectory of the Literal: Feedback Welcome

One of the great things about this blog for me is the instant peer review.  I have often been able to get immediate feedback from people doing doctoral level work on various topics of interest.  I recently had a student ask me to explain an interpretation of history I have offered, namely, that one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation was a trajectory that would split the books of the Bible apart into historical islands.  The claim is that the historical-critical method was, in many respects, a natural consequence of the drive only to read the Bible literally.  The "problem of biblical theology," the difficulty of finding a historical basis by which to read the books of the Bible as a single book, was an untended consequence.

I explained the hypothesis in this way: "By rejecting non-literal modes of interpretation, the Protestant Reformation set us on a trajectory of not reading any biblical passage in any way other than within the limits of what it first meant. But if we are not allowed to read it beyond what it first meant, then it will be difficult for us to see the same significance in the story of Adam and Eve that Paul did or to find as much significance in the birth stories of Jesus as Christians do."

Any feedback on this hypothesis?  I can't imagine that I am the first to suggest it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Navigating Worship Wars

I was in a service Sunday morning that left a smile on my face.  It was a service of mostly older people with a size in the low 100s.  It started with some choruses on a PowerPoint and one player on a synthesizer with piano-ish sound.  The pastor led.

Then there was prayer.

After prayer we entered phase two.  A new song leader came forward to lead hymns and a new cadre of musicians--a new pianist and now an organist.

I know this is old stuff for most of you.  You've been through this years ago and made adjustments of this sort.  I just smiled, though.  I pictured the conflicts that led up to this common sense compromise: making sure everyone gets to play at some point, making sure everyone gets to lead at some point, satisfying those who don't like "contemporary" music (in this case, choruses ;-) while trying to hold on to some (relatively) younger people.

I thought it was brilliant.  Everyone bent a little bit, everyone can live with the solution.  I'm sure you have stories!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Making Ethical Decisions: Libya as Test Case

I hope to lay out sometime this week the basic process of formulating an ethical decision.  The general contours of such decisions, it seems to me, involves something like the following:

1. We get a sense of the general moral principles involved and their relative places in the hierarchy of values.  For Christians, love of God and neighbor stand at the top of the list.

2. We get a sense of the potential consequences of various courses of actions.  These play into the way we prioritize our values.

3. We check our motivations.

4. We decide on a course of action in the interplay of these elements.
So using the current Allied action in Libya, here are some thoughts.

1. The love principle makes us want to help those who are being oppressed.  The love principle recognizes Gaddafi himself as an unambiguous force for evil in his country and, at least previously, in the world.

Another set of principles have to do with the sovereignty of nations.  In this instance, Gaddafi does not seem to have the consent of the governed, he is in the act of squashing his people, and there is broad international support to act to protect his people.

Some Christians of course do not believe that war can ever be justified.  Most Christians, however, believe that war is sometimes a necessary evil or sometimes can be justified as "just."

2. It is usually impossible to foresee consequences with clarity, but here are some thoughts.  Sometimes when you cast a demon out, 7 more that are worse can come in.  Also, what if we help the revolution and Gaddafi still wins?  He would then be worse than ever.

The tricky consequences of invading a sovereign nation to dethrone a ruler have become fairly clear, again, after invading Iraq (not that they weren't clear before the invasion of Iraq).  Economically, they are a major factor in our current debt crisis.  Humanly, the war resulted in thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

One potential consequence is the continued movement, just maybe, toward democracy in the Middle East.  It is not clear, again, that Libya would necessarily move in that direction, but certainly helping out the revolution might result in a replacement government that was more friendly with the West than Gaddafi.  Gaddafi's sons are looking to be another 50 years of the same.

There are also potentially bad unintended consequences.  Can nations maintain these sorts of ethical standards once war has started?  Can ethical caution be maintained uniformly from the highest levels down to the level of the individual soldier?  I think history would teach us that all out war always involves atrocity on all sides.

Is there some future tyrant among the mercenaries of Gaddafi's army?  Is there someone like bin Laden who fought with Afghanistan against the Russians?

3. False motivations could easily become involved.  Since I've recently driven to Florida, that $3.50 a gallon price tag has me wanting to stabilize Libya's oil.  Gaddafi is of course accusing the West of wanting his oil.

4. The current action, in my mind, seems justified.  The main goal is to ground Gaddafi's air forces and stop the oppression of his people.  Since we are not committing ground troops, it is possible that there will be no loss of life to Allied troops.  Since we are mainly bombing air bases, the loss of life on their side will not be great either.  The justification is to prevent atrocity on Gaddafi's part.  Stabilizing oil, making friends are nice consequences, but they are not the primary motivation.

Because we are not invading, the rebels continue to be fighting for their own freedom rather than us fighting for them.  Meanwhile, Gaddafi's soldiers tend not to be Libyans anyway, so we are not promoting one side in a civil war but discouraging a mercenary army.  And we have broad international support.  Indeed, the US did not lead this charge in the UN.

I think the current action can be justified in the light of the moral calculus above.  Limited engagement, mostly to destroy equipment, with the goal of ending atrocity and enabling the removal of an evil dictator, with the support of the people and, as far as we can foresee, strongly beneficial consequences.

We'll see...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Translation of Immigration Satire

Apparently some actually thought I was expressing my actual opinions in my immigration satire the other day.  I chose satire because it has an effect that argument does not.  It was meant to be funny--although I also understand that sometimes humor hits a little too close to home.  I have no doubt but that Mike Delph and his supporters are not idiots like I portrayed in this piece.  If Hoosiers are really illiterate and small minded, then I am too--I was born here and have worked here for the last 14 years.

The satire meant to expose--potentially, if the shoe fit--the hidden motivations and inconsistencies of the heart.  Often what we say are our reasons, are not our real reasons, and we don't always even realize it.  The other nice thing about humorous satire is that it does not require accuracy.  For example, I recognize that illegal immigration is a problem that should be addressed.  If you were to stereotype my actual positions as the opposite extreme to the satire, for example, you would be wrong.

So let me be more literal.  Let me translate the satire for those who actually believed I was expressing my real opinions.

