Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jubilee: Financial "reset" in the Torah

How often have we heard critics say that the Torah contains an antiquated and barbaric legal system? And yet it has some features that are more just than our own. The ancient system provided that the people should have family lands that were enough to support themselves. It also foresaw that some would prove better managers than others, and made provisions so that the misfortune -- or even bad judgment -- of the parents would not doom generations of their descendants to poverty. Every fifty years* there was a "Jubilee" -- a great financial "reset" -- where property was returned to the original owner or his family. So again every family had lands that were enough to support themselves. If the family land was lost through the carelessness of one generation, it was returned within the lifetime of the next. Debts, too, were canceled, and those who were in forced labor to pay off their bankruptcy were set free again.

Our system is very different today. There is no long-term thought given to each family having both the means and the responsibility to provide for themselves. There is no serious expectation that a debt should be repaid even if someone has to be compelled to do the honest thing and work to repay it; neither is it built into our laws that there should be a limit to the length of time that a debt can be held over the head of someone who has honestly and for years done everything in their power to repay it. There is no provision that the misfortune (or bad judgment) of one generation should be righted at some point for the sake of future generations.

Any nation's set of laws is, in some sense, the set of rules to an economic game. Our system provides a good number of honest ways to succeed, and a few dishonest ones. But it has no "reset". This is not the fault of those who have succeeded honestly. All the same, the long-term effect is to create a growing underclass who do not start life with the means to support themselves (particularly since many middle-skill jobs have left our shores), and a shrinking upper class with more and more dependents. Neither group really likes the arrangement. Some in each group are more gracious about the arrangement than others, but graciousness should not be confused with the question of whether the rules are workable.

So the question remains: Can a system work in the long term unless each family has both the means and the responsibility to provide for themselves? And if we want -- or need -- a system in which each family has both the means and the responsibility to provide for themselves, that does mean there has to be a "reset" now and then. Unless the "reset" is to mean "chaos and revolution", then we might want to give thought to having laws that take a long-term view and provide a peaceful and orderly way to reset.

* Some say the Jubilee was every forty-nine years, rather than every fifty.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Paul's challenge to our complacency

St Paul, as a writer, knew how to make a point. Writing to Jesus' followers in Ephesus, he gave instructions on how we should live as new creations. Watch how he draws attention to some pairs of opposite things, to make the difference plainer to us. Pardon the extra numbers added into the text here; it helps separate out his points:
And put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must:
  1. put off falsehood ... and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
  2. In your anger do not sin ... do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
  3. He who has been stealing must steal no longer ... but work, doing something with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
  4. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths ... but only what is helpful for building up others according to their own needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
(Ephesians 4:24-29)
Paul challenges me there. Sure, it's easy to feel good about not stealing and having one command easily accomplished. But then Paul puts stealing as part of a spectrum, a continuum, where on the low end we have stealing, in the middle ground we have self-supporting, and in the higher goals we have helping the needy. All the sudden "not stealing" is the lowest bar, not the highest.

Paul challenges again on "unwholesome talk" -- if I leave off slander and gossip, and skip character assassination and arrogant talk, and reject the use of insults and put-downs, and shun all cussing, that is now the low end. Saying things according to my needs instead of the other person's needs is challenged next; some self-promotion is (possibly) not as offensive as gossip or slander or character assassination, but self-promotion and even self-centered talk are challenged because it does nothing to build up the other person.