First, Jesus is my Christ, my Lord, my king.  The last point was meant to show precisely how unChrist-like I think the current trend toward foreigners in America is, a xenophobia aggravated by 9-11 and typical of wartime periods.  This paragraph was absolutely not my feeling--it was exactly the opposite of my feeling.  Why do it, you say?  Why say such vile things?  Because I wanted to express in stark terms exactly what these attitudes represent in relation to Christ and the Bible.  They are as un-Christian as the attitudes in the satire, a slap in the face to Christ and the Bible.  Sometimes Christians adopt such positions without even realizing it and this paragraph was meant to be a wake-up call.

The "rule of law" argument will bear some weight.  There is no point in having laws against coming into the country illegally if they are meaningless.  However, we make the laws.  The rule of law is not some Platonic ideal.  And Delph wants to make more.  To oppose Delph's laws is not to oppose the rule of law, for they are not the rule of law now. He is wanting to add laws.  And was Reagan going against the rule of law when he made a path for citizenship in the 80s?  Apparently not, since it was done legally.

Even more to the point, why now, why this motivation to kick people out unceremoniously?  I don't think anyone could give me a good reason other than majority fear.  I strongly suspect that most of the nice sounding words here is nothing but smokescreen, hiding darkness.  Let's be honest.  This is not about Hungarians.  It's about people from Mexico.  They're not terrorists.  They're not here to break into our houses.  Again, it's all smokescreen.

I've never quite understood the fervor of the "speak our language" argument.  Maybe it's because I like to learn the languages of other people.  Maybe it's because I like to travel to other places and learn their way of life.  Sure, visitors are going to have to learn some English to do well here.  Probably someone should have to speak a fair amount of English to be a US citizen.  But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that the kind of legislation we're talking about here is anything other than "sticking it to them."

So there you have it.  Schenck in translation.  Should I apologize for writing a piece of rhetoric that was so effective that it really ticked some people off?  No, I should not.  Should I apologize for standing up for a people group that is currently oppressed in America, like Jesus did 2000 years ago?  Absolutely not--in no uncertain terms! 

I will apologize if anyone felt hated by what I posted.  And I will apologize to those don't get satire and actually thought I was serious.  That's why there was a smiley face at the beginning. ;-)  Those who actually know me, know that I was laughing the whole time I wrote the piece.  I'm sorry if some of you only saw a scowl.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wesley Study Bible Received!

Thanks to Abingdon for sending me a copy of the Wesley Study Bible to review.  Not surprisingly, I hope to begin with Hebrews.  The notes on Hebrews largely come from David deSilva, I believe.  These notes feature quotes and insights relating to John Wesley and Wesleyan theology.  It is NRSV, which is the standard version used in scholarly publication when the scholar is not providing his or her own translation.

I look forward to dabbling in it!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

5 Cheers for Mike Delph and Immigration Reform ;-)

I just realized five reasons why I should support the "Arizona style" immigration bill that Mike Delph got through the Indiana Senate today.

First, I know I'm not smart enough to learn another language, so I'll never know whether those people are talking about me.  I'm frightened when I'm around people who are different from me and they're saying things I don't understand.  Whatever happened to the Mid-West as a place of monolithic rural culture and one room school houses?  I want the good old days back!

In fact, I think no one should be allowed to speak any language but English within the borders of the country, and, as I think they've introduced in Texas, we should not be teaching any foreign languages on the tax payer's bill.  Why should I be asked to pay for someone to learn someone else's language?

And why limit it to illegal immigrants?  I think we should send all immigrants back to wherever they came from.  We should send the Chinese back to Africa where they came from, and Mexicans back to Cuba.  Mike, I'm with you!

Secondly, I'm afraid they're going to mug me.  You know, Chinese, Canadians, Mexa-ricans, blacks.  I keep an eye on anyone who looks like they wouldn't have attended my Hoosier high school basketball games (that is, from my school--sometimes there were, you know, on the other teams that visited).  You just can't trust foreigners and, you know.  We need to send them all back because you just know they are waiting for you to let your guard down.  I can hardly sleep worrying that some foreigner is going to break into my house.  I'm with you, Mike!

Thirdly, I'm afraid they're going to take my job.  I moonlight as a janitor at a local Motel 6 and you don't know how many cleaning jobs I got passed on because some foreigner beat me to it.  I don't care whether they were legal or not.  Whites should get first dibs.  I'm with you, Mike!

Fourthly, a law is a law.  I don't care that your parents brought you here when you were two months old and you don't speak Hungarian.  Back to Hungary for you!  I think J-walkers should be thrown in jail too, along with all those people who fudge on their income taxes.  A law is a law--we're going to throw you into jail if you make personal copies on the company printer because we believe in justice here.

Better yet, let's send anyone who ever breaks any law to Guantanamo or some new island we'll call "ILLEGAL LAND."  No, wait, we'll send them all to California, which hardly counts as American anyway. I'm with Michelle Bachmann, let's send all the un-American lawbreakers to California and then drop it in the ocean.  I'm with you, Mike!

Finally, I'm with Mike.  Jesus didn't know what the heck he was talking about.  The Sermon on the Mount--what a bunch of bunk!  And give a child a cup of water--if you're not legal or don't speak my language, no way you're getting water from me.  That's justice, baby!  That stuff in the Law about the stranger in the land; that stuff in the Prophets about the poor, the orphan, and the widow; that stuff Jesus said in the gospels--I've got one word for you: L-I-B-E-R-A-L!  If that's Christianity, Glenn Beck and I want nothing to do with it.

I'm with you, Mike!  We're Hoosiers.  Education's for those liberal states like New York and California.

[For those who thought I was actually serious, here is the translation]

Monday, March 14, 2011

Allison: Pre-Passion Narrative 5

So far:

Today, pp. 403-5.
Now Allison returns to Mark and John.  He considers John to be independent tradition from Mark and so finds correlations between the two particularly significant.  I don't know his back argument here.  The more I read the more I sense that there is an intuitive element to his thinking, which pulls a little against the more scientific image.

I am much the same.  My own sense of things--it not being my area--is that I find it hard to believe that the author of John did not know the Gospel of Mark, yet I consider John to incorporate many oral traditions that do not go through Mark directly.

I find Allison's chart on p.404 very persuasive.  On the points he has extracted from Paul we find agreement in Mark and John (Jesus speaking in advance of his death, being handed over, Judeans involved, Romans triggering a crucifixion, etc.).  Allison now asks the historical question.  Which came first?  Are the gospels based on Paul or are they both drawing on a pre-Markan passion narrative?

Allison goes for pre-Markan passion narrative.  What is unclear to me is whether Allison is thinking of an oral or written source here.  I completely agree that at least some often recounted oral version of Jesus' passion existed.  How could it not have.  I await being convinced if he means there was a written version of the passion prior to Mark.  I'm very open.  I just haven't seen the argument to convince me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Allison: Judeans Involved 4

So far:

Today I finish the section in which Allison conjectures what we would infer about Jesus' death if all we had were Paul's writings, pp. 399-403.
5. In a couple pages, Allison considers what 1 Thess. 2:14-16 might mean when it speaks of the "Jews" killing Jesus.  Allison I think rightly argues that this is a little hyperbolic.  If Jewish magistrates handed Jesus over to Roman authorities, that would satisfy Paul's comment.

6. Would "Judeans" be a better translation than "Jews" here in 1 Thess. 2?  Again, I am very sympathetic to Allison's "yes" answer.

7.1 Cor. 11:23 speaks of Jesus being "handed over" or "arrested" late at night. 

8. Passages like Gal. 1:4; 2:20; and Phil. 2:8 seem to imply that Jesus did not resist his arrest.

9. A very significant observation is that 1 Cor. 11:23-25 indicates that Jesus foresaw his coming death.

10. Finally in this section, statements such as we find in 1 Cor. 15:4 and Rom. 6:4 indicate that Jesus was buried.  Occasionally, someone like Crossan will suggest that Jesus' body might have been left in a dump as food for scavengers.  Nope, doesn't seem likely given Paul's sense of things.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Allison: By Roman Hands 3

So far:
1. pp. 387-92
2. pp 392-95

Today, pp. 395-99
Two more points today in Allison's experiment--what could we infer about Jesus' death if all we had were Paul's writings.

3. We would infer that Jesus died at the hands of the Romans.
Allison points out that the Romans were pretty much the only ones that put people to death by crucifixion, indeed the only ones who put people to death in general.  Allison also spends a good deal of time arguing that 1 Cor. 2:6-8 refers to human rulers of this age, which would primarily be the Romans.

4. Jesus was likely put to death as an insurrectionist, although not because he had actively led an insurrection.
I find Allison's argument here a bit less solid, but of course I'm convinced anyway.  The references to Jesus as the Christ in itself points to an understanding of him as a king.  Yet Paul speaks of him in terms of peace, as one who "became obedient to death."

Like I said, I agree that the historical evidence points toward Jesus' dying as a messianic "insurrectionist," without him ever leading an insurrection.  But I'm not sure if Paul's writings alone could establish this point from a historical perspective.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Allison: Jesus' Death via Paul 2

Previously: pp. 387-92

Now: pp. 392-95
Now Allison begins to do an experiment.  If all we had were Paul's writings, what would we suppose about Jesus' death.  To many this will seem needlessly pedantic, but this is the work of an objective historian.  No serious historian of any stripe questions that Paul wrote the bulk of the letters with his name on them.  I myself further consider it historical incompetence (of any stripe, atheist or otherwise) to think that Paul's witness to this period is irrelevant to the historical particulars of Jesus and earliest Christianity.

So if we must prove everything, why not start with Paul.

These four pages whip off 2 of Allison's points via this "experiment."
1. Jesus was crucified.  Paul mentions the cross and crucifixion many times.

2. Jesus' crucifixion involved nailing him (ropes could be used instead).  We find references to blood, the marks (e.g., Gal. 6:17), etc.  We find an interesting aside interspersed in this discussion.  Roman Catholics have sometimes had a tendency to over-read Paul's mention of bearing the marks of Christ, as if he had stigmata like St. Francis.  But Protestants have sometimes under-read Galatians 6:17, as if Paul couldn't possibly compare his scars with Jesus'.

This is what I like about scholars like Allison, Dunn, etc.  Disagree with them we may, but they are really interested in the most likely conclusion, whatever it may be.  They cut through so many games of so much scholarship aimed at reinforcing traditions denominational, liberal, and evangelical alike.  It's just straight historical method, wherever they think it leads.  It's a breath of fresh air to me.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ground Rules: Muslim Hearings

I increasingly try not to have a knee-jerk partisan reaction to things like the hearings on Muslim extremism in the House today.  I don't know all the details.  However, I do know the principles against which such things must be judged, both Christian and American.

Love your neighbor and love your enemy.  This is easy to conceptualize.  How would I want to be treated if the shoes were on the other feet?  What if I were being scrutinized because some people who looked like me had done bad things?  How would I want to be treated?  I am not allowed to hate or persecute someone because they are not a Christian.  No buts.  This is one of very few Christian absolutes.  You must love your neighbor as yourself.  No exceptions.

1. Individuals are innocent until proven guilty, and a community can never be found guilty.  Only individuals can.  This is not only an irrefutable fact of logic, it is an indisputable fact of the US Constitution.

2. Islam is a fully permissible religion in America.  Islam cannot be prohibited under the Constitution, and US citizens who are Muslim have every last right that non-Muslims have.

3. There is a history here.  In times of war or crisis associated with particular groups, there is a tendency for those in power (=non-Muslims) to go psycho in a way that our children make fun of.  The McCarthy witch hunt for communists, the internment of Japanese Americans during WW2, we have a history of over-reacting.

Can you think of any other ground rules?  National security concerns are important, and in times of crisis, rights can be curtailed.  But the burden of proof is always on those wanting to curtail rights.  I feel confident that we're nowhere close to that planet right now.

Allison: Passion of Jesus 1

pp. 387-92

I start off my Lenten reading with chapter 5 of Dale Allison's Constructing Jesus, whose title is "Death and Memory."  He sets up the chapter by acknowledging the issue that John Dominic Crossan decides in the negative.  Crossan famously concludes that the biblical passion of Mark is "prophecy historicized" rather than "history remembered."

This question is old and the question is this.  Did the earliest Christians make up the passion story out of prophetic proof texts?  A large number of elements in the passion story correspond to phrases in the Old Testament.  And just so we don't let ourselves off the hook too quickly, most of these are not predictions.  In other words, we can't just make this an issue of whether one believes in prophecy or not.  David flees to the Mount of Olives after learning he has been betrayed (2 Sam. 15).  It is not a prophecy, but it is similar enough to what happens to Jesus for someone like Crossan to suggest that the whole Mt. of Olives part of the passion is made up to look like what happened to David.