That whole section of Ephesians continues in the same way for awhile. Paul shows that it is one thing to avoid being bad, but after that we still have a long way to go where we can pursue being good, for the sake of others and to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Not with words of human wisdom"

For Christ sent me not to baptize but to proclaim good news, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of power. (Paul, to the Corinthians, I Cor 1:17)
I think there is a risk in blogging or teaching that is much like the risk of preaching: a temptation, really, to try to gain a reputation for ourselves. Paul saw the risk plainly: if he were to seek a reputation for himself, it would come at the expense of the reputation of Christ. As soon as he had a following for himself, it would be a division among those who followed Christ. If he took any admiration for himself, it would come at the expense of whether his own followers were keeping their eyes on Jesus. It was bad enough that some followed Paul, and some followed Peter, and some followed Apollos; it would have been far worse if those leaders of the early church had actually wanted their own followers, and their own reputations. It was a great help that the early church leaders were united in their conviction that it was Jesus, and not themselves, who should be taught and studied and followed. They wanted his reputation to be proclaimed so that his goodness could be a hope to people.

We have a lot, in our age, that we could learn from the early church. This is not the least of them.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jesus in context: "Follow me"

Jesus' sayings may carry more meaning than we recognize. We catch the plain meaning, but miss the references that would have been familiar to the people who first heard him.

Here, for instance, is one of the "touchstone texts" of ancient Judaism:
You shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 13:4)
That same idea of walking after the LORD is quoted time and again in the Old Testament:
... made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments (2 Kinds 23:3)

... made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments (2 Chronicles 34:31)

... They shall walk after the LORD. (Hoseah 11:10)
There are more instances phrased the other way too, about not walking after other gods, or not walking after our own ways, or not walking after our evil imaginations.

The picture of walking after God was firmly ingrained in the Jewish mind down through the centuries. It continued into the days of the New Testament as the routine way that the people spoke, both among Jesus' disciples and his critics:
And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. (2 John 1:6)

... walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1)

... them that walk after the flesh. (2 Peter 2:10)

Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders? (Mark 7:5)

In some translations we see "walk after" or something along those lines; in others we see it translated as "follow": To follow the LORD, and not to follow our flesh, or our imaginations, or other gods. So the idea is well-established: the people talked about true religion or false religion in terms of who or what they followed.
"Follow me." - Jesus
One of the things Jesus says most often is, "Follow me."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On being like God: Hospitality

God does not call us to be isolated followers; he calls us to fellowship. God is love, and he asks his followers to live in love. How can that be done in isolation? The New Testament instructs us to show hospitality to one another. But in many ways we have forgotten this teaching.

Peter, a leader among the apostles, writes:
And above all things, have fervent love among yourselves, for love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (I Peter 4:8-9)
Peter writes as though the natural expression of love is hospitality. And still we are slow to open our homes to each other.

Peter wrote to all the members of the church: that we should offer hospitality to each other. If hospitality is required of the members, then how much more for the leaders. Paul lists it among the qualifications of a church leader:
An overseer must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach. (1 Timothy 3:2)
For church leaders, hospitality was given priority even over the ability to teach. I don't mean to neglect being blameless and all that; it tops off Paul's list. But the other things that Paul names are things we generally still expect of our church leaders. Why don't we expect leaders who are given to hospitality?

I have sometimes heard church leaders congratulate themselves on how they've finally stood up to their parishioners, who have asked: Shouldn't their parishioners be hospitable to them? Why then do the parishioners have any right to complain that their pastor never visits them or invites them over, if they have never taken the initiative and invited their pastor?

But the church leaders are called to lead -- and to lead by example. The thing about leading by example is that we're always setting an example, just maybe not a good one. If the church leaders do not invite their people and do not visit their people, they are leading all the same: they are showing by example that hospitality is not important here.

God calls us to be his people in the world. We become a people when we know and love each other. So the leader builds that group together by showing hospitality, and fellowship grows where people are welcomed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

God's hospitality

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. (Matthew 22:2)

God is not what we would expect. Where we expect an Almighty Being to be remote and aloof, instead we see him warm and welcoming -- and specifically, warm and welcoming toward people, real ordinary people.

Jesus claimed that, in looking at him, we have a unique insight to God: "He who has seen me has seen the Father." So what do we see?