Allison, whom I esteem as a straight shooter (which can make us uncomfortable, but we at least know he tries to follow the evidence wherever he thinks it leads), concludes with Mark Goodacre that Crossan's picture is too "either/or."  Goodacre suggests instead that the passion is "history scripturalized," or as Allison puts it, "To biblicize is not necessarily to invent" (389).

Allison spends the next couple pages giving examples of Crossan's unjustified pessimism about Jesus' details.  

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Lent begins today, 40 days till Easter (not including the Sundays).  I have hardly been able to read anything other than my usual "skim quickly or die" reading relating to my obligations.  I'm ready to post another installment on Allison's Constructing Jesus if I find a half hour of brain space to do it.  But alas, it is time to go for the cross.

So my vain hope is to skip to Allison's chapter on the passion and Dunn's two chapters on the passion in Jesus Remembered.  40 days, about 140 pages--can he do it? ;-)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

First Spanish MDIV

Yesterday we began a pilot group in what I think might be the first online, contexualized, fully Spanish-speaking MDIV in human history.  We are starting with nine great students, mostly Wesleyan, although we hope we will begin to serve a wide group of Spanish-speaking Christians from across the body of Christ.

I wish I could say my Spanish was ready for this momentous occasion, pero ¡ay! ...

Joanne Solis-Walker is our Directora of this initiative, and she is teaching this week's intensive: El Pastor, La Iglesia, y El Mundo.  Next week we are delighted to have Hugo Magallanes visiting to teach Contextos Culturales del Ministerio.  And all of this has come from the vision of one man, Wayne Schmidt, the head of our seminary.

What a privilege to be part of such incredible things as we wander through this life!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Scripture as Sacrament (10) (W)

Here endeth the reading...

Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Optimistic about Love
Loving the Whole Person
Loving into Societal Structures
The Importance of Faithfulness
Wesleyans share with most other Christians a love for Scripture.  John Wesley once described himself as "a man of one book," in reference to the Bible.  At the same time, Wesley was also a student of Christian literature and further did not believe that God stopped speaking to his people after the books of the New Testament were finished.  Later students of Wesley described his method of finding God's will and God's truth as a "quadrilateral" consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Certainly in Wesley's mind Scripture had first place among these potential channels of God's voice.

A great deal has happened since Wesley on this topic.  People have raised questions hardly anyone had ever thought to ask before.  Lines have been drawn, wars have been fought, leaving a landscape of charged emotions and burned over ideological ground.  The Wesleyan tradition potentially has something to contribute to this landscape, now that the ground has lay somewhat fallow for a few decades.  Our thoughts could come from other traditions as well, but they also come naturally from our history.

First and foremost, Scripture is a sacrament of transformation.  It is perhaps not surprising that most of the battles over the Bible have been fought in terms of what we might call propositional truth.  Does the Bible say things that are true or things that are false?  Certainly this question is part of the equation, but it misses the fundamental purpose of Scripture for Christians, which is to serve as an instrument of reconciliation.

More than to reveal truth about God, the purpose of Christian Scripture is to meet God, to encounter God, to be changed by God.  It is at least questionable whether our arguments over the historicity of this or that passage, about whether Genesis 1 is literal, or whether Isaiah wrote the last 27 chapters of Isaiah, have ever brought anyone on either side of the debate closer to God. To this extent, these are legitimate questions for us to take positions on--they may even be important in some way.  But they also may distract from what Scripture is really about, no matter which side you are on, namely, experiencing God's transformative power to make us more like him.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of the very complex historical method evangelical and non-evangelical scholar alike have developed over the years.  You can study at an evangelical college or seminary and learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.  You can learn about literary context and how to follow a train of thought.  You can learn historical-cultural background in order to read the words of the Bible in context.  You can learn the gamut of hermeneutical perspectives on how to integrate the varied teaching of Scripture into a biblical theology and various approaches on how to move from "that time" to "this time."  Such courses of study are legitimate and will equip you to hear each book of the Bible on its own terms, the terms in which God first spoke through those words to some ancient audience.

 But you may or may not be changed.  For the Bible to be Christian Scripture, it must be your book.  The stories that appear throughout its books must become your story.  The way in which its commands, promises, teaching, and expressions become commands to you, promises to you, instruction to you, and your expressions is complex.  We could go passage by passage and analyze the complex ways in which not only common Christianity but specific denominations and individuals have experienced God appropriating these words for them.  No doubt at times they have heard him wrongly.  Arguably this is why there was a Protestant Reformation.

But the appropriation of Scripture is surely a spiritual task, another point where the Wesleyan tradition, along with its sister Pentecostal traditions, potentially has something to contribute.  Many other Christian traditions, in combating modernism, too quickly adopted its categories.  The Protestant Reformation also, in its reaction to medieval catholicism, perhaps too quickly rejected the possibility that the Spirit might speak beyond the "literal" meaning of the Bible.  In doing so, it seems to have missed the fact that the New Testament itself frequently reads the Old Testament in this sort of "spiritual" way.

As the Wesleyan tradition moves forward into the twenty-first century, it along with other like-minded traditions can suggest we begin to take a more "sacramental" and less mechanistic view of Scripture.  A sacrament is a divinely appointed means of God's grace, where God takes something that is ordinary--like bread or water--and meets us in an extraordinary way in it.  Is not the Bible like that?  These are ordinary words.  Indeed, they employ the categories and common language of the people to whom they were first written.

But the Bible is a special place to meet God and be transformed into his likeness both as individuals and as communities of faith.  Certainly it is a sacrament of revelation through which our thinking and understanding of truth is transformed to be sure.  We will want to study it for what it really meant, God's first moment of speaking through it.  But even after we have done all our homework, after we have done our best to understand its words in context, appropriating those words for today is a spiritual task.  Even more, it is a corporate task, for I am surely even more likely to know the Spirit's leading in a community of Spirit-filled individuals than I am alone.  

But as much as it is a place to meet God with my mind, it is even more a place for my heart and my actions to be changed.  It is a place for me to see myself in the stories and words and for us corporately to see ourselves.  It is a place for me to recognize the path I must take and the path we must take together.  God's leading through Scripture is not something we can set down in a formula or even a creed, although creeds rightly capture the corporate sense God has given Christians of the boundaries.  It is a spiritual leading that defies our desire for tidy answers and absolute clarity.

Wesley set a great precedent here for the Wesleyan tradition and beyond.  He began with Scripture, as we all should.  But because he lived in the eighteenth century, he had a certain kind of freedom to read and connect the Scriptures to one another in a spiritual rather than mechanistic, historical way.  He drank deeply from the writings of Christians throughout the centuries, which gave him illumination that the Spirit had brought to Christians throughout the centuries, as well as the boundaries within which the Spirit moves.

But he was open to experiencing the Spirit freshly through the words of the Bible and to receiving specific guidance for our lives from them.  Scripture for him was about God changing us, about God moving us along on the path of salvation.  May it be so in our lives as we continue to come to Scripture as God's people, expecting to be changed.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Importance of Faithfulness (9) (W)

Almost there!

Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Optimistic about Love
Loving the Whole Person
Loving into Societal Structures
Protestantism was born in a debate over whether a person might gain favor with God by doing good "works."  Martin Luther, of course, argued that we were saved "by grace alone" (sola gratia) only because of God's undeserved favor.  This grace was triggered "by faith alone" (sola fidei), and even this faith was a gift from God.  Ever since the standard Protestant position on "faith versus works" is that we are saved by faith alone, but that once we are right with God, he will empower us so that "works" will follow.

Where Protestants have debated is if the way we live our Christian lives has an effect on our eternal destiny.  Once a person has become right with God, can a person thereafter become "un-right" with God again?  To many Protestants, to say our actions can affect our status with God is tantamount to saying that works are part of our salvation. Others might resolve the potential conflict by saying that if a person were to become a serial killer after "conversion," she probably had never really been a true Christian in the first place.

Jacob Arminius disagreed in the 1500 and 1600s, and John Wesley followed his lead.  To some it will be a weakness, but to Wesleyans it is a strength that Wesley was an Anglican, because the Anglican Church is a moderating tradition in the Catholic-Protestant debate.  One might argue that Anglicanism, along with the Methodism that flowed out of it, stands on a kind of middle ground between the extremes of the Protestant Reformation, with the medieval Roman Catholic Church on the one side and the high Protestantism of Luther and Calvin on the other.  The Wesleyan tradition is thus well-situated to incorporate the strengths of both Christian streams.

For Wesley's part, it was surely God who empowered us to have faith.  But that same empowerment to choose also enabled us to walk away from him.  Our "initial justification," our initial reconciliation to God might be by faith alone, regardless of our works.  To put it in current language, "all sin is sin" when we first come to God.  But Wesley rightly read Scripture to teach that "final justification" will take into account how we have lived, our "works," if you would. The Bible does not teach that "all sin is sin" after we believe.

Here we return to the Wesleyan orientation around the heart.  Our walk with God is a relationship.  In a relationship, our actions toward another person matter.  Of course what matters even more is our intentions toward another.  If you forget your spouse's birthday, you have sinned against him or her.  But this "sin" is quite different from having an affair.  It represents a whole different level of intention.  So also, our "works" have a varying effect on our relationship with God, depending on our heart.

The Wesleyan-Arminian position here is logical, but it does not come from logic.  It comes from Scripture.  Once again, scholarship on Paul has of late been coming to grips with statements like 2 Corinthians 5:10, a verse directed at Christians: "All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (NRSV).  Romans 2 says exactly the same thing: "He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury" (2:6-8).

And the fact that Paul himself did not consider his eternal salvation assured confirms his thinking on this subject: "I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.(1 Cor. 9:26-27).  Similarly, he says in Philippians, "I want to know Christ... if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own" (3:10-12).

It also turns out that this way of thinking about the importance of faithfulness in the Christian life fits well with the meaning of "grace" in the New Testament world.  Grace was patron-client language, relating to informal arrangements where someone without resources (clients) received gifts from those having an abundance (patrons).  The recipient did not earn such grace, although it often came with certain expectations.  We could rightly say, though, that the gift was not earned and, in a sense, came without formal obligation.

But if a client were to behave badly toward the patron--if they dishonored the giver--you can rest assured that the grace would not continue. In the same way, we are not surprised that God's grace in the New Testament comes with certain expectations.  Nor are we surprised to find that one can insult God's grace (e.g., Heb. 10:29) such that it is "used up," in a sense (e.g., Heb. 10:26). Hebrews, as the rest of the New Testament, places an expectation that we continue in faithfulness to reach the goal of entering the land of “Canaan.” We have become partakers of Christ and remain partakers of Christ only if “we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (3:7, NRSV).

Wesleyans thus believe that God-empowered faithfulness is essential for the Christian life.  One cannot simply pray a prayer of half-hearted reconciliation and then think that God will shower blessings without accountability or recourse.  An eternal relationship with God requires the same elements that human relationships require.  And if human relationships often fail because of infidelity or neglect, we should not be surprised to find that neglect or unfaithfulness to God is a path toward separation as well.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The NIV 2011

I know I've posted on this before, but I got an email today asking, "Do you know anything about a new version of the NIV?"

Here's the state of my answer.  The NIV 2011 is two things:

1. an admission of political/economic defeat in relation to the TNIV
2. an updating of the NIV

So is it better than the NIV?  Yes.  If you are happy with the NIV, go ahead and upgrade with the NIV2011.  It is better.

Is it the best translation out there as a translation?  No, not in any category.  The NLT, CEV, and in some places CEB are better dynamic translations. The ESV, and in many places CEB and NRSV, are better formal translations, in my opinion.

Right now I'm using the NRSV and CEB in my writing.

Loving into Societal Structures (8) (W)

God has done an amazing thing these last few hundred years in the world.  We have witnessed the working of the love principle beyond the individual into the very fabric of society, into societal structures.  In Western society, we have seen a leveling in which the least in society has risen to have a say in her destiny.  We have seen the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women to vote and set their own courses.  From time to time the default inequalities reassert themselves in various ways.  And these ideals have not yet penetrated to the entirety of the world. But they embody what we might call a "loving society" on a level that goes beyond the individual.

What we are looking at is a glimpse of the kingdom of God, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and there is not "male and female" (Gal. 3:28).  Christianity was healthy for almost two millennia without making these changes.  Indeed it thrived.  God was content even in the New Testament to allow the earliest believers to continue owning slaves and to continue the subordination of wives to husbands.  But in these last two hundred years, God has decided not only to move the church but the world closer to the kingdom of God.

There are some crucial points of insight here.  In the early 1800s in the United States, the Bible was used heavily in support of slavery.  For example, in Colossians 3:22-4:1, slaves are told to obey their masters.  Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Peter all assume the institution of slavery.  Even a careful reading of Philemon reveals that Paul does not mention setting the slave Onesimus free.