Some of the great sages of world religions -- particularly the "Eastern" religions -- have been solitary figures. When a painting or sculpture portrays them and their lives, we typically see them alone. Not so with Jesus. Sure, he had times of solitude and prayer. He observed a lengthy fast after his baptism. But for much of his ministry, we see him in company -- and enjoying the company.

Many of Jesus' conversations, passed down to us, took place when he was a guest at someone's home. There was the time when the woman broke the jar of perfume. And the time that Martha was getting all frustrated with Mary. There was the scandal he caused going to Matthew's home, and his answer about who it is that needs a doctor. There was another round of shock when he went to Zacchaeus' home. And of course there was the Last Supper in the upper room. Though we call that the Last Supper, he did meet them there again a few days later, after he had risen from the dead -- again, at dinner. Of all the times Jesus came to his disciples after the resurrection, I'm combing my memory here -- did all of them involve gathering with them at dinner or a meal? And he asked us to remember him by coming together for bread and wine, in his name.

Sometimes even the miracles took place in someone's home. He healed Simon Peter's mother-in-law after he had already been welcomed into their home.

And while Jesus was often the guest in someone else's home, he never seemed like he wanted to get back home; instead, he seemed to carry that welcome feeling of "home" with him, so that wherever he was, not only did he feel at home, but so did everyone else. Whenever I read the accounts of him in someone else's home, I get the feeling that these were the kinds of days where nobody wanted to leave at the end, where they were wishing it could last. "Home" was wherever Jesus was, and "family" could be anyone. (That's probably the point behind his telling his disciples they would have a hundred homes -- and as many sets of relatives.) Birds have nests and wild beasts have dens, and the Son of Man had no place to lay his head -- but those who traveled with him didn't seem to mind that so much, so long as he was there.

The miracles of feeding the multitudes were also acts of hospitality. And the first miracle -- the very first -- was an act of hospitality in Cana, to bring the wine to a wedding feast. And in the world to come, the gift of following Jesus is fellowship; it is the feast of salvation.
And he said to me: "Write, 'Blessed are they who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.'" And he said to me, "These are the true sayings of God." (Revelation 19:9).

There are some things about God that we do not consider as often as we should. God is a warm and generous God, a welcoming host.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Why the "pedophile priests" scandal won't go away -- yet

During that time when I was too busy to post, I read a post over at InternetMonk (Michael Spencer's old blog) by a Roman Catholic apologist who goes by the name Martha of Ireland. Starting with the recent pedophile priest scandal in Ireland, she posted about what she called The Scandal of Forgiveness. There she argues at length that the secrecy of the confessional, as the church's law (and, she contends, the law of God) ought to trump the law of man. She seeks to answer criticism against what many people see as the church's fairly obvious wrongdoing; she does this by focusing clearly and exclusively on the redemption of the sinner.

I have never heard any Christian dispute the fact that it is the church's job to work for the redemption of the evildoer. The objection comes when protecting the evildoer from the law is given priority over protecting his victims from criminal abuse. The scandal in all this is not the church's forgiveness, it's the church's complicity. The abused are accorded barely a recognition, and their safety is not spared a single thought.

Is the law of God higher than the law of man? Of course; and protecting the innocent is most definitely the law of God. So it is not entirely honest to frame the church's silence as a case of the law of God against the law of man. One of the things that has lost the most credibility for the church is that, this time, it is the secular government upholding the law of God in the case of the abused children, while the church turns a blind eye to that particular law of God, and to the children being abused. How can anyone accept that, much less justify it?

Is keeping the silence of the confessional a law of God, or a law of man? I'll answer for either view a reader might hold. If this secrecy is a man-made law -- then the church is upholding the law of man, while the secular government upholds the law of God. Lots of people hold this view, and are disgusted with the church. But if this secrecy is a law of God, it does not follow that it is the highest law. Protecting the innocent is also the law of God. As Jesus taught, there are times when a lesser law (like resting on the Sabbath) must be broken for a greater law (like rescuing a creature in danger). At times like that, keeping the greater law makes a person innocent, even if he breaks the lesser law. But breaking the greater law for the sake of keeping the lesser law is wrong in the eyes of God.