So the "fundamentalists" of the early 1800s argued from the letter of Scripture that slavery should not be abolished, only reformed, and they had the letter of the Bible on their side.  What they did not have was the Spirit of Scripture.  Those who caught the Spirit of Scripture were groups like the Quakers and the Wesleyan Methodists. In other words, it was those with a more Pietist approach that focuses on the heart.

We are in a better position today to describe what was going on.  If we listen to what the books of the Bible say about themselves, they tell us they were written to God's people two and three thousand years ago.  Its original meaning has everything to do with the situations and categories of people in the ancient world.  The more we know about that world, the more we recognize how well the words of the Bible connected to that world so foreign to us.

Groups like the Quakers and the Wesleyans, because they focused on the big principle of loving your neighbor, were able to see beyond the ancient particulars of the Bible to the heart of the matter.  Other groups, because they focused so much on the letter of the Bible, were not able to distinguish between the structures of "that time" and the trajectory of God's kingdom.  So also today, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will continue to focus on changing the structures of the world following the principle of perfect love--love that extends to everyone equally.

So we are not surprised to find that the Wesleyan Methodist Church was born in 1843 over the issue of abolition.  We are not surprised to find that the movement to give women the right to vote started in a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.  One of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church preached the sermon at the first ordination of a woman minister in 1852.  Long before it was trendy, the Wesleyan tradition--like the Quakers--had women pastors.  They saw that the coming of the Spirit inaugurated an age when "sons and daughters will prophecy" (Acts 2:17).

The fundamental insight is this: "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34).  He values people of all races and genders equally, and all people have equal access to the Spirit.  The rest is simply playing out the principle.  Wesleyans who were true to our tradition took the side of those who worked for equal rights for African-Americans in the civil rights era.  Wesleyans today will recognize that God values the illegal immigrant just as much as he values me.

The spiritual insight works its way into all sorts of areas where a focus on the letter of the biblical text can cloud hearing the more basic Spiritual principle. For example, just as with slavery, the New Testament assumes the ancient social structure of the home, with the husband as authority and the wife as subordinate.  We know it will not be that way in the kingdom.  So what keeps us from enacting God's ideal now instead of waiting for the kingdom of God?  The best of the Wesleyan tradition will follow the lead of its ancestors and see the wife as a true equal in the home.

Societal structures--often without any intent--also have a tendency to perpetuate inequalities of various kinds. Not just people, but structures can oppress.  The privileged of society often to do realize that they do not face the obstacles others do.  They do not know about the suspicious looks and demeaning assumptions others face simply by the way they look.

The Wesleyan tradition will be keen to level the playing field in all areas of life.  Working out the details is always complicated, and there will almost always be room for debating the best strategy or for avoiding unintended consequences.  But the principles are clear.  When social or economic structures put women or men at a disadvantage, when they disadvantage one people over another, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will be there to work toward the kingdom principle that God loves all people equally.

True love of neighbor moves beyond the level of the individual to try to influence the structural.  On this level, we face both impossibilities and uncertainties.  We will not be able to change some things, and we will not always agree on how best to change things.  But along with many other Christian traditions, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will try.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Loving the Whole Person (7) (W)

Getting closer...

 Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Optimistic about Love
The Wesleyan tradition would not be unique in believing that love of our neighbors must go beyond an invitation to believe on Christ and reach to the needs of others in every area of their lives.  The idea of reaching out to those in need--the poor, the widow, the orphan--is a dominant theme of the Bible, and cannot legitimately be placed in competition with the call to evangelism.  The Bible from the Old Testament to Jesus to the letters pushes us to do both. Indeed, few will respond or consider the good news to be good news, if it comes as mere words without any demonstration of real love.

The idea of "social justice" originates in the Bible. When Job is describing his righteousness before God he describes it this way: "I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the wretched came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger" (Job 29:12-17, NRSV).  Job describes his righteousness, his justice in terms of reaching out to the material needs of others.

This core value of Israel reaches from the Law to the Prophets to the Writings.  In the Law, Israel is to leave food in its fields for the poor and the immigrant (Lev. 19:1-2).  When we look to the Prophets, we find that the theme of social injustice is a dominant concern, as much as any indictment of Israel for breaking its covenant with God. Isaiah 10 condemns a government that makes "iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey" (10:1-2, NRSV).

In the Gospel of Luke, the theme of Jesus' earthly ministry is to "bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (4:18-19, NRSV).  Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61 as a kind of inaugural address for his ministry, and concern for the disempowered is a dominant theme of Jesus' ministry.  In Matthew 25, helping those with material needs is the only criteria mentioned by which God assigns individuals their eternal destiny.

Certainly when we apply this core biblical value to today we must take into account our differing circumstances.  The situation of the poor today is not the same as the situation of the biblical poor.  As with all application of Scripture, we must take the general principles and apply them with a view to the points of continuity and discontinuity.  But there is no denying the principle.  Concern for those who are economically disempowered and loving one's neighbor in every dimension of his or her life is a core biblical and Christian value.  Indeed, these sorts of things stand at the very heart of what it means to love our neighbor.  As 1 John 3:17 says, "How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (NRSV), and this love extends beyond the Christian family (e.g., Gal. 6:10).

Again, the Wesleyan tradition is not unique in recognizing this core Christian value.  John Wesley himself left the normal confines of the church to preach to coal-miners and others who were disempowered in the English society of the day.  Many believe that the love he showed to the lower classes of British society was one of the reasons England did not have the bloody revolution that France did at the end of the 1700s.  He was part of the wave of empowerment that ended with the abolition of slavery and the enactment of child-labor laws in England.

The Wesleyan tradition at its best has followed Wesley's example.  For example, it is no coincidence that the Salvation Army is a church in the Wesleyan tradition.  It is a church whose concern for the material needs of others is so clear that many do not even realize that it is a denomination.  Wesleyans have almost always kept a food pantry in their parsonages for the needy who might stop by.  Concern for those in need is thus a core Wesleyan value, just as it is a core Christian value.

It is unfortunate that the early twentieth century pushed so many grass roots Christians away from this core Christian value.  At that time, conservative Christians distinguished themselves from what was called the "social gospel."  Those who advocated a social gospel at that time did not believe in things like the deity or resurrection of Christ.

But the fundamentalists who reacted to them threw out half of the gospel in their reaction.  The modernists' concern for the poor and needy was all that was left of their Christianity, not a sign of their opposition to historic Christian values.  It was perfectly appropriate for the fundamentalists to reject their disbelief of core items of Christian faith.  But in rejecting their concern for the poor, the fundamentalists themselves rejected core items of Christian faith.  The Wesleyan tradition in its core values rejects this aspect of American conservatism.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

State Educators and Bad Punctuation

I'm embarrassed to say that I often find educators on every level who don't know some of the fundamentals of punctuation.  Here's one of the basics.  In America, commas and periods go inside final quotation marks.  Schenck pointed out that "commas and periods go inside final quotation marks."  See where I put the period.  That's how we do it in America.

Now mind you, the British way of doing it makes more sense.  In England, commas and periods go outside quote marks, unless of course you are quoting a whole sentence, then the period is part of the quote.  But, for whatever reason, we don't do that here. I'll confess that I have bad thoughts when a fellow professor messes up on such basics, but I won't tell you what they are.

So I was downright disgusted yesterday to find that whoever put together the sample ISTEP materials on the State of Indiana website--for the samples having to do with writing--messed up on this basic.  Have the rules changed, I asked myself?  Rules do change and, as I mentioned, the British way does make more sense.  But I don't think they have.  I suspect, rather, that the state of education is so bad in the US that some on the state level of education don't know what they're doing.

It's not that punctuation is a big deal in real life.  I'm talking about educators and the people who direct educators.  In this realm, this sort of flub calls into question your competency as an educator.

I leave you with a homework assignment my son brought home the other day asking which was more: 0.01 grams or 10 milligrams.  I was puzzled: gram, decigram, centigram, milligram.  0.01 grams is a centigram, which is 10 milligrams.  I double checked myself, went online.  Yep, they're the same.  I had him write, "They're equal."

The teacher marked it wrong.

Optimistic about Love (6) (W)

This attempt continues:

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love
Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Jesus set down two absolutes of the Christian life: love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40).  The two can never contradict each other when rightly understood.  In fact, love of neighbor is the primary way in which we demonstrate the love of God in our lives.  Love of neighbor includes love of all people.  Jesus in the Sermon and the Mount and his parables commanded not only love of our neighbor but love of our enemy.  He left no one that we are not obligated to love.

The Wesleyan tradition is not unique in coming to these conclusions.  They are the Christian understanding of ethics.  You cannot legitimately justify hatred toward people in any Christian tradition on any basis.  Justice is not unloving when it is dispensed to form or protect others, and there is a point beyond which a person's heart is so hardened that mercy does them no good and may in fact harm others.

Those who hide behind Christianity to justify hatred of others are thus at best fooling themselves. People who call themselves Christians--as those of other religions--have often pretended that Christianity justified their hatred of other races and people groups.  They have wanted to obliterate nations or destroy Muslims in God's name.  They have put others to death because they disagreed theologically.  They have lynched African-Americans and beaten homosexuals.  They have resisted giving women and African-Americans equal rights, they have justified hatred toward illegal immigrants in the name of punishing law-breakers.  It is not the Wesleyan tradition but Christ who indicts these attitudes pretending to be Christian.

So the Wesleyan tradition is not unique at all in its affirmation of love as the fulfillment of all God's ethical requirements of humanity.  Where the Wesleyan tradition has been unique is in its optimism about the extent to  which God wants to empower us to love.  Other traditions rightly affirm love as the fulfillment of God's law, but they are not optimistic about the possibility of achieving God's standard.  By contrast, John Wesley was bold enough to speak of "perfect love" as what God wants to equip us to do.

In the centuries since Wesley, some in the Wesleyan tradition have no doubt taken this fundamental insight not only to legalistic but probably bizarre extremes at times.  For example, in the twenty-first century, we can question how well the word "perfect" communicates Wesley's fundamental insight.  Not only those who followed Wesley, but Wesley himself often wasted needless time and energy in minute introspection.

The fundamental insight is this.  God does expect us to "be perfect" in love as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).  The problem is that we have not read this verse well enough in context.  The context is not only loving our friends but our enemies as well.  God operates this way, Jesus says.  He gives much needed rain not only to the righteous but to the wicked as well.  He is "perfect"--or better yet, he is "complete."  He goes the whole way, not only loving his friends but his "enemies" as well.  So Jesus was not urging absolute perfection in the degree or purity of our love but completeness in the scope of who we love.

God has not set a standard for us that we cannot meet, or as 1 Corinthians 10:13 puts it, "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (NRSV).  Failure in loving God and your neighbor should not and cannot be our default expectation.  God does not expect "perfection" in any absolute sense.  As we mentioned above, the standard for measuring sin in the New Testament is not absolute perfection.  The standard is our basic intent, amid all the conflicting impulses that are part and parcel of the human brain.

Here is a point of some distinctiveness among most Christian traditions.  Wesleyans do not believe that sin is the default state of the believer.  In theory, we believe that a person might, by God's power, go the whole rest of her life without ever intentionally doing wrong.  We are, again, not talking about the eddies and currents of human intent.  We are talking about a clear cut choice: I know God wants me to do A but I am tempted to do B.  The Wesleyan tradition is optimistic about the power of the Spirit to consistently empower you to choose A, even without fail for the rest of your life.  Indeed, we believe God can change you to where you do the loving thing with great delight.

It is a great time for the Wesleyan tradition in terms of biblical interpretation.  Most scholars now--even from traditions that believe differently--acknowledge that Paul was not talking about his current struggle with sin in Romans 7.  You would have to rip that chapter from its context to argue that Paul was saying he could not help but sin today.  The entire flow from Romans 6-8 is about how God's grace does not justify a life of sin, where love is the standard of sin (Rom. 13:10).  Most now have come to recognize that Paul is putting himself in the shoes of someone who wants to do good, but does not have the Spirit's power to do it.

Many other passages prove to be misread as well.  The rediscovery of Paul's Jewish context in these last few decades has drawn our attention not only to his optimism about keeping the Law before he believed on Christ (e.g., Phil. 3:6) but also on his optimism about being morally blameless after he believed (e.g., Phil. 1:10-11).  Romans 8 transcends the hopeless situation of Romans 7, so that "the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:4, NRSV).  "Walking" is about living, not some theoretical fulfillment in Christ that does not show up in our own lives.  As Paul puts it in Galatians 5:16, "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (NASB).