In Ireland, there is at least talk of an Irish law to insist that priests who hear confessions should report actual crimes to the government authorities. I think Ireland is justified to make such a law; still it is questionable whether the Catholic Church would submit itself to an ordinance of man even for the Lord's sake, to those who are appointed for the punishment of evildoers. That is why I would hope to see a similar law come from the church hierarchy. What other law would the priests respect? In some cases, the church is accustomed to — and theologically prepared to – defy the law of the land. But every once in awhile the law of the land may hold true to the law of God, and they do wrong to go against it at a time like that. The priest could easily insist that, if the person’s repentance is genuine, then their act of penance — or restitution — will be to turn himself over to the authorities and confess also to them. If the priest were quite serious about protecting the people being wronged, or even respecting the laws of the land (especially ones that coincide with the laws of God), I’d think that would be a given.

Martha's article also frames the problem as if the real difficulty people have with the priests is that they might hear a man from their parish who confesses to abusing a child. We spend the length of her article looking at the priest through Martha's eyes as a noble man in a difficult situation because of the privacy of the confessional. But back in the real-world scandal, the problem with the priests has not been so much that they might have heard a terrible confession -- it has been that the priests themselves were the criminals. So, in one sense, the whole article is a diversion from the real issue of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal among the priests. Their superiors could have insisted the criminal priests should turn themselves in. I expect that the priests are under vows of obedience to the church. If the church commanded them to turn themselves in and they did not, I suspect that they could be legitimately defrocked for disobedience. Is this a desirable outcome? Yes. Let's not outsmart ourselves.

The article I'm responding to is written in defense of a policy of silence that was questionable even with an offender from the members of the parish; but silence becomes even more questionable when we remember that the offenders in the original scandal are, themselves, priests. When it comes to the question of priests who themselves are pedophiles, the situation is worse: then we have an institution with an official policy of silence to protect known criminals within its own membership and leadership. That is generally regarded as corrupt, and no number of fine words will change peoples' recognition of something wrong with that picture.

As a side note, I admit to being puzzled by one of Martha's arguments: that once a sin is forgiven in the eyes of God, that's the end of the story on whether the sin can be mentioned again. A group like Rome teaches, on the one hand, that the confessional and forgiveness are not the end of the story on a sin -- that purgatory still follows. It seems that if forgiveness was not a full answer in God's eyes, and God gives the sinner a second round of medicine -- purification -- then the church has already recognized in principle that forgiveness is one thing and the stain of sin is another, that the sin may need some follow-up work even if it is forgiven. By the same token it is perfectly legitimate for the government and its laws to do their job even on a forgiven sin -- for the safety of the people.

Why won't the pedophile priests scandal go away -- yet? It will not go away until Rome recognizes that protecting victims from harm is also the law of God -- and a higher law than protecting the offender. Rome must also recognize that it is one question whether a sinner is forgiven in God's eyes, and a different question whether he is safe to his neighbors. When the day comes that we hear the Roman Catholic apologists arguing at length about defending the weak and upholding their cause before God, then the day may be closer when we can leave the scandal behind. But so long as the apologists make arguments about how the status quo is fine and the policy of silence is good, why should anything change?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Short thoughts: On downgrading from AAA

I assume nobody is shocked that the U.S. credit rating was downgraded from AAA. Speaking of our government: We do not have a triple-A commitment to balanced budgets. We do not have a triple-A commitment to living within our means. We do not have a triple-A commitment to financial responsibility.

The ratings are simply reflecting what has long been a reality.

If someone considers that prized credit-rating worth obtaining again, we have to develop triple-A seriousness about putting our finances in order.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Overtime season

Where I work, it's our annual overtime season again. I'm hoping to be able to resume posting again this weekend.

Take care & God bless