This is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Wesleyan tradition, its optimism about the level of love that God wants to enable us to have in this life.  We have greeted with joy the rediscovery of the continuity between Paul and his Jewish context because it has demonstrated not only the importance of "works" in Paul's theology but also sin as a matter of basic intent rather than absolute perfection.  Cleared of these misreadings, we are free to see loving intent not only as God's standard of righteous, but as an attainable standard through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Human Freedom (5) (W)

This attempt to capture the distinctiveness of Wesleyan theology:

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
You can see how central human free will is to a Wesleyan view of the world.  To be sure, Wesley did not believe in anything like absolute free will, where we have complete control over what we want and do.  Wesley believed that our ability to make moral choices was a gift from God, empowered by God's prevenient grace, a grace that finds us when we are not seeking it.

Indeed, if we have a spark of free will inside, it must surely be a miracle.  The more we understand the brain and human psychology, the more we realize the extent to which "who we are" is a function of the physical structure and chemistry of our brain, the harder the idea of human freedom becomes.  And the debate has moved beyond whether our actions are determined or free.  Quantum physics has pushed the issue beyond whether our desires are "determined or free," to the sense that they are random, chaotic, and unpredictable.

At the same time, more than Wesleyan thinking is at stake.  The greatest objection to the truth of Christianity is the problem of evil, why God allows evil to continue in the world.  The best answer, although it is not perfect, is that a world in which people have freedom to make moral choices is a better world than one in which they do not.  Christian traditions who do not believe in human freedom run the risk either of making God the direct author of evil or making him unjust himself, views which seem to render Christianity incoherent.

The belief that God has created a world where humans are free to follow or not follow him has implications for the way we live.  The Wesleyan tradition, when it is consistent with itself, is thus not oriented around forcing others to conform to Christian values.  To be sure, it has always been active in stopping the oppression of others.  But it is not like other traditions that view wrongdoing primarily through the lens of offending God.  It does not try to legislate Christian morality beyond the protection of others. Its prophetic voice to those outside the church is more for others than against sin.

We thus relate to others in a different way.  The parent does not get enraged because the child has disobeyed, an effrontery to authority.  The parent is concerned for what the child will become, and disciplines to try to steer the will of the child in the right direction.  Discipline is formative not summative.  It is about formation more than about punishment.  The best of the Wesleyan tradition will thus live out its sense of God empowered human freedom from a motivation of love.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Mayor Seybold and Poverty

The front page of the Marion Chronicle-Tribune featured a piece on a State of the City address Mayor Wayne Seybold gave yesterday.  The article featured especially some of his comments on poverty.  Here is an excerpt:
"Seybold also said the city needs to continue a 'tough love' approach to poverty.  The mayor said jobs aren't the answer to ending poverty.  'We've brought a lot of jobs here,' Seabold said, 'and yet 44 percent of the Grant County population still receives some form of public assistance.

" 'Some people who have been unemployed for weeks and even months have learned they can survive without working,' he said.  He characterized poverty as 'big business,' saying federal funding for many programs is based in part by a community's poverty rate, and the definition of poverty keeps expanding.

" 'We no longer have money for those who abuse the system,' Seybold said. 'If we continue to allow abuse, we will not have the money to take care of those who really need help, love and support.  Tackling the issue will require hard, politically incorrect conversations,' he warned."
I do not completely disagree with Seybold, but it's hard for me to know what to make of these sorts of comments, so let me only give some of my thoughts and questions.

1. First, I do agree that the system can promote and enable dysfunction.  People frequently can get more by not working than they can by working.  I agree that the system does not motivate individuals to integrate into working society but seems to reinforce remaining in poverty.

2. I am not convinced, however, that Marion's job market does what Seybold suggests it does.  I do not believe that the jobs available for those in longstanding poverty could maintain a similar standard of living to what these individuals currently have on welfare.  I do not believe Marion has much of a "middle class" job market either.

3. The most troublesome thing about Seybold's words is the assumption that impoverished people think like middle class people think.  Normally, when a middle class person speaks of "those who really need help, love and support," what they mean is middle class people who have been displaced by the economy.  These are individuals who want to work, are oriented around working, but who suddenly find themselves in hard times.

4. But those he says need "tough love" are not oriented around working.  They almost certainly will not act like middle class people just because you cut off their supply.  They have to have support to retrain the way they think.  They may not know how to get a job.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Get them a job--they might not show up.

Trying to empower a person without a home or a person in a cycle of poverty is like trying to help someone who is an alcoholic.  In fact, drugs are often in the mix of poverty.  My bottom line is that if by "tough love" he simply means cutting off unemployment or welfare without coming alongside them and retraining them, it's just "tough."

Cross is Love (4) (W)

This is the fourth of this attempt to capture the essence of the Wesleyan tradition...

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love
When we say that God is just, we are saying there is a certain order to things.  God gives us freedom to choose our path, but some paths are destructive to ourselves and others.  God's justice is his protection of others, his attempt to steer us in the right direction, and at times, his abandonment of us to our own self-destructive freedom.  It is more formative than summative.  Its primary goal is to shape us more than to punish us.  It is discipline more than punishment.

Some Christian traditions emphasize God's justice as punitive, as penalty for offending God himself.  Their sense is that someone must pay when God's sovereignty has been undermined.  The best of the Wesleyan tradition questions the mechanical tone of this logic.  For example, it is not the logic of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, where the father has the authority simply to forgive his wayward son.  It is not the logic of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18, where the master has the authority simply to write off the servant's debt with no repayment whatsoever.  It is not the message of the prophets in Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Micah, who argue that God is ultimately uninterested in their countless animal sacrifices.

The cross does satisfy the order of things.  It is the ultimate embodiment of the cost of human freedom gone amok. It embodies the pain of our alienation from God.  It is the most powerful picture of God's justice.  It is the fulfillment of one stream of biblical pictures about God and humanity.

Could God, for his part, have reconciled humanity simply by his divine command?  The parables and prophets say yes, which ultimately makes the cross even more an embodiment of his love than his justice.  The cross is God making a choice to reconcile humanity.  The cross is God showing his willingness to identify with us, to enter into our pain and alienation.  The cross is God's invitation to us.

These are not the only valid pictures of the cross, but they are the ones most significant for the best of the Wesleyan tradition. The cross is God's love, his reaching out to us.  "[R]arely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:7-8).